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‘Dueling diets’ and the New York Times

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Whether a low-fat or low-carb diet is more healthful is the subject of an ongoing debate in the New York Times.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review Tuesday, Rochester-based freelance health writer Paul Scott takes New York Times reporter Gina Kolata to task for carrying on a professional feud with science writer Gary Taubes.

“Gary Taubes is one of the most interesting health writers in the country,” writes Scott. “He is an exhaustive researcher, an astute critic of experimental methodology, a historian of science and influential polemicist. But he can’t catch a break from Gina Kolata. This is awkward, because they both write for the same paper.”

The disagreement has to do with the “diet wars” — the debate over whether a low-fat or a low-carb diet is more healthful. Taubes has argued famously and extensively (“Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why Do We Get Fat?”) that carbs, not dietary fat, are what’s making us fat and fueling our obesity epidemic. Kolata (“Rethinking Thin”) has taken the opposing view — or, at least, she has said she isn’t convinced about Taubes’ position. As Scott points out, when Kolata reviewed “Good Calories, Bad Calories” in the Times in 2007 she dismissed Taubes’ exhaustive reporting with this rather odd statement: “[T]he problem with a book like this one, which goes on and on in great detail about experiments new and old in areas ranging from heart disease to cancer to diabetes, is that it can be hard to know what has been left out.”

An expert dismissal

I read Scott’s CJR article with interest because it centers on a New York Times commentary by Taubes that I posted about here in Second Opinion last June, a post that I personally received a lot of comments about in the ensuing days. Taubes had described a recent small but cleverly designed study that had found people fed a low-carb diet expended more calories than those on a low-fat diet, even when both groups ate the same amount of calories. What this finding suggested, of course, is that all calories are not alike.

Two weeks later, at a social gathering, friends of mine told me they didn’t believe the study’s findings (or Taubes’ take on it). They had been more impressed with an argument made by Dr. Jules Hirsch, a retired Rockefeller University physician and obesity researcher, in a Q&A that the Times had published several days after Taubes’ commentary — a Q&A filed by Kolata.

Hirsch had told Kolata that the extra calories experienced by the people in the study on the low-carb (high-protein) diet could be explained by water loss.

Only, as Harvard endocrinologist Dr. David S. Ludwig, one of the authors of the study, pointed out in a subsequent letter to the editor of the Times, the study had controlled for the effects of water weight. “Our findings do not conflict with any basic law of physics,” Ludwig added. “Rather, we show that reducing consumption of processed carbohydrate may boost metabolism after weight loss, and this effect might make weight control easier over the long term.”

As Scott writes: “Oops.”

Ideas change slowly

A paradigm shift now appears to be under way in how we view the relationship between food choices, calories and obesity. Writes Scott:

In the past decade, science and dietary culture in general have left low-fat ideology (and, increasingly calorie counting) in the rear view mirror. The fatwa on dietary cholesterol has more or less evaporated. Saturated fat is still wrongly maligned as a risk factor for heart disease, and a debate still brews over the health of red meat, but few researchers in a position to know better will argue that butter, cream and beef fat have much to do with putting on the pounds, and the growing popularity of diets based on whole foods — Michael Pollan readily goes to bat for butter — are an implicit rebuke of the margarine mentality. The defenders of the low-fat message, the dietary authorities behind our nutritional guidelines, still talk smack and about fat and sodium, but have increasingly shifted their ire towards unrefined carbohydrates, a concession to the effects of insulin.

But old medical memes tend to die slow, lingering deaths, and the “all calories are alike” one is no exception, as Scott acknowledges:

The theory that weight gain boils down [to] “calories-in, calories-out” is the last man standing in the diet wars. The principle anchors the comforting American belief that personal responsibility explains all of our ills. It validates all that wasted time on the treadmill that people like Kolata and others endorse. It keeps us watching shows like The Biggest Loser. It leaves the door open to low-calorie, high-carbohydrate food products that make the economy hum, are portable, do not require we learn to cook, make children stop crying, and taste good. Any efforts at reporting science to the contrary will always have a rough road.

You can read Scott’s article in full on the CJR website.

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