Interview with Gary Taubes (part 5)

INTERVIEWER Well, I think your book is a great book, and I don’t think its effect is limited to how many reviews it gets. What books do you think your book resembles? I think of it as a book showing that authorities can be seriously wrong, but what do you think?

TAUBES You know, I don’t know, actually. I can’t answer that question without sounding like a crazed egomaniac, so I won’t. What the book does is try to explain why the paradigm of obesity and chronic disease has to change and then to offer the alternative paradigm. Although I don’t use the word “paradigm” in the second half of the book, that’s what it’s trying to do. I want people to stop thinking about obesity as a disorder of overeating, calories in over calories out, and think about it as a disorder of excess fat accumulation. That’s a classic paradigm shift, or at least so I think. I don’t believe that you can understand obesity and its associated chronic diseases, without thinking of obesity fundamentally as a disorder of excess fat accumulation and asking this question: what regulates fat accumulation? That’s going to be the thing that tells you what the cause of obesity is. If it’s a paradigm shift, then you have to ask yourself how many paradigm shifts are there like this, and what kind of books have been written to directly shift those paradigms, and then I sound like I have some serious ego problems.

INTERVIEWER Then let me put the question differently. I think your book piles up an enormous amount of evidence that is hard to refute. The cumulative effect of all that evidence is not that we’ve been lied to, of course, but that we’ve been misled, badly misled, about something that’s really important, namely our health. So, are there other books like this?

TAUBES I really can’t answer that question either. I’m not erudite enough and then I spent the last five years doing nothing but reading about fats and carbohydrates, so my memory of other subjects fades away. Here’s how I think of it, though: when I was talking with my editor about this book when we in the editing process — and he’s a tremendous editor, who has edited maybe eight or nine non-fiction Pulitzers — I brought up a book called Ashes to Ashes as an example. Ashes to Ashes is by Richard Kluger and it won the Pulitzer and my editor edited it. It’s about the cigarette industry and not just the industry itself, but the science and the struggle to understand that cigarettes cause lung cancer. I said to my editor, “Imagine if we lived in a world where the public health authorities were telling us that lung cancer is caused by saturated fat”. Kluger has got to write a different book, and that’s the situation that we are in.

INTERVIEWER Kluger has got to write a longer book? Was that your argument?

TAUBES He’s got to write a different book. His book was actually longer than mine, but it was a narrative, which mine isn’t. If you’re going to convince the entire public health community that they’ve made a horrible mistake — or many of them, in this case, whether about cigarettes or obesity and disease — then you have to build an argument as carefully and as rigorously as you can. It’s like arguing a legal case, more so than telling a story. And that’s one of the reasons why my book can be difficult to read, or challenging.

INTERVIEWER I found it easy to read.

TAUBES Well, good. See, I read the Amazon reviews. I shouldn’t but I do. And for every three people who say it’s tremendous, there’s somebody who says “It’s boring” and they couldn’t get through 20 pages of it. One problem is that we gave it this diet-like spin, with the title “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and people buy it expecting a diet book. And it’s not a diet book. I also have a lot of friends who tell me they bought the book and they’re jumping into it, and I never hear from them about it. It tells me, being a cynic, that they got to the section on VLDL and LDL or some such, and that was the end of that.

INTERVIEWER I think it has a lot of evidence. I think the book is harder to read than it might be, because you feel compelled to have a lot more evidence than usual, because you’re saying something that everyone says is false. If what you’re saying was more conventional or acceptable or went down more easily, you wouldn’t need as much evidence.

TAUBES Well, that’s the thing. This is one of the ironies, again, of reviews like Gina Kolata’s or some other that I’ve got. They’ll say the book’s too long, it goes on and on, and then they’ll say “he doesn’t even mention X,” or “he leaves out this evidence”. I’m all too aware of the arguments I left out, the counter-arguments, the counter-counter-arguments, the counter-counter-counter-arguments. At one point I had a draft of the book that was 400,000 words, unfinished. For every section, like the section on salt and blood pressure, I would say “here’s why we believe what we’ve come to believe. Here’s the counter-evidence implicating carbohydrates. Here’s how the authority figures treat that counter-evidence. Here’s why they can look at that evidence and think it’s not a challenge to their beliefs”. And my editor, bless his heart, said “Look, you don’t need this. If you get a chance to lecture on this material, then you can tell the people in the audience why their counter-counter-arguments aren’t actually refutations of the carbohydrate hypothesis. You don’t need fifteen different levels in the book.” But, you’re right, I’m trying to convince people of something they don’t believe. I was walking this tightrope between making it readable for the lay public, so that they could make their own decisions, and hoping that doctors, researchers, and authorities would read it, and they might say, “Well, you know, Taubes has a point. Maybe we should take this seriously.” What I fear is that on one level, I lose some of the lay public, because it’s too difficult and advanced, and on the other level, the physicians and researchers aren’t going to read it anyway, because they don’t see that a journalist can tell them anything they don’t already know. And then there’s this effect where, after I challenge half a dozen of their most fundamental beliefs, and they’re only 150 pages into it, do they just burn out? The example that I use there is that if somebody came out with a really-well-reviewed book saying that extrasensory perception should be taken seriously as a scientific phenomenon, I wouldn’t be able to read it. No matter how good it was, or other people thought it was, I wouldn’t be able to read it. I might try, because I tell myself I have to be intellectually honest and rigorous, but I could imagine, after 50 pages, I’d just say “I can’t do it. Maybe he’s right, but I can’t process it. My brain won’t allow me to process what he’s saying”. I wonder if that’s going on here, too: “Saturated fat, OK, but salt, fiber? Give us a break.”

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16 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 5)”

  1. Gary Taubes may be speaking in shorthand when he implicates “carbohydrates” in the genesis of obesity and disease, but it’s ludicrous to think that all carbs cause problems. The obesity epidemic is not, I submit, caused by a huge spike in broccoli consumption. Furthermore, as to looking at “calories in, calories out\”, the plain fact is that calorie consumption in this country has increased non-trivially over the past 30 years, and calorie expenditure decreased.

  2. @Dennis

    Check out the Hyperlipid blog. Most notably this post:

    It is remarkably widely accepted that fruit and vegetables are good for you. Three a day, five a day, nothing but fruit and vegetables all day….. The problem is that all of the evidence of benefit is epidemiological, and this never proves causation, merely association.

  3. Who is to say that Dennis didn’t read the book? Everyone who has problems with this book is accused of not reading it–but the fact is, despite the mountain of tedious research he quotes, he has not laid out the truth. He’s chosen the studies that support his thesis–which he’s held for years, and for which he is paid handsomely–and ignored the studies that do not support his thesis. That is why not a single scientist in the field endorses this book. As we all know, Americans did not get fat eating whole grain bread and bananas–among the evil foods that Taubes sites. We got fat eating sweet, fat, calorie dense convenience foods–and not moving. If low carb diets work, they work because people can only eat a limited amount of fat and protein, and therefore decrease their total calorie consumption. That’s the truth, and that’s also the reason why low carb diets generally fail over the long term. (They do work for some people, as all diets work for some people–but not for most people.) The French, the Japanese, and the Dutch have very low rates of obesity, and each has a very high carbohydrate diet I know Taubes denies this, but this is absurd–anyone who has lived in France know they begin and end their day with bread. The Japense eat large amounts of rice. The Dutch love their potatoes. These are starch lovers all, yet have very low obesity rates. Still, so many Americans believe what they want to believe–they WANT to believe that there is a conspiracy of bad doctors and scientists making them fat–they want to believe that the French are thin because they don’t eat carbs, when the real reason is because they walk everywhere, don’t snack, and eat small portions. Taubes is brilliant in that he has caused so many people to let go of their common sense. He has actually convinced readers that exercise does not help maintain weight loss, that eating large quanties of fat is healthy, that calories do not count. But then again, Taubes went to Harvard and studied physics, of all things. He’s a smart guy who knows how to spin a tale and make a buck. Good for him!

  4. David, diatribes like yours are the reason Taubes took so many years writing his book, and why it’s so damn long. You have spewed so much misinformation in that post, yet Taubes has deconstructed every hoary assertion in it. Read the book, and respond to the EVIDENCE.

    And the personal attack about “making a buck” is just asinine. No one writes an encyclopedic examination of the perversion of science to get rich!

  5. Wow. David, it sounds like you haven’t read the book b/c Taubes very credibly backs up the fact we don’t know that: Americans did not get fat eating whole grain bread and bananas–among the evil foods that Taubes sites. We got fat eating sweet, fat, calorie dense convenience foods–and not moving.’.

    He addresses most, if not all, your points either in the book itself or in subsequent interviews and presentations. You really should check it out. He might not be right (I personally think he is on to something), but he definitely employs reason and evidence in his arguments.

  6. Look at China: a diet based on rice; Peru, potatoes, West Africa, rice and sweet potatoes; India, bread and lentils; why aren’t all those people fat, diabetic, and suffering from heart attacks? Oh, but it’s “only” epidemiological evidence, of the sort that linked cigarettes to lung cancer. Correlation should make one suspect causation. That’s the point of it.

  7. Dennis, watch the video of Taubes that Seth linked to in an earlier post — Taubes discusses why this isn’t so. He shows how a healthy, slender Native American tribe became horribly obese after the whites moved in and killed off the game the tribe had lived on for centuries. The tribe was forced to subsist on handouts of — surprise! — carbohydrates, and got massively obese.

    Once again, Dennis, Taubes exhaustively deconstructs all of these Vegan bullet points in Good Calories, Bad Calories.

  8. It seems to me that the best format for this book would have been a hypertext. Then everything could have been left in without it becoming slow and pedantic.

  9. White short-grain rice is not consumed bulk like potatoes or pasta. It is typically eaten as a side-dish to a high-fat, high-protein meal. A katsudon comes to around 1000 calories, of which less than a quarter is the rice. The rest comes from the deep-fried pork cutlet and egg.

    At least in Japan, this myth of “low fat” cuisine seems to be the product of cookbook authors writing for western audiences, not observations of what normal people actually eat. (Or how they eat–I seriously think chopsticks make a big difference.)

    White short-grain rice has no taste to speak of and is generally not consumed flavored. It does have a very definite “mouth feel.” Eating it alone you quickly achieve a sense of “fullness.” In fact, it would seem to meet Dr. Roberts’ “tasteless calorie” criteria for appetite suppression.

    Moreover, the short-grain rice that predominates in Japan and China is an expensive source of calories. Before the 20th century, few farmers could afford to eat the rice they grew. Rice grown in Japan still costs twice what it does in the U.S., yet is being exported to China at extraordinary premiums.

  10. Dennis,

    Dennis, the highest rate of diabetes in the world is in India. The second highest rate of diabetes in the world is in China.

    People in India have been encouraged to replace their traditional cooking fat, ghee (clarified butter) with rape seed oil and to reduce the amount of oil used. They have no doubt been pressured to make other changes to their traditional diet as well. It would be interesting to know if they had such a high rate of diabetes in 1950 as they do now. For a country where half the country is vegetarian, reducing fat no doubt greatly increases carbs.

  11. Dennis writes: “Look at China: a diet based on rice”

    I have a woman friend who grew up in Chunking, and was training for the Chinese gymnastic team in her adolescence. We spoke about my change to the paleo diet a while ago. I don’t eat rice any more. I had this exchange in e-mail:

    “I see in my readings that many people ask why are Asians not obese and they eat all that rice, very high carbohydrate. I’m guessing that rice is eaten for sure, but what percentage of the diet is it, your best guess for the average person in Chun King? And is it white or brown rice?”

    “Yup, rice was considered fattening and it is known among athletes. The coaches often exclude white rice, or limit the quantity of it in players’ diet.

    I think Asians are not fat partially due to the genetic reasons and also the food in Asian countries is still a lot more organic and balanced compare to the western diet where a lot of processed food is being used everywhere including home-cooked food. Carb is not all that bad if your meals are combined with vegetables and meat instead of white bread plus processed beef and processed cheese. Some crap is better than all crap I guess.

    As of percentage of the white rice, rice is the equivalent of bread in Western diet. I would say 1/3 of a meal on average?”

    There goes your “diet based on rice” canard. It’s really a low-refined food diet. I disagree about the genetics, for as Taubes points out, Asians who adopt Western eating habits get fat too.

  12. “The obesity epidemic is not, I submit, caused by a huge spike in broccoli consumption.”

    Broccoli is very low in carbohydrates.

    “As we all know, Americans did not get fat eating whole grain bread and bananas–among the evil foods that Taubes sites.”

    I did. Steel cut oats, one of the wholest of the whole grains, spike my blood sugar to near diabetic levels, even though I’ve never had a diabetes diagnosis.

    “Look at China: a diet based on rice; Peru, potatoes, West Africa, rice and sweet potatoes; India, bread and lentils; why aren’t all those people fat, diabetic, and suffering from heart attacks?”

    There’s at least one study – a correlation study, which means it is not the highest standard of evidence, but correlation studies are great for raising questions – that shows that the Chinese women who eat the most rice are most likely to be diabetic. (

    “Oh, but it’s “only” epidemiological evidence, of the sort that linked cigarettes to lung cancer.”

    I’m not quite certain about this, but I believe the epidemiological evidence that links smoking to lung cancer shows that smokers are something like 3,000 times more likely to have lung cancer than non-smokers. That means for every non-smoker who gets lung cancer, there are 3,000 smokers who get it. In dietary studies, you’re hard pressed to find an effect that shows a 2:1 ratio. If you are studying 2 groups of 1,000 people, one on a high-fat diet and one on a low-fat diet, and 2 high-fat eaters kick the bucket and only one low-fat eater kicks it, that’s not a very impressive correlation, is it?

    “Correlation should make one suspect causation.” Yes, emphasis on suspect. But people in countries with more telephone poles have more heart disease than people in countries with fewer telephone poles. Do telephone poles cause heart disease? Weak correlations like the one I described above are good, at best, for generating hypotheses, but they don’t prove anything.

  13. I DID get fat eating whole wheat bread and bananas, as well as brown rice legumes and other fruits. I was a life long avoid-er of sugar,processed and refined foods. I avoided all dairy and fats as best i could especially saturated fats. Most of my calories came from whole grains and legumes. My job involved walking 3-5 miles a day and I was a competitive fencer and coach. In middle age I found myself 40lbs overweight with high triglycerides and cholesterol. I also developed severe GERD and arthritis in my neck and shoulders. My doctor a gastroenterologist was puzzled because my “low fat, whole grain” diet was supposed to be an ideal one for health. All he could offer me was a lifetime of drugs like nexium, celebrex and statins. This was not acceptable to me and I started my own research. After reading Taubes GCBC and other books and articles I eliminated ALL grains, concentrated carbs and vegetable seed oils from my diet and increased the animal fats. The GERD disappeared in two days, the arthritis in ten days. So far i have lost over 25lbs without hunger or increasing my exercise.

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