Interview with Gary Taubes (part 7)

INTERVIEWER I was a member of the Center for Weight and Health. But the other members didn’t know what I was up to, and had no idea it could have anything to do with actual weight loss.

TAUBES That’s one of the things I’ve found most amusing about obesity research, that you have this disconnect from pre-World War Two, when the people doing it were clinicians who were treating obese patients, to post-World War Two, where first, it’s nutritionists, who do rat experiments. Then, by the 1960s, obesity is considered an eating disorder and it’s being treated by psychologists and psychiatrists. So today, if you looking at some of the major obesity centers in the country — at Yale, at University of Cincinnati, they’re all run by psychologists or psychiatrists. Here’s a physiological disorder of the body, and it’s being studied by psychologists and psychiatrists. They’re not interested in anecdotal evidence, unless it agrees with their preconceptions.

INTERVIEWER In my department, we don’t have any of that. Obesity is not handled much on the Berkeley campus.

TAUBES But think about it: it’s a physiological disorder.

INTERVIEWER Well, hunger is controlled by the brain.

TAUBES I know, I know, but you know, diabetics get hungry. Type I diabetics are starving. Literally starving, without insulin. But it’s not psychologists who treat diabetics.

INTERVIEWER I think that with Type I diabetes, you can say, “look at this problem; it’s not in the brain”. But I think with most obesity, it’s no so obvious that the problem isn’t in the brain. Sure, they’re fat, but maybe they’re fat because they’re hungry too much. That could easily be a brain disorder. It could easily have something to do with the brain.

TAUBES It could have something to do with the brain, but the problem is in the body. This is the paradigm problem. If you just think of it as hunger, then…

INTERVIEWER I’m not saying you just think of it as hunger, but you wouldn’t want to rule it out.

TAUBES Yeah, I know. That’s why the book is so long, because I’m trying to do it — I’m trying to say “Look, your fat tissue is trying to get fat. Hunger and gluttony and sloth are side-effects of what’s happening at a hormonal level in your fat tissue.”

INTERVIEWER Right. What effect did Weston Price have on you?

TAUBES Price was interesting. It’s funny. He got cut from the book for reasons of length and narrative, but reading Price was a revelation to me, as I say in the acknowledgments. I think that Price should be required reading for every nutritionist in the world. And then, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” is a great read, as well.

INTERVIEWER How did you come to read his book?

TAUBES How did I come to Price? I don’t remember, actually. Somebody in the field must have recommended him.

INTERVIEWER It was after your New York Times article?

TAUBES Oh, yes, definitely. I did not read Weston Price prior to that. I have to say, by the way, that I was trying to decide how much to believe of Price’s stories. I decided that if his story about migrating, tree-climbing crabs in the South Pacific was true, I would believe everything Price said. This was my calibration. Because some of his stories are wild: about how pygmies, for instance, kill elephants by slowly hamstringing them over the course of a few days. Even with his photos as evidence, they’re still hard to believe. So, anyway, this being the 21st century, I googled the tree-climbing crabs , and indeed, there are migrating, tree-climbing crabs in the South Pacific. The article I found didn’t say whether the local natives hunted them by putting nets under the trees and making the sounds of coconuts falling, so that the crabs would climb back down into their nets, which is what Price wrote, but the crabs definitely exist. I decided that’s it. As far as I’m concerned, Weston Price is an unimpeachable source.

INTERVIEWER That’s good to know. I really like his work, too.

TAUBES And those photos of the teeth of populations that do and do not eat sugar and white flour. Compelling stuff. I have a 2 year old and I try to keep him away from sugar and white flour just because of Price’s photos. And you know, in this day and age, it’s not easy to keep a child away from sugar and white flour. But it’s the photos in Price’s book that keeps me motivated: we’ve got to survive in Manhattan on a science writer’s salary. It would be nice to save the $6,000 for braces, if I could keep him off sugar and white flour. I still don’t understand how the sugar and flour can effect how the teeth actually grow in, but Price makes a compelling argument that they do.

INTERVIEWER There’s disagreement about that. Weston Price thinks it’s one thing. A professor in Illinois thinks it’s that that people who eat the urban diets have soft food, and the people who eat the rural diets have chewy food. The chewy food makes the kids’ jaws grow to be the right size.

TAUBES My problem with that is that he’s making the assumption that the addition of sugar and flour removes some significant portion of the baseline diet. It could be true, but again, it’s an extra assumption. Take the Inuits, for example: one of the things I did in the course of my research was try to refute this notion that cancer didn’t exist in the Inuits until the 1930s. So I tracked down whatever memoirs I could find from physicians working with the Inuits to see if any of them mentioned cancer prior to the 1930s. And one of the things I found fascinating was that at the turn of the early years of the 20th century, the Inuit were eating mostly their native diet. By the 1950s, they were eating tons of sugar and flour and drinking beer and other alcohol, and tuberculosis had decimated them, but they were still eating their baseline diet; it’s just that all these other things had been added on top. So they’re still eating seal and whale and caribou, but they’re also eating these Western foods. In general, it’s never a good idea to add that extra assumption until you absolutely have to — that something else critical changes with the addition of sugar and flour. Maybe it’s just the addition that’s the cause. That’s the one thing you know for sure that happened. This is Occam’s Razor. The key thing is that cavities are caused by the sugar and flour. The simplest hypothesis is that the orthodontal problems are too. It is possible that the sugar and flour affect growth hormones — insulin-like growth hormone, for instance — which could have local effects on how the teeth grow in. The sugar and flour could affect bacterial growth locally and that could have some effect. Either way, I find the evidence sufficiently compelling to wonder whether my son will grow up with nice teeth if he doesn’t eat a lot of sugar and candy and white flour.

INTERVIEWER Changing the subject slightly, you mentioned that the obesity center at Yale is run by psychologists. Did you ever ask Kelly Brownell how he reconciles his toxic environment view with the fact that many people in poor countries are fat?

TAUBES Not yet. I would like to lecture at Yale some day, and I’m hoping that I don’t have to invite myself. You know, I’m fairly confident that if I were to ask many of these people if they’d get me a lecture — call them and say I’d like to come and talk — they’d arrange it. They ‘re intellectually honest enough on that level. But again, it’s people like Kelly Brownell that I was thinking of when I was compiling that list of populations. And what boggles my mind is that people have been peddling this nonsense for 30 years, and they never bothered to look. They never bothered to do their research, to see if there was evidence that refuted their hypotheses. Again, this is what you do in science; you get a hypothesis, and you try to test it. So how would you test the hypothesis that prosperity causes obesity, or that our modern toxic environment, as defined by Brownell, is the cause. Let’s see if we can find examples of non-toxic populations, you know, poor populations without McDonald’s, without televisions, without remote controls, who are obviously physically active, at least by our standards. It’s funny, I was talking with Hellerstein at Berkeley. When I told him about the Pima and the Sioux Indians, and he said “Well, do they live on reservations?” Like, if they live on reservations, then that means they’re sedentary, at least relatively, compared to their previous lives, and so you can evoke sedentary behavior as the cause of their obesity. So now you have this idea that it’s not how sedentary you are, it’s how sedentary you are in comparison to how active you used to be. So like, Sioux Indians, who rode along the Great Plains and chased after Custer — they were so active that if they only have to move onto reservations and stop riding their horses all the time, they get obese. So it can actually be a detriment to be extremely active, because then being only mildly active causes obesity.

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18 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 7)”

  1. Does Gary read this blog? It’s interesting to know that he’s in NYC and I was wondering if he would be interested in getting together with some of us readers in the city some time to discuss his conclusions.

  2. Seth,

    While you are it, would you mind seeing if he will be in Southern California anytime soon? The entire paradigm shift and how he applies his findings to his own life is absolutely fascinating.

  3. Pima Indians in Mexico have far less obesity and diabetes than their American cousins.

    “This preliminary investigation shows that obesity, and perhaps NIDDM, is less prevalent among people of Pima heritage living a “traditional” lifestyle than among Pimas living in an “affluent” environment. These findings suggest that, despite a similar potential genetic predisposition to these conditions, a traditional lifestyle, characterized by a diet including less animal fat and more complex carbohydrates and by greater energy expenditure in physical labor, may protect against the development of cardiovascular disease risk factors, obesity, and NIDDM.”

    The Mexican Pimas’ traditional diet largely consists of beans and corn, i.e. carbohydrates.

    If Taubes wants to say that white flour and sugar makes people fat, he ought to be more specific, because clearly not all carbohydrates have that effect, even when they make up 3/4 or more of calories.

    Sorry to rain on the parade.

  4. “You’re not talking about a diet with no carbs, just a reduced amount?

    “[Gary Taubes]: The underlying philosophy is this kind of Paleolithic diet theory. It’s what we ate during the 2 million years that we were hunter-gatherers on this planet. The fact that we were hunter-gatherers for 2 million years suggests it was an extraordinarily successful evolutionary adaptation. The question is: What did we eat during these 2 million [years] when we left the jungle, the trees, went down into savanna and started surviving on whatever we could hunt or gather? That’s the philosophy. The answer is, probably considerable meat, very low glycemic index, hard-to-digest roots and starches, and fruits and berries that look nothing at all like the beautiful Fuji applies you can buy at your local market now. Some carbohydrates, but whatever it was, it wasn’t refined. It wasn’t sugar. It wasn’t flour. It wasn’t easy to digest. That’s my going theory. If this theory’s right, the diet we evolved to eat is probably the correct diet.”

    Frontline interview of Gary Taubes:

  5. Dennis,
    To echo several other comments, Taubes (again speaking pretentiously in the third person to identify the author) thinks you’d benefit by reading the book. Taubes is always specific about the type of carbohydrate he’s discussing — often to the point of slowing the narrative to a crawl — because such specificity, as Dennis notes, is critical to understanding what might be happening in these populations.
    That said, the argument is that the quality and the quantity of the carbohydrates have to be taken into account (which you would know if you read the book.) as well as the time that a population has had to adjust to carbohydrates in new forms. It could be true that the difference between the two Pima population is that the Mexican Pima eat less animal fat, more complex carbohydrates and expend more energy, as the NIH report suggests. It could be true that the relevant factors are that they consume far less sugar, and less refined easily-digestible carbs, in which case any differences in animal fat consumption and physical activity would be canards. This is why observational studies are so difficult to interpret. They don’t tell you what factors cause the difference in disease rates, only what factors differ between the populations. And if the researchers have blinders on, as the NIH researchers in this case did, they don’t even tell you all of those. Only those that the researchers chose to look at the time.
    My advise: read book first, rain on parade second.

  6. No one argues that low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets don’t “work.” Only that they require great discipline to be effective. In large parts of the world, this discipline continues to be supplied by scarcity and work. In economic terms, the steep marginal costs in time, money and labor of each additional calorie.

    That marginal cost in the U.S. is the lowest in history–close to zero–which is why it is so profitable to “supersize.”

    However, the modern high-carb, high-calorie diet is a quirk created only in the last century or so. Prior to the mechanization of agriculture, processing grains into food took enormous amounts of time and labor. Grains stores had to be rationed or people starved. One hard drought and you were all dead.

    Even avid gardeners don’t plant rice or wheat as a hobby. People plant corn as a hobby, but not to eat as corn meal. (Modern sweet corn is organic candy.) People bake bread, but few in the first world grind flour from wheat and bake a half-dozen (big) loaves a week (like my parents did, though they did use an electric grinder).

    Because it’s hard, time-consuming work. Especially without the electric grinder.

    I believe the hundred-thousand years of human evolution prior to the agricultural revolution programmed a simple instruction into the metabolism: “If you encounter a carbohydrate surplus, rather than letting it go to waste, chow down and convert into fat, because it comes dear and won’t last.”

  7. Seth,

    I’m confused. There’s all this talk about the paleolithic diet or whatever, but people didn’t eat burgers in paleolithic times either.

  8. Andrew, during Paleolithic times people ate zero refined carbs. No bread, no soft drinks, no pasta, etc. The Atkins diet consists of eliminating these foods (while, yes, leaving cheese and eggs, which were also absent in those days). So you can think of the Atkins Diet as a semi-Paleolithic diet.

  9. Seth,

    Yeah, but that’s a much weaker statement. Taubes appears to have lots of data supporting his claims, which is great, but then he makes statements implying that his ideas make sense because of the paleolithic diet. But unless he’s talking about climbing trees and chasing down weak gazelles or whatever, his lifestyle does not seem particularly paleolithic. If he wants to cut out white flour and keep burgers, rather than the other way around, that’s fine, but I don’t see the “paleolithic” argument to be very relevant to that choice.

  10. A bit of bad news for Taubes as a Dad. I believe the future shape of the jaw and the tooth buds are pretty much laid down in utero. Just he found evidence that shows that overweight mothers with diabetic/insulin resitance problems give birth to children who then develop the same problems more easily, it’s his wife who had to give up the sugar and white flour so her infant would have strong jaws and straight teeth. Of course keeping his son away from refuned junk will help his overall development on many other levels anyway.

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