Interview with Gary Taubes (part 13)

INTERVIEWER My book came out of an accidental observation, which is that I lost weight when I drank sugar soft drinks. Lost weight, not gained weight. That happened in Paris, and I came back to Berkeley, and I found out it was the sugar. In other words, if I drink unflavored sugar water, I lost weight. Not so obvious, right? But Israel Ramirez, who I mentioned a few minutes ago — his experiments with rats are what led me to this discovery. Because I don’t think most people would have thought it was possible to lose weight by drinking Coke, or whatever. But it has to be unflavored. Anyway, the effect never wore off. I drank sugar water for three years, and my weight went down and stayed down. There was no sign that it was ever going to wear off. So this seems to me to be a big problem with your theory, which is that I drank something which obviously raised my insulin level, sugar water. I didn’t measure it. I lost weight and not only did I lose weight, but I kept the weight off, and I lost it without being hungry; I was less hungry than usual. I mean, you’re right, you know, set points, settling points, who cares. . .

TAUBES It’s important to think of it as a settling point. Because it’s important to have this concept of dynamic equilibrium. As long as you’re thinking about what’s happening in the brain, which is what set point implies. My question is, what did the sugar water do to your fat tissue? It should have caused you to accumulate fat, or at least hold on to the fat you had, according to what I know of the underlying regulation of fat tissue. The question is, why did it do what it did?

INTERVIEWER I was less surprised than you are, or than most people are, let’s put it that way, because I was led to this observation by a theory. I had a theory which pre-dated all of this. I was kind of surprised my theory was so helpful, because it hadn’t been that helpful before. But, lo and behold, it really turned out to be helpful and it led me to other ways to keep my weight off, and I’m still way down from where I was.

TAUBES What I ask when I talk with these people. What I say is: Look at the regulation of fat tissue. The question is, how can you lose weight, or gain it — how can you gain weight without either increasing insulin secretion, or increasing the relative insulin sensitivity of the fat tissue to the muscle tissue. Basically, the way we work, at least if you believe the biology that I describe, is that as we secrete insulin in response to the carbohydrates we consume and the insulin works, among other things, to facilitate the movement of glucose into the cells of your muscles and other lean tissues. But blood sugar is kind of toxic, so your muscle tissue doesn’t want the insulin pushing all this blood sugar in, and it becomes insulin resistant. Your fat tissue now remains insulin-sensitive, because your body doesn’t like to waste fuel. So if you eat a high-carb diet, your lean tissue takes up some of the glucose for fuel, and the rest gets dumped in your fat tissue, and your fat tissue remains insulin-sensitive for a long time — far longer. Because once your fat tissue becomes insulin resistant, then you just become diabetic; you have no place to put the glucose. You just pee it out. That’s the last resort, because your body doesn’t want to waste fuel.

The thing that Rosalyn Yalow and Solomon Berson reported forty years ago is that organs respond differently to high levels of insulin, and they get insulin resistant at different periods. One of the things I put into a paragraph in the book is that I can imagine a scenario where fat tissue becomes insulin resistant prior to muscle tissue, and the result would be anorexia or bulimia. The person would eat a meal and would have no place to store the calories temporarily. So they would either lose their appetite and not be interested in eating at all (anorexia), or they might just throw it up afterwards. Because they have no place to temporarily store the calories that aren’t being used immediately. Bulimia would be another option. A third option would just be to get on an exercise bicycle and ride for three hours and burn the calories off — be Lance Armstrong, in effect. So what I’m trying to figure out is what did the sugar water do, unflavored? And it’s interesting — the idea that it’s unflavored might disconnect some of the sort of Pavlovian responses that you’ve developed.

INTERVIEWER Yeah, I think that’s what was key. The reason I lost my appetite in Paris was that I was drinking unfamiliar sugar water. I think this is the reason that so many diets work in the beginning: because people eat unfamiliar food. Once the food becomes familiar, the diets don’t work so well.

TAUBES This is the problem with anecdotal evidence. The idea that oil could suppress your appetite I could understand, because, as I said in my lecture, you need alpha glycerol phosphate to fix fatty acids as triglycerides. You get the alpha glycerol phosphate from eating carbohydrates, so if you only ate oil it would be shipped off to the fat tissue as triglycerides, then broken down by lipoprotein lipase into fatty acids, but those fatty acids couldn’t be stored in the fat. So it would raise the fatty acid level in your blood, and your body would switch over to burning fatty acids, and this would effectively suppress hunger. That makes sense. But I can’t see why unflavored sugar water would be any different than say, Coca Cola itself, which is just flavored sugar water, for all intents and purposes.

INTERVIEWER Well, when I talked about it in the beginning, I was using fructose.

TAUBES Well, pure fructose, I can also understand. Friedman and Ramirez did an experiment showing that fructose suppresses hunger apparently because it is metabolized in the liver and they believe that the liver monitors fuel status in the body…

INTERVIEWER This is very interesting: someone who is not dedicated to my being wrong.

TAUBES I’m open-minded.

INTERVIEWER Your book proved that.

TAUBES The experiments that Freedman and I think Ramirez did to demonstrate that the liver must sense hunger, must sense fuel availability, is they did intravenous infusions of fructose, Fructose is metabolized only in the liver. It’s not metabolized in the brain. So they infused fructose into the blood stream of rats and it suppressed eating behavior. That’s one of many experiments they did that suggested that somehow what we sense as hunger is being communicated by the liver. It’s always made sense to me. So if you only use fructose, and you don’t get an insulin response to fructose, it would make sense that it suppresses hunger. In my book, I discuss the hypothesis that whatever prompts an insulin response is what causes us to get hungry. So, the fructose, I can understand. Actually, if you’re now eating real sucrose, that’s where it gets complicated, because with sucrose, you’re going to get an insulin response. Unless the fructose component outweighs the glucose, but then, what is it about the absence of taste? Why would Coke make you fat, and sugar water not?

INTERVIEWER Well, first it was it was that flavorless fructose worked. Then it was flavorless sucrose worked. Then it was flavorless oils work. Then it was flavorless any food worked, in particular flavorless protein.

TAUBES When you talk about flavorless protein, what do you mean? The oils, I understand; the fructose fits with everything I know. The sucrose starts getting tricky. What do you mean by flavorless protein? Give me an example.

INTERVIEWER Oh, for example, eating chicken holding your nose clipped. It’s flavorless in the sense that you don’t smell it.

TAUBES That’s interesting. Remember I told you that Jaques Le Magnen started his career studying olfaction (because he was blind). He was curious why the smell of a particular food can go from being very pleasurable when you’re hungry to being nauseating when you’re full. The example I used in the book was the smell of a cinnamon bun cooking. You can imagine that being unbelievably enticing when you’re hungry, and then nauseating if you’ve already eaten three cinnamon buns. Le Magnen moved from that to asking similar questions about the taste of a food, which he thought was determined by our level of hunger. It’s conceivable that if you don’t taste a food it somehow works to suppress hunger, but I have no idea why.

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10 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 13)”

  1. I’ve thought a lot about how consuming tasteless food could supress hunger. My favorite theory is that it is similar to what happens when an animal is hibernating. The “magical” appearance of calories fools your body into thinking it is living off its fat and then it actually does so.

  2. While eating without taste may be effective, it seems to me to be a very unnatural approach, that cuts out a whole heck of a lot of built-in safety and feedback mechanisms that taste is involved in.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have been fat, and “effective” beats “powerlessness.” So if one has tried everything else, like low-carb, then I understand the appeal.

    But for the long term, it seems to me you’re losing a lot of important information, information that is important for health and even survival. You are eating entirely based on your rational beliefs about what your body needs, and not training yourself to listen to important messages, and not rebuilding or improving the body’s messaging systems. And I have found that to be a really valuable part of the process of normalizing weight.

  3. If you are talking about food safety such as identifying rotten food by its smell or taste I don’t think SLD advocates eating something you aren’t sure about. For example, you’d smell and taste the first bit from a new bottle of oil and then store it properly.

    If Taubes is correct, fat people’s bodies send them messages that they are hungry because they actually are hungry. The body is starving internally because of its inability to utilize its fat stores. Taubes provides lots of data to explain how a low-carb corrects this inability.

    If SLD makes your body send the message that you aren’t hungry and you know you are overweight, this seems good, not bad. You wouldn’t want to stay on SLD if you got too thin.

  4. I guess I was talking about more subtle stuff than just whether the food was going to kill you or not.

    My experience is that there are a lot of messages that come from our bodies about the food we eat, or more interestingly, are hungry for. When we are tuned into our bodies, and our bodies are tuned up by a generally good diet, I think we tend to crave what we need.

    One thing I see with people struggling with overweightness is that both the messaging system and their interpretation of the messages has gotten out of whack.

    Now one explanation for that is that we just don’t have a physiology that has historical experience with the kind of dense, high-carbohydrate foods we find ourselves surrounded with. So our messaging system just doesn’t have the built-in experiential intelligence to deal with these kinds of foods.

    Yes, the SLD short-circuits the problem entirely. I’m not saying it’s awful because of that. I am very pragmatic when it comes to fat control. All I’m saying is that there is value to improving the messaging system and the messaging receptors in our thought processes, so that someone stops the SLD-eating, the body/mind has a clue about what to do next to maintain where it’s gotten.

  5. Gary Taubes: “Actually, if you’re now eating real sucrose, that’s where it gets complicated, because with sucrose, you’re going to get an insulin response. ”

    Forgive me for asking what may be a very dumb question, but do we know this for sure? Has anyone measured insulin response when people eat unflavored fructose/ sucrose/glucose to see if it is any different from flavored fructose/sucrose/glucose?

  6. Yes someone did measure blood glucose response to sucrose!

    The work of Dr. Jennie Miller-Brand on constructing a glycemic index might be useful. Their testing method for foods seems reasonable. They measure blood glucose response to eating specific things using 10 volunteers in the morning who apparently don’t mind a lot of finger sticking.

    Their website still promotes the usual wisdom concerning fat, but they do acknowledge that fat does lower food GI. So they appear to at least be honest about their measurements.

    They measured sweeteners. Here are some useful numbers from their shopping guide:

    Fructose: 19 low
    Sugar, white: 68 med
    Glucose syrup tablets or powder: 100 high

    So the surprising fact is that sucrose (presumably Sugar, white above) in isolation isn’t terribly harmful to insulin. Other things normally consumed with sucrose probably are worse.

    That said, it would be worth testing SLD vs. glucose. I’d be willing to propose that corn syrup will _never_ work.

  7. My question was: Has anyone measured insulin response when people eat _unflavored_ fructose/ sucrose/glucose to see if it is any different from _flavored_ fructose/sucrose/glucose?

    I want to know if the flavor has anything to do with the response. It would seem obvious that it doesn’t, but sometimes obvious things aren’t true, and vice versa. 😎

    I am told that the standard glucose tolerance test is given with some kind of flavored glucose solution. But I have never taken the test myself.

  8. Oh, my bad. That would be a good test. I’m a little suspicious of the favor hypothesis, but that’s probably because I’m not a psychologist and I don’t understand those mechanisms.

    And I’m partial to Taubes view that it’s safe, for us laymen, to simplify the obesity model to “it’s the insulin, stupid” since given all the factors acting on fat balance, that seems to be the biggest. And it’s really simple to understand.

    And as a matter of saving the world, converting people’s opinion from “it’s the calories, stupid” to “it’s the insulin, stupid” would be an easier sell than “it’s the flavor, stupid.”

    Seth, great work. Thanks for publishing this interview.

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