Interview with Gary Taubes (part 14–the end)

TAUBES Now here’s one question for you, you know the Freakonomics guys, right? Did you read their last column on obesity?

INTERVIEWER About bariatric surgery?

TAUBES Yes. In particular, the last two paragraphs, about their recommendation that fat people, in effect, carry around something nauseating. I felt like I was reading something from 150 years ago, where they were using anal suppositories to try to cure obesity. Do you remember those paragraphs?


TAUBES They’re saying, “let’s get fat people to have willpower, like we do.” Here’s a way they could do it, they could carry some nauseating-smelling thing in a pouch around their neck, and whenever they find themselves going to the refrigerator, they could open it up and smell it.

INTERVIEWER I think they were trying to illustrate the concept of commitment device.

TAUBES I got what they were trying to do, but…

INTERVIEWER You’re saying that trivializes the problem.

TAUBES More than that. I’m saying it misses the point entirely. It’s not about how much they eat. Remember, you can starve fat animals, for instance, and they’ll die with their fat tissue intact. It’s not about how much they’re eating; it’s about the regulation of their fat tissue. And if you don’t understand that, you’re not doing anyone a favor by discussing it publicly. If these guys are going to write about this subject, and they’re so now so influential and noticeable, they should have some understanding of what’s actually going on physiologically. We talked earlier about how I can become flabbergasted — your words was “radicalized” — by the idea that people can write about obesity without stopping to think “what’s the mechanism? Should I know anything about the underlying biology?” And again, I never did until the last five years. It was only when I did the research for the book that I realized that you have to actually pay attention to the underlying biology — the hormonal and enzymatic regulation of fat tissue — or you can’t understand what’s going on. Imagine writing about growth defects, about gigantism or dwarfism, without caring about the hormonal regulation of growth. If the Freakonomics guys are going to write about obesity in the New York Times, then maybe they should read my book (he said, ego-maniacally), so they know what they’re talking about. And since I don’t know them personally, maybe you could…

INTERVIEWER I’ll recommend your book to them. It’s great that you were invited to Berkeley; that shows people trust you. The fact that they invited you means you’re not a heretic, you’re not off the reservation, you’re a respectable person. The fact that you continue to write for the New York Times, that’s very good. Every article you publish from now on will push your book forward, will push your case forward, will say that you are a serious person who is respected by serious people. Just maybe, just maybe, this is one of the cases where the authorities were wrong. We’re all familiar with this happening in the past, and maybe this is just another case. For everybody but the tiny faction of people at the top of the health establishment, I think they’re perfectly fine with the idea that the authorities are wrong. I think that the lack of progress on the obesity epidemic is making more and more people dissatisfied. That’s just a guess. More and more people, outside of the people who are responsible for the current policies.

TAUBES I think that’s true, but there’s this contrary effect that happens. I said this in my lecture. The science I’m trying to get across can be accepted up until the point at which I say the the word carbohydrate, and then people shut down, and they think “Oh, it’s that Atkins stuff again.” Their minds close and they turn around and go back to their lives. Anyway, I look forward to seeing the interview and getting your book and reading it. I enjoyed this. Again, I like nothing better than talking about this stuff.

INTERVIEWER I learned a lot from our conversation. I’m sure my blog readers will enjoy this.

Interview directory. The whole interview.

21 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 14–the end)”

  1. Thanks for conducting the interview! It was a feast to read an honest exchange not being spoiled by vanities and preconceptions.

  2. “Remember, you can starve fat animals, for instance, and they’ll die with their fat tissue intact. It’s not about how much they’re eating; it’s about the regulation of their fat tissue.”

    That is something that belongs on the front of a book, as the money quote.

  3. One other comment. I noticed that my metabolism was dramatically different at somewhere between fifteen and twenty hours a week of exercise. When I hit the break point, what caused me to lose weight and the kind of food that worked well for me changed.

    I’ve always thought that a significant problem with weight loss advice is that too much of it comes from people who exercise a lot and from competitive athletes. I think what we are finally getting is an approach to weight and weight loss that involves science and a data set of normal people.

  4. Fantastic interview. If Gary Taubes ever reads (or has now read) “The Shangri-La Diet” I’d love to hear more about his reactions.

  5. One last comment, I knew Clyde Filmore, a Bataan Death March survivor, and he remarked that they all thought the fat guys would do best, having the extra reserves, but that they died the soonest. Fat humans died with a good deal of fat tissue intact.

    Not just animals.

  6. Thank God Gary’s book was sitting in my public library on the day 3 weeks ago when I learned that I was officially diabetic. I am not obese at 140 pounds but could lose a dress size or maybe even two, which would bring me back to my lifetime approximate weight of 125 pounds. So – 15 or so pounds would be good, diabetic or not. I am a 65 year old woman. My doctor’s few words of advice began with ‘Limit your carbs drastically – no sugar – talk to our nutritionist (appt. scheduled) – and go to the American Diabetes Association website and educate yourself as to their recommendations’ and I’ll see you in a month after you’ve seen the nutritionist’. So first off I went to the ADA website – and I was SHOCKED! The ADA food pyramid is completely contrary to a low carb diet. (Look it up!) They in fact recommend that a diabetic ‘choose 6-11 servings a day’ of carbohydrates. They furthermore do not distinguish between highly refined carbs and complex carbs. In their pyramid rice is merely ‘rice’ and pasta is ‘pasta’ and bread is ‘bread’ (not even whole grain or whole wheat bread.) They encourage 2-4 servings of ANY kind of fruit a day (even canned fruit, no mention of low or no sugar). They advise very limited meats, very small portions, all fat removed, they do not bother to even mention eggs, give cheese no particular importance, and no mention of butter at all. It’s a ‘fat’ which is not advised and is included with ‘fats, oils, and sweets’. . They even suggest that sweets such as cookies, ice cream or cupcakes should be used ‘in small servings, to be eaten as a ‘special treat’.

    Are they TRYING to get me on insulin? Are they TRYING to kill me?

    So then I went to the NIH diabetes advice. They say ‘Grains, beans and starchy vegetables – 6 or more servings a day.

    Mayo Clinic: (Diabetics should… aim for:) 45% to 65% of daily calories from carbohydrates.

    They are ALL trying to kill me!

    So…… I read Gary’s book twice all the way through. I am reading selected chapters again. The book will be overdue soon so I am going to buy it. And every time someone, maybe this nutritionist even, says to me ‘You really need to eat a lot of carbohydrates for a balanced diet’ I am going to say ‘uh huh, thanks, I will’ and go home for dinner, which might be a steak with 2 eggs fried in butter, a small salad with bleu cheese dressing, water, and for dessert some dry roasted almonds. In the morning there will be cream in my coffee and then I will think about something fatty like bacon for breakfast.

    If my labs come down, and I am positive they will, I will send Gary a Christmas card next year because unless I get run over by a truck, I will possibly still be alive. Thx for a voice of reason in the babble of the medical community.

  7. Sandy, Taubes is great and you’re well on your way, but with a diabetic Dx you owe it to yourself to get a copy of “Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution” in the newest edition.

  8. I was excited to hear about the book, and am completely open to new possibilities, but I was pretty disappointed with the interview. It seemed to me Taubes exhibited the same human biases that he was railing against during the interview – he seems to have lost his own skepticism in the process. And to simply suggest that he is right because he is smarter than his colleagues isn’t really going to get him anywhere.

    It is too bad, because I sure hope people take his book seriously. I will be a bit more suspicious due to this interview. Perhaps his next book should be on human influence and persuasion (Cialdini is a good starting point).

  9. “If my labs come down, and I am positive they will, I will send Gary a Christmas card next year because unless I get run over by a truck, I will possibly still be alive. Thx for a voice of reason in the babble of the medical community.”

    That’s exactly how I feel. “What If It’s All Been a Big, Fat Lie?” saved my life. I owe the fact that I am not yet diabetic (and hope never to be) to that article. So, Mr. Taubes, if you’re reading, I owe you a Christmas card, too.

  10. I Read Gary’s NYT Magazine article on July 7 2002 on a plane from Chicago to Calgary Canada. Then I bought the Atkins Book.

    From July 8 2002 to August 11 2002 (1 Day before my Birthday) I went on the program. I lost between 30-35 Lbs of body fat. I worked out 3-4 times a week. My allergies disappeared. I woke up without an alarm every morning by 7 AM.
    Having been a chubby kid, adolescent and adult — what I had gone through was truly a metamorphosis.

    I am still amazed at the mainstream media, health authorities and groups like the AMA, Diabetes association still maintaining their adherence to the low-fat dogma.

    I think with the Internet — the truth will finally start to spread.

    Thank you so much guys!

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