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"The Scientist And The Stairmaster"
That's the title of Gary Taubes piece in New York Magazine -- from research he did for his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease, which, unless it's allowed to be squashed in the name of science that is really "science," should revolutionize America's approach to eating, heart disease, obesity, and the subject of this article, exercise. (P.S. The book should be out tomorrow, on Amazon, but you can order it now.) In a piece adapted from his book, Taubes debunks the widely health myth about exercise as a way to lose weight, and lays out how how exercising more simply makes people eat more, and how that was kept from the public:

My favorite study of the effect of physical activity on weight loss was published in 1989 by a team of Danish researchers. Over the course of eighteen months the Danes trained nonathletes to run a marathon. At the end of this training period, the eighteen men in the study had lost an average of five pounds of body fat. As for the nine women subjects, the Danes reported, “no change in body composition was observed.” That same year, F. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, then director of the St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Obesity Research Center in New York, reviewed the studies on exercise and weight, and his conclusion was identical to that of the Finnish review’s eleven years later: “Decreases, increases, and no changes in body weight and body composition have been observed,” Pi-Sunyer reported.

Granted, all this still doesn’t explain why we bought into Mayer’s idea that we could exercise more and not compensate by eating more. One simple reason is that the health reporters bought it, and we were reading their articles, not the research literature itself. In 1977, for instance, the National Institutes of Health hosted its second conference on obesity and weight control. “The importance of exercise in weight control is less than might be believed,” the assembled experts concluded, “because increases in energy expenditure due to exercise also tend to increase food consumption, and it is not possible to predict whether the increased caloric output will be outweighed by the greater food intake.” That same year, The New York Times Magazine reported that there was “now strong evidence that regular exercise can and does result in substantial and—so long as the exercise is continued—permanent weight loss.” By 1990, a year after Pi-Sunyer’s pessimistic assessment of the evidence, Newsweek was declaring exercise an “essential” element of any weight-loss program, and the Times had stated that on those infrequent occasions “when exercise isn’t enough” to lose weight, “you must also make sure you don’t overeat.”

As for the authorities themselves, the primary factor fueling their belief in the weight-maintaining benefits of exercise was their natural reluctance to acknowledge otherwise. Although one couldn’t help but be “underwhelmed by” the evidence, as Mayer’s student Judith Stern, a UC Davis nutritionist, wrote in 1986, it would be “shortsighted” to say that exercise was ineffective because it meant ignoring the possible contributions of exercise to the prevention of obesity and to the maintenance of weight loss that might be induced by diet. These, of course, had never been demonstrated either, but they hadn’t been ruled out. This faith-based philosophy came to dominate scientific discussions on exercise and weight, but it couldn’t be reconciled with the simple notion that appetite and calories consumed will increase with an increase in physical activity. Hence, the idea of working up an appetite was jettisoned. Clinicians, researchers, exercise physiologists, even personal trainers at the local gym took to thinking and talking about hunger as though it were a phenomenon exclusive to the brain, a question of willpower (whatever that is), not the natural consequence of a body trying to replenish itself with energy.

Ultimately, the relationship between physical activity and fatness comes down to the question of cause and effect. Is Lance Armstrong excessively lean because he burns off a few thousand calories a day cycling, or is he driven to expend that energy because his body is constitutionally set against storing calories as fat? If his fat tissue is resistant to accumulating calories, his body has little choice but to burn them as quickly as possible: what Rony and his contemporaries called the “activity impulse”—a physiological drive, not a conscious one. His body is telling him to get on his bike and ride, not his mind. Those of us who run to fat would have the opposite problem. Our fat tissue wants to store calories, leaving our muscles with a relative dearth of energy to burn. It’s not willpower we lack, but fuel.

For the last 60 years, researchers studying obesity and weight regulation have insisted on treating the human body as a thermodynamic black box: Calories go in one side, they come out the other, and the difference (calories in minus calories out) ends up as either more or less fat. The fat tissue, in this thermodynamic model, has nothing to say in the matter. Thus the official recommendations to eat less and exercise more and assuredly you’ll get thinner. (Or at least not fatter). And in the strict sense this is true—you can starve a human, or a rat, and he will indeed lose weight—but that misses the point. Humans, rats, and all living organisms are ruled by biology, not thermodynamics. When we deprive ourselves of food, we get hungry. When we push ourselves physically, we get tired.

What makes us fat?

Since insulin is the primary hormone affecting the activity of LPL on our cells, it’s not surprising that insulin is the primary regulator of how fat we get. “Fat is mobilized [from fat tissue] when insulin secretion diminishes,” the American Medical Association Council on Foods and Nutrition explained back in 1974, before this fact, too, was deemed irrelevant to the question of why we gain weight or the means to lose it. Because insulin determines fat accumulation, it’s quite possible that we get fat not because we eat too much or exercise too little but because we secrete too much insulin or because our insulin levels remain elevated far longer than might be ideal.

To be sure, this is the same logic that leads to other unconventional ideas. As it turns out, it’s carbohydrates—particularly easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars—that primarily stimulate insulin secretion. “Carbohydrates is driving insulin is driving fat,” as George Cahill Jr., a retired Harvard professor of medicine and expert on insulin, recently phrased it for me. So maybe if we eat fewer carbohydrates—in particular the easily digestible simple carbohydrates and sugars—we might lose considerable fat or at least not gain any more, whether we exercise or not. This would explain the slew of recent clinical trials demonstrating that dieters who restrict carbohydrates but not calories invariably lose more weight than dieters who restrict calories but not necessarily carbohydrates. Put simply, it’s quite possible that the foods—potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, pastries, sweets, soda, and beer—that our parents always thought were fattening (back when the medical specialists treating obesity believed that exercise made us hungry) really are fattening. And so if we avoid these foods specifically, we may find our weights more in line with our desires.

As for those people who insist that exercise has been the key to their weight-loss programs, the one thing we’d have to wonder is whether they changed their diets as well. Rare is the person who decides the time has come to lose weight and doesn’t also decide perhaps it’s time to eat fewer sweets, drink less beer, switch to diet soda, and maybe curtail the kind of carb-rich snacks—the potato chips and the candy bars—that might be singularly responsible for driving up their insulin and so their fat.

For the rest of us, it may be time to take a scientific or biological view of our excesses rather than a biblical one. The benefits of exercise include the joys of virtuousness. I worked out today, therefore I can eat fattening foods to my heart’s content. But maybe the causality is reversed here too. Maybe it’s because we eat foods that fatten us that the workout becomes a necessity, the best we can do in the battle against our own fat tissue.

Taubes' Q&A from yesterday's NY Times is here.

Posted by aalkon at September 24, 2007 6:06 AM


I'm really looking forward to reading this, and have had it on order since you first mentioned it.

You know, I think my grandmother's generation had a pretty good grasp of what Taubes is onto. My 90-lb grandmother used to put butter on our sandwiches to make them "more filling," yet never served more than one starch per meal (potatoes or bread, but not both). The common wisdom in her day was that starches and sweets were what made people fat.

Posted by: deja pseu at September 24, 2007 7:10 AM

It's incredible. And it's not a tough read, either. And about every couple of paragraphs, you're amazed by what you're reading. It's like a detective story but uncovering bad science instead of a following a murderer's trail...although it is chilling to think of all the people who have suffered and died early because of all the "science" as science. Women, particularly, have been hurt by the low-fat food orthodoxy.

Frankly, although I usually exercise, when Cathy Seipp was quite ill, I was barely doing it -- maybe 20 minutes a week on my bike in front of the TV. I think it's because I eat almost no bread, and the bread I do eat I pile with butter, that I didn't gain weight at all.

This book is a masterwork, and he will be attacked and attacked by those whose work he takes apart, but try what he suggests -- you'll drop weight, feel great, and probably diminish your chances of getting diseases.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 24, 2007 7:16 AM

The anti-Atkins crowd aren't going to like this one.

I lost 50 pounds using Atkins' method. I started eating carbs again, and all the weight came right back. So I have a choice, I can eat the foods I like and be fat, or deprive myself and be thin.

Posted by: brian at September 24, 2007 7:51 AM

The anti-Atkins crowd should be brought up on charges - bad science promoted as the truth, and overlooking findings that didn't serve their cause: promoting the low-fat/low-calorie/exercise Puritanism lifestyle.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 24, 2007 8:06 AM

People who comment on my thin build always assume that I must exercise all the time. I do exercise, because it's good for me mentally, and I enjoy being outside and running or biking, and I like to be able to run up flights of stairs without getting out of breath. And every time I tell someone no, I do not look like this because of exercise, I get a blank stare. I may start handing out copies of this book! Thanks for highlighting Taubes' work - I look forward to reading more.

Posted by: Mary at September 24, 2007 8:51 AM

Yeah, like my in-laws who adopted a low-fat, high-carb diet a couple of decades ago because FIL had heart disease. Now my MIL (who exercises regularly and has never been overweight) has developed type II diabetes. I'm certain her diet is at least partly responsible.

Posted by: deja pseu at September 24, 2007 9:14 AM

Just got the notice from amazon that Gary's book has shipped.

Posted by: deja pseu at September 24, 2007 9:28 AM

Great post Amy. I agree wholeheartedly that worrying about fat content in your food, unless you're just ridiculous about the quantities, is far less important than focusing on how glycemic it is (i.e., how much it affects your blood sugar). Staying away from sugar, HF corn syrup, fruit juices (not fruit), white bread, white rice, potatoes and the like is a good idea; it will also generally lead to less pronounced swings in blood sugar, less hunger and more productivity. Atkins was on to something; too bad lots of naysayers believe the rumor that he died from heart disease.

Posted by: justin case at September 24, 2007 9:29 AM

Just got the notice from amazon that Gary's book has shipped.

Ooh, cool - I think the official pub date is October 2 - you'll probably get it before! Do come back to this entry and report on what you think!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 24, 2007 9:46 AM

But Justin, he DID die of heart failure. Brought on by a subdural hematoma. (He fought gravity and lost.)

But I, too, was quite irked when the Diet Nazis came out in force to denounce him at his death.

Kinda like making fun of Jim Fixx.

Posted by: brian at September 24, 2007 9:58 AM

In case that was a bit obtuse for some: Atkins died after slipping and falling.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 24, 2007 10:21 AM

Aw, come on Amy, it's Monday. People should expand their vocabularies on Mondays!

Posted by: brian at September 24, 2007 10:55 AM

I had always heard that carbohydrates were important to fuel your brain cells. That was one reason I wasn't a fan of atkins per se. (The other is that my dad wouldn't stop shoving it down my throat.) I would like to see how that is addressed in this book.

I do think there is a certain amount of excess going on in terms of carbs in the US and that should be toned down, a lot. (it's soooo hard though)

Posted by: Shinobi at September 24, 2007 11:50 AM

I've been looking forward to reading this since Amy started writing about it. I'm with Shinobi as I love my "bad" carbs. Moderation has been my key. If I'm really craving some chips, a Halloween size bag, savoured slowly, does the trick, backed up with some higher fat snack that doesn't leave me starving in a half hour. Same goes for rice, potatoes, pasta. I always try to fill up on good stuff and then enjoy a smaller portion of those naughty foods.

I do think regular exercise does help though. My weight doesn't fluctuate, by my shape does when I stop exercising...and certainly my cardio health suffers. I think often the big downfall of these sporadic exercisers is that we do eat more when we exercise, then we stop and continue to eat the same.

Posted by: Moreta at September 24, 2007 12:31 PM

I'd like to read this book and probably agree with a lot of what it says. But I've got a tip for all those who want to lose weight: they're called VEGETABLES. Shocking, but true: Vegetables are really good for you. And another schocking truth: FRUIT is also really healthy.

Y'all don't need to become hippie vegetarians, but for crying out loud try some vegetables that aren't covered in cheese, bacon and butter. Yes, we maybe loath to admit it, but mother was right. So eat those fruits and vegetables.

Posted by: flighty at September 24, 2007 3:02 PM

Amy you say that people should not bash Atkins. But many people including the Atkins dieters in Canada seem to think that cutting out all carbohydrates is how to lose weight, that would include those fruits and vegetables that Flighty was extolling. I think the picture of the perfect Atkins person was one who only ate one fruit or vegetable a day. I realize that what you are promoting is simple-carbs, in moderation but the perception and practice of the Atkins diet vary widely from what you believe (and possibly Dr. Atkins) Atkins is.

Posted by: nicky_s at September 24, 2007 9:41 PM

I eat vegetables that are just floating in olive oil. Oil and butter are not unhealthy for you. I eat loads of both, and I'm probably healthier than most of you. Read Taubes book. Furthermore, read the column in which I quoted him, Splendor In The Wheat Grass:

It may help you to understand that there are good reasons to eat meat. “Meat is the single best source of virtually every vitamin but vitamin C,” said Gary Taubes, an investigative science journalist whose myth-busting book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, (Sept. 07) is sure to revolutionize the American diet, proving that meat is not the health demon it’s made out to be. Taubes pointed me toward nutritional anthropologist Marvin Harris’ book Good To Eat, in which Harris explains that the ratios of essential amino acids in plant foods (except soy) are not optimal for humans. (The scientific jury’s still out on whether scarfing large quantities of soy is healthy or safe.) People have to eat huge quantities of nuts or legumes to match the nutritional value of meat “since the least abundant essential amino acids in plants are precisely the ones most needed by the human body.”

What you all (quoting your various ideas about eating above) need to realize is that much of what we, in this country, consider dietary wisdom is wrong, and that's why this book, a product of seven years of research by a guy who took to his topic like an obsessed detective after a serial killer, is so important.

Nicky S, I believe the Inuit ate a diet that was almost all meat, and almost nothing else, and they only got cancer in their society after flour and sugar were introduced.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 24, 2007 11:46 PM

I think the Inuit do have the highest incidence of osteoporosis.

Posted by: Chrissy at September 25, 2007 7:59 AM

Chrissy, on deadline, and too pressed to respond myself, so here's a link:

But the pioneering research of Dr. Weston Price indicates that we should not accept the protein theory without further study. Dr. Price found many groups throughout the world subsisting on high meat diets. Although he did not directly study bone density in these peoples, he did study their teeth. He found that groups on high meat diets--including Alaskan Eskimos--had a high immunity to tooth decay, were sturdy and strong, and virtually free from degenerative disease. Groups subsisting mainly on plant foods were less robust and had more tooth decay. Pre-Columbian skeletons of American Indians whose diets consisted largely of meat show no osteoporosis, while those of Indians on largely vegetarian diets indicate a high incidence of osteoporosis and other types of bone degeneration. The implication of Dr. Price's research and other anthropoligical studies is that high meat diets protect against osteoporosis. How do we explain this discrepancy?

The research of Dr. Herta Spencer, of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines Illinois, supplies us with clues. She notes that the animal and human studies that correlated calcium loss with high protein diets used isolated, fractionated amino acids from milk or eggs.4 Her studies show that when protein is given as meat, subjects do not show any increase in calcium excreted, or any significant change in serum calcium, even over a long period.5 Other investigators found that a high protein intake increased calcium absorption when dietary calcium was adequate or high, but not when calcium intake was a low 500 mg per day.6

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 25, 2007 8:08 AM

Weston Price was a charlatan. Amy, you've revealed yourself very clearly to be overcredulous of anything that flatters whatever preconceptions you have.

Read some Marion Nestle, chrissakes. Or Michael Pollan. "Eat food. But not too much. Mostly plants."

Posted by: anonymous at September 25, 2007 8:29 AM

I'm a bit pressed for time, as I noted, because I'm on deadline (double deadline this week, actually, and I'm behind). I don't know Weston Price's work, or Herta Spencer's, but I have read about this issue before. I grabbed a quick link which supported what I've read before from good sources. Feel free to improve on this by not just knocking Price but by explaining what's wrong with the Herta Spencer bit above. Anybody can name-call.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 25, 2007 8:36 AM

And it's always much easier and weenier to name-call as "anonymous."

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 25, 2007 8:36 AM

"I'm probably healthier than most of you."
-i'm curious as to how you ascertain this?

ditto to the post that recomends marion nestle and michael pollan, people who are primarily interested in accurate investigative journalism and logical conclusions, and who are very transparent about how they conducted their research. i'd have to read a bit more about Gary Taubes, but just from this excerpt, I'd seriously question anything he says. This was based on one study of 18 men, and 9 women? Who were inactive and then in 18 months were supposed to run a marathon? (I've run 40 miles a week for 8 years and I know I can't run a marathon, but these sedentary people were going to do it after a year and half?) Small sample size and no mention of methodology of the study? How did they measure food intake? That's very, very hard to do accurately. Gaping holes in that piece of evidence . . .

Posted by: michael_pollan_is_a_genius at September 25, 2007 1:17 PM

"I'm probably healthier than most of you."

A joke. But, I am healthy, and it's because I learned to eat from the French after years of eating the diet recommended by all the "authorities" -- low fat, etc, etc.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 25, 2007 3:18 PM

FYI, I've been up since 4am (it's now 3:24 pm) straight, writing, making my deadline (which I just did about 10 minutes ago), and I tossed up a thing I found that says what I've read before from good sources about calcium loss. You have yet to post anything of substance. You seem to just be in a (perhaps) perpetually sour mood. Don't just say people are discredited -- discredit what I've posted...the details about osteoparosis. You have yet to do that.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 25, 2007 3:27 PM

I've only got through the Prologue and the first two chapeters, but the Prologue was almost enough to convince me that we've been hoodwinked! (Biased by my own personal experience.)

What I found interesting was that I went to buy the book on Wednesday night, and knowing the release date was Sept 27, I figured the book would be prominently displayed as a "new release" at least. Instead, it was sitting on the shelves, under "T" in the Diet/Exercise section. And this is at Chapters!

Instead Brian Mulroney's new autobiography was the "big news". Ug! Do you suppose the heart health lobby is discouraging any hype? I'm probably just tired and imaginging conspiracy theories to get me through this long Friday afternoon.....

Posted by: moreta at September 28, 2007 12:56 PM

This is the most ludicrous "scientifically based" assertion I think I have ever read. Unfortunately, it seems to obviously be an extension of the trend toward blaming our DNA or biological makeup for all of our ails/foibles/problems that has occurred over the past 10 to 15 years. I guess Gary Taubes and anyone else propounding this jibberish feel that all marathoners, swimmers, non-steroid-abusing professional athletes, and the myriad of people who have motivated themselves to get up off the couch and work-out (coupled with improvements to their diets) who have experienced subsequent weight loss are not anecdotal evidence enough to prove that buring calories on a consistent basis results in losing weight. I'm simply flabbergasted by this. I think I'll just continue my workout regiment (one that has altered the appearance of my body, by the way), thank you.

Posted by: jonathan farber at October 13, 2007 10:46 AM

Jonathan, read the book and dispute the data if you find it to be a product of poor methodology or reasoning instead of talking about what it "seems to be."

As some wise person once said: "The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'evidence.'"

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 13, 2007 10:59 AM

Rest assured, I will, Amy. In fact I think the author, in his own words, confirms the thrust of my thinking so I intend to read it all:

"If it's biology, and not a lack of willpower, that explains why exercise fails so many of us as a weight-loss tool, then we can still find reason for optimism."

I guess we are blameless in our weight gain.

Posted by: jonathan farber at October 13, 2007 11:09 AM

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