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The Albert Ellis Of Dietary Science
Believe me, I don't compare anyone to Ellis lightly, but Gary Taubes has written a book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, that pops myth after myth about diet, dieting, obesity, and disease. His work should be groundbreaking for the American diet in the way Ellis' was for mental health. (Ellis, for the uninitiated, showed psychoanalysis to be most effective as a cure for the overstuffed wallet.)

As with Ellis, who was disparaged by the psychological establishment, Taubes' work will be fiercely fought by the medical and dietary establishment -- mainly because he so clearly lays out how miserably they've failed us.

This book is, above all else, a detective story. Gary Taubes is a meticulous researcher -- probably the best investigative science journalist out there -- who has spent seven years going over every piece of data about food and diet from the 1800s on, and he's debunked a lot of what's considered science as "science."

If you're one of those who never clicks when I make a book recommendation, this is the one book to buy. I don't care if you buy it through my link or at a bookstore, and just take it out from the library or read a friend's copy. Read this book. So many people are suffering with obesity and disease, and there's really no need.

A commenter on Jackie Danicki's blog item about a recent article by Taubes in The New York Times gets it:

Squander Two says

A brilliant article.

The particularly weird thing is that, when you’re diagnosed with diabetes, a consultant explains the mechanisms to you and tells you how your body’s going to be working from now on and what natural behaviour you’re going to have to emulate with injections — and what they’re telling you is exactly what’s in that article: insulin turns sugars and carbohydrates into fat for storage. But, when you’re talking to any other doctor in any other context, they insist that weight-gain is driven by the simple calories-in-minus-calories-out model and that Atkins was a quack.

Taubes' detractors are popping up right and left -- like a "New York nutritionist" chickie from an ABC news story. But, first, here's Taubes from that same piece:

Taubes said that after rereading years of scientific research, he has found proof that for the last half century, science has just gotten it wrong: It's not fat that is making Americans fat, he said, it is the base of the food pyramid, the complex carbohydrates, foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes. It's the starches we were told we needed that make us pudgy.

It's simple chemistry, said Taubes. Carbs spike insulin. Insulin creates sugar. And sugar packs on the pounds.

"The grains are carbohydrates," Taubes said. "They're refined carbohydrates. You take off the shell and all the protein and the vitamins, and you refine it down, and you end up with something that its primary effect on the body, immediate effect, is to raise insulin levels. And if you raise insulin levels, what that does is drive calories into your fat tissue. Raising insulin literally works to make you accumulate fat. This is one of these phenomena that for some reason the medical research establishment has chosen to consider irrelevant to why we get obese."

It's a theory that Taubes claims is simple -- and anthropological. It evolved from our days as hunter-gatherers, before we ate refined carbohydrates and sugars.

"And all we're saying [in the book] to do is, 'Don't eat these foods we didn't evolve to eat.' It's conceivable that switching to a diet absent these foods, making the transition has side effects that we have to deal with, that doctors have to deal with," he said. Click here to read an excerpt of Taubes' book.

And here's that "New York Nutritionist":

"Carbs are not killers," said New York nutritionist Carol Forman Helerstein. "Mother Nature would not have put carbs on the face of the earth if they were killers."

Carol, darling, that sort of thinking is called "the naturalistic fallacy," the silly notion that because something is natural it's good. Replace the word "carbs" in your sentence above with "poison mushrooms."

And onto your next bit of silliness, ABC quotes you saying this:

"If you go back to our ancestry and you look at the caveman, what did he eat? He ate carbs."

Where are you looking, on reruns of The Flintstones? I prefer to consult live-action anthropologists working in the field. For example, from this New York Times story by John Noble Wilford about the Neanderthal skull found in Croatia a few years back:

Were the Neanderthals skilled hunters who ate almost nothing but meat? Or were they mere scavengers, living on the leftovers of nature's predators and whatever plants they came across?

These questions of Neanderthal food-gathering behavior have long divided paleontologists. But an international team of scientists reported yesterday that new chemical tests of 28,000-year-old Neanderthal bones may have settled the issue. The tests revealed that these now-extinct members of the genus Homo lived almost exclusively on animal protein and so must have been accomplished hunters.

I've read elsewhere that their diet is thought to have been 90 percent meat. This isn't to say all hunter-gatherers ate mostly meat all the time. If meat was scarce, they would've eaten nuts and berries and other available foodstuffs. What they wouldn't have eaten is the stuff Taubes found to be the scourge of the American diet -- flour, sugar, and other agricultural products, although it's now thought to be possible that the origins of agriculture could be 23,000 years old (not 10,000, as previously thought).

And finally, according to DNA and fossil evidence, early modern humans seem to have eaten a diet that was high in fish, which probably allowed the development of the human brain. Unfortunately, Kathlyn M. Stewart's work on this, Early hominid utilisation of fish resources and implications for seasonality and behaviour.” Journal of Human Evolution 27 (1994): 229-245, isn't available without subscription, but here's an essay that cites hers, by Swarthmore's Kazuo Uyehara:

In conclusion, differences in early humans’ diet may have been an essential part in the rapid growth of Homo sapiens’ brain. A marine diet high in nutrients crucial for brain development such as DHA, AA, iodine, zinc, copper, iron, and selenium as well as high amounts of both fat and protein could have provided the necessary energy and materials for brain expansion and lead to the eventual expression of genes relating to fetal body fat and brain size. Once the exponential growth of brains became nutritionally possible, social communication and increased interaction with the environment may have further promoted brain development. However, population movement away from shores and the use of agriculture and animal domestication could be the cause of the decline of brain size and different diseases now common in our modern societies. Even though it is still uncertain how Homo sapiens’ environment affected their mental development, it is possible that Homo sapiens acquired higher intelligence, not due to environmental pressures or a genetic advantage over other primates, but because of their location near an appropriate and rich source of food.

Posted by aalkon at October 2, 2007 9:12 AM


Taubes is certainly lucky in his detractors. The cavemen ate carbs? Did they pick these carbs up at the local 7-11? Were there caveman flour refining plants that gave them soft white bread to eat? Gah.

Posted by: marion at October 2, 2007 5:22 AM

Amy, I've been plowing through this book every chance I get since I received it last week. It's fact-packed without being bone dry, and really does read like a (very smart) detective story. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

I can only speak from my own experience but Taubes is spot-on. I spent years being miserable on low-fat, high-carb, semi-starvation diets and not only not losing, but sometimes even *gaining* weight even when I followed the program to the letter. When I dropped the "white foods" (sugar, potatoes, processed carbs) my baby weight came off almost effortlessly and I *felt* so much better. Over the last couple of years, my carb consumption has crept back up (even though I haven't gained weight) but reading this book has inspired me to get back to lower-carb eating, and in the past couple of days I've noticed my energy is back up, my hunger way down. As I mentioned in the comments on your earlier post, my grandparents and parents had this one right. And I'm pretty certain it's the years of low-fat, high carb eating (on the recommendation of doctors, no less) that's caused my MIL's Type II diabetes (she's not overweight).

Posted by: deja pseu at October 2, 2007 5:56 AM

I'm so happy I have such smart commenters!

And I'm with you, deja. When Cathy Seipp was sick, and when I was writing day and night this summer, I barely exercised, but didn't gain weight. I think exercise is important -- my butt looks much better if I ride my bike, and I don't advocate inactivity -- but I'm thrilled that Taubes debunks the sort of exercise mania people engage in as a way to weight loss.

Really, if you eat like I do -- mainly meat, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, and non-starchy vegetables swimming in butter and olive oil, you'll most likely drop pounds or stay slim. I do indulge in ice cream -- daily. Then again, I eat Haagen-Dazs, the full-fat kind, so it takes me about a week to go through a pint.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 2, 2007 6:02 AM

P.S. I also eat a tiny bit of bread, slathered in butter, so I'm not hungry 20 minutes later. My rule -- if I do eat carbs, they have to be fatty carbs, or combined with fat. Seems to work.

Also, I can't remember if it's in Taubes' book or in an article he published recently, but he points out that the French eat much less sugar than we do. Consider the size of a French pastry to one served in American. The French one will fit in the palm of your hand with plenty of room to spare. And it won't be sickeningly sweet, either.

A tip for dessert fans: Eat fine dessert foods. Forget Hershey bars. Buy little Belgian chocolates. They're so rich and incredible you can have one after lunch -- and you'll suddenly realize what, in all the years you've been eating those waxy Hershey bars, what you've been missing.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 2, 2007 6:06 AM

"In conclusion, differences in early humans’ diet may have been an essential part in the rapid growth of Homo sapiens’ brain. A marine diet high in nutrients crucial for brain development such as DHA, AA, iodine, zinc, copper, iron, and selenium as well as high amounts of both fat and protein could have provided the necessary energy and materials for brain expansion and lead to the eventual expression of genes relating to fetal body fat and brain size."

This is Lysenkoism with the thinnest veneer of actual biology. "Could have provided" => "lead to the eventual expression"? Esta barfir!

Amy, I hope not to see you endorsing such scienti-twaddle in future. I love your work. Hell, I even clicked through and bought the damn' book.


Posted by: phunctor at October 2, 2007 7:27 AM

The book is great -- the link was the best I could do.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 2, 2007 7:36 AM

Marion - I recently picked a head of wheat from a field I was walking past, rubbed and blew to remove the chaff, and popped it in my mouth. I was amazed at the reaction my mouth had. Suddenly these big flat teeth at the back came into their own - grinding away like crazy. Saliva poured. The taste was great. It was an "I was made for this" moment. Try it!

Modern wheat is much bigger than grass was 10k years ago, but I can guess where the caveman got their carbs.

Posted by: Norman at October 2, 2007 8:10 AM

Ooh -- my local library has the book! (My spare change this month has gone to the Tomato Nation Donors Choose Challenge, so buying is the less attractive option right now.)

I'm not as curious about the starches-v-fats debate -- my mother has always complained that I'm too fond of bread for my own good -- as a blurb I saw hinting at what fruits Taubes does and doesn't approve of. Briefly, if bananas aren't good for me, I don't know what I'll do.

I did think of you this morning when choosing breakfast, Amy. (I know, you're thrilled.) Bacon, yes; sugar-iced cinnamon-raisin biscuit, no. (Cheese grits, yes.)

Posted by: Jessica at October 2, 2007 9:43 AM

As about a blurb. Please excuse the grammar mistakes above. It sucks my brain, the interweb, it does.

Posted by: Jessica at October 2, 2007 9:44 AM

I actually am thrilled whenever people think of me -- except if they're cops with radar guns (not that I typically speed!).

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 2, 2007 9:59 AM

I suffer from a thyroid disease for which I must take medication for the rest of my life. One of the really swell aspects of my disorder is the havoc that it plays with my metabolism. Ergo, I can gain weight without even trying. When I spoke to my endocrinologist about what I could do to prevent/reverse weight gain, his advice was simple: no bread, no rice (except the wild variety), no potatoes, no processed corn, no pasta and no sugar. By screwing with insulin levels, these foods also screw with your metabolism.

I find it funny that in 2007, my doctor would suggest the same formula for weight management that my parents used back in the 1960's when they wanted to lose a few pounds. Yet it works.

As for the New York nutritionist, she's either a complete incompetent or is willfully missing Taubes' point in her quest to offer a soundbite. Yes, early mankind ate carbs - they ate berries, greens, beans, peas, wild rice, sweet potatoes and fruits off the tree. Eventually they even began to cultivate vines and grains. But to equate their consumption of unprocessed carbs with those found in today's bags of Tostitos, packages of Nutter Butter cookies, or orders of french fries borders on the idiotic.

Posted by: Ms. Gandhi at October 2, 2007 10:51 AM

Sure, but have you ever had an Olive Loaf from La Brea Bakery here in LA? Sure, it's seven dollars, and six of them are for all the salt they put in it, but Good Lord that's fun to eat.

Posted by: Crid at October 2, 2007 1:17 PM

I hope this book gets lots of attention. This is how I (mostly) eat - real ingredients (butter, no margarine), cheese, fresh vegetables, meat, fish, some fruit (but never fruit juice unless it's in a cocktail) and as little of the refined carbs as possible. This type of diet really does a lot to avoid the energy highs and lows associated with a more glycemic diet.

Posted by: justin case at October 2, 2007 1:46 PM

I don't even need to read this book to know that it is correct...I learned myself about 4 months ago when I simply couldn't lose the extra 20 I was carrying, no matter how hard I worked out.

I came across this website, The Weston Price Foundation, and it all became clear to me. Low-carb/high fat and protein....Atkins was basically right.

Posted by: Dave at October 2, 2007 6:04 PM

As I continued to read Taubes' book this morning, it reminded me of that scene from "Sleeper," where Woody Allen's character travels to the future and is informed that scientists have determined that steaks and chocolate are good for you.

Posted by: deja pseu at October 3, 2007 4:39 PM

Heh heh...amazing, huh?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 3, 2007 4:49 PM

I don't understand the hysteria about food. People have been eating, quite successfully, for centuries. If you eat lean proteins, fruits and vegetables you will be healthy. The human body is designed to consume proteins fats and carbohydrates. It isn't designed to eat the huge quantities of processed, fatty foods that we eat in our Western diets. A high protein, low carbohydrate diet is very hard on the liver and kidneys. The key to any successful eating plan is variety and moderation. It's not rocket science.

Posted by: Cat at October 8, 2007 7:27 AM

" A high protein, low carbohydrate diet is very hard on the liver and kidneys."

Uh, where's the proof of that? I realize you may have heard this, but that's not the same as good scientific evidence.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 8, 2007 7:43 AM

And as far as "variety and moderation" as a dietary guideline goes, you'll eat more moderately if you don't eat sugar and flour, and do eat meat and vegetables...slathered in butter and oil.

For example, I used to be a big eater -- when I ate a low-calorie diet, and I was constantly hungry. Now, I'm never very hungry, and eat like a bird. Why? Because the food I eat contains fat and protein and it fills me up and keeps me energized.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 8, 2007 7:46 AM

I don't have time to go read studies on this - on deadline, but here's a urologist who says high protein diets aren't a problem, except for people who have liver or kidney disease:

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 8, 2007 7:48 AM

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