About the SA Blog Network



Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

Thin Body of Evidence: Why I Have Doubts about Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

When someone divides a complex phenomenon into two basic categories, he invariably oversimplifies and distorts reality. Anyway, there are two basic styles of science journalism, celebratory and critical. Celebratory journalists help us appreciate the cool things scientists discover, whereas critical journalists challenge scientists’ claims.

Gary Taubes practices critical science journalism, although calling Gary "critical" is like calling Donald Trump "self-confident." No journalist whacks scientists with more gusto than Gary, whom I’ve known for 15 years. Gary, who earned his degree in physics and was briefly—and tellingly—an amateur boxer, began his career thumping physicists. His first book, Nobel Dreams (Random House, 1987), asserted that ruthless ambition more than the desire for truth compelled Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia to seek the particles that mediate the weak nuclear force. (Scientists can be swell-headed! Who knew?) In his next book, Bad Science (Random House, 1993), Gary lambasted the jokers behind the "cold fusion" fiasco of the late 1980s.

Gary’s career really took off when he switched his focus from physics to a topic that the masses actually care about: diet. In a lengthy article published in 1998 in Science (for which he has long been a correspondent) Gary raised doubts about the claim that low-salt diets are healthy. In a 2002 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Gary questioned the truism that people are getting fatter because they eat too much—especially fatty foods—and exercise too little. Carbohydrates, Gary contended, have fueled the epidemic of obesity in the U.S.; cut the carbs and you can eat all the fat and protein you like, just as the controversial diet doctor Robert Atkins has insisted for decades. Gary expanded on the Times article in a dense, 500-plus-page book, Good Calories, Bad Calories (Knopf, 2007), and a newer, much shorter, easier-to-digest sequel, Why We Get Fat (Knopf, 2010).

I have great respect for Gary. He’s a science journalist’s science journalist, who researches topics to the point of obsession—actually, well beyond that point—and never dumbs things down for readers. I read both of Gary’s fat books, invited him to speak about diet at my school two years ago, and discussed the subject with him on last month. Gary marshals mountains of data in support of his thesis, but I still have misgivings about it. My reaction is partly visceral; the Atkins diet—which prescribes little fruit and vegetables and lots of meat—strikes me as, well, gross. Here is Gary’s personal diet, as described on his blog:

"I do indeed eat three eggs with cheese, bacon and sausage for breakfast every morning, typically a couple of cheeseburgers (no bun) or a roast chicken for lunch, and more often than not, a rib eye or New York steak (grass fed) for dinner, usually in the neighborhood of a pound of meat. I cook with butter and, occasionally, olive oil (the sausages). My snacks run to cheese and almonds. So lots of fat and saturated fat and very little carbohydrates." Even disregarding the economic, environmental and ethical issues raised by consuming all this meat, the burden of proof for a diet like Gary’s should be quite high.

Gary suggested as much in a 2007 article for The New York Times Magazine, "Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?," which I often assign to students in my science-writing seminar. The article examined the "here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of medical wisdom," such as the claim—touted in the 1990s and retracted a decade ago—that estrogen could improve the health of aging women. Gary noted that even the best-designed epidemiological studies are confounded by factors such as "healthy-user bias," the tendency of people who faithfully adhere to a treatment to be healthier than those who are less compliant—even if the treatment is a placebo. He warned that if a study implies that "some drug or diet will bring us improved prosperity and health," we should "wonder about the unforeseen consequences."

Gary, it seems to me, applies this critical outlook more to high-carb, low-fat diets than to the Atkins diet, which he celebrates for helping him and many others lose weight "almost effortlessly." If the Atkins diet works so well, why hasn’t it swept aside its competitors, especially low-calorie, low-fat diets recommended by Weight Watchers and other popular groups? One problem, Gary says, is that many people become addicted to carbs, and their craving makes them fall off the Atkins wagon. Switching from a high-carb, low-fat diet to the Atkins system, Gary also acknowledges in Why We Get Fat, can trigger "weakness, fatigue, nausea, dehydration, diarrhea, constipation," among other side effects. Gary assures readers that they’ll reap the benefits if they just stick to Atkins, but he slams advocates of less-fat, more-exercise diets for giving people this same just-stick-to-it advice.

Gary is a big guy, 1.9 meters (six feet, three inches) tall, who weighs over 90 kilograms (200 pounds) and years ago struggled with his weight. Exercise didn’t help him slim down, he said, but the Atkins diet did. Because Gary cites his personal experience as evidence, I can cite mine as counterevidence. I’m 1.85 meters (six feet, one inch) tall. I eat lots of carbs, including pasta, bread, rice, potatoes, cookies, cake, pie and three teaspoons of sugar in coffee at least twice a day. I weigh 77 kilograms (170 pounds). I’m just one of those lucky folks, Gary says, whose genes let them chow down carbs without getting fat.

Here is another more significant exception: Many Asian people consume lots of carbs, especially rice, without getting fat. Well, Gary says, that’s because these Asians don’t ingest as much highly processed sugar—contained in soft drinks, for example—as Americans do. But then why not just cut out these sugary foods instead of almost all carbs? Gary seems to recommend this course in a New York Times Magazine cover story published in April, "Is Sugar Toxic?".

But now we’re moving away from the dramatic, celebratory claim that the Atkins diet solves obesity to a more complex perspective: For many people high-carb diets are fine, and the low-carb Atkins diet isn’t; different diets work for different people. Reviewing Why We Get Fat in The New York Times, Abigail Zuger, a physician, notes that "in virtually all head-to-head comparisons of various diet plans, the average long-term results have invariably been quite similar—mediocre all around." Given the "remarkable diversity of the human organism," she adds, "it is foolish to expect a single diet to serve all comers." Zuger’s take seems reasonable to me.

Toward the end of our Bloggingheads interview, I asked Gary about his family’s diet. He answered cagily, but he implied that his wife has resisted putting their two kids on Atkins. I think that’s sensible, and Gary, when in his critical rather than celebratory mode, probably does, too. Although he insists that the evidence for his diet claims is overwhelming, he acknowledges in an author’s note to Why We Get Fat that the claims still need to be "rigorously tested."

So, when Gary divides diets into two basic categories—the Atkins diet, which is good, and all other diets, which are bad—he’s oversimplifying and distorting reality. But read his new book with a critical eye, check out my Bloggingheads interview with him and make up your own mind.

Credit: Alfred A. Knopf

Tags: ,

Rights & Permissions

Comments 40 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Rockinghorse 5:25 pm 05/16/2011

    One simple correction. Problem is not sugar but fructose. Good sugars such as lactose and dextrose are not bad at all. It is just fructose and ethanol that causes serious metabolic problems, because liver cannot transform these poisons to fat fast enough. And processing these poisons interfers with other liver’s necassary functions that are related to glucose metabolism.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ravenrose 7:58 pm 05/16/2011

    When people say "sugar" generally they mean sucrose, which is about half fructose. The problem with what you said is that most people are unaware that regular sugar has almost the same fructose content as high fructose corn syrup. They think if they avoid HFCS they are doing fine.

    Link to this
  3. 3. ravenrose 8:07 pm 05/16/2011

    In all fairness, Gary Taubes has a much more "meat intensive" diet than most who follow Dr. Atkins. Nearly everyone who low carbs agrees that they eat far more vegetables than they ever did before. When one describes ones way of eating as lots of vegetables and protein, cutting out grains and starchy things like sugar and potatoes, people say,"good for you, that sounds very healthy!" When you tell them it’s Atkins, they recoil in horror for your health.

    Of course there is disagreement on saturated fat, but it’s interesting that in the low carb community I am part of, people whose cholesterol numbers improve radically while eating lots of saturated fat are common, while the VERY occasional one who doesn’t see improvement is subject to detailed questioning, because it often turns out they are not following the plan right.

    It really is hard to get people like Mr. Horgan to understand how different reality is for people who are predisposed to become obese. In my experience, people who need to lose 20 lb. can do it almost any way they choose too, but for the really fat, Atkins truly is like a miracle.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rushil2u 9:44 pm 05/16/2011

    Fructose and glucose are readily interchangeable thanks to enzymes in our cytoplasm. And ethanol is rapidly and efficiently oxidised to pyruvate that enters Kreb’s Cycle. When you refer to them as ‘poisons’, what exactly do you mean?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Soccerdad 10:03 pm 05/16/2011

    The science of diet should be referred to as the dismal science rather than economics. It seems most of what once was doctrine is now discredited, and we should treat all claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.

    The author says that "the burden of proof for a diet like Gary’s should be quite high". Agreed. But that should apply to all dietary recommendations and government meddling in consumer choice. What’s best likely varies by individual.

    Personally, I’m fairly lucky and can eat as much as I want of anything I want. But I’m not going to criticize the Atkins diet because it just seems wrong. If it works for some, that’s great.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Steve Keefe 1:00 am 05/17/2011

    It seems that every time I read a criticism of Gary Taubes’s writing on nutrition it strengthens my confidence in Taubes’s ideas. His books are filled with detailed analysis of nutritionist claims – what they were, on what research they were based, what the research actually found, what other interpretations are possible and may even be more likely, and what other studies have found – in other words, science criticism.

    Like this one, all the critical attacks I have read are directed at him personally, (here we learn he is a big guy, was really tough on the physicists in an earlier book (he should back off the advocates of cold fusion!?), much discussion of what he eats for breakfast and what he feeds his kids.

    Excuse me! What about the science? ‘Oh, he’s a little too much of this or he oversimplifies that.’

    Taubes argues the science tightly and in detail, his critics, not at all.

    The critics all oversimplify his argument. He never says it’s either Atkins or low-fat. Instead he calls for research to pursue these issues instead of focusing only on the exercise, low fat, low calorie diets that he and others have very effectively discredited.

    Personally, I think he has gone a little overboard in his personal diet. Just because something is toxic in mega-doses doesn’t mean it is toxic in much lower doses. But he doesn’t argue for that in his books. He stays on what the studies have found and what we can reasonably conclude from it.

    His views have evolved since "Good Calories Bad Calories" and he now focuses on fructose more because of its metabolism in the liver (and of course, sucrose is half fructose). But that is far from a weakness. That’s science. As Scott Adams says, "Continuing to believe the same thing, even in the face of new evidence to the contrary, is the definition of insanity (except in politics where it’s called leadership.)"

    He also focuses withering criticism, appropriately I think, on a phenomenon that infects nutritionists but not only them. There is all sorts of evidence that various foods cause various harms, but we have to eat something. So nutritionists think they have to recommend something even if they have no real data to support it. And of course, once Jane Brody has pitched exercise, low fat and high fiber for years, she has a powerful incentive to resist anyone pointing out the emperor’s lack of clothes even when her own cholesterol levels soar in spite of redoubling her low fat and exercise strategy. (What is she going to say, “never mind” ala Emily Litella?)

    What is more troubling is that the same phenomenon is widespread in medicine. Are leaches any worse than the variety of (expensive) drugs to treat heart disease, cholesterol, and high blood pressure that accomplish small reductions in symptoms but have no discernible effect on survival? (Reading Taubes is very helpful in thinking about this though he never mentions it.)

    Fortunately Taubes presents a detailed and tightly argued case that risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and even possibly many cancers are grossly aggravated by consumption of large amounts of refined carbohydrates, especially fructose.

    We could use a few more Gary Taubes.

    Link to this
  7. 7. amanzed 1:53 am 05/17/2011

    Turns out, most people on the Atkin’s Diet don’t actually comply with the Atkin’s Diet. They cheat. And in cheating they eat a modest amount of carbohydrate. In our culture where calories are overabundant, this turns out to be an easier route to weight loss and other diet-attributable health benefits.

    By contrast, people on Zone Diet each MUCH more carbohydrate than they believe, to their detriment.

    Link to this
  8. 8. amanzed 1:54 am 05/17/2011

    The "Bismol" science.

    Link to this
  9. 9. WhoIsMW 11:32 am 05/17/2011

    What the scientific community continues to ignore and I believe Taubes really stresses is insulin’s role in weight loss and disease. A high protein/fat diet like Taubes advocates controls insulin production the best.

    Link to this
  10. 10. RobLL 12:30 pm 05/17/2011

    The longer term Atkins diet assumes that one’s carb consumption will go up some. It further assumes one will eat a fairly large amount of low carb veggies. If one has a seriously impaired glucose metabolism (as in diabetic), then not only low carb, but also lower protein is useful. Lower protein because body converts excess protein to carbs (it may be more complicated than that, but in any event that is what one’s blood glucose meter and injected insulin needs show)

    Link to this
  11. 11. jstaf 2:49 pm 05/17/2011

    It is very funny to see people arguing over food types as the answer to obesity. It is even funnier to hear people call Fructose a man made poison when it is one of the three important monosaccharides that humans process and is in fruit and vegetables.

    To maintain my health and weight I have adopted the radical concept of making sure I burn more calories than I eat, amazingly this radical method of weight control requires no prescribed diets.

    While this makes it hard to write books and sell over priced foods based on the diet du jour, and as a $60 billion dollar industry there is no shortage of people to provide advice.

    Count me as one more person with the answer, get a Body Media device and use it until you balance your eating and exercise.

    Or can sit around and get fat reading 500 page books on eating meat.

    Link to this
  12. 12. dina11 3:42 pm 05/17/2011

    recently more and more data suggest that too much protein might not be so healthy, e.g.
    So if too much protein is no good, we need to eat much more vegetables…

    Link to this
  13. 13. SharkJones 7:51 pm 05/17/2011

    I am a mid-40′s woman who has participated in heavy weight training and have had a short military background (I’m no wimpy complainer and I have discipline, as a result).

    I was always able to control my weight before my mid-30′s by simply eating a bit less and exercising a bit more. Over the years, my metabolism slowed down (I know for sure because I tried medications to speed it up). I dropped those medications. I started logging my calories for months and retrieved a log of my gym attendance. I hadn’t lost a pound between February 2010 and July 2010 even though I was eating fewer calories than my supposed BMR calculation.

    So. I decided to understand the science and apply it religiously. I know now that I was correct. My insulin response is sensitive to carbs, so I had to change my macro-nutrient balance. I went on an Atkins style diet, eating 30g or fewer carbs per day. I have done this from December 2010 to the present.

    My workout endurance has skyrocketed. I am strong and vital and alert. The fact that I’m always in ketosis (NOT the bad ketoacidosis) means I am always burning fat. I haven’t been this weight since high school and better yet, I have a great muscular and defined body.

    But the true measure of success is that for the first time in my life, I don’t worry about hunger. I have total control over my consumption of food because I am no longer carb-addicted. So maybe I am eating fewer calories, but I am no longer suffering from constant hunger, either. The reason is because I have been eating super low carb and high fat.

    I don’t care who thinks it is gross (what an un-scientific statement by the author). I am strong, healthy, and invincible. My parents, however, who followed a low-fat diet for decades, suffer from pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome. My father is thin and has hated sweets all his life. So I inherited my carb-sensitivity from them and I know that Taubes is on to something. My own parents ate the way conventional wisdom taught, and now they have high cholesterol and one foot away from being diabetic.

    Super low carb. I’m sticking with it. The rest of you can ignore the obvious and suffer, I suppose. It IS what you eat, not how much, in my not so humble opinion. I’ve never been less hungry in my entire life.

    You know what’s gross? All those boxes and boxes of processed flour and corn on the box masquerading as food and the industry telling us that there are "good grains", etc. That’s nonsense. Some of us just don’t have the genetics to eat that mess and stay healthy.

    Link to this
  14. 14. mwbrady68 10:34 pm 05/17/2011

    I ignored Atkins for 12 years. Then my weight kept inching upward no matter what I did. I read Taubes’ book first then I read Atkins.

    Atkins turned out to be very different from what I thought it was before reading the book. In reality it is a much more reasonable way to eat than most people think.

    I think Atkins seems radical at first because for decades we’ve thought that weight loss requires eating tasteless rabbit food and hours of strenuous exercise. Then a diet comes along that includes meat, eggs, and butter. It seems like quackery at first and that’s what most people focus on and ignore the diet’s list of healthy veggies.

    Link to this
  15. 15. HBanaharis 10:58 pm 05/17/2011

    "I eat lots of carbs, including pasta, bread, rice, potatoes, cookies, cake, pie and three teaspoons of sugar in coffee at least twice a day. I weigh 77 kilograms (170 pounds). I’m just one of those lucky folks, Gary says, whose genes let them chow down carbs without getting fat."

    The take home message:

    - One diet does not suit all

    However the very important and understated corollary is that the individuals who struggle with achieving or maintaing a lower body weight represent a particular metabolic type for whom the low carb/high protein diet may be ideally suited. This is because it addresses the main driver of overeating – appetite control. Simply put, a low carb/high protein diet generally re-calibrates hypothalamic satiety signaling and enables weight loss and weight maintenance without the need for calorie counting or portion restriction.

    John, I too know slim individuals who add 2-3 teaspoons of sugar to their coffee and can eat pasta and indulge in dessert whenever they like. But what is immediately apparent about them is that they almost never finish their portions – not because they intentionally avoid doing so but because they experience a significant and lasting fullness much earlier than someone like me who can polish a tub of ice-cream before realizing it.

    In effect, it appears that in slim individuals who have no issue with carbs – particularly processed ones – their hypothalamic carbohydrate sensitivity remains high whilst in carbohydrate challenged individuals like myself carbohydrate sensitivity is low.

    Therefore, for the "carbohydrate sensitive" individuals like me, and many others, John Taubes’ well-researched conclusions are very valid.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Raghuvanshi1 11:28 pm 05/17/2011

    Gene also contribute some part fatness.Why some people are thin and some fad it mostly depend on gene.I don’t deny couch potato lifestyle is also responsible for fatness but we can change out lifestyle, but to change the gene is difficult.This type of people don’t want change their lifestyle.or unable to change it

    Link to this
  17. 17. GrantP 1:39 am 05/18/2011

    Horgan has no argument. He uses up a lot of space establishing that he’s somewhat familiar with Taube’s work, history, boxing, and physical dimensions, but to what end? He says he’s his friend, to further his credentials as a critic, but friend or not (and I’d guess he has met Gary, may know him, but is not a pal), his relationship isn’t material. On the contrary, claiming to be his friend is a cheap trick to establish credibility in the absence of a good argument. And he has no good argument.
    Yes, Atkins is controversial. Because it is counterintuitive, and yet it works. It’s tough for many to hang with, but what diet isn’t? In the Standford study–the most rigorous diet study to date–Atkins kicked butt.
    Taubes explains why: Carbohydrates increase glucose,which triggers an insulin release, and insulin is the troublemaker. If you don’t have the patience for Good Calories, Bad Calories, read Why We Get Fat. It’s all in there, including the Asian paradox, well-explained.
    The notion that “we’re all different” is true in some ways, but if it were true in matters of biology and chemistry, we wouldn’t really have science-based medicing, would we?
    Some of us can eat more carbs than others, and stay slim. Taubes explains why. Others gain weight fast on 1500 low-fat calories—Taubes explains why. My own HDL went from 48 to 74 when my diet went from 20 percent fat to 85 percent fat. My triglycerides went from 80 to 40. Those are improvements. Taubes explains why. Why We Get Fat is a quick, easy read. Taubes has tackled a topic dear to most of us, simplified it so even a dummy can understand, and Horgan seems to not get it.

    Link to this
  18. 18. bucketofsquid 5:44 pm 05/18/2011

    The problem with Taubes and the Atkins diet is that it targets a specific set of ethnicites. People with different ancestry need different diets. People at different ages need different diets. Promoting a 1 size fits all diet of any kind is a bad idea.

    The simple fact is that if you check longetivity stats you find that those that eat more veggies live longer. Those that get more regular exercise live longer. Those that eat processed foods that strip out vital nutrients and fiber have shorter lives. Those that have sedentary jobs like myself have shorter lives. Those that consume hydrogenated oils and modified starches have shorter lives.

    I cut out almost all carbs and it had little impact on my weight or cholesterol levels after several months. I went back to my previous high carb diet and cut way back on red meats and quit pork altogether. My weight and cholesterol remained virtually unchanged. I kicked my exercise levels way up and still no change.

    Then I started to eat more fruits and vegetables and only moderate carbs and meat. This had a small inpact in improving my cholesterol but none on my weight. Then I switched to interval training where you do intense activity in short bursts. This also had a small impact on my cholesterol. Then I added a niacin burst release medication and this had a dramatic impact on my cholesterol levels. Nothing has changed my weight and I remain 20 pounds over weight as I have for the last 6 years. Eating less has proven to make me hungrier and less energetic but done little else and certainly didn’t drop my weight.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Verimius 7:02 pm 05/18/2011


    It’s ironic that you criticize overpriced foods while advocating the use of a $150 BodyMedia armband.

    Link to this
  20. 20. thelibraryteacher 8:50 pm 05/18/2011

    I read Good Calories, Bad Calories in 2008 and it changed my life. Since eating way lesser carbs and more protein, I have lost 62 pounds and kept it off for 3 years. I think it is unfair for you to believe just because you eat pasta, bread, cookies, etc. and stay slim does not mean every one can eat that way and stay slim. All humans are different. One diet does not fit all. And you probably do not eat as much of the stuff as you think you do.

    I know Gary Taubes is right. As an African-American female, I see obesity plaguing my community, especially with black females. It is not because they are lazy and like being fat. It is because of the poor quality foods that are being consumed and they are cheap. Most cheap food is carb heavy. And no one seems to answer this question: why is it that so many poor people in America obese compared to rich, affluent people? Poorer people are eating nutrient lacking food that is carb heavy such as cookies, chips, bread, soda, etc. These foods are causing the obesity epidemic. Not fat and not the lack of exercise.

    I know people say you must exercise, but that is a bunch of crock, too. I laugh at Michelle Obama with her "Let’s Move" campaign. I am a school teacher and in the state where I live, it is state law that we give children 30 minutes of recess every day and 40 minutes of physical education once of week. That has been law for the past 10 years. And, the school food must be cooked according to USDA guidelines or the school cannot get any money back from the federal government. Therefore all school food must be low-fat. And guess what? We still got a lot of fat kids at my school.

    I say all of this to say that before you question Gary Tauubes, you really need to do your research. I know you are a smart guy and all, but you are not that smart. This diet and obesity thing is more complex than you think it is.

    Link to this
  21. 21. ironjustice 9:36 am 05/19/2011

    We are all human. People should wonder WHY one cannot consume carbohydrates . Age-related iron accumulation explains this.
    "Iron accumulation may play a role in the pathogenesis of Parkinson’s disease (PD) as inflammation and iron levels increase with age and appear in the disease pathology."

    "Cross-Talk Between Iron Metabolism and Diabetes: Interacting Pathways Linking Glucose and Iron Metabolism"

    Link to this
  22. 22. GrannyMumantoog 12:40 pm 05/20/2011

    Love the title…Thin Body of Evidence…!! Would human evolution be a thick enough body of evidence for you? You might consider doing better research before you criticize someone who, as per your own article, zealously researches "to the point of obsession".

    Point 1, "lowcarb" in some form or other has been around for hundreds of years. (10s of thousands of yrs if you want to look at early human evolution.) In 1863 William Banting wrote what is considered to be the first "lowcarb" book, Letter On Corpulence. I remember back in the late 50s early 60s listening to family members & their friends talk about someone needing to lose weight and they would invariably mention giving up potatoes & bread & not eating deserts. No one called it "lowcarb" and they didn’t think it was an odd suggestion either.

    Point 2, Since you obviously haven’t read any of the Atkins books, you choose to regurgitate the popular misconceptions instead! The truth is that even the early stages of Atkins calls for 6 cups of non-starchy vegetables. Most of us never ate this many vegetables before and most people I know who eat the SAD way (standard American diet) don’t eat 6 cups of vegetables a day. I was a vegetarian for 15 yrs before changing to a lowcarb lifestyle after a lot of research & didn’t eat that much. This goes along with the myth that lowcarb means all you eat is meat. It really means giving up highly processed foods and eating meat, vegetables, berries, nuts, seeds, eggs and dairy (although the purely paleo people don’t do dairy) Anyway, it’s a much healthier diet than I ever ate even as a vegetarian, which actually involved a lot of processed grain foods and too much fruit.

    Point 3, you mention the "ethics" of eating meat. Whenever I see that kind of wording I have to laugh. If early hominids had sat around debating the ethics of what they ate instead of doing what came naturally, we wouldn’t be here reading these ridiculous, poorly researched articles.

    Point 4, as others have mentioned, I too had tremendous improvements in my blood profile and have never been healthier in my life. Enumerable research studies were done to try and prove the veracity of the low-fat lie that was turned into the government gospel 30+ years ago & to debunk lowcarb. The studies have all failed but the general public doesn’t hear much about that, YET. Giant food conglomerates have a lot to lose if the public finally gets wise to the fact that we have been lied to for many years and it is, in fact, the low-fat, high-carb SAD that is making so many people sick.

    Link to this
  23. 23. nicklo 12:43 am 05/21/2011

    Like others, I don’t see very much "meat" (ahem, sorry) in this article. The title does make it clear it’s an opinion piece but I was really hoping for a bit more than what is largely anecdotal personal commentary, e.g., "he implied that his wife has resisted putting their two kids on Atkins". In particular I couldn’t help jumping on the following:

    "Many Asian people consume lots of carbs, especially rice, without getting fat. Well, Gary says, that’s because these Asians don’t ingest as much highly processed sugar–contained in soft drinks, for example–as Americans do."

    It’s surprising just how much generalisation there is in this "significant exception". "Many Asian people" is an absolutely enormous diversity of geographical location, food culture, income and more. One trip to "Asia" will show that "Asian people" do also get fat and are suffering many of the same health concerns.

    I also don’t really understand where the idea that "Asians don’t ingest as much highly processed sugar" comes from. On a recent trip to Malaysia we struggled to limit the constant offering of canned sugary drinks to our kids.

    To get a little anecdotal myself for a moment: One area where I think there still lies a difference is the strong culture of having proper shared meals. Not only are people expected to eat together, but the food is shared from the middle of the table rather than served in individual portions, which may or may not be an appropriate measure of an individual’s needs. Consider the difference between serving a child a predetermined portion of food on a plate which they are expected to finish and letting them choose according to their satiety and (to a guided degree) their preference.

    As a final note I should mention that I can also attest to the effectiveness of a reduced (i.e., not Atkins) carbohydrate diet not only in weight reduction but also in increased energy levels.

    Link to this
  24. 24. JDales 7:01 am 05/21/2011

    So, that’s it? That’s the best you can do as an argument against Gary Taubes’ ideas, even though you read his books and interviewed him? It amazes me that you can get paid for writing something so short on real criticism and basically devoid of any research. Where are your references to the data that allow you to argue that there is no difference between the effectiveness of different diets? And Taubes doesn’t base his arguments on his personal experience, even though it is compelling. He bases it on the five years he spent studying 150 years of scientific research on the subject of diet. I guess if I want real reviews of books like Taubes’ I will have to turn to the blogosphere. Darya Pino and Beth Mazur do a much better job, and do it for free.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Lunacentaur 5:57 pm 05/21/2011

    Gary’s scientific evidence is significant. Human psychology is very much at play- paradigms so easily suck us in and instead of evaluating the data, we look to “kill the messenger”. Why not just focus on the data? Perhaps it reflects too much of a truth we don’t want to acknowledge?

    What makes the dietary answer so difficult to define is the multifactorial influences:
    1) The complexity of our metabolic pathways and numerous constituents involved.
    2) For many in our population, it takes 30-50 years for the damage to become apparent.
    3) The ultimate “disease” varies depending upon the individual, their family history & their environment (all those epigenetic factors not yet assessed). It makes for a very challenging puzzle. However, our children are exhibiting the downstream consequences younger & younger.

    Reductionistic science has revealed the complexity of our metabolic pathways. But, our biochemistry is so complex that utilizing simple reductionistic methods is extremely limiting in defining the complete picture.

    That only “some” are successful on the variety of low carb diets may be related due to:
    1) Quality of the substrate which must include essential EPA & DHA & fat soluble vitamins.
    2) The amount of grains/legumes in the total diet.
    3) Fat to carb ratio is critical – carbs increase insulin regardless of the glycemic index, which mediates fat deposition. The exact ratio(in kcals) appears to vary, individually, but 25% down to 5%. Carbs are addictive based on the blood glucose
    “rollercoaster”. Grains & legumes may have a true addictive capability based on alkaloid substances in their biochemistry.

    Carbohydrates are lumped together, regardless of source. Celiac research is forwarding some very revealing data regarding the toxicity of grains and legumes. It’s more than just gluten- with a variety of substances-glyadins, phytic acid & lectins- which all have numerous negative metabolic implications. These issues haven’t been factored.

    We continue to look to technology to improve our health but how about simply recognizing our biology? We are basically obligate carnivores, as evidenced by the preponderance of the essential nutrients that are only found in abundance from animal sources. Dr. Weston Price found NO indigenous peoples that lived only on a plant sourced diet but he did find those live only on a animal sourced diet & they were completely healthy. Diseases of modern civilization were unknown.
    Gary’s taken a very gutsy stance… this is a messenger we should heed. Vive Vida!

    Link to this
  26. 26. shadmo 3:37 am 05/31/2011

    I read "Why We Get Fat (and what to do about it)" in December 2010 and it completely changed my life, for the better.

    I have rheumatoid arthritis and am utterly unable to exercise to any beneficial level. The shorts walks that I can manage do not allow me to burn much energy. I was at a point where I was eating so little food to keep my weight down that I was in dire shape. Yet I was gradually gaining weight. I was easily eating less than 1200 calories a day in a futile attempt to reduce my weight. My cholesterol level was sky-high, I had developed high blood pressure and was always exhausted.

    After reading Taube’s book I next read The New Atkins Diet book. Shortly afterwards I cut most all carbohydrates out of my diet. I began eating low carb veggies, meats and their healthy saturated fats, and whole fat dairy products. The results were astounding! Not only did I NOT gain weight, I began to loose it very steadily (20 lbs to date). I am no longer hungry either, because I am being satisfied by natural fats. My energy level came back, my blood pressure returned to normal, and my cholesterol levels plummeted. I have had to discontinue my blood pressure medicine, as well as prednisone. My chronic acid re-flux went almost completely away so I was also able to stop taking an almost daily acid-reflux pill.

    Needless to say, I will never return to eating a high carbohydrate, low-fat diet. Clearly, my body wasn’t designed for that kind of unnatural food.

    Link to this
  27. 27. tgt62 10:33 am 06/28/2011

    It’s amazing how long it takes and how incredibly hard it is to overturn an entrenched idea. All the so called nutrition experts have to chime in on the subject on how they personally "feel" about low carb diets. How about the mountain of evidence that Gary Taubes has put forth? All of the issues that Mr. Horgan has a problem with have been discussed in the 2 books. Yes, some people can eat more carbs and not get fat. There’s no debate on that, they still get heat attacks though and it doesn’t make carbs good or OK.. A lot of smokers never get sick. Does that make smoking good for them?…The problems Gary T talks about are pointed mainly to the obese. Not the skinny/healthy people who can get away with consuming a fair amount of carbs. I’ll bet most nutritionists fit into this skinny/healthy carb eater category, hence all the problems getting the message out.

    Link to this
  28. 28. tboyer 12:15 pm 07/5/2011

    Let’s have a debate about the the long term safety of a low carb, high-fat regimen, but please let’s have the debate be based in science, not whether you or I think something is "gross" or whether someone is going to put his kids on the diet. As for why low carb hasn’t caught on — and Taubes addresses this in his book — probably the biggest reason is that the American diet and medical establishment have been not only dead set against it but unwilling to engage in a scientific debate about it. Low carb was simply off the table for 40 years in fashionable scientific circles. And how many millions will die from obesity and diabetes — and are continuing to die — because of this arrogance? The question shouldn’t be whether you trust Taubes, or Atkins or whomever, or whether a certain style of eating is gross or not. The questions should be — how do we save the lives of 60 million severely obese people, because what we’ve been doing for 40 years DOESN’T WORK.

    Link to this
  29. 29. ducksonlake 12:33 pm 08/24/2011

    Dr. Loren Cordain has done extensive research on the harm of eating grains. Robb Wolf’s book “The Paleo Solution” talks extensively about “Leaky Gut Syndrome” caused by the toxins in grains. Eating grains is a relative recent addition to human food sources that was not part of our diet for most of our human history. The toxins in the grains seem to be a problem to our health. Even if you are one who apparently has little problems with carbohydrates, they are still causing health problems over the “long haul”.

    Link to this
  30. 30. 1:48 pm 10/31/2011

    There seems to be a lack of common sense even in the way people think now days.
    Just pretend you are an early man. What would you eat? It’s that simple. For millions of years we ate animals. If we couldn’t kill an animal we very reluctantly ate vegetation until we could kill another animal. How could fat and meat be bad for you! Vegetation should be eaten on a limited basis only.
    We have developed a taste for animal feed because the food manufacturer take there garbage and put sugar (and fat) in it. They put sugar in EVERYTHING,even in meat. Look on the food shelves in the grocery stores. They KNOW that if they put sugar in there foods we will buy it, because sugar is the purest form of energy our body can consume,and once we taste it we will crave it, like cocaine. We were not meant to extract this powerful chemical and eat it in its purest form. Some peoples bodies can handle it and some can’t. It like running rocket fuel in the engine of your car.
    Gary Taubes is my hero. He has the guts to tell it like it is.
    Our government has been bought out by food manufacturers. Think about how powerful they are. Everyone has to eat!
    Eat like our ancestor ate. MEAT, some vegetable, and rarely fruit. Make sure it’s as natural as you can get it. Read the label and don’t assume that they’re not trying to trick you by misinformation.

    Link to this
  31. 31. avray 8:39 am 01/8/2012

    I agree with Gary Taubes and I agree with the author of this article. I can look at the example of my own rural great grand parents, born in the 1880s who lived healthy lives on a very high fat low carb diet until the nineteen seventies. Compared to urban people born in the 1910 who had unhealthy lives with high carb high fat (no protein) diets. What I need to know is how do I get my family to eat yummy fatty gristle filled cabbage style food? And yes, it has to be great globs of animal fat and no carbs, protein is a pointless substitute for carbs. We have been brainwashed too well, or great greasy globs of cabbage have never been appetising enough to overeat. Any ideas?

    Link to this
  32. 32. wildjane 3:24 pm 01/19/2012

    well John, your finding Atkin’s type diets “gross” doesn’t sound very scientific to me. As a matter of fact your description of it as visceral reminds me of when people used to call things related to women being irrational “hysterical”. Visceral , is just in simple terms your own new agey reaction, it is intuition and yours alone.

    First before slinging stones you should know who you are slinging them at. The Atkins diet includes very inclusive lists of vegetables and fruits which are suitable for the diet, and as was said above my husband and I found ourselves eating lots more vegetables , especially the before hated cruciferous vegetables that we had shunned previously.

    We also read up on the so called “Asian Conundrum”. It seems that Asians are in fact getting fatter, and that one of the reasons is that they now eat much MORE rice than in the traditional Asian diets that kept people slim. So another myth bite the dust.

    We didn’t go with our rather large guts, not did we do it for weight reasons. We did it because my husband’s family has high cholesterol. I mean high, as in in the over 760 range with a terrible ratio. So we didn’t guess, we measured. We got all our blood values from cholesterol to triglycerides, to ratios, to liver and kidney function, to ekgs , blood pressure, and pulse rate checked BEFORE we started. Then we started on an Atkins type diet based on the ideas put out by Dana Carpender. My husband’s TC was 460 on the highest dose of Lipitor. Mine was 230 but my triglycerides were 1500–not a misprint, 1500. How is that?

    We didn’t want all the numbers to be based on weight loss alone so after just 8 weeks we checked again just to have the numbers not expecting much. My husband’s TC was now 165 with an improved ration and my triglycerides were 145 and my TC was 185. We had each lost about 10 pounds, which was a drop in the weight bucket. My husband had previously tried Ornish on which he lost tons of weight was starving and I was continually in the kitchen. During this period his TC dropped 50 pounds over a year to 410 on the max of Lipitor. Big Nothing. Boy we couldn’t wait to toss that fruit and veggie rich so called balanced diet out the freaking door. My husband is now about 175 pounds from 240+. He is short about 5′ 8″ but very muscular for a man his age.

    As an added benefit, for me, the gases that form in my gut from carbohydrate fermentation had caused terrible reflux and GERD. ALL gone very shortly after starting Atkins. Yes, I had constipation at first, but I have had either that or its opposite whenever I changed my diet including the really lauded Weight Watchers which was a heartburn nightmare that took weeks to recover from. I know a huge number of people who cannot wrap their closed minds around the benefits of low carb eating. The fat the fat, OMG. Well too bad. Your diet sounds disgusting to me. Cookies, cakes , pies and sugar, sounds like instant heartburn and acid reflux to me, and it certainly is nothing to boast about. All refined foods with maximal processing. GROSS.

    That you are able to eat that crap with no consequences may well be due to good genes, or maybe it just hasn’t caught up with you. My father ate what he wanted until his mid seventies when it hit him like a tank..And he was a regular exerciser and had a cook who tried to limit his intake of crap behind his back. But all those cookies and stuff did catch up with him. He was then put on a low fat low salt and low sugar regime. He immediately ended up as one of the statistics of a growing number of people with hyponatremia (too little SALT) and he got his blood fat too low, he was fat phobic-oh yes he ate the “good fats” and ended up with Dementia which now has been linked to Cholesterol that is TOO LOW. So, I will eat my way and you eat yours. Cheers for you, but please stop trashing something you obviously have not taken the time to check out for real.

    You could be really hurting people with the diabetic epidemic by continuing the myth of how low carb diets are harmful and unbalanced. It is really irresponsible and I am surprised it is in the likes of Scientific American . I am going to ask them to prove your points or retract this article from the archives.

    Link to this
  33. 33. aangel 11:37 am 01/31/2012

    Wildjane, don’t ask them to remove the article from the archives…science works by having people hash out ideas in the open. Despite your visceral reaction to it, Horgan’s piece actually is completely valid — it’s just not very valuable to anyone who wants to dig into the science. But that’s ok. There are lots of other people who are doing the science and they are easily accessible a click away.

    Also, we must never forget that even if we disagree with someone’s opinion, when they participate they are at least *in our conversation.* The following is a tautology but it’s still worth point out: it is in the nature of conversations to die unless people are speaking them. So thank you, John, for valuing this topic enough to expend effort on it.

    Besides, in today’s participatory journalism, people can learn as much or more from the comments as from the article itself and that is certainly true in this case.

    My whole point is that the key to a successful societal shift is to keep the topic alive until a tipping point is reached.

    Link to this
  34. 34. jmnthe3rd 3:37 am 02/16/2012

    Gary actually responds to the claim that all diets cause similar results by clarifying that low-carb diets are tested with no calorie restriction while low-fat diets are tested calorie restricted.

    To tell subjects to eat as much as they want & then note that they generally loose weight rather than gain it is no magic trick. This has been repeated many times.

    This single observation clearly doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about health, but it is at least enough to say, anybody who tells you to “try eating fewer calories” doesn’t have the whole picture.

    Link to this
  35. 35. dans221 11:49 am 04/19/2012

    I find it amazing that with a title like “Thin Body of Evidence: Why I Have Doubts about Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat”, the blog post criticizes Taubes without discussing evidence (except the author’s own diet, which is one anecdotal example — now that’s what I call thin evidence). Why does it matter that Taubes wrote about the science behind cold fusion before he turned to nutrition? Or that you are “friends” with him? Or that his wife might not be in full agreement with Taubes’ diet? You also didn’t really do justice to the “asian diet” argument and Taubes’ response to it.

    I don’t know, this blog post strikes me as being not well thought-out.

    Link to this
  36. 36. TastyWheat 4:34 pm 05/4/2012

    This post really provides no scientific data to support or disprove the benefits of counting and reducing carbohydrate intake. It’s basically a war of anecdotes and really doesn’t live up to the title.

    No other retorts about the American obesity epidemic even? Do Americans indeed eat more processed foods than other countries? Is American affluence fueling overindulgence on food?

    Link to this
  37. 37. PaulSpring 10:59 am 02/16/2013

    I am confused over the intentions of this article. I’ve perused some of the opinions surrounding Taubes and low-carb in general – like anything ego’s rule – putting down someone’s to elevate oneself seems to be just what we humans do.
    But I’ve heard Taubes speak – he is self-effacing, non-dogmatic and open to be proven wrong. Very different than the theme of this article and some of the caustic stuff out there.

    The fact is that he is provocative, and anyone who challenges conventional wisdom is OK in my book.

    (And, by the way, as a scientist, its no secret that ego plays a huge and destructive role – salami science (milking research in the thinnest layers to pad a pub list) is too prevalent.) Hence, “bad science”.

    Keep an open mind, please.

    Link to this
  38. 38. rory robertson (former fattie) 6:56 am 05/2/2013

    Taubes’s claim that excessive carbohydrates are the main driver of obesity would be more credible if University of Sydney scientists had not documented “an inverse relationship” between the consumption of added sugar (100% carbs) and obesity.

    That’s the “Australian Paradox”:

    Link to this
  39. 39. Aquaria 7:57 pm 10/22/2013

    The “Australian Paradox” has already been debunked, because the researchers left out years of data that didn’t fit with their paradigm.

    It’s a disgrace to science, and only a complete moron would mention it at all.

    Link to this
  40. 40. Curzon 9:10 am 10/23/2013

    Your “understanding” of science is insulting. Science is by Definition critical, there is no celebratory science, that is by definition bad.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article