Saturday, July 26, 2008

Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes

Gary Taubes in this exhaustively researched (and exhausting) book argues against common nutritional advice by suggesting that obesity is not caused by over eating, but rather by eating the wrong foods. Excessive consumption of carbohydrates (especially the refined type) are to blame. Obese people, he recommends, should eat diets high in fat and meat, and cut back on the carbs. This will reduce weight and allow you to eat as much as you want.

Good Calories, Bad Calories is basically a book length version of an article he wrote back in 2002. As I understand it, it was this article that set off the Atkins diet craze, a diet that has been around for over forty years.

I simply can’t go into the science that this book trudges through. It is far too detailed and far too complex, baffling and question raising. If you were really going to discuss this book in detail, and refute or agree with it point by point, you would have to write another 600 page book, and then some.

In fact, I’m tempted to say that this form of argument which utilises such mountains of scientific material, itself stifles argument. I'm reminded of Schopenhauer in his cheeky essay about how to win an argument, where he suggests you bombard your opponent with lots of information.

In this book you just get too bogged down with the minutiae of hundreds and hundreds of scientific studies. It's really hard to figure out what is really going on. Seeing Taubes has so much information at his fingertips, you feel if you refuted one point, he would come back quickly with another.

As I waded through so many studies done years and years ago, I had lots of questions as to how the studies were conducted. Some of the tests that were done and their results seemed just plain silly, like putting people on 300 calorie a day diets.

The first two hundred pages of the book I did find very interesting. This goes into the effects of fat on cholesterol and heart attack. Taubes can be elegant in his descriptions of how the body works. At this point in the book I thought he was going in an interesting direction, and I was willing to follow him.

Then I got to part three, which discusses obesity and dieting. Suddenly he seemed to change direction, leaving behind the effect of fat on cholesterol and heart health. I found myself very much disagreeing with his argument that you don’t lose weight by restricting calories and increasing exercise.

I know myself when I have had to lose weight that I have accomplished this simply by rigorously watching every single calorie and getting plenty of exercise.

Taubes throughout the book insists on calling calorie reducing diets ‘semi-starvation’ diets. He insists they don’t help to reduce weight but increase hunger, which only results in extra eating. Amazingly, he pretty much argues against exercise!

He also cites studies where thin people are fed diets of huge amounts of calories and how they don’t put on weight, and how fat people simply can’t lose weight even when put on very low calorie diets.

I just couldn’t believe the studies. Especially based on my own personal experience of dieting and weight increase. And I felt if I had argued against the science, I would have had argued back at me all these other confusing details and variables.

The theory that Taubes develops in this book is that too many carbohydrates increases insulin in the body. This increased insulin production stops the fat in the body doing its job of energising the body. It simply stays put as fat, or is sequestered away behind a fat wall, and asks for more energy so the body can function. It basically cheats the body of its proper functioning, or creates an imbalance. It doesn’t allow the body to use the fat for energy, but stores it away and refuses it for use to the rest of the body. Hence the body asks for more energy, that is, food.

Taubes seems to contradict himself though. He is so adamant that it’s not the calories that create fat, yet in his summary of his hypothesis he says:

‘By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.’

In other words, fat people do eat more and exercise less! How else do you read this ‘decrease’ in the amount of energy used in physical activity.

Taubes is really sneaky in the way that he words all of this. Throughout the book he argues that calories don’t make you put on weight. But then he is indeed saying that fat people are eating more and exercising less.

Taubes likes to cherry pick his scientific examples, and you just wonder how some of these tests were conducted. You get the impression that some of the subjects were telling fibs about their eating habits.

Here’s a good example: Taubes quotes from a 1940s study of patients on a high meat, low carb diet. One subject, we learn, lost 62 pounds while on this diet, but would put on weight if he ate any carbohydrates, even an apple. Yes, that’s right, even apples can be fattening! Go figure. This was enough for me to think that Taubes is nuts.

But then on page 400 we learn that vegetables are fattening. Taubes approvingly quotes some nineteenth century author, Thomas Hawkes Tanner as saying that vegies are fattening.

Indeed, earlier in the book Taubes makes a point of arguing against the benefits of fibre in the diet and the efficacy of the phytochemicals found in vegetables in fighting disease.

I mean, where do you go after reading this sort of stuff? Don’t eat apples because they might make you fat? Eat as much meat and butter as you like? Don't bother exercising? Avoid vegetables in the diet? How would this be environmentaly sustained anyway? Can the world sustain the meat industry required to feed all these obese people meat?

To be fair, a lot of this book argues against recent food inventions like refined carbohydrates – sugar, white flour, white rice – as being the culprits of our current health problems. And you won’t find a nutritionist that disagrees with this.

Good Calories, Bad Calories didn’t convince me at all. As far as I can see, he did not at all successfully demonstrate that fat is not put on by over eating. In fact, he demonstrated the opposite. He demonstrated that over weight people are addicted to sugar and white flour. It doesn’t fill them up, so they crave more. And they don't exercise.

Again, in summary. Taubes doesn’t advise a high fibre diet from fruit and vegetables washed down with water to bulk up the food and make you feel satiated. He advocates eating lots of meat and fat. My instincts tell me that beef steaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner would not be so good for you.

Another thought came to mind as I was reading this: we in the west are so miserable when it comes to food. There’s no joy about eating in this book, it’s all misery, patients being subjected to an endless series of tests. When I read the Amazon reviews, I perused the one star reviews, and there were people angrily complaining that the book was too technical and all that they wanted to know was what they should eat. Weird. Don’t people enjoy food?

I’m glad I read this book, as it gave me an insight into what confused and contradictory thinking science is capable of. I’m not anti-science. We all live with the benefits of scientific knowledge built up over the centuries. But I did think it was kind of a madness doing all these horrible animal tests, removing vital glands etc. from rats, just so we could develop the perfect diet.

After my studies in this area so far, I still hold to the view that you should enjoy whole foods wherever possible, eat moderately of milk and dairy (and meat if that’s your thing) and keep goodies to a minimum – a small treat every second day or so.

In my experience, when gaining weight it’s so easy to lose sight of the number of calories you are eating every day, and to wonder why it’s so difficult to lose weight. Losing weight is tough. It takes perseverance and a willingness to count every calorie.

Good luck to you if you follow the Atkins diet, lose weight and feel healthier for it. I think I’ll stick to my high fruit and veg diet.

Believe it or not, you can greatly enjoy eating in moderation.


GK said...

"Taubes is really sneaky in the way that he words all of this. Throughout the book he argues that calories don’t make you put on weight. But then he is indeed saying that fat people are eating more and exercising less."

You may consider it "sneaky" because you still haven't quite got his argument over causality. There is no contradiction above.

You correctly point out that Taubes argues that calories do not cause fat gain. But he points out that fat gain causes overeating/lethargy.

He never denies that overeating and weight gain are associated, which is what we see, but cause and effect can be switched with the same result (GCBC p.293).

David Brown said...

Chris wrote, "In my experience, when gaining weight it’s so easy to lose sight of the number of calories you are eating every day, and to wonder why it’s so difficult to lose weight. Losing weight is tough. It takes perseverance and a willingness to count every calorie."

Weight control is easy for some and difficult for others depending on both ones genetically determined biochemical and physiological makeup and what one wants to accomplish. Some find it difficult to bulk up as they have little appetite. Others really enjoy food and find it difficult to eat less. The former may want weigh more. The latter, less. But we're not all meant to look alike.

The important thing is obtain adequate supportive nutrition from ones food. Today's food environment, however, sets before us a host of tasty, attractive foods and beverages that cannot possibly supply the nutrients required for body building and tissue repair. Most people who struggle with overweight and ill health cannot see how far off target they are in their food choices. They just consume what they like and hope for the best. But, judging from obesity and chronic disease statistics, trusting to luck doesn't seem to work for most of us.

I suggest you Google "Kitava Study" or "Peter Havel fructose" to get a feel for what excessive fructose consumption does to human health.

For a better understanding as to when calories count and when they don't, Google "David Brown unabsorbed calories" or David Brown calorie excretion."

David Brown
Nutrition Education Project