Pollan vs. Taubes

I find it interesting that in the book Omnivore’s Dilemma, the author Michael Pollan takes, not one but two jabs Gary Taubes and his 2002 article, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” The first is in the introduction, and the second is here:

It remains to be seen whether the current Atkins school theory of ketosis—the process by which the body resorts to burning its own fat when starved of carbohydrates—will someday seem as quaintly quackish as Kellogg’s theory of colonic autointoxication. What is striking is just how little it takes to set off one of these applecart-toppling nutritional swings in America; a scientific study, a new government guideline, a lone crackpot with a medical degree can alter this nation’s diet overnight. One article in the New York Times Magazine in 2002 almost single-handedly set off the recent spasm of carbophobia in America.

I wonder if Pollan has read Taubes book. I’d be shocked if he hadn’t. To me there is much that they agree on. For instance, I bet they both would agree that we would be more healthy if we ate like our great grandparents did, and that traditional cuisines lead to healthier people than modern processed diets. They both see the large amount of processed carbohydrates like high fructose corn syrup as harmful to those that eat it. Furthermore, Taubes goes to great lengths to establish that cutting carbs to lose weight is not a late 20th century fad. It’s the accumulated wisdom of doctors and patients going back at least two centuries, precisely the kind of cultural wisdom that Pollan so admires in traditional cuisines.

Pollan goes on to dismiss orthodox attempts to study food and nutrition:

So every few decades some new scientific research comes along to challenge the prevailing nutritional orthodoxy; some nutrient that Americans have been happily chomping for decades is suddenly found to be lethal; another nutrient is elevated to the status of health food; the industry throws its weight behind it; and the American way of dietary life undergoes yet another revolution.

This is precisely what happened 30-40 years ago according to Taubes. It’s one of the sources of outrage in his book. Based on rather thin scientific evidence, the hypothesis that saturated fats were the great evil in the American diet became the orthodox, throwing aside the collective wisdom of decades of clinicians who would tell their patients exactly the opposite and see them lose weight.

I think Pollan’s quarrel with Taubes may have more to with personality and approach than substance. It also seems that I’m hardly the first person to see the harmony between Pollan and Taubes. Maybe even Pollan himself realized that he had more to agree with Taubes. After reading this blog post, I might need to read his new book too.

So I was delighted to find that Pollan and Taubes are on the same wave length. The person who exposed the whole fat paradigm as a historical disaster “is a science journalist named Gary Taubes, who for the last decade has been blowing the whistle on the science behind the low-fat campaign,” Pollan writes. “In a devastating series of articles and an important new book called Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes has all but demolished the whole lipid hypothesis, demonstrating just how little scientific backing it had from the very beginning.”

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