We need an old paradigm of why we get fat

How often have you heard some variation to, “There’s no secret to weight loss, you just have to exercise and eat less.” The implications are clear, if you are fat, it’s because you are lazy (you don’t exercise enough) or you are slovenly (you eat too much). Obesity and the associated diseases are the wages of sin and the only way to overcome these temptations is through will power and virtue.

These ideas that obesity is the result of eating too much or exercising too little or both is treated as a self-evident truth. People invoke the First Law of Thermodynamics and people who argue otherwise are marginalized as not understanding the First Law.

But what if it’s wrong? What if the causality is all mixed up? What if you eat more because your body is getting fat? What if you don’t feel like exercising because you are already obese? What if simple calorie restriction is not particularly effective in losing weight? It isn’t and yet it’s repeated over and over again, “You are overweight because you overeat,” and “If you just eat less, you will lose weight.”

In this lecture by Gary Taubes, he does a great job of showing the fallacy of the conventional wisdom:

It’s a longish video, about 70 minutes, but it’s a nice introduction to his ideas. If you find it all compelling I highly recommend his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. It’s not a diet book, it’s a science book, and it sets out to demolish some of the conventional paradigms we have about diet, obesity and disease.

UPDATE: Changed the title because we don’t need a new paradigm really, we need an old one. If you watch the video, you will understand what I mean.

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.

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Life is a pattern game

Last Spring, I listened to Freakonomics on CD as I drove from Illinois to Arizona. In the appendix, the authors have a short article on Seth Roberts and his strange idea that drinking sugar water can lead to weight loss.

A month or two later, frustrated with my inability to lose weight on my own, I looked up Seth’s scientific paper online about what makes food fattening and tried his method. It worked! I started losing weight again.

After a few weeks of sipping sugar water and drinking olive oil, I spent a week in New York for the Del Close Marathon. I was explaining it to a friend and he responded, “Oh you mean the Shangri-la Diet.”

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Good Calories, Bad Calories in a nutshell

I’m surprised how long it has taken me to get through Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. After 2 and half weeks, I’m still not done. I’m on the last chapter though. Maybe I’m just a slow reader.

The book is dense, bringing together a huge number of scientific studies that date back to the beginning of the the 20th century. His goal seems to be to overwhelm the reader with evidence that many of the assumptions about diet, obesity and disease are wrong. He isn’t content to give you one or two examples of studies that suggest that carbohydrates are the primary factor behind obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and a range of other modern illnesses that were rare before the 20th century. He piles it on, determined to make sure that someone can’t read his book and dismiss it as “some fad diet book.” If you say he is wrong, you better bring your citations with you.

I’ve enjoyed the ride, but I wonder how many readers get bogged down and don’t finish it, or don’t care so much about the reams of evidence that Taubes has compiled and want to skip to his conclusions. One passage near the end that jumped out at me as something that people need to know:

By the mid-1960s, four facts had been established beyond reasonable doubt: (1) carbohydrates are singularly responsible for prompting insulin secretion; (2) insulin is singularly responsible for inducing fat accumulation; (3) dietary carbohydrates are required for excess fat accumulation; and (4) both Type 2 diabetics and the obese have abnormally elevated levels of circulating insulin and a “greatly exaggerated” insulin response to carbohydrates in the diet

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Sugar, Saturated Fat and Gallbladders

I’ve been reading a lot about diet and disease. The first book I bought for my Kindle was Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. It is a thick book and I’m only about half way through but it has been enlightening.

I am probably too easily swayed by these kinds of books, ones which set out to prove that conventional wisdom is dead wrong. Years ago, before the Oliver Stone movie, I read way too many books about the Kennedy assassination and was convinced that elements of the CIA were involved (something I still find credible). Later I read a book about how the primary hypothesis about AIDS may well be wrong, and was, for a time, convinced. So I know that I need to temper my enthusiasm for this book.

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