Interview with Gary Taubes (part 4)

INTERVIEWER I was impressed with the discussion in your book and lecture about obesity coexisting with poverty in all these different cultures and the implications of that. I’d never seen that before.

TAUBES I have this feeling, and I guess that all writers (or all neurotic writers) have to some extent, that my work is being ignored. It’s my Rodney Dangerfield complex. Now that I’ve written the book, I occasionally get emails from friends saying that they had some discussion with some obesity researcher, and they said, “Are you going to read Taubes’s book?” and their response was “Well, we know what Taubes thinks, so why should I bother reading the book?” What’s more, the Atkins craze has come and gone, so these people believe it’s old news. Why should they pay attention to the book or what I might have learned in reporting it? In fact, I got more reviews for my cold fusion book than I have for Good Calories, Bad Calories. And The cold fusion book came out three years after the fact. There was also this sense that my article started an Atkins craze, and then Atkins Nutritionals declared bankruptcy, and somehow it all went away, and it’s just the same old diet crap that nobody wants to hear about. Nobody is going to stay on the Atkins diet so who cares? Let’s move on. The lecture you heard is an attempt to combat that attitude: I argue that the existence of these obese, impoverished populations living on high carbohydrate diets are counter-examples to the conventional wisdom. As I said in my talk, if you have an obese mother and a malnourished child living in the same family, and this is a common phenomenon, that should be perceived as a refutation of the calories in/calories out hypothesis. In any sort of healthy scientific endeavor, that’s the kind of paradox you look for. Physicists have recently spent a few billion dollars building an accelerator that will, they hope, produce some kind of phenomenon that they can’t explain by their current theory. If they get that, it’s front page news and they now have some observation that they can use to improve their theory. These obesity researchers, they have malnutrition and obesity coexisting in the same impoverished population, and they don’t see it as a challenge to their hypothesis. How do I get the word out that there are important issues here that have to be discussed? That’s what that lecture is intended to do. When [the New York Times reporter] Gina Kolata reviewed my book in the New York Times Book Review, she swept right over these issues. She went right to the thing that bugged her — why don’t people stay on these low-carb diets? — and ignored all the evidence that refutes the conventional wisdom about why we get fat. All she cared about in the end was why don’t people stay on these diets if they work.

INTERVIEWER As if that’s your fault! I thought that was a very unusual way to review a book.

TAUBES Well, she had written her own obesity book that came out five months earlier, and she blamed obesity, in effect, on genes, without bothering to acknowledge that the genes interact with the environment; we have an obesity epidemic; we have obesity associating with poverty, for instance, so there’s obviously some lifestyle factor.

INTERVIEWER And obesity’s gone way up in the recent past; it can’t be genes.

TAUBES I felt her review was her way of saying “Look, this is why none of the stuff he discusses was in my book.” One point I make over and over again is that obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, so you have to look at the hormonal regulation of fat tissue. If you’re discussing growth disorders — gigantism or dwarfism — you look at the hormonal regulation of growth. So why not do the same in obesity. Gina didn’t, because nobody she interviewed brought it up. Then she turned her review of my book into an excuse for why she didn’t mention any of these things. Anyway, that’s life in the publishing industry. If you think about it too much, you just get angry.

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14 Replies to “Interview with Gary Taubes (part 4)”

  1. Excellent interview! I just hope someone at the NIH will at least consider the alternative hypothesis presented in his book and fund a modest study to actually test the two hypotheses and settle the question of what makes us fat once and for all.

  2. Thanks for the link to Taubes lecture (which was great) and also for the excellent interview. I’ve got his book on order. Meanwhile, is there a short answer to the question as to why Taubes’ theory doesn’t violate conservation of energy?

  3. Susan J, The short answer as to why Taubes’ explanation of the disconnect between caloric intake and weight gain or loss involves two observable but difficult to measure phenomena. One is caloric excretion and the other is metabolic adjustment.

    The body is not anywhere near 100% efficient at absorbing calories from the gut. Also, the body will build or tear down organ tissue, muscle tissue, and brown fat tissue depending upon how completely and consistently its nutrient needs are being met. For further discussion I suggest you Google “calorie excretion” and “brown fat tissue.”

  4. Correction: I meant to say The short answer as to why Taubes’ explanation of the disconnect between caloric intake and weight gain or loss doesn’t violate any physical laws of nature involves two observable but difficult to measure phenomena.

  5. Susan, the short answer is that his bottom line doesn’t.

    It is like the SLD. Sure, I take in about 300 additional calories a day in extra light olive oil — but, I went from eating 5000 calories a day to eating less than 2000. So, a lot more went on that the part where I added calories (or, perhaps better said, the part where I changed some of my calories).

    Taubes comments merely point to retention and metabolism. Many people, with certain diets, will have their metabolisms alter. Kind of like saying, eat fat, your thermostat will be set to 80 degrees, eat carbs and your thermostat will be set to 60 degrees. (Speaking by analogy, but I would notice dramatic crashing of my metabolism on some diets. If I’m eating 1600 calories and using 1200 a day, I’ll gain weight. If I eat 1800, but use 2000, I’ll lose weight).

  6. > Meanwhile, is there a short answer to the question as to
    > why Taubes’ theory doesn’t violate conservation of energy?

    Mainly because the “calorie is a calorie” argument is based on some naive assumptions about the conservation of energy, and a misplaced ideas of causality. Your total weight is a function of the total number of calories you’ve ever ingested, minus all the energy that your body has ever used. The second part of that equation is highly variable, and in fact is part of the body’s self-regulation mechanism (with or without a setpoint). The body has ways to use energy more or less efficiently. For example, it can reduce energy and movement to conserve energy, or fill you with nervous energy to consume excess energy. Both of these will change the number of calories required substantially without changing your weight, the same as if you moved to a warmer or colder climate. There are also simply differences in metabolic efficiency so that some calories can be used more efficiently than others.

    What that means is that the idea that your weight is directly related to total caloric input minus total output, but it’s not helpful because there are a bunch of other factors that have to be ignored to make the case that all weight loss mist be from calorie restriction, or that reducing one kind of calories is the same as any other kind of calories.

    That’s the Cliff’s Notes version anyway.

  7. Thanks. As a scientist, I was persuaded by the data Taube showed but didn’t know the explanation. For an amusing recent paper that uses “energy balance” to [mistakenly, I believe] conclude that the reason low calorie diets don’t work can only be that people don’t really stick to them see Heymsfield, et. al, http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/85/2/346

  8. As I remember things (as a casual observer), the Atkins diet turned out to be a calorie reduction diet – since people got so sick of all the tasty fat after a few days that they ate less of it while pining for simple things like bread. (Besides which, the body seems to know that it needs carbs in order to completely metabolize fat anyway.)

    …and despite the talk at the time in the popular press that serum cholesterol improved, it was really triglyceride levels that fell – which is no surprise since it is the carbs that are rapidly assembled into triglyderides/chylomicrons.

    …and that much of the weight loss under strict Atkins in the first week occurs from water loss – since intra-muscular and hepatic glycogen storage is accompanied by several times its own weight in associated water.

    Has any of that been disproved?

    Also, just for the heck of it, I’d speculate that the main danger of sugars to waistlines comes because it is so eminently easy to increase calorie consumption with sugar. Even after everybody is absolutely stuffed at a big feast and can eat no more of the actual meal, out comes the desert and most people manage to pack in more calories. There really is always room for Jello… or ice cream or chocolate or whatever.

    Besides, between meals nobody chews on a stick of butter, but those extra calories in soda or candy go down almost without thinking. Sugars, or sugars and fat, are the easiest & most effective ways to increase calorie consumption.

  9. Yeah, I lost 70+ pounds of water, sure. The first few pounds lost from all diets is water because even the low-fatters cut back on sugar.

    You don’t get sick of all the fat, after the first 2-3 weeks, more of your body’s processes convert to burning ketones instead of glucose. Then you need less protein to fuel gluconeogenesis so you feel less hunger. Also, fast carb is addictive and after the worst of the withdrawal is over you just don’t crave it like you may have before. Now I know what it feels like to not be hungry all the time.

    Triglyceride levels do fall and so does the amount of VLDL which in turn leads to larger LDL particle size. Also, HDL levels increase. My HDL went from 45 to 54 in a few weeks.

  10. We have hundreds of case studies to prove that carbohydrate conisumption and ensuring high insulin levels are primary driver in obesity. I found Gary Taubes book to corroborate the observations we made during four years. We did gain one crucial insight also from his book. Gary says that carb consumption encourages the kidneys to reabsorb and retain sodium. We found that interesting because many obese femals have low blood pressure in the presence of poly cystic ovarian syndrome. The paradox was solved when we looked at homestatic mechanisms in PCOS.

  11. If “carbohydrate consumption and ensuing high insulin levels are the primary driver in obesity” then how come I lost weight by drinking sugar water?

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