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Taubes: Doctors, Nutritionists 'Haven't Got A Clue What Real Science Is'

Posted Sep 11 2008 6:18pm

Exclusive interview with "Good Calories, Bad Calories" author Gary Taubes

I was talking with my wife Christine the other day about the front cover of the upcoming Gary Taubes book entitled "Good Calories, Bad Calories." I asked her, "Why do you think there is a slice of bread with butter on the cover?" Christine, being that brilliant woman who was the salutatorian of her high school class, retorted matter-of-factly by saying, "Jimmy, the butter is the 'good calories' and the bread is the 'bad calories.'" Isn't she BRILLIANT! That makes so much sense now. DUH!

Well, I'm pleased to have the author of that book--Gary Taubes--with us today here at the "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog. This is the first such media interview he has conducted with anyone prior to the highly-anticipated release of this book set to shake up the diet and health industry. And I'm privileged to bring it to you today.

Taubes is quite forthright about why his book took so long to come out, why it was he would decided on the ultimate title of the book, and what he hopes will happen as a result of the book releasing to the world next month. That book could very well be the beginning of a major "paradigm shift" in nutrition that has been sorely needed for decades.

If we can only get the doctors, nutritionists, and other so-called health "experts" who Taubes says "haven't got a clue what real science is" to wake up to the truth, then that may happen sooner than later. Relax and enjoy this one-on-one with the man who could very well be the instigator of it all.

1. One of the most exciting news stories to happen not just in the low-carb community but in the entire world of diet and health is about to take place on September 25, 2007. That's the fateful day when the long-awaited book from New York Times reporter Gary Taubes will be releasing at long last. This book has been literally years in the making and we are ecstatic to have the man of the hour himself here for an exclusive interview prior to what is sure to be an all-out media blitz coming in just a few short weeks.

Did you have any idea when you wrote that long and thorough article on the positive role of fat in the diet over five years ago the degree to which this subject matter would evoke such a fiery response from those who subscribe to the traditional low-fat diet while simultaneously emboldening the argument for people who advocate livin' la vida low-carb?


It took me surprise. It shouldn't have, because I'd spent much of my professional career reporting on controversial science, but I'd never strayed so directly into beliefs about diet, which seem to be embraced with almost religious fervor. I think what made it worse was that I was writing about a subject that had been covered in the press excessively for decades, so not only did my article imply that the authorities might be wrong about the nature of a healthy diet, it suggested that many of my journalistic colleagues were as well. One of my close friends in the business, someone who had also written a book on the obesity epidemic, went from considering me one of the top three science journalists around to accusing me of having a "brain transplant" and selling out just to get a book contract.

2. It was obvious in that New York Times Magazine article that you had done your homework on this subject and were well-prepared to hit a grand slam that was irrefutable by even the staunchest critics because everything was backed up by dozens of experts in the field of nutritional science. Was it the overwhelming reaction, both positive and negative, that led you to begin working on this new book you are about to release or was this book already well underway and the New York Times column was merely a teaser of things to come?

I have to clear up two points, here. One is that the staunchest critics certainly didn't see the NYT Magazine article as irrefutable. In fact, they did their best to refute it, and if you were to ask them, they'd say they succeeded. I'd disagree, but I'm biased.

As for the book, on the one hand, this is a book I've wanted to write for about a decade, ever since I first researched the dietary fat issue for an article in the journal Science and came to suspect that the bad science I was finding was par for the course in nutrition and public health research. I even circulated a proposal for the book with editors, but until I wrote the NYT Magazine article I couldn't finance it.

I knew the book would take me at least three years and the kind of advances publishers were offering would only cover maybe half that. In other words, if I wanted to write the book, I'd have to go into debt, which isn't a viable option when you have a family to support. The NYT Magazine article was so high profile, that the book advances now being offered could cover the years it would take to research and write the book.

The other point is that when I started the book, I had one conception of what it would say. But the thing about research is you don't know what you're going to learn until you do it. The research dictated the book, and one reason its so long is that I kept learning new things. I'd say maybe 40 percent of what I wrote in the Times article I no longer believe, and much of what I say in the book, I would never have believed myself before I did the research.

3. The attention span of most people is extremely short and many may not even remember who Gary Taubes is and your famous (and some say infamous!) article from July 7, 2002. Do you think this will work to your advantage in trying to draw the attention of those who will be hearing about the concepts in your book for perhaps the very first time? Who do you hope is the ultimate target audience of your book anyway? Doctors? Researchers? Nutritionists? The obese and sick?

I think many people remember that article and will want to know what the book says because of it. On the other hand, the staunch critics we discussed will likely say that the article prompted a two-to-three year Atkins craze that has since died away, and that's somehow proof that the concept of the diet and the concept of the article were both misguided.

As for who my ultimate target is, I tried to write the book so that anyone concerned about their health and weight could read it, but also so that it contained enough details to convince doctors, researchers and nutritionists that they may have made some grave errors in judgment. This was a tightrope walk, though, and I won't find out if I succeeded until after the book comes out.

As I would often tell my editor, it doesn't do any good to have yet one more book telling the lay reader that carbohydrates are fattening and dangerous, if that reader then goes to his or her doctor and the doctor says Taubes is a quack, eat your carbohydrate and cut back on the fat. So I want the doctors to read it and think about these issues, perhaps a little more deeply than they ever have. It's important that the physicians and public health types take it seriously, but I would hope that their patients read it, as well.



4. Speaking of drawing attention, I couldn't help but notice the title of your forthcoming book has gone through quite a radical evolution of sorts over the past year or so. The original title was going to be "A Big Fat Lie?: What If Fat Doesn't Make You Fat..." (an obvious play on the NY Times Magazine column you wrote), but then it was subsequently changed to "The Diet Delusion." That didn't last long and now it looks like the current title "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging The Conventional Wisdom On Diet, Weight Control, And Disease" is indeed the name of your book.

Was this much "softer" title a compromise that you and your publisher Knopf felt was needed to reach a much broader audience of readers who might have been turned off by the original title? Plus, you can't help but notice the irony of having a melting pat of butter on a slice of toast now compared with the slab of butter on top of a big fat juicy steak in the initial cover art design. Was this intentional to ward off controversy? Doesn't controversy help market the book better so that it piques the curiosity of the would-be reader?


It's actually never changed. Only the prospective titles on Amazon did. The British publishers always seemed fond of Big Fat Lie and they had it on their website. My publisher, Knopf, probably would have liked that, as well, but I was the one who was adamantly against it.

The point is that I don't believe that lying has ever been the issue, catchy as the title and the idea may be. I think a lot of authorities and self-appointed experts zealously believed something to be true that the data never actually supported. They deluded themselves, and they may have tried to delude us, but they weren't actually lying, in that they were making things up that they knew to be false.

The book aspires to be scrupulously honest in its interpretation of the evidence and what happened, and so I thought that intellectual honesty better extend to the title, as well. Hence, The Diet Delusion for the title in the UK and Good Calories, Bad Calories in the U.S. Again, the world doesn't need another polemic on this subject; it needs an intelligent analysis that will be taken seriously. That's what I tried to do.



5. Although the book title has gone through some major changes, from all accounts I have heard from those who have read pre-pub copies of the book it sounds like you have kept the primary content of the book intact although you had to cut 200 pages away to whittle this down to a 600-page book.

What are some of the major themes you address in "Good Calories, Bad Calories" and is there anything that was taken away that you wish had remained? Also, would you consider releasing the extra material that was removed as a book or e-book after the book has been out there for a while? I know there will probably be a great demand for it and these 200 pages could very well be the beginning of a full-fledged follow-up to "Good Calories, Bad Calories" if it is the HUGE commercial success we all expect it to be.


The book is divided into three parts. The first explores how we came to believe that saturated fat causes heart disease via its effect on cholesterol and that monounsaturated fats could prevent it, and what the real evidence shows. The second part looks at the alternative hypothesis -- that it's the sugars and easily digestible carbohydrates that are the problem. This section ends with the observation that everyone agrees that whatever makes us fat also increases our risk of heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers, and so the third part looks at this question of weight and how and why we fatten. Is it the calories -- and so over-eating and sedentary behavior -- or is it the carbohydrates? Obviously I argue its the latter and that calories per se have little or nothing to do with it.

As for the length, most of what was cut was technical details that we could all live without. And because much of what I say will come as a shock to people -- certainly to physicians and nutritionists -- I tended to pile on the details, the historical explanations, and to repeat myself to make sure that everyone understood what exactly the evidence showed and how it should be interpreted.

Luckily, I have a great editor and he pruned a lot of that away so that the book, I think, is just as convincing but a much better and shorter read. Worth noting is that the text is not 600 pages long. The text is only 500. The rest is notes and bibliography. There are few subjects that were cut out entirely, and I'm hoping that maybe I'll be able to pursue those as magazine articles in the future. Ideally, I'll get my act together, put up a website, and then all of the relevant material can go there.

6. You have had your share of critics over the years who have attacked you personally and questioned your credentials as it relates to writing about diet and nutrition. I'm sure you are aware the boo birds are getting ready to come after you again hot and heavy once "Good Calories, Bad Calories" is released next month.

I can certainly relate to that on a much smaller scale with the work I am doing here at my "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog and it's a common sideswipe at your integrity as a writer. Legitimacy within most circles is earned by proving yourself reliable and trustworthy on the issues that matter most and that's precisely what you have done throughout your writing career.

How do you respond to those who believe you have no right to even acknowledge the positive role of dietary fat and the potentially negative role of dietary sugar/refined carbs without any formal nutritional education? Do you believe what you write about is diminished in any way because of that?


Well, for starters, nutrition isn't rocket science. In fact, one of the problems I talk about in the book is that many of the people involved in this nutrition research haven't got a clue what real science is all about. They believe it's about proving their own beliefs to be true, not rigorously testing their hypotheses.

And the problem today is you can get a Ph.D. in nutrition or a Master's in public health and never interact with anyone who really does know what science is and how it has to work to obtain reliable knowledge. Moreover, I'm a reasonably smart guy with reasonably good credentials -- Ivy League education, etc.

And I wrote the book in a way to address those issues. The nutritionists who disagree with it can try to shoot the messenger, which is a natural response when you don't like the message, but they'll still be left having to address the message. All I did is follow the facts and try to interpret them without bias.

7. The work of the late great Dr. Robert C. Atkins was a focal point of your New York Times Magazine article because he had been touting the low-carbohydrate approach for decades and only in the past few years have researchers begun giving the high-fat, low-carb way of eating a closer look with some truly outstanding results as it relates not only to weight loss, but also improved HDL "good" cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and many other health markers.

I'm sure Dr. Atkins would be very proud of your work if he were still with us today. Do you foresee a time coming in the future when he will be hailed for espousing nutritional truths that went against common consensus rather than vilified for daring to challenge the status quo with his scientifically-based controlled-carb approach to health and weight management?


In all honesty, I don't know. Or rather, I kind of doubt it. It would be nice if it were true, but I don't think the world works that way. The saturated fat thing is so ingrained in our nutritional wisdom that I can't imagine what it would take for nutritionists to acknowledge that it's harmless if not beneficial. And until they can do that, Atkins will always be the guy who pushed a diet high in saturated fats.

If you think of this stuff in scientific terms, then the idea that fat is the dietary cause of our chronic illnesses is one paradigm and it's the one that we bought into for the past thirty years. Atkins was pushing a different paradigm: that it's the carbs that are dangerous and the fat that's healthy.

Should there be what historians and philosophers of science call a paradigm shift -- maybe because the NIH finally funded the kinds of long-term, very expensive clinical trials needed to test these ideas -- then its still unlikely, at least if the history of science is any indication, that the supposed experts who bought into one paradigm will be able to acknowledge that they were wrong and the other guys were right.

Rather, so the old saying goes, they'll have to die off first. By that time, Atkins will be ancient history the way William Banting, his 19th century predecessor, is now considered ancient history. Atkins deserves better, as do some of his predecessors in this field.

8. There is quite a bit of dietary dogma that still exists in our culture to this day--such as eating fat makes you fat and will clog your arteries, you must expend more calories through exercise than you consume in your diet, and carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for the body--despite the fact that many of these have been found in study after study to simply be false assumptions that we've just universally accepted without question.

What can those of us who believe in the strong, fact-based message of your book do to help it penetrate through to the hearts and minds of Mr. and Mrs. America so that these people can finally realize the so-called truths they have long believed in aren't backed up by the evidence? How and when do you think acceptance of livin' la vida low-carb will begin happening in earnest?


You're right, some of this stuff -- like calories-in-calories-out and carbs being the primary source of fuel for the body -- is so patently false and/or nonsensical that it always boggles my mind when I see supposed figures of authority making these arguments. It's as though reality doesn't matter in this particular field of research. You can say or believe anything, so long as it supports the dogma.

What can be done about it? Figure out a way to get doctors to read the book. This sounds self-serving, but it's all I can say. Beg your family physician to read it and to read it all the way through, not just read the first thirty pages, get to something that challenges his or her beliefs and then put it down.

Writing letters to Congress wouldn't be a bad idea, either. The problem inevitably is that we all end up preaching to the converted. The goal has to be to get some of the agnostics to pay attention.

9. Meanwhile, research is still happening behind the scenes about how the much-vilified saturated fat is actually HEALTHY for the body when dietary carbohydrate is reduced. Dr. Jeff Volek from the University of Connecticut is just months away from releasing his data on this very subject which will further solidify the overall thesis of your book. Who are some of the most prominent researchers we should be watching out for in the coming years to produce studies regarding the implications of dietary fat and specifically saturated fat in the diet on health?

There are some very good researchers looking into the effects of carbohydrate-restricted diets out there. Jeff Volek is certainly one of them. Eric Westman and his colleagues at Duke are pursuing this. The problem is that the establishment tends to perceive their research as irrelevant, because they are studying something seriously that these people consider either out-and-out dangerous or nonsensical.

What will finally change the way the medical research establishment views carbohydrate-restriction is when establishment scientists find themselves confronted with evidence that supports it and find it themselves to interpret it without bias. There's an old saying that if an atheist tells me that God doesn't exist, I'm not going to put much credence in it, but if the Pope says as much, it's a different story. So the mainstream medical community will start taking this stuff seriously when mainstream researchers start looking into it.

One example is Ron Krauss at Berkeley. Ron is considered one of the smarter scientists in the metabolism field and he chaired two different American Heart Association nutrition guideline committees. For the past twenty years he's been unraveling the real reason why high LDL cholesterol is associated with a higher risk of heart disease. He's demonstrated that it's not the cholesterol in the LDL particle that is the problem, but the size and density of the LDL itself, and his diet studies show that it's carbohydrates that make the small dense form of LDL that causes heart disease. Saturated fat has no effect. At the moment, the authorities are trying their best to ignore the dietary implications of Krauss's research, but they may not be able to hold out indefinitely.

10. Thanks again for sharing a few moments discussing your new book "Good Calories, Bad Calories" with me and my readers today, Gary. I cannot wait to personally read and review your book that has been years in the making and I'm confident it will quickly become not just a commercial bestseller, but also a virtual primer on the subject of low-carbohydrate diets and dietary fat that will belong in the personal library of everyone who wants to know the truth.

THANK YOU for taking all the darts that you have to stand up for what's right. You are an honorable man who is to be commended for your professionalism and exhaustive commitment to get this book as perfect as it can possibly be. Your efforts will not go unrewarded because the low-carb community, which is still going quite strong in 2007 by the way, will be behind you supporting this project 100%!

Do you have anything you would like to share with those of us who have been praying for you and anxiously awaiting this book to come out?


All I can say is that it's going to be interesting. I learned my lesson from the New York Times Magazine article that writing something like this is like passing through a black hole. You can never predict what's going to happen. I just hope people find my book compelling and convincing, and that it manages to survive whatever attacks are levied against it.

Labels: book, diet, Gary Taubes, Good Calories Bad Calories, health, interview, low-carb, science

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