Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease
By Gary Taubes
Reviewed by Katharine Czapp
“There is always an easy solution to every human problem,” H.L. Mencken once wrote— “neat, plausible and wrong.” Gary Taubes, armed with the spirit of Mencken’s witticism and his own incisive intellect as a correspondent for Science magazine, has set off to skewer the received wisdom of decades’ worth of bad science clouding our understanding of diet, disease, and obesity. Following his 2002 New York Times feature article, “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” Taubes spent the next five years continuing the research he began, research that challenged the conventional medical claim that dietary fat is the cause of heart disease and obesity, and is, in fact, “the primary nutritional evil in the American diet.”
Good Calories, Bad Calories is a densely detailed re-examination of numerous medical studies and trials, many of which are iconic in the gospel of conventional medicine, and which played key roles in influencing the way we understand diet and disease today. Taubes’s review of the largely flawed or shoddy studies whose dubious and outright erroneous findings have nevertheless continued to inform current medical thinking turned up enough dysfunctional science to choke a horse. This disappointment of scientific rigor becomes a theme in itself, and rightly so. Critical thinking and “[s]kepticism…cannot be removed from the scientific process,” writes Taubes, “Science does not function without it.” Although there have always been skeptics of the conventional hypotheses he examines, these alternative voices were either ignored or shouted down by the cheerleaders of the status quo, “as if disloyal at time of war.”
Taubes takes his readers on a painstaking retrospective of seminal studies that formed the basis of many health-related hypotheses that have become accepted as authoritative proof today. One such example is the diet-heart hypothesis, which proposes that saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet are responsible for heart disease. Although this hypothesis had many detractors from its very outset, and many more studies exist today to utterly refute it, the diet-heart theory is still repeated as gospel from the halls of medical academia. Similarly debunked hypotheses regarding the pathology of obesity persist as well, confounding public health policy and physicians’ treatment protocols.
When examined together, the historic parade of studies, theories and treatments for obesity range from the merely silly to the downright cruel. Starvation studies with healthy, male volunteers in the first quarter of the last century showed over and over again that very low-calorie, lowfat diets did not, in fact, promote significant weight loss, but did make volunteers miserable with constant, gnawing hunger, depression, loss of energy and libido, and even provoked homicidal and suicidal tendencies.
Other studies showed that increased exercise did not lead to weight loss in the corpulent, but instead, to an increase in appetite and subsequent increase in calories eaten. Still more trials that fed healthy, normal volunteers enormous meals of up to 10,000 calories a day exclusively from protein and fat sources found that only very modest weight gain occurred. The same protein and fat diet, in more moderate proportions, fed to the overweight caused significant and relatively easy weight loss with no discomfort of hunger, and in fact a feeling of wellbeing.
The empirical evidence of these and other studies has been consistently ignored, while the official medical (and psychiatric) line regarding overweight and obesity is that fat people simply eat too many calories, lack the willpower to discipline themselves, are too lazy to exercise, and otherwise refuse to comply with moderate dietary habits. To lose weight they must restrict calorie intake, increase physical exertion, and generally adopt an abstemious lifestyle.
Taubes describes alternative hypotheses to the etiology of obesity that early on fingered refined carbohydrate foods as part of the puzzle to the deranged metabolism of the obese. The subsequent discovery of the effects of the endocrine system, and especially of the hormone insulin, provided more clues to this disruption of homeostasis. Insulin causes fat to enter fat cells and adipose tissue, and also converts carbohydrates into fat. Chronically high blood levels of insulin prevent the fat from exiting the storage depots and for burning as fuel in cellular metabolism, however, and in effect the obese person is starving on a cellular level and naturally wants to eat more. Because his cells are actually malnourished, he feels lethargic and literally does not have the energy to exercise.
“It’s the effects of these carbohydrates on insulin that would explain the dietary observations— the futility of calorie restriction, the relative ease of weight loss when carbohydrates are restricted, and perhaps two centuries of anecdotal observations that sweets, starches, bread, and beer are uniquely fattening,” writes Taubes.
When working to absolve dietary fat of evil-doing and pointing up refined carbohydrates as the real culprit complicit in such modern illnesses as obesity, heart disease and cancer, Taubes’s examinations of stacks of medical studies are illuminating and largely convincing. Yet another aim of his book is “to look critically at a straightforward question to which most of us believe we know the answer: What constitutes a healthy diet? What should we eat if we want to live a long and healthy life?” And further, “There is a more important issue here as well, and it extends far beyond the ideal weight-loss diet. Prior to the official acceptance of the lowfat- is-good-health dogma, clinical investigators . . . had proposed another hypothesis for the cause of heart disease, diabetes, colorectal and breast cancer, tooth decay and. . . obesity. The hypothesis was based on decades of eyewitness testimony from missionary and colonial physicians and two consistent observations: that these ‘diseases of civilization’ were rare to nonexistent among isolated populations that lived traditional lifestyles and ate traditional diets, and that these diseases appeared in populations only after they were exposed to Western foods—in particular sugar, flour, white rice, and maybe beer.”
Does this last paragraph ring a bell of recognition? Reading this in the first several pages of the book’s prologue, I naturally assumed that he was a thorough and astute researcher and had obviously read Weston Price. A review of the index, bibliography, and notes, together comprising nearly 150 pages, however, did not reveal a single reference to Weston Price, the WAPF, or Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. By chance, I noticed the Acknowledgements on page 575, just before the index, and read, “It’s always dangerous, when challenging beliefs that are so passionately embraced, to acknowledge that you have paid attention to the skeptics who preceded you. This can be used as evidence that you are exceedingly gullible and will believe anything you read. Nonetheless, I concede that I indeed took seriously and am grateful for the efforts of those who trod portions of this path before me . . . . The book that may have been most influential in altering my perspective and yet never made it into this text, for reasons of narrative flow and length rather than relevance, was Weston Price’s 1939 classic, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects.”
Leaving aside for the moment Taubes’s sudden shyness in the company of skeptics—those brave souls without whom he earlier professed “science cannot function”—I wonder how much of Price’s observations and analyses of traditional diets he in fact carried into the text of Good Calories, Bad Calories. Although Taubes often refers to the refined carbohydrates of the modern age specifically as “those carbohydrate-containing foods—usually sugars and starches—that have been machine-processed to make them more easily digestible,” his conclusions regarding the hallmarks of a healthy diet often seem to indicate that the broad category of carbohydrates themselves must be avoided as instigators of chronic disease. Here Taubes appears to be in the same camp as those who feel that the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago was a wrong turn in human civilization because it dramatically increased grain and carbohydrate consumption in the diet of former hunter-gatherers.
Yet the strength of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration is Price’s documentation of diverse native populations eating from diverse food groups and all demonstrating radiant health and freedom from the “diseases of civilization.” Certainly the Inuit consumed a diet nearly devoid of carbohydrates, yet the South Sea Islanders that Price visited had a large proportion of their diet comprised of carbohydrate foods such as taro root, yams and cassava. The key concept, of course, is that of nutrient density, rather than the macro-nutrient ratios of fat to protein to carbohydrate. Although it is easier to achieve a diet high in nutrient density with animal foods, it can be accomplished with carbohydrates in the diet as well. It must be noted, of course, that when the balance of traditional nutrients (whether largely of animal or carbohydrate origin) was upset by the introduction of devitalized, processed foods, both Inuit and South Sea Islanders suffered terribly as a result.
For us modern Westerners, however, health will still be elusive even if we eschew every carbohydrate in the diet yet continue to eat industrial protein and industrial fat. Nutrient quality and nutrient density are just as vitally important to us as to any population that desires excellent health, yet this important distinction is routinely overlooked by “authorities” who advise the public on diet and health.
Although Taubes contends that a calorie is not a calorie, he nevertheless seems to believe that protein is protein, fat is fat, and carbohydrates are carbohydrates. That Taubes did not examine the nutrient-quality aspect of the diet in respect to his conclusions on the probable dietary causes of obesity and disease is a disappointment in an otherwise carefully researched work. The greatest strength of Good Calories, Bad Calories may be that the reader, following the model of Taubes’s well-exercised probing of conventional dogma, will forever remain an independent thinker and a healthy, toned skeptic of all received wisdom, regardless of its hallowed sources.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2007.