This is something of an ongoing review, chapter by chapter, of Gary Taubes’s extraordinarily dense book Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I usually shorten to GCBC. You might even consider this more of a fact-checking than a review, but whatever. I’m not going to get into a semantic argument. I wrote my first review of this book back in 2012, but after writing it I felt very unsatisfied. GCBC is such a dense book filled with so many unsubstantiated claims that I felt the book demanded a more thorough review. Other bloggers, like James Krieger at Weightology, seem to feel the same way and have tried to provide such a review only to eventually give up once they realize the gravity of the task. I may also give up at some point. I actually have given up a number of times only to feel compelled to hit at least one more chapter.
If you would like to read other parts of this ongoing review go to the table of contents on my Book Reviews page. FYI: All page numbers in this review refer to the hardback version of the book.
In this particular chapter Taubes attempts to make the case that the notion that low-carb diets were optimal for nearly everyone was pretty much settled science, until a cabal of highly influential obesity researchers decide to deliberately and systematically bury the “truth.”
Tabues on page 424
[A] generation of obesity authorities were determined to dismiss the practical significance of carbohydrate-restricted diets, they dismissed the potential theoretical significance at the same time. Obesity researchers today say they still have no hypothesis of weight regulation that can explain obesity and leanness, let alone account for a century of paradoxical observations.
Let’s explore some of his evidence for this consipracy.
The Fat Mafia
One thing I have discovered while fact-checking this book is that often Taubes will cite some text as evidence for a claim; sometimes it actually substantiates the claim and sometimes it does not. But even when it does support a claim it’s often useful to read the entire document for context. Frequently, all or part of the rest of the cited text is actually contrary to much of what Taubes says. Of course, rarely is this contrary evidence mentioned. You can call it the suppression of evidence or cherry picking. I’ve even heard the term “Occam’s Broom” (sweeping inconvenient data under the carpet). Here is one such example. The opening paragraph of chapter 23 discusses a portion of what Taubes seems to believe is a cataclysmic event in the history of nutrition: The McGovern Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs.
The tenor of the hearing was inquisitorial, and a pithy condemnation of Atkins and his diet by the Harvard nutritionist Fred Stare was read into the record by Senator Charles Percy of Illinois (Stare did not attend). “The Atkins diet is nonsense,” Stare declared. “Any book that recommends unlimited amounts of meat, butter and eggs, as this does, in my opinion is dangerous. The author who makes the suggestion is guilty of malpractice.”
This is a completely legitimate quote, at least according to the transcripts. But the quote is not what I want to explore; it’s everything surrounding it. In particular Dr. Atkins himself testifies on behalf of his 1972 diet book titled Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution: The High Calorie Way to Stay Thin Forever. I haven’t read it, to be honest, but apparently in the book he argues that counting calories is a hoax.1 However, under oath he walks that back.2 Below is a smattering of what he says:
[When confronted with a statement mentioning that a majority of human beings remain lean on diets extremely high in carbohydrate and correspondingly low in fat in Asia and Africa] Is this not explained by the low total caloric intake of these cultures?
[Talking about his own diet] The control of pathologic hunger patterns as well as the increased satiety value of this diet do, in general, lead to a significant decrease in caloric consumption. This, indeed, represents the principal advantage the diet provides […]
[When asked if calorie reduction for weight loss is a hoax] No, clearly not. I would never deny that a person who had the stomach for it could lose weight by cutting calories. That would be sheer nonsense.
Again, I haven’t read Dr. Atkins’s infamous treatise, but whatever he wrote he appears to be “clarifying” his position to some degree to indicate that low-CHO diets are really a means of achieving the caloric deficit that would lead to weight loss.
If anyone is wondering why I bring this up it’s because Dr. Atkins is considered The Godfather of the low-cab diet by many, including Taubes. Indeed Taubes’s theories on nutrition are clearly derived from Atkins and his books. And if you have read GCBC or any of Taubes’s other writings on nutrition you will be aware that one of Taubes’s central (and controversial) theories is that calories are unconnected to weight loss or gain; the real culprit is the carbohydrate. However, any mention otherwise, especially from The Godfather himself, is scrubbed.
* * *
The next page is another example of Occam’s Broom. I’m going to quote a bit more text here than usual because there’s some unpacking to do, but starting on page 405:
Three years later, in July 1976, McGoverrn’s committee returned to the subject of diet and disease in the hearings that would lead, a half year later still, to the publication of Dietary Goals for the United States. The first witness was Assistant Secretary of Health Theodore Cooper, who repeatedly emphasized the need for further research to establish reliable knowledge about the diet-disease connection. McGovern and his fellow congressmen, however, wanted to tell the American public something more definitive, so McGovern asked Cooper if he could, at least, agree with the proposition that “overconsumption may be as serious a problem of nutrition as underconsumption.”
“Particularly overconsumption of the wrong things,” Cooper replied. “Very often in the poor we see people who are plump who might be called obese, and people would then conclude that they do not have a deficiency because they look rotund, healthy in one sense of the word. But it is true that the consumption of high carbohydrate sources with the induction of obesity constitutes a very serious public health problem in the underprivileged and economically disadvantaged. I would agree with that.”
This response seems clear enough: the overconsumption of “high carbohydrate sources”-a phrase used to describe carbohydrate-dense starches and refined carbohydrates rather than leafy green vegetables and fruits-was associated with obesity in the poor, and perhaps even the cause. McGovern then asked Cooper to provide a “general rule of thumb” about eating habits that would help prevent disease and lengthen our lives, and Cooper reluctantly agreed to do so.
“What kinds of foods in general should we be consuming less of and what should we be eating more of?” McGovern asked.
“I think what we need to consider doing is to reduce our total fat intake,” Cooper replied. “Fat adds a caloric substance-almost twice as much-nine calories per gram-as compared to sugar. I think in order to have an effective reduction in weight and realignment of our composition we have to focus on reducing fat intake.”
With that answer, Cooper had contradicted himself, and the conventional wisdom on diet and health in America had shifted. The problem was no longer overconsumption of high-carbohydrate sources, but the overconsumption of fatty foods. And if Cooper realized that reducing our total fat intake meant increasing our consumption of carbohydrates, he neglected to say so.
Can’t you feel the smugness dripping off the page with that last sentence? I imagine Taubes made this face after typing the period:
Okay, let’s unpack this a little. When reading the above passage you may get the impression that Dr. Cooper looks like a jackass because he immediately contradicted himself, while the rest of the committee is blithely unaware of the incongruity. But nothing gets past Taubes, right? He is here to shed a light on these ignoramuses that made us all fat and sick. First off, let’s go back and look at the references section.
So when McGovern asked Cooper about overconsumption in the testimony transcript it’s found on pages 9 and 10. When McGovern asks Dr. Cooper about the rule of thumb it’s found on pages 19 and 20. So there’s a FULL 10 PAGES OF COOPER’S TESIMONY that is concealed, in which Cooper discusses a number of public health and nutrition concerns including malnutrition, prenatal nutrition, lipids and atherosclerosis, the importance of exercise, etc. Moreover, Cooper’s response to the rule-of-thumb question is slightly more verbose that what Taubes elects to quote. And by “slightly” I mean “considerably.”
Here’s a bit more of Cooper’s response to McGovern’s rule-of-thumb question:
Well my first advice would be to eat less. As a general rule, I think the American public eats too much. With very few exceptions, and there are people obviously who would suffer from a weight reduction, most of us would not be terribly affected if we could reduce our total caloric intake.
I personally believe there is some benefit to reducing our preoccupation with sweet things.
I would recommend an appropriate amount of protein intake which we could give some recommendations to by group and target populations. A healthy intake of fresh fruits and vegetables with substantial fiber content.
It is very attractive for me to say stop eating commercially prepared foods.
Taubes suppresses all of this, of course, because it’s Taubes’s goal to make Cooper and the rest of the government look like clueless hacks. So instead he provides the most uncharitable characterization of Cooper’s testimony.
For that last sentence… Taubes uses a tried and true tactic oft-used by the more disingenuous low-carbers: intentionally conflating total and relative amounts. For example, it has often been said that once Big Brother began recommending “low-fat” diets the obsequious populace complied: eating less fat, more carbohydrates, and getting fat as a result. However, since 1971 Americans have been steadily eating more daily calories. In terms of macronutrients we have been eating more of everything. More CHOs, more protein, more fat, but we increased our CHO intake slightly more than we have increased our fat and protein intake. So it might appear that we have decreased our fat intake and increased our CHO intake if you look at only the % change in macronutrient intake, when in reality TOTAL FAT ACTUALLY INCREASED & TOTAL CALORIES INCREASED. Make sense?
So back to that last sentence: “And if Cooper realized that reducing our total fat intake meant increasing our consumption of carbohydrates, he neglected to say so.” Reducing total fat does not mean increasing total carbohydrates. One could reduce or elevate total fat consumption completely independent of whether or not one increased or decreased total CHOs. Or total protein for that matter. However, if one adjusted their proportion of calories from fat, that may affect their proportion of calories from carbohydrate. Or it might not affect it at all, depending on how one’s protein intake is adjusted. It’s the difference between relative amounts and actual amounts. And if you were to ask me the former is rarely more relevant than the latter.
So to summarize, Cooper neglected to mention that reducing total fat intake would necessarily lead to an increase in carbohydrate consumption because he has a few brain cells to rub together.
* * *
On pages 407-408 Taubes discusses an obesity symposium held on the other side of the pond way back in the Summer of ’69. A text was published on the proceedings of this symposium.3 If you read through the text you will find it a relatively sober look at obesity that discusses its etiology and treatment. Some time is clearly spent in the text examining the multi-factorial causes of obesity: genetic, environmental, psychological, metabolic, and social & lifestyle factors. But Taubes doesn’t want to mention any of this to his readers; it’s too messy and confusing and doesn’t exactly fit with the narrative he is trying to craft. So instead he tries to find a sentence or two that would make his audience believe that all those smart Englishmen got together and concluded the carbohydrate was the scourge of the obesity epidemic.
At the London conference, Howard reviewed the literature on carbohydrate restriction dating back to Banting and concluded that this was the only effective method to induce and maintain weight loss. “A common feature of all who have written on the subject,” he said, is “that the patient’s hunger is satisfied whilst on a diet high in carbohydrate of the same caloric value, patients complain of hunger.”
Again, legitimate quote, but removed from a broader context because the broader context is unkind to Taubes. Elsewhere in Dr. Alan Howard’s presentation he effectively disproves Taubes’s entire thesis. There’s even a nice graph that Taubes would not want you to see.
And on page 103 Howard states
In conclusion, therefore, one can state that there is no evidence that over a long period, fat, carbohydrate and protein calories are substantially different, and the loss in body weight still depends on the total number of calories consumed.
I could quote endlessly from the proceedings that contrast starkly with how Taubes presents the symposium specifically and his arguments generally, but in the interest of readability I will refrain. I am not going to say that sugars and other carbohydrates can’t play a role in the development of obesity, but it’s certainly not nearly as one-dimensional as Taubes makes it out to be.
* * *
On pages 412-413, Taubes discusses a paper by Edgar Gordon, MD that influenced Atkins:
Gordon’s diet, as described in JAMA, began with a forty-eight hour fast-“not to produce a spectacular loss of weight, but rather to break a metabolic pattern of augmented lipogenesis”-and then allowed protein and fat as desired but limited carbohydrates to minimal fruits, green vegetables, and a half-slice of bread every day. “The total caloric value is quite high in terms of reducing diets,” wrote Gordon. Atkins later said his attention was caught by Gordon’s observation that his subjects lost weight without ever complaining of hunger.
This is a minor point so skip over it if you wish, but I’d like to note some things about the diet. First, it does not allow protein and fat as desired. It’s actually very specific in the amounts you are allowed (100 grams of protein, 80 grams of fat, and 50 grams of CHO totaling 1,320 calories daily), and it’s somewhat specific in the types of fat (emphasis is placed on polyunsaturated, while saturated fat is very limited – butter is a contraindicated food in this diet).4 I’m not sure where Taubes gets this “protein and fat as desired” claim, but it’s possible he misinterpreted a sentence in the paper. For instance, Gordon is a big proponent of having several meals (or “feedings”) per day as opposed to one or two larger meals. He explicitly stated that the prescribed diet be divided into at least six meals per day or more if desired. Maybe Taubes got confused and thought more meals = unlimited fat and protein.
A couple other things worth noting about the diet is that patients were also prescribed triiodothyronine (a lipolytic hormone) 3X daily in addition to diuretics: either injections of mercurials or daily administration of ammonium chloride.
* * *
As I mentioned in the intro, essentially this chapter attempts to make the case that the nutrition “elite” are terrified of the idea of low-carbohydrate diets so they systematically attempt to invalidate the idea by subtly impugning low-carb diets in obscure medical texts. If you think that idea is absurd then you’re not alone. Taubes however, seems to think it’s perfectly reasonable.
One example of this is page 420 where Taubes writes:
He [George Bray] dismissed as irrelevant the work of those investigators who did actively study the dietary treatment of obesity, like Charlotte Young, who gave the presentation on dietary therapy at the NIH conference on obesity that Bray organized and chaired in 1973. Young specialized in the study of body composition, and she had been studying diets and obesity at Cornell since 1950. In the official NIH report on the conference, Obesity in Perspective, Bray treated her discussion of carbohydrate-restricted diets as naïve and of no consequence. In the book he coedited the year after the conference, Treatment and Management of Obesity, Young’s observations on carbohydrate- restricted diets are described as still requiring further “confirmation before they can be fully accepted …. The question of the value of a low carbohydrate diet and its effectiveness in weight loss is still unresolved.” In The Obese Patient, published three years after the NIH conference, Bray wrote of Young’s studies, “The data are suggestive and require careful replication with larger groups of individuals.”
The first cited text is page 43 of Obesity in Perspective.5 The whole book is a summary of the conference and what each presenter discussed. Below is the paragraph where Young is mentioned.
In her presentation, DR. YOUNG noted that conventional nutritional treatment of the obesities has not been an outstanding success, although we know of people for whom it has been of great value. The use of behavioral modification, a technique introduced by DR. STUART, seems to be a move in the right direction since, in at least some cases, it is behavior which needs to be modified. Some questions which need probing are whether the obesities are primarily behavioral and consequences of habits or whether they are symptoms of some more fundamental psychologic or psysiologic abnormality. Dr. Young also asked whether there were alterations in the efficiency with which energy was utilized by obese and lean subjects. She also questioned the role of the changes in the number of fat cells in juvenile and adult onset forms of obesity. Finally, in reviewing nutritional approaches to treatment, she raised questions about the mechanisms by which the hypothalamus senses the abnormalities present in the obese state.
I’m gonna leave it up to you to decide if in his summary of Young’s presentation he editorialized it in such a way as to indicate her ideas were “naïve and of no consequence.” Actually, I’m not gonna leave it up to you. I’m just gonna tell you that it didn’t. Taubes just made that up. In no way did anything in that paragraph characterize Young as naïve and of no consequence. It’s not even Bray’s opinion: it’s just a summary of what Young presented herself.
In Treatment and Management of Obesity the full context of the quote is thus: The author of this chapter of the text – which was actually written by Grant Gwinup and not George Bray as Taubes implies – discusses some studies on the topic of diet and exercise and their effects on obesity.6 In one paragraph he mentions some studies where people were put on diets that varied greatly in proportions of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, yet weight loss was consistent despite the fraction of macronutrients. Then he follows with this paragraph:
Recent studies by Young et al. has suggested, on the other hand, that a very low carbohydrate diet may indeed increase the rate at which body fat is catabolized. Their studies, on a small number of college students, require confirmation before they can be fully accepted. However, they suggest that a carbohydrate content of less than 50 g/day in the diet is sufficient to cause increased rates of weight loss compared to 60-104 g of carbohydrate in a diet with the same total number of calories. Thus, the question of the value of a low carbohydrate diet and its effectiveness in weight loss is still unresolved.
Does that sound at all dismissive of Young or her studies? Or is it the exact same thing you will find in any good piece of scientific writing that discusses a given topic (i.e. some studies demonstrate X, while these others suggest Y)? Hint: It’s the latter.
And as for that quote in The Obese Patient I can’t find it.7 I found three times in the book where Young is cited and none have anything to do with that quote. Perhaps it’s in there, but if it is I cannot find it. If you’re interested in the context where Bray does cite Young… Regarding changes in body composition over a lifetime on page 22 he writes “The data from several cross sectional studies of men and women have been summarized by Forbes and Reina (1970) (see also Behnke, 1963; Krzywicki and Chinn, 1967; Young et al., 1963; Norris, Lundy and Shock, 1963; Flynn et al., 1968).” And on page 179 in discussing how smaller, more frequent meals affects cholesterol levels where Bray writes “This reduction of cholesterol with frequent ingestion of small meals has been confirmed in several other studies (Gwinup et al., 1963; Jagannathan et al., 1964; Irwin and Feeley, 1967; Young et al., 1972). Glucose tolerance curves are also improved when eating three or more meals as compared with one or two large meals (Fabry et al., 1964; Gwinup et al., 1963l Young et al., 1972).”
Bray is so devastatingly cruel to Young, right? How could Bray live with himself after saying such harsh things?
* * *
The Carb Cosa Nostra is at again! Time for good research to sleep with the fishes. An example of this is found on page 421:
When M. R. C. Greenwood discussed the effect of insulin on the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, LPL, the “gatekeeper” for fat accumulation in cells, at the Fourth International Congress on Obesity, Hirsch ignored the implications in his review of dietary therapy, even though Greenwood had received her doctoral degree with Hirsch.
Let’s unpack this because there is quite a bit of bullshit in that single sentence. First off, Taubes cites the same source for Greenwood’s LPL presentation and Hirsch’s presentation that allegedly “ignored” Greenwood: The Proceedings of the 4th International Congress on Obesity.8 I think it’s worth pointing out a few things:
- Hirsch was Greenwood’s thesis advisor. Hirsch was also the chair of the Fourth International Congress on Obesity. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Hirsch played a role in Greenwood’s presence at the conference, so he’s not trying to silence her.
- Taubes stating that Greenwood “discussed the effect of insulin on the enzyme lipoprotein lipase” is generous. She does discuss LPL, but insulin in mentioned literally one time and not in context of LPL – at least not directly.
- In regards to both of the presentations, they were given at the same conference. Hirsch appeared to have given two very brief presentations on diet and obesity; both very generalized, like an overview. Did Taubes expect that Hirsch was in the audience for Greenwood’s presentation, fully absorbed everything Greenwood had to say about normal and abnormal growth and maintenance of adipose tissue vis-à-vis LPL and insulin (which was mentioned only once), amend his original presentation that he had prepared on a basic overview of diet, and get into the weeds of the cellular mechanisms of fat cell regulation? I mean, really? Is this how Taubes operates at conferences? Does he incorporate details of all the previous presentations at the same conference, even if it is outside the scope of his talk? If he doesn’t do this does some asshole accuse him of ignoring research?
* * *
Another instance of the above is found on page 420-421 where Taubes states:
Donald Novin, director of the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, discussed what he called the “carbohydrate hypothesis of ingestive behavior” at Bray’s Second International Congress on Obesity. Novin suggested that the “widespread popularity of the low carbohydrate diets” could be explained by the effect of carbohydrates on insulin, and then of insulin on fat deposition and thus hunger. Bray, who had worked closely with Novin at UCLA, gave the summary talk at the conference on obesity therapies and omitted mention of Novin’s hypothesis.
And the same bullet-points apply.
- Bray chaired the goddamned 2nd International Congress on Obesity and edited its proceedings. I’m sure he wasn’t trying to bury Novin’s research, but if he was he was doing a real bad job at it.
- I’m not sure Novin’s presentation has much overlap with Bray’s. If you read Novin’s presentation you will discover that he discusses how glucose infusion suppresses feeding in rabbits, but if you perform a vagotomy on the rabbits the infused glucose will stimulate feeding to some extent.9 (At the time Novin doesn’t even know why this is stating “We have no explanations, only speculation.”) While Bray’s presentation is about the risk-benefit ratio of certain dietary treatments of obesity.
- Taubes shits on Bray for not performing the completely absurd and irrational practice of revising and incorporating a pre-prepared talk on risk-benefit analysis with some preliminary and inconclusive research on rabbits that was given earlier in the day. Presumably Bray should have also revised and incorporated the results of all 25 talks that preceded his own, lest someone like Taubes accuse him of “omitting” important research and attempting to stifle scientific progress some thirty years later.
If you didn’t read the wall of text above I will attempt to summarize. Throughout this chapter Taubes attempts to craft the narrative that the TruthTM of the efficacy of low carb diets were systematically buried or conspicuously ignored by unscrupulous diet researchers (which inevitably led to the rise of Coke and Pepsi and the obesity epidemic). However, the evidence presented for this cover-up is either very weak or completely made up. The only cover-up presented in this chapter is Taubes’s use of Occam’s Broom: where inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet.
1. It seems pretty clear in his newspaper ad, though, which looks pretty scammy if you ask me. “‘Only 10 years out of medical school I was already a fat man. 40 pounds overweight, with 3 chins! Yet I have no willpower – even the idea of hunger scares me. I knew I could not follow a low-calorie diet for even a single day.’ He read about FMH, and by using his own body as a laboratory, discovered that he could command it to make this miracle hormone whenever he wished.” FMH by the way stands for Fat Metabolizing Hormone according to the ad, and as far as I know it’s completely made up.
2. United States. Nutrition and diseases–1973 [-1974] Hearings, Ninety-third Congress, first[-second] session. (U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1973).
3. Obesity: Medical and Scientific Aspects : Proceedings of the 1st Symposium of the Obesity Association of Great Britain Held in London, October 1968. (E. & S. Livingstone Limited, 1969).
4. Gordon ES, Goldberg M & Chosy GJ. A new concept in the treatment of obesity: A 48-hour total fast followed by six meals a day and later by stepwise increases in food and calorie intake has permitted patients to lose weight that they show no tendency to regain for periods of up to 6 months. it also promoted spontaneous evolution of good dietary habits. JAMA 186, 50–60 (1963).
5. Bray, G. Obesity in Perspective. Vol 2. (DHEW, 1973).
6. in Treatment and Management of Obesity (eds. Bray, G. A. & Bethune, J. E.) 93–102 (Harper and Row, 1974).
7. Bray, G. A. The obese patient. (W. B. Saunders, 1976).
8. Hirsch, J. & VanItallie, T. B. Recent Advances in Obesity Research, Volume IV: International Congress Proceedings: 4th. (CRC Press, 1985).
9. Recent Advances in Obesity Research: International Congress Proceedings: 2nd. (Hemming Information Services, 1978).