I would very much appreciate any thoughts you have regarding Gary Taubes.
— Karen Carabio
This question arrived in my inbox on March 3, the same day I heard that Mr. Taubes was due to speak at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health on March 13.
I wanted to attend that event before answering Karen’s question, so as to truly familiarize myself with his theories and viewpoints.
If you are not familiar with Gary Taubes, he is a journalist and physicist who has contributed articles to Science magazine since the 80s.
He became a semi household name in August of 2002 when his article “What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie?” made the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
Its main point? Carbohydrates — and only carboydrates — are to blame for rising obesity rates in the United States.
Cut out carbs from your diet, Taubes claimed, and you won’t gain weight. And when he says “carbohydrates”, he’s even referring to whole grains.
His article paved the way for the 2002 rebirth of the Atkins diet.
And what a rebirth it was! Six hundred low-carb products were launched in 2003.
Even common products like oils, cheese, and diet sodas included large “Low Carb!” stickers on their packaging, capitalizing on consumers’ growing interest in shunning carbohydrate-rich foods.
By 2005, however, the hype died down, the Atkins company filed for bankruptcy, and “low carb” was out (thank goodness!).
That certainly didn’t change Taubes’ mind, though.
Last year, he pubished Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease.
Its main point? Dietitians are blaming the wrong guy for this country’s increasing weight problems.
Obesity, Taubes claims, is not caused by overeating. Not only that — calories have nothing to do with weight gain or loss!
So what is the cause? Taubes attributes it to insulin.
The more insulin you produce, he believes, the more weight you gain.
Therefore, it follows that carbohydrates (which raise blood glucose levels more than fat or protein, thereby signaling the body to release more insulin) cause weight gain.
At his March 13 NYU talk, Taubes presented a few more points.
He first referred to animal studies demonstrating that when animals overfeed themselves, their metabolism revs up and burns more energy than usual; when they underfeed, their metabolism slows down.
Taubes went on to explain that the same concept can be attributed to humans.
If we overeat, he explained, our bodies are smart enough to know to burn more calories. If we undereat, our metabolism slows down.
In Taubes’ view, calories in and of themselves are irrelevant because our bodies can handle what comes their way.
Fair enough — one of the main flaws behind very low calorie diets is that they end up slowing metabolism down, thereby making it easier to gain weight when regular eating patterns are resumed.
And while it is true that our metabolisms can compensate if we overeat by 50 or so calories, don’t count on it to balance things out if you overeat by 300, 500, 1,000 or 1,200 calories.
Taubes claims that all overweight people are in such a state simply because of high carbohydrate consumption.
Okay, but can he point to examples of people overeating calories and NOT gaining weight?
Taubes believes that “portion control” only works because people are eating less carbohydrates.
Yes, but they are also eating less fat and protein, thereby discrediting his entire argument.
After the talk, a member of the audience asked Taubes how he explains many Asian cultures subsisting on “bad carbs” like white rice and having lower obesity rates than the United States.
His response? “Well, they’ve been eating rice for thousands of years, so their bodies are just used to it.” Huh?
At one point in his talk, Taubes claimed that sugar and refined carbohydrates are only approximately a hundred years old or so in much of Europe and North America.
I would love to know where he got that information from, since the most basic of research on sugar points to its existence in Persia around 650 AD, and its delivery by European Crusaders to their continent in 1100 AD.
Sugar is not new. It has been consumed by civilizations around the world for centuries. Following his logic then, why aren’t most humans “immune” to calories from sugar?
Overweight and obesity are clearly linked to a higher consumption of calories.
If you are skeptical, do me a favor and eat 1,000 more calories than usual (solely from pure fat or protein sources; absolutely no carbs) every day for a month.
Then, get on a scale.
Or, try the reverse and subsist on 400 calories of pure carbohydrates every single day for a month. According to Taubes, you would still gain weight.
Taubes was also asked by an audience member if he thinks it is possible for humans to live healthfully without consuming a single gram of carbohydrates.
His answer? A resounding “yes.”
At one point in his presentation, he even referred to fiber as “insignificant.” I thought my eyebrows were going to reach the ceiling.
I seriously wonder how he came to this conclusion; a thorough review of the evidence-based research on fiber consumption and its role in decreading cancer risks (particularly colon and prostate ones) clearly demonstrates the important role it plays in overall health.
Once again, this theory can easily be disputed by trying it out yourself.
If you think fiber is irrelevant to your health, go two weeks on a fiber-free diet — no laxatives allowed! I’m pretty sure you’ll soon realize just how crucial fiber is.
By the way, Taubes’ infamous 2002 article quickly received a response from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Washington Post health reporter Sally Squires (I am unable to find her excellent article online — can anyone help?).
Michael Fumento of Reason magazine also added his two cents at the time.
Gary Taubes fired back a response, which in turn was replied to by Fumento.
I have provided links to all these articles to enable you to read and form your own conclusions.
I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this.