Tag Archives: obesity

Seeking escape velocity from nutritional Bizarro World

The new book from (The Great) Gary Taubes is finally out: Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It.

Taubes is obviously a man on a mission, nearly bursting with frustration at the anti-scientific and near-religious wishful thinking that has been passing for diet, nutrition, and public health advice for the last few decades. Near-religious? Yes — really. Why else would we be told this by “experts” for so long, even though their theories can readily be falsified?

If we’re fat and we can prove that we eat in moderation — we don’t eat any more, say, than do our lean friends or siblings — the experts will confidently assume that we must be physically inactive. If we’re carrying excess fat but obviously get plenty of exercise, then the experts will assume with equal confidence that we eat too much. If we’re not gluttons, then we must be guilty of sloth. If we’re not slothful, then gluttony is our sin. [WWGF, p. 29]

But Taubes keeps his vexation in check, using his energy instead to boil down the evidence in his magnum opus Good Calories, Bad Calories to its essence for easier reading. (You may recall that I once called GCBC “a 50/50 split between ‘gripping’ and ‘a hard slog'”.)

Most of all, he uses plain logic and helpful metaphors, along with tinctures of hard science and hard data, to show how diet experts’ arguments and advice — like “Just eat less and exercise more” and “Low-carb is dangerous because our brains need glucose to function” — amount to little more than “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” The logic and the data are useful for applying appropriate skepticism when you face the latest scientific paper that goes awry in its very first sentence by asserting that access to “unlimited calories” and an “increasing sedentary lifestyle” are the problem. Here’s something useful to know (and not all that surprising to learn): we’re exercising harder than ever.

…[I]n the United States … the obesity epidemic has coincided with what we might call an epidemic of leisure-time physical activity, of health clubs and innovative means of expending energy (in-line skating, mountain biking, step and elliptical machines, spinning and aerobics, Brazilian martial-arts classes — the list goes on), virtually all of which we were invented or radically redesigned since the obesity epidemic began.

There are many ways to quantify this epidemic of physical activity. Health-club industry revenues, for example, increased from an estimated $200 million in 1972 to $16 billion in 2005 — a seventeen-fold increase when adjusted for inflation. The first year that the Boston Marathon had more than 300 entrants was 1964; in 2009, more than 26,000 men and women ran. [WWGF, p. 42]

I suppose I’m no longer truly in the target audience for this book, since I can already recite many of the arguments in my sleep. And logic may have very little power over those with a vested interest in believing the opposite. But if you’ve struggled with weight (or — neologism alert — “diabesity”) and have been following along here but haven’t yet read GCBC, I recommend WWGF to you, either as a standalone work or as a gateway drug to the hard stuff.

Don’t eat the monkey chow

I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, but kept delaying because I worried about coming off as a zealot or a loon. Yeah, I know, some people already think of me as zealous and loony about a lot of things, but somehow the noun versions seem worse.

The thing is, I want my family and friends and colleagues (and myself) to be as healthy and happy as possible. And over the last five years I’ve learned, and confirmed to my own satisfaction, some information about health and nutrition that I very much want to share towards that end. But while the science is pretty much settled (no, not that science), public-health stances and conventional wisdom are another matter.

In a nutshell, the science I’m referring to is:

carbohydrate intake (not dietary fat) drives insulin response, which drives fat accumulation and potentially other serious health issues

or, in a smaller nutshell:

carbs drive fat

By now, lots of ordinary people and big-time news outlets have become aware of this Atkins diet/Gary Taubes/low-carb stuff and taken it seriously, so it’s not exactly news. But I finished reading Taubes’s book Good Calories, Bad Calories a few months ago, and it left such a strong impression on me that I thought I might have something to add to the discussion.

My original intent was to do a humongous book review/analysis here and get it out of my system, but I realized that wouldn’t work — there’s too much to say. Then it occurred to me: Blogs allow for these things called entries, which can be written over time… My next thought was to start a new blog to hold all this stuff, and in fact I got as far as securing carbgrrl.com for that purpose. But then some friends convinced me that integrating my interests in one place is best, and after all, this is already a hybrid blog that has seen lots of evolution. (If you want to see just the stuff in my new carbgrrl category, carbgrrl.com will take you straight there.)

If you’re curious, or skeptical but interested, or have struggled as I have with a lifelong weight problem and associated health issues, I hope I’ll succeed in enticing you to check out Good Calories, Bad Calories (hereinafter GCBC, and now available in paperback). One review on the dust jacket of my hardcover edition describes it as having “engaging narrative”; I’d say it’s more like a 50/50 split between “gripping” and “a hard slog”. For me it was an important slog, but if you want the easy-breezy route, you could do worse than read Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, which, to the first couple of approximations, turns out to be…correct.

My original book review was shaping up to have several themes, so keep an eye out for ruminations along these lines:

  • The mechanisms at work
  • Diet studies and stats
  • Now they tell us (otherwise known as “Duh”)
  • Correlation is not causation
  • The public-health establishment

If you’ve stuck with me this far, by now you’re probably wondering: What’s with the monkey chow? Here’s some food (ahem) for thought to get things started.

Monkeys in captivity, by the way, will also get obese and diabetic on high-carbohydrate chow diets. One of the first reports of this phenomenon was in 1965, by John Brobeck of Yale, whose rhesus monkeys got fat and mildly diabetic on Purina Monkey Chow — 15 percent protein, 6 percent fat, and 59 percent digestible carbohydrates. According to Barbara Hansen, who studies diabetes and obesity and runs a primate-research laboratory at the University of Maryland, perhaps 60 percent of middle-aged monkeys in captivity are obese by monkey standards. “This is on the kind of diet recommended by the American Heart Association,” she says, “high-fiber, low-fat, no-cholesterol chow.” [GCBC Ch. 14, p. 249]

Stay tuned for more.