carbgrrl · 2011-01-09

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.