Challenging the Dogma

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • A leading obesity researcher, G. A. Bray, has written his analysis of Gary Taubes's book Good Calories, Bad Calories in the current issue of the journal Obesity Reviews.


    I previously wrote about the Taubes book, and Taubes generously answered questions on this site.


    Bray admits that the book "has much useful information and is well worth reading." But he obviously doesn't buy its main premise: that it's carbohydrates, not fat, that cause heart disease and are driving the current obesity "epidemic."


    Obviously, he's entitled to his opinion, but I find some of his logic a bit strange. For example, he says, "However, some of the conclusions that the author reaches are not consistent with current concepts about obesity."

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    Well, duh, to put it bluntly.


    The point of the book is to challenge current concepts about obesity and heart disease and to get people thinking about new ways to look at these problems. Bray, like a lot of doctors, seems to think that anyone who doesn't have an M.D. is incapable of independent thought and should simply parrot the opinions of the current leaders in the field.


    Yet it's often people who propose something that contradicts "current dogma" who are the ones who in the long run contribute the most to science.


    Simply continuing down the same path as everyone else also does advance science in little dribs and drabs.  But it's the creative thinkers who say, "Wait a minute. What if this currently popular idea is all wrong? What if we need to look at the problem in a new way?" who are responsible for major advances.


    When I read Bray's comment, I imagined a 16th journal reviewing the recent work of Copernicus, who proposed that the earth circled the sun. "This book has much useful information," the reviewer might write in Latin, "However, some of the conclusions that the author reaches are not consistent with current eclesiastical concepts that the earth is the center of the universe."


    In fact, such was the position of the church. But today we think of the 16th century church leaders as being as misguided as the people trying to turn lead into gold, and Copernicus is highly respected.


    When I was in college, my professors ridiculed a scientist named Lynn Margulis, who supported the view that mitochondria, the organelles within cells that produce energy for the cell, had evolved from bacteria that had invaded single-cell organisms. "Some woman thinks that mitochondria evolved from bacteria," they said, and we all had a good laugh.


    But now almost everyone agrees that she was right.


    When I was in college, my professors also ridiculed the idea of continental drift, or plate techtonics. But now almost everyone accepts that theory.


    Richard Bernstein, who has type 1 diabetes, was heading rapidly toward death when he discovered that he could control his diabetes a lot better if he omitted most carbohydrates from his diet. At the time "current concepts about diabetes," as endorsed by the American Diabetes Association, were that the best diet for someone with diabetes was low in fat and high in starch.


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    Today, more and more professionals are beginning to agree with Bernstein. Even the ADA has finally admitted that low-carb diets are OK for weight loss, although they can't bring themselves to admit that they also work well for people who have no weight to lose.


    So "not being consistent with current concepts" is no reason an idea is wrong.


    Clearly, there are many different reasons that people become fat. In controlled laboratory studies, limiting calories always results in weight loss. But so what! People don't live in laboratories with carefully prepared calorie-controlled meals all their lives.


    Controlling weight -- and keeping weight off once you've lost it -- is always difficult in the real world, and it's unrealistic to expect people never to eat much when they're ravenously hungry unless they're locked into a hospital ward and only allowed to eat what you serve them.


    The tendency among many obesity researchers is to conclude that because overeating can cause obesity, it's having no willpower that causes people to overeat and hence to gain weight. Taubes, on the other hand, thinks that something (and he thinks it's carbohydrates) makes people take food and deposit it into the fat cells, and this "energy deficit" creates the ravenous appetite that the obesity researchers observe.


    We desperately need new theories about why Americans are getting too fat. We'll have to wait and see whether Taubes's ideas will prove to be correct in the long run. But in the meantime, I think they're interesting and provocative, and people should use them to design new studies to test their validity rather than putting them down because they contradict today's "experts."


Published On: August 18, 2008