As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been reading Gary Taubes’s new book Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease. It’s a dense read (with about 2,000 references, and no, I didn’t check them all), but I’ve finally finished it, and I recommend it to anyone who really wants to understand where we’ve come in the past century, and why.
Taubes spent five years researching and writing the book, and the manuscript may have been completed a year or more ago. The production process takes time. At one point he referred to the “current” president of Rockefeller University, and when I checked, I found she’d left in 2004.
This suggests that he wasn’t able to include some of the recent research supporting low-carb diets, even though avoiding carbohydrates – especially highly processed carbohydrates – is one of the primary messages of the book. Taubes feels that these carbohydrates – not fats – are the cause of both heart disease and obesity (and other “diseases of civilization” including Alzheimer’s disease) in the developed world today.
Taubes says he didn’t expect to come to this conclusion when he began his research. So, unlike some of the governmental dietary prescriptions he describes, his work was not a case of deciding what you think people should be eating and then trying to do research that would prove you correct.
In fact, one of the strengths of this book is its historical perspective. He shows with voluminous references to studies (even my eyes glazed over at times, and I couldn’t read more than a few chapters at a time) and interviews of people who helped mold governmental policies how current ideas evolved, as well as how important accidents of history or personalities can be in the conclusions to which scientists come.
For example, one theory of obesity is that it is not caused by overeating but by a metabolic defect in the body’s energy distribution and fat metabolism. The other school of thought is that obesity is caused by a lack of self-control: eating too much and exercising too little.
The former hypothesis “vanished from the mainstream thinking” on human obesity with World War II, because its main champions were German and Austrian scientists, and their community was destroyed by the war.
At the same time, the U.S. supporters of this hypothesis died or retired, and the younger scientists replacing them supported the overeating theory and described that theory as fact in all the textbooks on obesity, despite a lack of firm evidence. Today’s physicians, of course, read those textbooks on obesity and accepted the theories as truth.
Good Calories, Bad Calories is not a diet book. If you’re looking for a diet plan or a lot of yummy recipes, you won’t enjoy this book. In fact, the first part of the book isn’t about weight at all; it’s about diet and heart disease and the cholesterol hypothesis.
But if you want to understand why the American Heart Association tells you to avoid saturated fat and eat more “healthy complex carbohydrates” instead or why the American Diabetes Association tells you to “make starch the star,” you’ll learn a lot by reading this book.