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US science journalist and author Gary Taubes makes a habit of demolishing cherished but unscientific beliefs about nutrition. Taubes was one of the speakers at the first international low-carb, high-fat Banting Summit in Cape Town from February 19 to 22.
He is author of two blockbuster works that have effectively demolished the diet heart hypothesis: Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat.
One of his earlier demolition jobs was on salt. In 2012, he wrote an intriguing opinion piece in the New York Times, Salt, We Misjudged You, on his early research showing that the belief that salt causes hypertension is based on shaky science at best, and that dietary guidelines recommending that we should all eat less salt could even be harmful.
At the Banting Summit, his target has been the ongoing belief in many medical quarters that saturated fat causes heart disease. Taubes says it is simply unscientific. Here he speaks about how he moved from physics to engineering and journalism and finally his focus on health nutrition. So much dietary advice doctors dish out– that food can’t make you fat if it doesn’t have fat in it, is based on ‘terrible science’, Taubes says. Here’s why. – MS
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This is Marika Sboros, reporting from South Africa’s first Low Carb/High Fat Summit in Cape Town and with me today is Gary Taubes from the US. He is the author of Good Calories/Bad Calories, which is known in the UK as the diet delusion as well as a seminal work, called Why We Get Fat. Gary, thank you very much for talking to me.
Thank you for having me.
Gary, before we get onto the topic of low carb/high fat, tell me about your background. I know that you studied at Harvard. You studied physics, engineering, and journalism. Tell me about that journey.
I was neither cut out to be a physicist nor an engineer and that was clear as soon as testing started for the classes. I had always wanted to be a journalist, so when I got the opportunity to go to Columbia Journalism School, I took it, hoping to be an investigative reporter. When I got out of Columbia, the only jobs that I could get that seemed interesting, were in science writing.
You wrote for the Journal of Science.
Eventually, I wrote for the Journal of Science. I started with a magazine called Discover; a couple of years in, I had the opportunity to realise that there’s a lot of bad science in the world, and that there’s a kind of call for investigative science journalism. With my first book, I looked at a physics laboratory outside of Geneva. I watched some very, very smart physicist discover non-existent elementary particles and a book that I thought was going to be great breakthrough, turned out to be an exposé on the world of high-energy physics.
My second book was another exposé on bad science (that was called Bad Science) and some of my friends in the physics community, of which, I had many by now said “well, if you’re into investigating bad science, you should look at some of the stuff in public health. It’s terrible.” I moved into public health and wrote some long investigative pieces and eventually, kind of fell into the nutrition world. By the late nineties, I realised some of our cherished beliefs about nutrition were based on pretty terrible science.
Are you talking about dietary guidelines?
Yes. In this case, the first piece I ever did was on the idea that salt was the cause of hypertension. I spent about nine months on that one. When I wrote that article for the Journal Science, I interviewed about 80 researchers and administrators. I read stacks and stacks of papers. I even recruited researchers as referees for me. I couldn’t pay them, but I could offer them very expensive dinners if they would read all the crucial papers. While I was doing the salt story, one of the worst scientists I’d ever had the opportunity to interview (and I’d interviewed some terrible scientists in my life), took credit, not just for getting Americans to eat less salt, but to eat less fat and less eggs as well.
Is that part of the diet-heart hypothesis?
That was part of the diet-heart hypothesis. I literally got off the phone with this fellow and I called my editor at Science. I said to him: “That’s the worst scientist I’ve ever interviewed. He just took credit for getting Americans to go on a low-fat diet. When I’m done with the salt story, I’m going to write about Fat Max. I don’t know what the story is, but if this guy was involved in any substantive way, I bet there’s a story there.”
That’s interesting; so that’s how you became interested in it.
Yes. I had no preconceptions whatsoever. I was eating a low-fat diet, as everyone else was. I was gaining weight as everyone else was. That story took me a year and I interviewed about 140 researchers.
How long ago was that?
This was in 1999/2000. By the time I was done with that, it was clear that our belief that a low-fat diet as a healthy diet was based on rather terrible research. That led me into this obesity question, and I’ve been working on that ever since. For example, why did we get fat? What prompted the explosion of obesity during the 1970’s and 1980’s in the US, and has since been going on worldwide?
In a nutshell, what do you believe is causing the obesity epidemics, diabetes epidemics, cancer, and heart disease?
It began in the 1960’s and picked up speed in the 1970’s. We began telling people that we should eat low-fat diets and that fat was a primary cause of heart disease. There was also the belief that went along with it: that food can’t make you fat if it doesn’t have fat in it. All of this led us to eat more carbohydrate-rich foods and even more sugar. An iconic example is yoghurt. If you want to make low-fat yoghurt, you take some of the fat out, but now you have this watery stuff that has fewer calories, so you have to replace the fat with something that makes it taste good. What you do (at least, in the United States) is you replace it with high fructose corn syrup and some kind of foodie, sugary stuff. Now you have a food-like substance (as Michael Pollen says) that’s lower in fat than the original and is jacked up with sugar/high-fructose corn syrup. What was originally healthy food is now something that I believe would make you fat.
In population-wide evidence, you can see that sugar consumption goes up, carbohydrate consumption goes up, and weight goes up. Diabetes rates skyrocket. The argument I’ve been making is not that we all start eating too much or that we become lazy, but that we shifted our diets as we were told to do – to eat lower fat, which meant more carbohydrates and we started eating these refined grains. When I was growing up in the sixties, my mother believed in pasta, bread, potatoes, and rice etcetera. By the eighties, everybody was eating baked potato diet food. Bagels were something, which we ate all the time. Pasta was something you ate every night. I was living in New York. Every couple in New York had their favourite pasta dishes that they’d make at dinner parties. They were all supposed to be heart-healthy diet foods because there was no fat in it.
The US has now pardoned cholesterol, or so the reports go?
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has allegedly suggested that they pardon cholesterol.
So it has not been pardoned, quite yet?
Well, it remains to be seen whether this will be in the final version of the dietary guidelines. The Advisory Committee recommends particular advice and then the Guidelines Committee itself has set aside what to take. What I find amusing about that is that the way it’s been reported, is as if science has changed so that it’s now clearer that dietary cholesterol has little or no effect on blood cholesterol. This was actually, first shown in 1937 and then it was demonstrated rather conclusively, in the early 1960’s in humans, by the nutritionist Ancel Keys (one of the few things Ancel Keys got right).
Yet he is responsible for the diet-heart hypothesis.
The diet-heart hypothesis, as we embraced it, which is that the saturated fat in our diet raises cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol that causes heart disease. It’s pretty much all wrong.
The Dietary Advisory Committee may be pardoning cholesterol, but I see they’re still demonise saturated fats.
I assume they’re still going to demonise saturated fat again. We won’t know until the final report comes out. Another rumour I heard is that they’re willing to recommend that they even remove lean meat from the recommended foods we should be eating.
So they still believe that meat causes cancer and things like that?
It’s hard to tell what they believe and what this is based on. With some people, there’s also the argument that raising livestock is a major contributor to global climate change.
Do you believe that?
I haven’t seen sufficient evidence to make me believe that there’s a controversy. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years in this kind of research is that once some evidence is reported supporting someone’s preconception, no other amount of evidence is usually enough to shake them from that preconception.
Do you think that’s what happened with the diet-heart hypothesis?
Well, that’s clearly, what happened with the diet-heart hypothesis. Certain people have remarkable immune systems with which to defend themselves from having to deal with any evidence that suggests that they were ever wrong. One of the things I documented – excruciatingly – in my first book, Good Calories Bad Calories is that this methodology and fear any time a study comes up with evidence suggesting your beliefs are wrong.
You figure out a way to ignore that study or render it irrelevant. You decide it was done poorly or it was the wrong population. You reject it immediately. The metaphor you’d use for the book: let’s say I had a coin and I wanted to convince you that that coin had only one side. Every time I flip it, it comes up heads I count it and every time it comes up tails, I call (as a kid does) a do-over. I’d say ‘I didn’t flip it correctly’ or ‘that one doesn’t count’. Then you end up with ten heads in a row and you say ‘look, it only has one side’.
The implications for people’s health globally, over the years: what would you say those have been for this kind of science?
The key issue here is you have these obesity and diabetes epidemics that are out of control. You have populations where diabetes rates for example, during the course of 30 or 40 years, in some cases have gone from two or three percent of the population to 20 or even 30 percent of the population, so one in three adults would have diabetes. Since Type 2 Diabetes is so closely associated with obesity, the conventional assumption is that the reason everyone became diabetic because they became fat. The reason they became fat was because they ate too much or they’re too lazy, and so what they have to do is eat less of all foods, exercise more and that will solve the problem or at least prevent it from getting worse. That’s the conventional thinking.
The alternative hypothesis is that the carbohydrates we eat, particularly sugars, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and refined grains actually, cause obesity by their effects on this insulin singling system. They call this diabetes by their effect on the insulin and they maybe even cause many cancers, again, because of their effect on insulin. Other hormones are assuredly involved as well but the primary one again, is insulin, which we think of as a hormone that works to facilitate the uptake of blood sugar by cells. When it’s defective, you get diabetes but it has a whole host of different functions, including fat and fat cells.
In your view, what is the optimum health diet for somebody who is diabetic or pre-diabetic?
Bear in mind that I’m a journalist and not a doctor so I’m not supposed to give medical advice: Low to very low carbohydrate diet, no sugars, no sweets, and proteins and fats. You’re eating a lot of animal products and green vegetable.
What do you have for breakfast? What’s a typical breakfast for you?
That’s where it becomes problematic. It’s funny because with lunch and dinner, you can have a meal that would make everyone happy. For lunch, you could have salmon and green salad and nobody’s going to say: “oh, you’re on some kind of fat diet”. You could do the same kind of thing for dinner. Have roast chicken with a green salad or a double order of broccoli or some kind of greens.
Nobody will notice.
Nobody would care. Breakfast: you’re pretty much stuck with eggs and of course, bacon is considered a health food by many people who follow this kind of eating.
Do you eat bacon?
I do eat bacon and I like bacon.
Do you have any problems with your weight these days?
Not if I don’t eat carbohydrates, but I could be biased. As long as I stick to staying away from starches, grains, and sweets, I seem to be able to eat as much as I want to, and stay relatively the same way that I’ve been for 20 or 30 years.
What’s the subject of your next book?
Do you believe its white poison?
I believe it’s white poison. It’s a bit more inflammatory than the term that I would use, but I do believe you could make a rather strong argument that it has killed more people than cigarettes have. Actually, one reason I can make that argument is that one of the things that cigarette smoking changed at the beginning of the 20th century when the tobacco industry started curing the cigarettes with sugar, which made the tobacco easier to inhale so you could take it into your lungs.
I didn’t know they’d done that.
If they did it without sugar and nothing else, tobacco would be a lot harder to inhale and there’d be much less lung cancer but there’s significant reason to believe – it doesn’t mean it’s true, but I can make a good argument – that sugar is the cause of Type 2 Diabetes and probably the primary trigger of obesity. In other words, once a population starts eating significant amounts of sugar, they develop this condition called insulin resistance and that makes the other carbohydrates in their diet problematic as well. Without the sugar, you have effectively, Southeast Asia until the last 20/30 years where the carbohydrates are relatively benign. That’s my theory and that’s the argument I’ll make in the book. Whether it’s right or not remains to be seen.
When are you hoping to publish?
I’m hoping to finish a draft by this summer. The book is already two years overdue. If I finish it this summer and my editor likes it, then maybe it will be out by next spring.
I look forward to reading it. We have run out of time. Gary Taubes, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
Thank you very much for taking the interest.
I’m Marika Sboros from the first Low Carb/High Fat Summit in Cape Town. We’ve been talking to author/science journalist/investigative journalist (of note), Gary Taubes.