What if it’s all been a big fat lie?

This NYT article by science journalist Gary Taubes is fascinating. If you’ve ever tried to be thinner and failed at that, maybe it’s because the advice you followed was based on a big fat lie.

If the members of the American medical establishment were to have a collective find-yourself-standing-naked-in-Times-Square-type nightmare, this might be it. They spend 30 years ridiculing Robert Atkins, author of the phenomenally-best-selling Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution and Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, accusing the Manhattan doctor of quackery and fraud, only to discover that the unrepentant Atkins was right all along. Or maybe it’s this: they find that their very own dietary recommendations — eat less fat and more carbohydrates — are the cause of the rampaging epidemic of obesity in America. Or, just possibly this: they find out both of the above are true. [continue]

Edited to add:

Anyone interested in this topic would do well to read the following two books, also by Gary Taubes:

These are well-researched and provide much to ponder.

Related articles:

  • Interview: Gary Taubes from pbs.org — In this interview, Taubes explains his motivation for writing his piece, the science behind the low-carbohydrate diet, and the contention he faced when he published his findings.

9 responses

  1. It is important to note that the NYT article is from 2002 and a lot of further research has been done since then and there is still not a lot of support for the long term benefits of the Atkins diet and still a lot of concerns about the long term health issues of following this diet.

  2. It’s also important to read the whole article, since it really isn’t about Atkins and his diet per se, but about a gradually emerging alternative hypothesis regarding the role and importance of particular nutritional processes in the body, and their implications. I suppose the author thought that by referencing the well-known Atkins in the opening of the article this would grab readers’ attention, but it is also somewhat misleading.

  3. Why does it have to be Atkins is wrong or Atkins is right? Surely all these concepts suffer a common flaw of not resulting is a balanced and mixed diet? The South Beach Diet designed by Dr Andrew Agatston more than a decade ago and based on principles also used in Gi and Gl based diets appear to offer a much more balanced approach to diet. exercise and lifestyle, and these principles are alluded to in the full article but the headline and thrust of the debate is Atkins Yes or NO. It is such a shame that when the health and well being of much of western society is at stake polarised debate obscures the simple and holistic truth that may benefit us all.

  4. How true. It’s either black or it’s white; it’s either right or it’s wrong; it’s either left or it’s right — such a fruitless way of dealing with complexity. We live in a multi-dimensional colourful world, not a linear one composed only of greys.

  5. Interesting article and comments. Even knowing the benefits of entering into a state of ketosis I remind myself that it is biologically designed as a state of survival and therefore perhaps very efficient and energizing but that is not intended as a long term state. I would think it could be compared to the body entering a state of high adrenaline – good for short term but deadly for long term. Also a thin, healthy looking body does not mean the arteries are not clogged and a heart attack imminent. I’m sure most researchers would still agree that a balanced diet with lots of exercise will remain the healthiest option. And they will probably remind us that we should choose our carbs carefully – go for the whole grains and avoid the sugars.

  6. Pam, the notion that a ‘balanced and mixed diet’ must be inherently good and preferable to a more limited diet is problematic. It appeals to our sense that balance is better than imbalance, but are these notions really applicable to diet? A balance of what? Most people wouldn’t describe a diet as imbalanced because it lacks a small amount of poisonous substances, although there are historical examples of people seeking, and in some cases succeeding, to build up immunities to poisons in this way. If we’re going to insist on a balanced diet, that implies, at minimum, a balance of things that are edible and non-poisonous, and more likely in most minds, of things that are good for us. And this throws us directly back on the crux of the Atlantic article, and much else being written about diet today, because of increasing evidence that many of the foods that we consider edible, non-poisonous and good for us — and hence candidates for part of a balanced diet — may in fact be difficult to digest, attack immune systems and other aspects of our biology, and contribute to a wide variety of ‘western diseases’ from diabetes to cancer.

    Concepts of what constitutes food, beyond what is biologically edible and not obviously poisonous, are primarily cultural (my Chinese friends have introduced me to numerous foods that are not recognised as such in the culture in which I was raised). Hence, the notion of a balanced diet — of what it is that is to be balanced — is also culturally determined. More fundamentally, what constitutes food depends on available means of food production, storage and transport, and the prevalence of particular food-types in the diets of advanced civilisations is the result of the developments in agriculture that made those civilisations possible. Since advanced civilisations, by their nature, have vastly broader cultural influence than less advanced or pre-civilised societies (subsistence agriculturalists, pastoralists, nomads, hunter gathererers), it follows that their notions of what constitutes food become more widespread and accepted, and hence their notions of what constitutes a balanced diet.

    However, for almost all of human history the processed grains that are the carbohydrate staples of all modern, civilised — i.e. agricultural — diets, were not considered food, for the very simple reason that we couldn’t digest them (and worse, they attacked our digestive systems in various ways if we tried; unlike fruit, it is contrary to the reproductive goal of grains to be eaten, so they have evolved to resist being digested). It is only with the development of means of processing grains to make them less indigestible, that humans were able to take advantage of the long storage capacity and transportability of grains to create agricultural surpluses, and hence encourage settled rather than nomadic communities, significant trade, accounting, centralised power structures, and other aspects of civilisation that lead, in turn, to processed grains becoming almost globally accepted as food. Not because they are inherently digestible, or because we evolved over millions of years to eat them — we’ve only been eating them for a few thousand years —, but because they make possible modes of civilisation and cultural expansion.

    I recently cut out all grains from my diet, on the grounds that there is no good reason to believe that a human physiology that evolved over millions of years not eating grains in any way needs them or is likely to benefit from them. It is a culinary challenge: advanced cuisines are the products of advanced civilisations, and tend to take the presence of processed grains and other carbohydrate staples as a given. Take a look through typical cookbooks and see how many recipes are totally free of any grain-based ingredient (and I include grain-like plants such as quinoa, which have similar anti-digestive properties). I am having to re-think large parts of how I cook, which is fun some days and frustrating on others. I’ve always enjoyed pasta, fresh bread and a good beer, but I’ve decided to treat them for the time being as not-food. Hence, my notion of a balanced diet has shifted.

  7. You are entitled to your opinion John, but personally I do not find it useful to assume the physiology of humankind today is identical to that of our pre history ancestors. We have evolved, we live within a different world and for a very different lifespan. When I wrote of balance I was not merely thinking of a western concept of balanced diet but rather of even handed approach to differing concepts, a lack of extremism.

    You have the intellectual capacity to explore theories and review research and reach your conclusions; my concern is for people who make a knee jerk response to headlines and remove all fat/all carbohydrate or whatever is the latest buzz theory from their diet without making an informed risk/benefit analysis.

  8. Pam, I am not assuming that the physiology of modern humans is identical to that of prehistoric humans. I am working from evidence that the human genome has not significantly changed in the last 60,000 years, and hence that changes in lifestyle do not constitute evolution. [cf. Eaton, S. Boyd, and Konner, Melvin (1985) ‘Paleolithic nutrition: a consideration of its nature and current implications.’ The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 312, no. 5 (January 1985), pp. 283-289. ]

    This doesn’t imply that everything introduced into our diet more recently than 60,000 years ago is bad for us, or even that it might not, by happy chance, turn out to be good for us: it just means that we’re not specifically evolved to eat it. We need to look at other kinds of evidence to determine what effects different ‘foods’ have on our bodies, individually and as a species. And we need also — fairly urgently, I would say, given the recent increase in instances of type 2 diabetes to epidemic proportions, as well as that of diet-related conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome — to reassess a lot of the nutritional science that resulted in the consensus expressed in public policy, and to be aware of the ways in which some of that policy may have been as ‘knee jerk’ in response to ‘latest buzz theory’ as the individual fad diet decisions you are, rightly, concerned about.

    I agree with you entirely that people shouldn’t be making hasty responses to headlines or making dietary choices based on, excuse the pun, half-digested journalistic simplifications. On the other hand, I’m not sure that making dietary choices based simply on what’s ‘on the menu’, i.e. inherited notions of what constitutes food, makes any more sense. I’m also not sure that the simplifications and political compromises of the Canada Food Guide are in any way a good basis for making such choices.

    I’m afraid the only ‘take away’ from this that I can suggest is that if people are seriously concerned about diet then they need to familiarise themselves with some science. And, getting back to the earlier point, they need to question whether ‘balance’ is necessarily a virtue of a diet, because what they should be concerned with are the particular physiological processes that result from particular things they eat. What they may think of as the overall effect of diet — on health, weight, energy etc. — is actually a collection of effects of individual foods, the chemicals they contain and the reactions that they trigger, and what they individually do to particular parts of our bodies. For example, foods that contain substances that irritate the bowel lining reduce the capacity to absorb specific nutrients, both from themselves and from other foods: there is little point in eating a balanced diet if one part of that diet is actively preventing your body from gaining all the benefits that you might get from the other parts.

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    On a personal note, I’ve noticed that my own diet has actually become considerably more diverse and, within the new framework, more balanced. As I mentioned in the previous comment, processed grains and derived products are a given in so many civilised cuisines that avoiding them requires considerable culinary adventure and creative thinking. I am eating a lot more vegetables these days, including some that I’d barely eaten at all in the preceding forty years. Last night, I was looking through my cookbooks for chicken recipes that might be appropriate or adapted to how I’m eating these days, and noticed that in one book all two dozen chicken dishes involved a considerable quantity of grains in one form or another. I reckon most people would prepare these without thinking of them as grain dishes: they’re chicken dishes, right? The pervasiveness of grains in our cuisines virtually guarantees that they’re actually what imbalances most peoples’ diet.

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