My Mother advised me, when I was a child, that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, to say nothing at all. But then she allowed that if I had constructive criticism to offer, I could do so if I began by saying something positive. So, I will start by thanking Gary Taubes for the contributions he’s made to my life over the years.
First I’d like to thank him for allaying my fears of dietary fat. The world of women’s magazines had (in my yo-yo days) hijacked my brain and persuaded me to feed myself a completely unsatisfying diet. I believe it was you, Mr. Taubes, who gave me back avocadoes and stir fry and salad dressing that has flavor. You gave me permission to banish SnackwellsTM from my pantry forever. How can I ever thank you enough?!
I also adore the illustrations he uses of people with lipodystrophy and other incidents of ill-placed body fat. I watched one of his lectures, and those pictures provided such a “eureka” moment for me. When people try to argue with me now that it’s just a “lifestyle” issue, I ask them to think about people they know – can they think of anyone with a huge belly and toothpick legs. Everyone says, “yes.” I ask them why that person chooses a different lifestyle for her legs than her tummy, and why she doesn’t rethink that? Likewise, someone with distortedly large thighs. Why not choose the same lifestyle for her thighs as her arms? This helps people recognize that there are complex genetic and endocrine issues at play here that vary from individual to individual.
And I thank Mr. Taubes for acknowledging those issues, right before he becomes a single-minded, foaming-at-the-mouth zealot.
I have slogged through the first third of Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. I also peeked at the diet he proposes at the end. I’m going to go ahead and write about what I have read so far, because I want to get my vitriol out, so that I may approach the middle of the book afresh, because I suspect (and hope) it may have something good to offer.
The first third, 86 pages, is dedicated to explaining that which is NOT making us fat, according to Taubes, calorie imbalance, and to repeating over and over and over that practicing calorie balancing does not happen. At all. Ever. In dozens of ways he restates this point:
“…the diet advice our doctors and public-health authorities are invariably giving us is misconceived . . . eating less and/or exercising more is not a viable treatment for obesity or overweight and shouldn’t be considered as such. It might have short-term effects but nothing that lasts more than a few months or a year.” (p. 79)
In other words, I don’t exist. Nor does my friend Mary in New York (10 years, more than 100 pounds), nor Marilyn in North Carolina (18 years, more than 100 pounds), nor Jared Fogle, for that matter, at your local Subway store (10 years, more than 200 pounds, eating mandatory sandwiches), nor Carol on your Leslie Sansone DVDs (10 years, 60 pounds). Nor do many of the participants here. I know we have some primarians, since I have attracted some readers from RTR, but many of us are doing the balance thing: Attack Laurel, No Celery, Vickie, Debby, Lynn (who lurks but does not speak). From what I can tell, and correct me if I’m wrong, we are calorie balancers or point counters who exercise (a variation on that theme). We may have adapted diets that are lighter on the carbs, for a variety of reasons. I have recently dramatically cut my grains and that has helped my joints, for example. But I haven’t eliminated them entirely, and I don’t eschew potatoes, bananas or other carb-rich foods. I’ll even eat an occasional ice cream or custard treat, or a piece of my mother-in-law’s pie. Moreover, until recently, I did my maintenance on a Mediterranean “foodie” diet, heavy in whole grains, for more than five years, and balanced on the exercise side with running.
Pubsgal has an adapted diet because she deals with Type II diabetes, but I think you balance calories too, no? Your exercise includes triathaloning, right? Be careful how you answer that, because if you do balance calories, you don’t exist according to Taubes.
Granted, we are outliers, but there are at least as many of us as there are Duke University low-carb adherents (the diet Taubes presents at the end of the book). The Duke diet is similar to Atkins, and I’m willing to bet that long-term, we outnumber them too. The NWCR (and you know my mixed feelings about that think tank) seems to have found more of us than the high-protein, high-fat/low-carbers, and I don’t think it’s simply because we’re more likely to be “joiners” than Atkins’ folk.
In addition to repeating himself about the futility of calorie balancing, he presents a number of arguments that are just exasperating. I kept finding myself writing in the margins, “yes, but there could be a variety of explanations for this” or “this doesn’t clearly prove your position.” NewMe referred me to a review at Weighty Matters, which I have now read, that explains more clearly than I can why one may be uncomfortable with Taubes’ assertions.
In addition to making several incomplete arguments for his position, Taubes’ language gets downright snarky. One of my notes asks whether this is a science journalist or a political pundit talking. On page 81, where he talks about challenging the common wisdom of calories in/calories out, he repeats, with dramatic petulance, “That’s not allowed” in two different places. It IS allowed, you nincompoop; that’s why you get to have two books published by major publishing houses doing just that. Trust me, YOUR THOUGHTS ARE IN THE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS. Stop playing “martyr.” It doesn’t become you, and it no longer fits.
Maybe the reason the rest of the scientific community, as well as the diet-hungry public, hasn’t embraced your theory wholeheartedly is because it’s as incomplete as calories in/calories out, and because low-carb dieting has proved itself as ineffective (or more so) long term than calorie balancing. We all remember the low-carb surge at the beginning of this century, the New Atkins Revolution, which was so popular it affected the grain markets, for crying out loud. This 2003 agriculture article bemoans, “. . . as low-carb diets have increased in popularity, flour consumption in the United States has plummeted to record lows. Domestic use of flour has dropped for two years running, something that has not happened since the 1950s, the government says.” And yet, despite all this low-carb dieting we didn’t see record numbers of people get trim and remain that way. The center of the bell curve representing our average weight keeps its relentless march to the right. Fatter and fatter we get, on average.
I would want to ask Taubes and others who are stuck to one position, why does this have to be so fraught with emotion and politics anyway? Yes, let’s keep testing insulin resistance, and let’s test other endocrine components of this problem. And let’s figure out what makes it possible for some of us to balance calories using behavior while others cannot. And let’s not assume it’s because we balancers somehow got the word that it is a “lifestyle change,” while the other fat people think they can “return to their old ways” after they have dieted. And let’s acknowledge that fat and formerly fat people are individuals, and may be fat for a variety of reasons, and that we may find clues to these reasons in their endocrine profile and even in their body shape.
When I was big, I was a cello: 45”-35”-49”. Is it possible that my basic shape may make my calorie balancing easier (though not by any means easy) than for an apple-shaped person. What about inverted triangle people? What does their endocrine profile say about them and their challenges? What about people who store their fat in their thighs? Why must we insist that only one thing makes us fat (whether it’s a calorie imbalance OR issues with carbohydrate sensitivity OR something else). Why do we insist on confining obesity to any kind of narrow or single explanation?
I will now go read Barbara Berkeley’s review of the book. I know she’s a fan of the man (she posted one of his lectures on her site), and I hope she may prepare my brain better to accept what I may read in the center of the book. After clicking over, I see she’s been inspired to write her own opinions on why we get fat too, and I’m willing to bet I’ll find more common ground with her than Taubes.
In the meantime, I’ve got a question for my maintainer friends: what was your basic body shape as a big person, and how do you think that affects your maintenance now?
(Note: Edited after publication for accuracy. Gary Taubes does not have a doctorate, and his books are published by more than one major publishing house.)