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Nutrition Past and Future

1 The Journalist Gary Taubes 1: Controlling History

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” These lines from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four remind us that there is great power in shaping a society’s understanding of their history. Our shared account of how we got here animates our present actions and points us where we are going. Were a historian to successfully yet falsely revise a people’s history, the effect might be an insidious sort of mass brainwashing, a corrupt piece of code inserted into their minds’ narrative software. Many a regime has sought power over its people in this way, but this first portion of Nutrition Past and Future is not about rewritten textbooks or propaganda films. Instead, we will look at the history of the study of diet and heart disease as told by Gary Taubes. The mainstream account of this history is flawed, he says, and as a consequence, nutrition science has gone off in the wrong direction. The scientific community lost its way, and Taubes, the journalist, wants to set it back on track by correcting the historical record. Listen to what he says as he refers to a fat-laden human heart seen earlier in this video.  

TAUBES: Well, this is the issue. I mean, certainly body fat, the fat on that heart, is a problem and that’s one thing we all agree here. The question is, what causes that fat? And when you go back, and this is one thing, all those expert committees at the American Heart Association, the American Diabetic (sic) Association, the American Cancer Society, they like to say, well, you know, let’s look at the data today but they often don’t go back forty, fifty years to see whether what they’re building on is a solid foundation of good science or a house of cards. And when you go back as far as the 1950’s to see what kind of science built this structure on which everyone supposedly agrees, you find out that we don’t really know what aspects of the diet cause the body fat …

Did Taubes go on to write a book that exposed modern nutrition science to be a mere house of cards? Andrew Weil thinks his book Good Calories, Bad Calories is very important. The Washington Post found him to be a relentless researcher. The blurb from Richard Rhodes you see here is a shortened quote which appears in a longer form on the page for this book.

““Gary Taubes's Good Calories, Bad Calories is easily the most important book on diet and health to be published in the past one hundred years. It is clear, fast-paced and exciting to read, rigorous, authoritative, and a beacon of hope for all those who struggle with problems of weight regulation and general health--as who does not? If Taubes were a scientist rather than a gifted, resourceful science journalist, he would deserve and receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine.”

Good Calories, Bad Calories is a book that seeks to change our understanding of the history of nutrition science. Because the account of history it offers is being accepted so readily by so many people, it is important to examine it critically. Our future health may depend on whether or not we are getting this history right.

Taubes is a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Have a listen as he confronts Dr Dean Ornish.

ORNISH: First of all, I think the science is there. In fact, one of the people that you quoted, David Ludwig, published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing clearly that when you eat a diet that is rich in whole food … you don’t go from simple carbohydrates to pork rinds, what you do is go from … Come on, Gary. You’ve got to at least let me finish my sentences, ok?


TAUBES (interrupting): First off (?), to take Dr. Atkins and try to define his diet as pork rinds?! Just, stay honest, Dean. That’s all I’m asking, ok?

ORNISH: I am staying honest.

TAUBES: Ok, well try harder.

MEHMET OZ: (In) any case...

ORNISH: The, ah, and it would be gr… You know, I think it’s going to be helpful if we can try to at least let each other develop a point, and then respond to it. Ok? Just common courtesy.

TAUBES (whispering): Stay honest.

Well, he was a little rough about it, but good for Gary Taubes. He had the backbone to call out Dr. Ornish on his lie that Robert Atkins promoted fried pork rinds. Of course Ornish wants to hang that one on Atkins. Fried pork rinds are about as unhealthy as food gets. You’d have to be a total ignoramus to write a diet book recommending fried pork rinds, right?

Except, it looks like Atkins did tell people to eat pork rinds after all. It’s tough to argue with photos, isn’t it? Atkins called them a “discovery” that could be used in a variety of ways. It seems he lost his enthusiasm for them in later books, but the facts are the facts. That was an oddly misguided display of pique by Mr Taubes, wasn’t it? If he can get that so wrong, I’m not sure he would make a great historian of diet-heart.

For me, that old Atkins book is a window into the low standards of the low carb world. Atkins’ story is the typical low carber story. The starting point for him was obesity – triple chins in his case – and a sense of anxiety about food. “Even the idea of hunger scares me,” he wrote.

The low carber wants to be shown a way to eat high amounts of calories and yet look like he doesn’t. Foods are not fuel but luxuries to be slathered – “It’s luxurious to slather mayonnaise on your cold salmon.” The obese individual assumes the role of someone to be envied. Those pork rinds will attract longing stares from suffering friends. He wrote, “It’s fun to crunch away on those delicious fried pork rinds, while your friends who are on calorie-counting diets watch you enviously.” Why should the obese person have to eat “rabbit food?” – which is what he calls celery and carrot sticks in the second excerpt. We all  deserve better than a rabbit, right? We deserve gluttony. Look at the last line and note the extreme weirdness of Atkins describing how a matzoh ball soup – a traditional Jewish dish – could be made with pork rinds – a most un-kosher ingredient. Now that’s a diet revolution!

Gary Taubes' magnum opus, Good Calories, Bad Calories, isn’t all that different in tone from Atkins’ book. The first person he wants us to meet is William Banting, who was a very fat man, so fat he couldn’t tie his shoes or properly maintain his person. His precise number of chins is not given.

Taubes tells us Banting undertook a new diet that was heavy on meat and light on starches. The new diet caused him to shed 50 lbs.  We don’t know what his starting weight was or if he remained obese, but we do know he claimed to feel much better. Did he feel better than you do? Could he even run around the block? If your standards of health are low enough, those questions aren’t that important. Taubes says that the Banting diet, which was published in a pamphlet, sparked a century of variations on the popular low carb theme. It is clear Taubes believes Banting’s experience was an early insight into the proper human diet.

But what had Banting been eating before he tried this new diet? The answer is bread of unknown quality, milk, tea with plenty of sugar, buttered toast, meat, beer, and yet more bread. Mr Banting enjoyed pastry at midday (savory or sweet we do not know), more sugary tea and milk a bit later, and then a fruit tart with more bread and milk for his evening meal. It seems fresh fruits and vegetables remained outside his belly at all times. His typical meal probably never came close to matching the quality of your average school lunch.

His new diet looked like this. As you see, he was able to eat plenty of meat, which accompanied biscuits, toast, pudding, and alcohol. Some fruits and vegetables at last began to appear on his plate. This fact alone represents an improvement in his diet, although how much, it’s hard to say.

The payoff was a newfound ability to descend the stairs, “with perfect ease”. Are you imagining Fred Astaire now? He was at last able to maintain his person. His umbilical rupture no longer caused him anxiety.

From his pamphlet, we can learn that Banting had attained a weight of 167 pounds. For a man five feet five inches tall, that means he achieved a body mass index of 27.8. This left him, at best, overweight. Progress? No doubt. Evidence that he had found the proper human diet? Hardly. A less terrible diet left him less overweight. He restricted his food choices and consequently he restricted his calories.

It was from this summit of actualized human potential that those later meaty diets owed their start. Unfortunately, for some who tried eating the Banting way, their health began to slide downhill. Perhaps they weren’t eating a diet based on toast, milk, and beer before they started.

This is the nature of Good Calories, Bad Calories, and its cover captures this tone perfectly. I look at this picture and I wonder what is supposed to represent “good calories” here? If you believe the only choice you face is between toasted white bread and butter, you’ve been dealt a very bad hand indeed. I was tempted to call these videos “Good Research, Bad Research”, but I didn’t want to give the same incorrect impression this cover does. I don’t see much good research in this book. That’s what the first section of Nutrition Past and Future will show you. I’m about to do something I don’t think Mr Taubes thought anyone would ever do. I’m going to check his facts. You won’t have to worry about me doing bad research myself. That’s because you are going to see the truth with your own eyes for every claim I make. For the open-minded and truth-seeking individual, your journey into diet-heart begins with the next video, where I’ll try to meet you on neutral ground.