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Nutrition Past and Future

14 The Journalist Gary Taubes 14: Those Scientists Are So Dumb

This video should be regarded as a quick detour while I do a little rant. Like so many cholesterol confusionists, Gary Taubes can’t resist sharing his fantasies.

TAUBES: I try to imagine the press release that the American Heart Association will put out some day to, you know, flip their nutritional paradigm so they say, “We just want to apologize for the past fifty years we’ve been telling you to eat low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets and we now realize is (sic) we should have known forty-nine years ago that these diets will actually increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, perhaps even cancer, and we apologize for killing your loved ones …

ROBERTS: (We’re) really, really sorry.

That last voice you heard was that of Russ Roberts, a libertarian professor of economics and the host of the podcast EconTalk. You will not be surprised to know that he was seduced by Mr. Taubes’ creative interpretation of science and history. I am always amazed at how effective a strategy it is for the confusionists to appeal to cynicism toward the intellectual elite, even for people like Roberts who are themselves intellectual elites. Why do they find it so easy to believe that the scientists working in nutrition and cardiovascular disease are unaware of even the most obvious fallacies and tendencies toward bias? The scientific method and the scientific community are together a giant bias-filtering machine. It’s what they do. Skepticism lies at the core of the scientific ethos. If the lipid hypothesis were such a faulty idea, how could it have survived for generations now in such a system? Why have doctors prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs hundreds of millions of times? A simpleton will believe it’s all a scam to make money, but an economist who puts his faith in markets should know better.

You probably know that over 90% of climate scientists agree that the climate is getting warmer and that human activity has contributed to that. This is what scientific consensus looks like.

A similar poll about diet-heart was conducted in the 1970s among specialists in the relevant fields like lipidology and nutrition. No economists were consulted. Granted, the sample here was small, but we must appreciate that there was a similarly high degree of consensus on these issues, and this was before statin drugs were invented. Why would an economist or anyone else without appropriate knowledge of this science find it so easy to believe that these people don’t know what they are doing?

Here is how extreme Taubes can be in his spin. He is talking about vegans and vegetarians.

TAUBES: (To) diagnose a disease correctly you have to identify the cause correctly and you have to act, and if the act is getting rid of the carbs that cause the problem, then unfortunately these people are going to have to eat more meat, more animal products, cuz animal prod … Like when you say you’ve experimented with a zero carb diet, the only way to do … You can’t do that in a vegan/vegetarian … Well, you can’t do it in a vegan world.


TAUBES: Uh, virtually impossible if not impossible in a vegetarian world. Um, you could drink olive oil I guess all day.

ROBERTS: Well, soy...

TAUBES: And soy. But that’s … Yeah, it’s tough. So you’re pretty much stuck with (gasp!) animal products. And it becomes this ethical issue, this religious issue, this environmental issue when it’s fundamentally … The argument I … You know, let’s get the health right. Like if somebody knows that they’re going to doom their kids to a life of obesity and diabetes cuz they’re going to make them vegetarians or vegans, then that’s fine as long as they understand that they’re not doing their kids any favors and that (that’s) the choice they made.

ROBERTS: Sure. No, that’s all right.

It is very likely that Taubes doesn’t have a single shred of evidence to support these outlandish statements.

Sorry to ruin the fun for the intelligentsia but there is science out there on this. Vegetarians were found here to have lower glucose and insulin concentrations than omnivores.

This comparison of lacto-ovovegetarians also found meat eaters to have higher levels of insulin.

Vegetarians and vegans were found here to have significantly lower BMI than those who eat meat and fish, with the vegans having the lowest BMI and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. This was a study of Adventists.

The same pattern was found among black Adventists. Black vegans were the best protected from diabetes here.

The same results were found regarding BMI in the EPIC-Oxford survey. Gary Taubes and Russ Roberts, take note that high protein and low fiber diets were associated with greater BMI. Is increased fatness the goal of the low-carb diet?

EPIC-Oxford also found these diet patterns were valid when looking at weight gain over a five-year period. The less animal food was consumed, the less weight gain was observed.

Now let’s listen to Taubes as he talks about the Women’s Health Initiative trial.

TAUBES: … But one of ‘em was a diet trial and the estimate is that that alone cost a half-billion to a billion dollars. And 49,000 women are randomized into two groups and 20,000 are put on a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet and you increase whole grains and fruits and vegetables and you eat lean meat instead of fatty meat. And they were followed for I think it was seven years and the other 29,000 women eat the, you know, just go about their lives as usual. You see no effect from the study. There’s no effect on weight. There’s no effect on heart disease. There’s no effect on diabetes. No effect on breast cancer. And so the largest experimental trial ever done, like I said a half-billion to a billion dollars. And the principle investigators who did this study, the NIH that funded it, the World Health Organization, I think even the Centers for Disease Control all put out press releases saying this trial should have no effect on our dietary recommendations to eat low-fat, low-saturated fat diets, even though it showed these diets were not beneficial because the assumption is we did the trial incorrectly.

I’ve made a video about this already but I think a few comments bear repeating here.

The trial did not instruct the women to cut back on saturated fat and cholesterol or any other known atherogenic factor. The trial only gave the women counseling. After listening to the counseling, they simply went off and did what they wanted to do.

The result is that the intervention didn’t intervene in their habits very much. Mr Taubes, have you actually bothered to look at these numbers? There was no difference in the intervention for the fatty acid ratios. There was no difference in protein intake. There was practically no difference in fiber consumption, which was pathetically low.

All that goes a long way toward explaining why their cholesterol numbers barely budged. Mr Taubes, why do you think the budget of the study is more important than the data the study actually produced? You are always lecturing people about experimental design. Don’t you think to have a successful experiment, you need to provide an intervention in the intervention group that is meaningful in some way?

Predictably, Taubes neglected to mention the observational study that was also conducted by the organizers. In this study, there was a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in those whose diets more closely matched a couple different models of healthy eating. This would have contradicted Taubes’ point so he pretended like it doesn’t exist. This is what Taubes does. Unlike most journalists, his career is now based on efforts to withhold or twist information. He is now a propagandist. You might think this would give off a whiff of BS to an intelligent person.

Not necessarily. Here is Roberts while having Taubes on his show for the second time to spread his misinformation. You can hear that despite a few perfunctory skeptical questions, this was an easy sell for Taubes.

ROBERTS: We focused on how public opinion and public policy is shaped by research that you argued was mistaken and I saw a lot of parallels between that research and the evolution of policy in the area of nutrition and health to research and policy in economics: problems of group-think, confirmation bias …

If Russ Roberts can fall for this, most of the rest of us can, too. It’s a cautionary tale.

For Russ Roberts and everyone else, I offer the next short video as a reminder of the actual science on diet and heart disease. As always, you won’t have to take my word for anything. You can read the research for yourself. The budgets for the following studies will not mentioned.