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Nutrition Past and Future

2 The Journalist Gary Taubes 2: A Parajournalism Paradox


The effective communicator that he is, Gary Taubes starts the first chapter of Good Calories, Bad Calories with a story, a story about someone his readers probably already like and admire, the former President Dwight David Eisenhower. Taubes tells us that after Eisenhower's first heart attack, he was a model patient. Because he wanted to reclaim his health, his considerable capacity for discipline and motivation became focused upon his adherence to a low-fat diet, the diet recommended by the medical wise men who worked with him. This diet didn't seem to work for the President, however. He couldn't lose weight. He couldn't take control of his cholesterol. His failures were making him miserable. His doctors eventually stopped telling him the truth about his latest cholesterol scores, figuring there was no purpose in upsetting him. Eventually, after several more heart attacks, Eisenhower's coronary disease killed him. A war hero had fought heart disease with a low-fat diet and lost.

Taubes cautions us about making too much of this. One man is just one data point. Yet Taubes thinks this high-profile data point should raise important questions about cholesterol, diet, and heart disease. Is he not trying to have it both ways? President Eisenhower's story doesn't usually come up in debates about diet these days and his medical history is mostly a matter of public record. This should be a subject about which no one carries a lot of emotions and preconceptions. We should be able to agree on some facts here. Do the facts support Taubes' contention that his case represents a paradox?

The award-winning journalist Gary Taubes finds some nice colorful touches to add to this section, but somehow he overlooks all the most important nutritional and medical facts of this case. For example, he doesn't inform the reader that the survivor of a first heart attack is at a much greater risk of a second heart attack. Not only would Eisenhower have had newly damaged cardiac muscle, all that arterial plaque he built up over his lifetime still hadn't gone anywhere. Plenty more plaque remained inside him, like a ticking bomb, and his heart attack would have only inflamed it further. That plaque would have gotten there at least in part due to his dietary practices throughout his whole life.

Practices like eating a burger with onions, which is what he ate right before that first heart attack. This is Taubes' only mention of his prior diet.

Taubes likely took his reference to that hamburger with from this journal article. This also tells about his breakfast on that unfortunate day. He ate sausage, bacon, mush, and hot cakes. Is there anything left to this paradox now? Don't answer yet. I'm not done.

Taubes makes reference to a book called Eisenhower's Heart Attack in this section. It's rather interesting to note the details the journalist Gary Taubes did not pass along. Here you see some text he did use on page 4. Eisenhower "eats nothing for breakfast, nothing for lunch, and therefore is irritable during the noon hour."

But he didn't tell us he ate plenty of "high-grade protein"with each meal. For Eisenhower, I don't think this meant tofu. These meats would have contained saturated fat, cholesterol, and inflammatory components not well-suited to heart disease prevention. I'm going to show you more evidence of Eisenhower's diet, particularly the diet which preceded his heart attack. As I do, bear in mind these references mostly are embedded in miscellaneous anecdotes. No one ever tried to give a complete accounting of Eisenhower's diet. This is the best I can do.

While he fought to lower his cholesterol, he continued to use butter.

Eisenhower also had his foods cooked in a product called Emdee. What's Emdee?

Emdee was a processed fat product, partially made from hydrogenated coconut oil, which is an artery-damaging fat even in its unhydrogenated state because it is a highly saturated fat.

Eisenhower had also eaten plenty of meat over his earlier life, the years during which his heart disease took root and spread.

Here you see he ate hamburger.

Here you see he had steak as a breakfast food. Should we be surprised that he suffered a heart attack with these dietary habits?

Does fried chicken sound like health food to you? Where is the paradox in this?

Moreover, even as he tried to lower his cholesterol, this man of resolve and grit was somehow lacking in willpower in matters of diet. This account of him eating two sausages for breakfast suggests his diet had very little chance of succeeding.

Eisenhower also had various other illnesses, including type II diabetes at the end of his life. This also could have been gleaned by Taubes from that book he referenced, but he ignored it because he wanted you to believe in the existence of a paradox. Those who praise Taubes for his thoroughness as a researcher should know that this book was in his hands at some point. Had he been a little more curious and open-minded, he wouldn't have had reason to propose that we have a paradox here.

Eisenhower also had long suffered serious bowel difficulties. Here, for example, are descriptions of his three surgeries to relieve intestinal obstructions.

Also, crucially, Eisenhower suffered from Crohn's disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, for 46 years.

Taubes might find it interesting that Crohn's disease alters cholesterol metabolism. Now that we know this, Eisenhower's inability to manage his cholesterol through diet doesn't seem like much of a paradox after all, does it? This exceptional case does not warrant a rethink of diet-heart. Taubes begins his book with a thud.

If Eisenhower were alive today, he would find we know much more now about the links between diet and Crohn's disease. In 1979 this study found an association between Crohn's and low raw fruit and vegetable consumption. He probably should have eaten fruit for breakfast rather than steak and sausage.

This study from Japan in 1996 found that animal protein intake was the strongest predictor of Crohn's disease. Total fat, animal fat, and milk protein were all implicated as well. Vegetable protein was inversely associated with Crohn's.

This recent study also found total fat and meat intake to be associated with an increased risk of the development of Crohn's disease.

And this recent study from Japan documents the successful treatment of Crohn's patients with a semi-vegetarian diet.

President Eisenhower was later found at autopsy to have a rare tumor on an adrenal gland called a pheochromocytoma. This may have explained hitherto puzzling swings in his blood pressure, making him more vulnerable to heart attack.

Just as Taubes tells us his doctors deceived Eisenhower in regard to his cholesterol numbers, they did the same with his blood pressure readings. Note also that Eisenhower had smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day. Taubes only mentions in passing that Eisenhower quit smoking in 1949, well before his death. He does not mention the severity of his former habit. Eisenhower also used to drink up to 15 cups of coffee per day.

We are given the impression that the case of the former President cannot be explained by mainstream science or common sense, yet with a little digging we can see that his heart and overall health were weakened by his lifestyle choices and were under attack from many angles. Given all this new information, we should see that his death from coronary disease was not at all perplexing. He wasn't exactly a health-conscious vegan after all. And yet the award-winning journalist Gary Taubes chose to characterize his health history as a paradox. He really tried to make sense of it but he just couldn't. Therefore he decided Eisenhower's case should cause us to reevaluate our understanding of diet-heart. This is a strange sort of journalism, and the paradox I am left to puzzle over is that this man is credited with being a thorough researcher.

In the next video, we go straight to the center of the diet-heart story and a character in it whom Taubes would prefer you like a little less than Ike. The low carb historical revisionists have cast Ancel Keys as the villain of the diet-heart story, but history is about to be corrected. Those who believe Ancel Keys deserves fair treatment like anyone else will meet me in the next video.