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Nutrition Past and Future

5 The Journalist Gary Taubes 5: John Yudkin Was Very Good

Let’s resume with that horrendous BBC series called, “The Men Who Made Us Fat,” which transparently tried to cultivate a victim mentality among the obese.

LUSTIG: Keys won the battle. Yudkin was thrown under the bus. And …

NARRATOR: In what way was he thrown under the bus?

LUSTIG: Well, he was discredited by numerous societies basically saying that he did not have the data to make his claims about the importance of sugar.

I think Yudkin was a prophet. I have such respect for him. If you read Pure, White, and Deadly, it’s all there. And for him to have been discredited as he had been was a real disservice not just to him but to society.

Wow, that is a moving story, isn’t it? Yudkin was discredited because he didn’t have the data. Why should anyone have insisted that he have data? Science can be so mean that way, right Dr Lustig?

Here is Gary Taubes telling us about Yudkin’s belief that sugar causes heart disease. There is a great irony here for Dr Lustig. Unlike Ancel Keys, Yudkin really did concoct his hypothesis from scant evidence and subsequently spend the rest of his career trying to prove himself right. He never could do it, and for that we are to regard him as a fated hero and prophet. Here you see he was a cholesterol denier, too.  He believed that dietary fat could not affect serum cholesterol.

Even Gary Taubes knows that saturated fats will raise your cholesterol.

He also believed that high cholesterol has nothing to do with heart disease. He said that only the extremely high cholesterol levels caused by rare genetic abnormalities were harmful. This is wrong, too, of course, but I won’t get into that in this particular video. I do wonder how he thought people with genetically high cholesterol were harmed by that if cholesterol has “nothing whatever to do with heart disease.”

Yudkin did have some good ideas. For example, unlike Gary Taubes, who says exercise doesn’t help with weight loss, Yudkin thought that exercise is crucial for weight control. In reference to farm animals, he said, “the most effective fattening of stock takes place in animals that are not allowed to exercise.”

On occasion he did make a distinction between the processed, low nutrient carbs consumed in industrialized nations and the natural starches consumed by people in less developed cultures. He understood that the physical form of the carbohydrate was important, saying that cereals in the West were “consumed after a high degree of milling”.  He said, ““Present evidence suggests that most of the effects of sucrose are due in small part to its ease of digestion and absorption compared with starch.” That was a good point. He also favored lower milk consumption. On that he agreed with Ancel Keys.

He also knew it was undesirable for a diet to induce ketosis. In this way he was a less extreme low carb promoter than those we have today.

Yudkin had some rather limiting beliefs about food. He stated that the main carbohydrate foods were refined and nutrient-poor junk foods. Rather than advocate that people eat better carbs, he thought the solution to the junk-carb problem was the adoption of a low-carb diet. His mediocre expectations of people, together with his strong focus on obesity, gives one the same impression of low standards that we get from the cover of Gary Taubes’ book.

He thought that one could get enough nutrients while limiting calories eating mostly fatty foods. I think it was hypocritical of him to fault carbs for their lack of nutrition – carbs which no one would call healthy – even as he encouraged people to consume nutritionally empty, high-calorie fats like margarine and oil.

Yudkin conducted low carb diet trials that were similarly lacking in rigor to many of those you will see today. Here, the control diet is something called “their usual diets.” Was there an opposing study defending the usual diets of these particular eight women? Was he trying to prove to the world that his diet was better than the diets of a handful of overweight women who probably didn’t know much of anything about nutrition?

In a foreshadowing of later videos in this series, you can see here that as is typical of low carb trials, despite a huge reduction in calories, Yudkin’s low carb diet failed to provide any benefit to the cholesterol levels of his subjects.

But let’s get back to the main problem with Yudkin. He believed that sugar was a more likely cause of heart disease than saturated fat. Gary Taubes is sympathetic to this view, and like Lustig, he seems to believe he was somehow wronged by all the many scientists who thought he failed to make his case.

True to form, Taubes doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Taubes tells us that the Seven Countries Study of Ancel Keys showed that sugar consumption associated with heart disease just as well as fat consumption. Quoting Taubes, “But sugar consumption in the seven countries studied was almost equally predictive. So it was possible that Yudkin was right, and Keys was wrong, or that they could both be right. The evidence has always been able to go either way.” Taubes says that Yudkin’s conflict with Keys eventually became personal. Yudkin was treated as a figure of scorn by Keys, and his reputation never recovered. Poor Yudkin. Keys was mean. Maybe so, Mr Taubes, but that’s not what matters in science. Yudkin’s main problem was that Keys proved him to be wrong. I’m sure that wasn’t fun for him but the truth can hurt sometimes.

Here is Taubes writing about this in GCBC. He says, “sugar indeed turned out to predict heart-disease rates as well as saturated fat did” in the Seven Countries Study. Believe it or not, the journalist Gary Taubes is not being straight with us. This is what is technically known as a lie.

Here is the passage from the Seven Countries Study which addresses this issue. When the journalist Gary Taubes says that the correlation for heart disease was equally strong for sugar and saturated fat, he is just making stuff up. They did not correlate equally well. Here quoting the Seven Countries Study, “with dietary saturated fat held constant, the correlation between dietary sucrose and the incidence of coronary heart disease is not significant. On the other hand, with sucrose held constant in partial correlation analysis, the correlation of the coronary incidence rate with the mean percentage of calories from saturated fat,” was significant, paraphrasing at the end. You know, Mr Taubes, I’m not asking much here. I just want one thing, really.

TAUBES: Stay honest.

That’s right. Just be honest, please.

Do you want to know why Yudkin lost his battle with Keys? Then read this paper by Keys. Yudkin used food disappearance records only, not actual dietary data. Does that sound familiar to you Yerushalmy and Hilleboe fans? This was written by Yudkin 18 years after that paper of Keys that used food disappearance records.

Yudkin also failed to compare only those countries with comparable standards of diagnosis and death reporting. Again, this should sound familiar. Yet you don’t see Taubes or any other low carber finding fault with Yudkin on this basis. That's because they are too emotionally and financially invested in the myths around animal foods to dare to question their own folklore. Keys also noted that in some countries, the relationship between sugar in the diet and heart disease ran quite in the opposite direction of what Yudkin proposed.

Keys stated that Yudkin did not attempt to match his cases to controls in his research at all.

Keys said that Yudkin never took any interest in the unique effects of saturated fat. The cholesterol-raising effects of saturated fat had been demonstrated by many independent laboratories by this time.

Keys then runs through data from many studies that presented a challenge to Yudkin’s sugar hypothesis. There it is, Dr Lustig. This is where it gets all data-driven and mean. Here is the passage where Keys reiterated the reason he did not find a problem with sugar based on the Seven Countries Study data.

He had more data than just that. In Montreal, Dublin, and England, studies had failed to show any relationship between sugar and incident heart disease.

Keys makes reference to the Medical Research Council of the UK, which published a paper authored by a group they called a “working-party.” They could not find a relationship between sugar consumption and heart attacks. This is a very interesting paper. Let’s look at it.

They stated that they used the same methods as Yudkin yet failed to find the same result. Mr Taubes, this is how science works. Researchers publish their findings, and if they are unusual and interesting, other scientists seek similar results using identical methods. Are you aware of this practice? What is especially interesting here are two of the names found among the “Working-Party.” Famous cholesterol skeptic Michael Oliver was on board, as well as the famous epidemiologist Richard Doll.

The journalist Gary Taubes has no problem referencing Doll as a fiber skeptic, or Oliver as a cholesterol skeptic, but he didn’t see fit to mention that they were also sugar skeptics. That’s an interesting omission, don’t you think?

The funny thing is, Yudkin tried to imply that sugar contributes to heart disease by raising your cholesterol, but for the most part, it doesn’t. He also believed it affected insulin sensitivity. That claim will have to wait for my “How to Become Insulin Resistant” videos.

Keys also pointed out that sucrose was never able to produce atherosclerosis in experimental animals. Think about that. No animals models existed to support the Yudkin hypothesis. What do you think of that, you low-carb evolution scholars? Compare this to cholesterol, which had been amply demonstrated in practically every species investigated.

Keys concluded with some common sense. Refined sugar is not good for you. He was not promoting sugar. He was just being honest about what the science said at the time.

Other researchers found no reason to accept the sugar hypothesis. They found the evidence for it to be in stark contrast to the evidence against saturated fat.

This author wrote that some poor countries with low heart disease rates had high levels of sugar consumption.

This doctor runs down the list of shortcomings for the Yudkin hypothesis nicely. It is not supported by animal experiments. It is not found to be an independently associated factor in population-level studies. There were no consistent case-control study results to support the idea. There was no autopsy evidence in its favor. No intervention studies had demonstrated any effect of the removal of sugar from the diet. And yet Robert Lustig considers Yudkin to be a prophet.

Today, we should be able to figure out what Yudkin thought he saw. He was witnessing damaged carbohydrate metabolism, not normal carbohydrate metabolism.

I’m talking about metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by insulin resistance and a chronic inflammatory state, linked to fatty, high-protein, high-sugar diets.

I will explain that in depth in my How to Become Insulin Resistant videos. For now our focus remains with the journalist Gary Taubes.

You just saw that no autopsy data supported the Yudkin sugar hypothesis. Mr Taubes and other low carbers like autopsy studies. They shouldn’t. I’ll show you why in the next video.