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Nutrition Past and Future

The Drivers of the Herd, Part 12

The NuSI Guys, Part 2 (Tripped up by Energy Balance)

Slide 3         


The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute provides some fairly straightforward commentary about obesity. Food delivers energy. We measure food energy in calories. If you consume more of this energy than you use up, your mass will increase. To maintain weight, the energy coming into you as food must be balanced by the energy you expend. You can think of this simple idea as calories in/calories out.


Slide 4         


The CDC says pretty much the same thing. They show us a scale to help us visualize how energy balance works. All this seems innocent enough. Surely Gary Taubes wouldn’t disagree with this, right?


Slide 5                   p.80. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

But it sure seems like his does. Calories in/calories out is a damaging idea. It’s done incalculable harm. He has a hard time understanding how it’s gone unchallenged for fifty years. The only reason it’s hung around this long is because scientists love to morally  judge the obese so much.

That seems like a rather overheated response to a fairly simple idea. I found that scale to be pretty innocuous. So is he saying calories in/calories out is wrong?


Slide 6                   p.16. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

This quote of his is clearer. He says it’s surprisingly easy to find evidence that refutes the idea of energy balance. It is? How is he going to refute that? Notice how in the next sentence he takes the opportunity to remind us of his unusually keen skepticism and fidelity to the principles of science. Those of us who accept energy balance must be a bunch of dolts.


Slide 7                   p.69. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Here’s how one of his arguments against energy balance goes. He shows a picture of a woman with a very unusual distribution of fat. She’s nude so I won’t show her picture here. All you need to know is she’s thin on top and fat on the bottom. It’s a very unusual fat distribution – nothing you’d call normal. Taubes asks us questions about that picture. He’s implying that that fat below her waist didn’t come from anything she ate or how much she exercised. If you believe that about her fat, then you’ll believe the same thing about your own fat. Fatness has nothing to do with an excess of calories. Somehow for him a picture of a woman with an unusual fat distribution tells us something beyond how strange someone’s fat distribution can be. It tells us that fat can appear without the existence of a positive energy balance. I don’t follow that logic.


Slide 8                   p.161. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Here he says we now know that calories in/calories out is not a medical fact. It’s just not true. Somehow our bodies can make something out of nothing. Now his proposition is clear. He believes the idea of energy balance is wrong. He must have some great science to show is why.


Slide 9                   p.74. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

But wait! Elsewhere he says that energy balance is true. It has to be true. But I thought he told us it was a medical fact that it wasn’t true!


Slide 10                 p.95. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Here’s one way he tried to tell us it isn’t true. Ground squirrels nearing hibernation can create fat from nothing. They double their weight “regardless of how much they eat.” They add enormous gobs of fat and that fat has nothing to do with their food supply. Taubes says this makes perfect sense. No it doesn’t!



Slide 11                 Pulawa, Leslie K., and Gregory L. Florant. "The Effects of Caloric Restriction on the Body Composition and Hibernation of the Golden‐Mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis)." Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 73.5 (2000): 538-546.

What would make perfect sense would be that this is just a tall tale of Gary Taubes. Calorically restricted ground squirrels will not double their weight. Their mass does depend on their food supply. These researchers underfed them and their fat stores did not grow. Now this makes sense. But why did he make up this story in the first place? I thought the energy balance idea had to be true!


Slide 12                 p.26. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Why does he tell us about some women somewhere who were obese despite eating less than seemed possible? Is he saying that, like ground squirrels preparing for hibernation, they maintained their fat stores no matter what they did, even though they underate every day?


Slide 13                 McCarthy, M. Constance. "Dietary and activity patterns of obese women in Trinidad." J Am Diet Assoc 48.1 (1966): 33-7.

His evidence of this is the written food diaries of obese women in Trinidad, some of whom were illiterate. This isn’t too hard to explain.


Slide 14                 Heymsfield, Steven B., et al. "The calorie: myth, measurement, and reality."The American journal of clinical nutrition 62.5 (1995): 1034S-1041S.

We know that obese individuals often underreport what they eat.


Slide 15                 p.19. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

That was one example of many with which Taubes urges us to doubt the concept of energy balance because he thinks poor people are supposed to be thin. Here you can see him saying this. But energy balance has nothing to do with economics.



Slide 16                 Rai, Saritha. "Cost of Cool in India? An iPhone." The New York Times12 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.

Today you can buy a bottle of sugary soda for 16 cents in India. Bad food can be cheap. Who doesn’t know that?


Slide 17                 p.31. Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

He tells us about overweight mothers in impoverished areas with stunted kids, as if this is somehow an argument against energy balance, too.


Slide 18                 Ponce, Maiza Campos, et al. "Are intestinal parasites fuelling the rise in dual burden households in Venezuela?." Transactions of The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 107.2 (2013): 119-123.

But stunting has causes that have nothing to do with calories, from nutrient deficiencies to parasitic infections to a lack of breast-feeding. How much folic acid does he think is in a 16-cent soda? The answer is zero.


Slide 19                 Drewnowski, Adam, Nicole Darmon, and André Briend. "Replacing fats and sweets with vegetables and fruits-a question of cost." American Journal of Public Health 94.9 (2004): 1555-1559.

Poor people looking to maximize the value of their food dollars will find more calories from junk food than healthy food. This has been true for a long time and I suspect that everyone watching this video knows this already. We should expect to see overweight adults and poorly nourished kids together in poor communities. Once again, this should be obvious. There are simple explanations out there that negate Taubes’ feeble strikes against energy balance, even though he presents them as so direct and logical, but he just doesn’t care to hear them. I could go on and on like this. Each argument is more obtuse than the last.


Slide 20                 Taubes, Gary. "The science of obesity: what do we really know about what makes us fat? An essay by Gary Taubes." BMJ: British Medical Journal 346 (2013).

This is a passage from an essay of his published in the BMJ. It demonstrates how bad his thinking gets. He says the idea of energy balance is flawed because it’s based on circular reasoning. Here’s how he puts it:


“Why do we get fat? Because we overeat.

How do we know we’re overeating? Because we’re getting fatter.

And why are we getting fatter? Because we’re overeating.”


This is not an example of circular reasoning. If you don’t understand this please look up what circular reasoning is. You’ll see it’s an argument in the form of a closed loop, where the conclusion simply restates a dubious assumption. Energy balance doesn’t justify itself through an unproven premise. There is no closed loop. It describes an aspect of nature.


Slide 21                 Image: (Author:Pseudopanax at English Wikipedia)

I could easily modify his script to relate to hot air balloons instead of body fat.


“Why does the balloon rise? Because its air is being heated.

How do we know its air is being heated? Because the balloon is rising.

And why is it rising? Because its air is being heated.”


Based on that, would Taubes say that the belief that a balloon rises because its air is being heated is a tautology? I hope you can see that this is all just crazy talk. Unfortunately, talk just that crazy was published in the British Medical Journal.


His problem seems to be with the word “why”. What answers could I give as to why the balloon is rising? I could say heat energy was released from the combustion of propane, exciting air molecules. This caused the air to become less dense, and so the balloon is rising until a point of equilibrium is reached between the opposing vertical forces of gravity and buoyancy. Or I could say the operator of the balloon opened a valve to release more propane. That’s a good answer, too. Or I could say the people paying for the ride asked to go up a little higher. That’s a fine answer as well. We could answer the question “why” in any of those ways, or we could simply say the balloon is rising because its air is being heated, and repeat that over and over like a big dope. The right answer is strictly a matter of preference. Is it possible to ask “why” in such a way that the idea that hot air lifts a balloon becomes fallacious? Of course not.



Slide 22                 And there is no question or rhetorical device Gary Taubes can conjure that exposes a flaw in the idea of energy balance. You can’t argue with physics. Who reads this and thinks it makes sense? How does such poor reasoning get published in a journal like the BMJ?


Just as there are multiple levels at which we can answer why a hot air balloon rises, there are different ways we can answer why someone gets fatter. And there are different ways we can look at energy balance that are rather interesting.


Slide 23                 Oka, K., et al. "Food texture differences affect energy metabolism in rats.”Journal of dental research 82.6 (2003): 491-494.

For example, this experiment showed that rats fed the same number of calories could end up with different body compositions. The only factor that changed in the feedings of the fatter and thinner rats was the texture of their food. Soft foods made them fatter.  This tells us that the numerical value of the calories assigned to foods doesn’t give us all the information we need to tell if energy balance will be achieved. The energy of digestion matters, too. By the way, butter and lard are rather soft foods.


Slide 24                 Zou, Maggie L., et al. "Accuracy of the Atwater factors and related food energy conversion factors with low-fat, high-fiber diets when energy intake is reduced spontaneously." The American journal of clinical nutrition 86.6 (2007): 1649-1656.

Similarly, this study showed that the calories assigned to healthy high-fiber plant foods overestimate the actual metabolizable energy a person extracts from them. This is one reason why whole plant foods are so ideal for maintaining your body weight. But under no legitimate interpretation can a study like this be used to argue that the concept of energy balance is wrong. It doesn’t matter if Gary Taubes thinks the idea of energy balance has done incalculable harm. It’s still true. Besides, it can’t have done as much harm as the incessant stream of distortions and fabrications he’s released into society.


Another core argument from Mr. Taubes is that carbs are inherently fattening, whereas protein and fats are not. In the next video, you’ll see how that belief shrivels under scrutiny, too.