[Note: This is a long but worth-it post!]
You know you’ve just finished a life-changing book when you feel the need to buy it for your parents, your boyfriend, your roommate from college, and your health-conscious coworker. Yes, Gary Taubes, you can thank for me for five orders of your book Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It.
I’ve been a fan of Taubes since his monster of a book Good Calories, Bad Calories (which is seriously more like a textbook than a book). Taubes is an award-winning science journalist who takes his science very seriously. He doesn’t have an agenda, and he doesn’t mess around. He just looks at the science and the research. He did it in GCBG, and he did it again in WWGF.
There are a million reasons to read this book, the number one being that it suggests a complete paradigm shift from what we’ve believed for a few decades now. So it’s challenging. You definitely have to read it with an open mind, and a healthy skepticism of what you’ve been spoon-fed.
But there’s no getting around it: Mr. Taubes’ science is dead on, and his arguments are pretty bullet-proof. First, I want to highlight some key concepts the book brings out, and then I’ll discuss a few shortcomings. Before you read any of the points, just know that Taubes provides AMPLE scientific evidence for all his claims, I’m just not going to regurgitate it all here.
- The calories-in/calories-out way of thinking about weight is so compelling and so pervasive that it is virtually impossible nowadays not to believe it – even if we have plenty of evidence to the contrary. No matter how much of our lives we’ve spent consciously trying to eat less and exercise more without success, it’s more likely that we’ll question our own judgment and willpower than we will this notion that our weight is determined by how many calories we eat. In other words, “eat less, move more” is a gross oversimplification that just doesn’t work for everyone.
- However! The science tells us that obesity is ultimately the result of a hormonal imbalance, NOT a caloric one. Specifically, the stimulation of insulin secretion caused by eating refined carbs. These foods LITERALLY MAKE US FAT and by driving us to accumulate fat, MAKE US HUNGRIER AND SEDENTARY.
- Thus, obesity is not the result of a lack of willpower/laziness. It is a form of malnutrition. The fact that so many people in our society are obese is the result of a FLAW in the food supply. Obesity isn’t due to gluttony or sloth, it’s caused by a change (malfunction) in the regulation of fat tissue.
- Exercise is not the cure-all we think it is. Researchers collected data on nearly 13,000 runners. Those who ran the most weighed the least, but all runners tended to get fatter with every passing year. Even the most dedicated runners would have to increase their distance by a few miles a week, year after year, if they want to remain lean.
- The argument that muscle burns more than fat is true – but just barely. If you replace five pounds of fat with five pounds of muscle, you’ll burn only around 20 extra calories a day.
- We don’t get fat because we overeat. We overeat fat primarily because we’re getting fat. You’ll need to read the book to fully digest (no pun intended!) the science behind this.
- The reason nutritionists like to think that carbs are somehow fuel for the body – which is simply wrong – is because your cells will burn carbs before they burn fat. But they do so because that’s how the body keeps blood sugar levels in check after a high-carb meal! If you’re eating a higher carb diet, your cells will have a lot of carbs to burn before they get to the fat.
- The one thing we absolutely have to do if we want to get leaner – if we want to get out of our fat tissue and burn it – is to lower insulin levels and secrete less insulin to begin with.
- Not all of us get fat when we eat carbs, but for those of us who do, the carbs are to blame. You can compare it to cigarettes: Not every longtime smoker will get lung cancer, but for those who do, cigarette some is by far the most common cause.
- The reason low-calorie diets often work is because those dieters are also inadvertently (or intentionally) lowering their carb intake as well. But you’ll probably be hungry the whole time.
- High-fat diets ARE NOT correlated with heart disease. Period. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that compared with people on a traditional diet, Ornish diet (low-fat), and Zone Diet, Atkins dieters lost more weight, lowered their triglycerides (which have a high correlation with heart disease), raised their HDL (good cholesterol), and lowered their blood pressure THE MOST. By far. Their risk of a heart attack decreased SIGNIFICANTLY.
- In order to lose fat tissue and be at optimum health, we must eliminate as many carbs and sugars from our diet as much as possible. Some people can eat more carbs than others with little impact on health/weight, but others just can’t. Either way, high-carb/low-fat diets are unhealthy.
Phew! There were also a few things that were conspicuously missing from Taubes’ book:
- A diet comprised of mostly animal products is ultimately recommended, but what are the environmental and ethical consequences of eating such a diet?
- All animal products weren’t created equal, so which types of meat should we seek out?
- If someone is a vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, what are they supposed to do?
- There are indisputably SOME psychological aspects to overeating, though Taubes argues that more of it is physiological than we’ve been led to believe. I agree with those. However, he doesn’t address any of those psychological components at all (but this book is not a book about eating disorders).
- Taubes doesn’t touch on the fact that some people DO lose weight with exercise alone. Granted, they’re usually a bit bigger do begin with, but it definitely happens sometimes. He claims that most people who start an exercise regimen also change their diet, which is probably true much of the time — but not always.
So does this mean I’m going to be touting Atkins now? No, not at all. But I’m also going to maintain that most carbs and sugar are completely unhealthy, (unprocessed) fat is harmless and potentially even healthy, and protein is fine. Like I said in my To Carb or Not to Carb post, how many carbs you eat is up to you. But if you’re seeking weight loss and health, science increasingly shows that the fewer, the better. Sorry, kids. Bread is delicious, yes, but to a smoker, so are cigarettes. That doesn’t mean we should keep smoking if we’re seeking optimum health.
I also recommend purchasing animal products that have been ethically and sustainably raised as often as you can. Buy meat, fish, and dairy without added hormones or antibiotics. Buy organic when you can. Buy local when you can.
Ultimately, the diet and exercise plan that works for you long-term is something you’ll have to figure out. But Taubes’ book put into words what I’ve known and experienced for a long time: most people can’t consume as many carbs as they are and NOT gain weight or experience unpleasant health effects.
If a low-carb diet just sounds unappealing to you, instead try this: stop eating processed food — carbs, fast food, sugars, soda, and candy included. That will take you very far.
But either way, we quite literally can’t have our cake and eat it too.