Science magazine writer Gary Taubes follows up his highly acclaimed and controversial critique of modern dietary science, Good Calories, Bad Calories (Knopf, 2007), with a fresh look at what’s behind one of the nation’s top public health epidemics—obesity.
Why We Get Fat systemically dismantles the myths surrounding weight gain, scientifically proving that it’s not how much you eat, as much as it is what you eat. Taubes argues for better policy and food-industry regulations while offering easy-to-follow guidelines on what you should be eating—regardless of your size. Michael Pollan, move over. Food culture just found its newest revolutionary.
This book was intended as a layman’s version of your earlier book Good Calories, Bad Calories. What prompted this?
Good Calories, Bad Calories was long, dense and heavily annotated. It is a more of a scholarly work than a book for the lay public, although I tried to walk a tight rope, writing a book that the lay reader could read and enjoy and that physicians, researchers and public-health authorities would take seriously…
What I didn’t count on, though, was that few physicians or researchers or authorities have the time to read a 500-plus-page book, much of which is explaining why their most-cherished beliefs are misconceived. And many lay readers did, indeed, tend to find it slow going. So the obvious solution was to take the ideas in Good Calories, Bad Calories and now present them in a more accessible form.
It must be asked…why do we get fat?
We get fat because specific foods dysregulate our fat tissue. It has nothing to do with the total amount of calories we consume and expend. Rather easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars lead to a chronic elevation of our insulin levels, and insulin, among its many roles in the human body, works to stockpile calories in our fat cells.
In this sense, pre-World War II European clinical researchers, as I discuss in the book, were right. Obesity and overweight are indeed hormonal disorders, not psychological ones, not eating disorders. The hormone that is out of whack is insulin and our insulin levels are determined fundamentally by the carbohydrate content of the diet. So we get fat because carbohydrates make us fat. Not because we eat too much or exercise too little.
Recently there’s been a slew of pop-culture programming such as The Biggest Loser and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Are these helpful prompts to change the way everyday Americans regard obesity, weight loss, lifestyle change?
Well, in all honestly, I rarely watch these shows so I’m not an expert here. What I can say is that the fundamental premise of The Biggest Loser, as I understand it, is that the way to lose weight successfully is through starvation diets and excessive exercise, and that’s simply not true. These techniques can result in dramatic short-term effects, but the history of obesity tells us these will fail in the long run…
The fundamental cause of overweight and obesity are the carbohydrates in the diet, and if those carbohydrates aren’t removed from the diet—permanently—then the fat will always return. As for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, I applaud the show for trying to improve the quality of the food consumed in this country, but without realizing that obesity and diabetes are fundamentally caused by the type of carbohydrate-rich foods we consume—not the fats or the overall calories—whatever changes the show may implement will have little long-term effects.
You offer a number of solutions in your book, including a primarily sugar- and carb-free diet for people to follow. Can you share a few tips with Kirkus? Do you follow these restrictions as well?
The reason I offer a primarily sugar- and carb-free diet in the book is that the fundamental message is that easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars literally make us fat. It’s a simple message and an old one. The nutritional authorities like to equate the idea with the Atkins diet and then reject it for just that reason. But it’s a lot older than Atkins, and the point I make in this book is that everything we know about the hormonal and enzymatic regulation of fat tissue suggests that it’s true.
So once we realize these carbohydrate-rich foods are fattening—refined carbohydrates, including flour and cereal grains, starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, and sugars, like sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup—the lesson is simple, and so is the advice: If you don’t want to be fat, don’t eat these fattening foods, or at least eat less of them…
And, generally, that’s what I do. I tried this way of eating 10 years ago as an experiment, and it worked remarkably well. So I’ve kept it up. I don’t think of myself as being on a diet. I think of myself as avoiding foods that make me fat, in the same way I’ve always avoided corn because I’m allergic to it.
Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It
Knopf / Dec. 28, 2010 / 9780307272706 / $24.95