Friday, January 7, 2011

Gary Taubes: Why We Get Fat & What We Can Do About It

This may be the most important book you will read in 2011.
Repeat: this may be the most important book that you read in 2011.

This book is a science book, it is not a diet book.
Repeat: this is a science book, not a diet book. (Well, except in the sense that it's a slimmed down version of his superb book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. (I couldn't resist the play on words.)

Taubes takes his groundbreaking work from Good Calories, Bad Calories and reduces it to a more manageable length with the intention of reaching a wider audience. As he notes, and as we all should know, we are currently in the midst of a runaway epidemic of diseases all associated with metabolic syndrome: type 2 diabetes, heart disease & hypertension, and cancer, to name a few of the major diseases that plague us.

So what does Taubes say? I'll attempt to summarize it here:

1. Saying that we get fat because we take in more calories than we expend is like saying that an alcoholic is an alcoholic because he (or she) drinks too much. Dah! The real question: why do we eat (drink) too much?

2. Counting and cutting calories doesn't work. It's too hard, too imprecise (for the purpose it's intended), and it's too irrelevant.

3. More exercise "works up an appetite", and as one of the national news weeklies said in a cover article in the last year or two, it doesn't really seem to help with weight-loss. (It's good for other reasons, but long-term, boring cardio workouts aren't worth much at all and may even prove harmful.)

4. A sedentary life does not (in itself) make a person fat.

5. Some people hold more fat than others do, which is simply to say we have different body types. Some people suffer from rare disorders that cause unusual fat formations on the body. (See photos on the book.)

6. Some people eat enormous amounts of food and don't get fat. It's as if they are robots or are hypnotized to eat lots. E.g., teen-age boys. Can anyone think of any examples?

7. Teenagers, infants, expectant moms: all eat more because their hormones "order" them to.

8. Only two hormones "order" us to fatten up: one doesn't really matter much, and the other is insulin.

9. Insulin orders the body to store fat. The more insulin we produce, the fatter we become.

10. The body produces insulin to process carbohydrates.

11. The more carbohydrates we eat, the more insulin we produce.

12. The more insulin, the more fat, the more fat, the more messed-up our hormone balance becomes and the more insulin resistance we develop (which means the more insulin the body must produce to process any given amount of carbohydrates). You can discern the negative feedback loop that the body enters into here.

13. We can safely replace carbohydrates (not all, mind you) with protein and fat.

14. Fat phobia, at least for some fats, is misguided and bad science. Ditto fear of protein (although, with about anything in Mother Nature, everything has its limits).

Okay, there is my 14-point summary of Taubes's book. I assure you, this summary does not do it justice. Taubes builds his case very meticulously. In addition, his work really brings out the human (and therefore, history) of science. Alas, for all our hopes and dreams, science is a human enterprise, full of all kinds of biases, errors, and contingencies. The loss of German-language medical knowledge and research because of the Second World War comes through clearly in Taubes's books. GC, BC, the longer and more complete book, of course, covers all of this extremely well, the newer book, of necessity, less so, but it still notes some of these twists of fate.

Make no mistake: what Taubes argues is not widely accepted, as he well documents. But ask yourself, how well are we doing in addressing this epidemic of fat and attendant metabolic disease? You and I know the answer: very poorly. Based on the work of Taubes, along with that of De Vany, I really have altered my thinking and, yes, my diet (in some measure, not perfectly) because of this new knowledge. Therefore, if you want a very well written, well argued book to consider, you couldn't find a better book to consider than this one.

More on this topic to come!