Good Calories, Bad Calories

Last modified on February 14th, 2008

I picked up a book the other day that I’ve been meaning to read for a few months now. It is a book by a scientific journalist named Gary Taubes entitled Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (Vintage) (although after reading it, I think a more appropriate title might be something like “The People’s History Of Diet And Nutrition.”)

For those of you who follow nutritional research, you may remember Gary from a controversial article he wrote in 2002 in the New York Times called ‘What If It’s Been A Big Fat Lie?” In that article, he proposed an alternative nutritional hypothesis – that it wasn’t fat that ultimately caused obesity or led to the current epidemics of heart disease and diabetes, but it was instead largely influenced by dietary carbohydrates. If there is some truth in that hypothesis (and a great deal of research shows that there is) then the medical establishment has, for the last 30 years, recommended a diet that is not only rather lousy at helping you lose weight, but also has the potential to promote coronary heart disease and diabetes.

Good Calories, Bad Calories

Gary’s article, along with some peer-reviewed research from a couple prestigious medical schools, started what would become the low-carb craze in 2003. Since that time, Gary has been digesting everything he can about the history of nutrition, the facts and the fallacies, along with all the current research in the medical community, to present his alternative hypothesis in an amazingly detailed and easy to follow 600 page nutritional journey.

Most of what is in this book is well established within many circles in the medical community. Every Sunday night I head on over to PubMed and brush up on everything I can find about Heart Disease, Insulin Resistance, Metabolic Syndrome, and Obesity. While I have been exposed to many of the facts and studies presented in this book before, many of them I have not, and of those, a great deal are fairly disturbing. One item that stands out in particular is the revelation that the entire transition in the 70s to the current, widely held nutritional belief that dietary fat leads to heart disease and obesity is essentially a myth, generated by making huge inferences from studies that were largely inconclusive.

Another is that obese mothers usually produce obese babies due to metabolic changes in the newborn as a result of high blood sugar levels that cross the placenta. These heavy babies often become heavy adults, many of which are plagued with weight problems their entire lives. This is a cycle, brought on by massive dietary changes in the last 50 years, one of which potentially was the shift in a subset of the population from breast-feeding to formula (many of which were originally composed of almost entirely carbohydrates, even though breast milk contains hardly any carbohydrates in nature) that occurred years ago.

This book is creating shock waves right now because it essentially implies that what we currently know and understand about nutrition is incorrect, something I also began to believe the moment I was diagnosed with high blood pressure at the age of 25 (despite having spent the better part of a decade on a low-fat diet of less than 2000 calories per day).

Here’s a recent interview with Gary on television where his book is discussed with several prominent people in the medical community. I also want to point out that many people in the last 100 years have also believed as Gary does, and when they presented scientific studies to support their beliefs, were publicly ridiculed and often excommunicated in research circles. The fact that people not only are stopping to consider what Gary is proposing but are also enthusiastically agreeing with him indicates to me that the medical community is starting to realize, much like I did five years ago, that the current recommendations and understanding with regards to nutrition are either flawed or incomplete.

I can’t recommend this book enough, even if you’re a firm believer in the “a calorie is just a calorie” mantra or the “low-fat” hypothesis. I think Gary presents the information scientifically and impartially, and while it’s clear which side of the fence he is on, it is apparent that he got there by logical deduction based on the overwhelming evidence in favour of the alternative hypothesis.

There are many conclusions, recommendations and important observations in this book, one of which is a rather honest opinion about the current goals of the nutritional research community — Gary sums it up rather eloquently in the book’s epilogue:

Individuals who pursue research in this confluence of nutrition, obesity, and chronic disease are typically motivated by the desire to conserve our health and prevent disease. This is an admirable goal, and it undeniably requires reliable knowledge to achieve, but it can not be accomplished by allowing the goal to compromise the means, and this is what has happened. Practical considerations of what is too loosely defined as the “public health” have consistently been allowed to take precedence over the dispassionate, critical evaluation of evidence and the rigorous and meticulous experimentation that are required to establish reliable knowledge. The urge to simplify a complex scientific situation so that physicians can apply it and their patients and the public embrace it has taken precedence over the scientific obligation of presenting the evidence with relentless honesty. The result is an enormous enterprise dedicated in theory to determining the relationship between diet, obesity, and disease, while dedicated in practice to convincing everyone involved, and the lay public, most of all, that the answers are already known and always have been — an enterprise, in other words, the purports to be a science and yet functions like a religion.

I’ll wrote more on this in a few days. I have to collect my thoughts and figure out which parts I want to touch on.