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.

6 responses to “Good Calories, Bad Calories”

  1. Beth says:

    Cool, I’ll definitely have to get my hands on a copy of that!

  2. Amber says:

    I totally agree! Not only are the dietary recommendations wrong, but the archaic system of the BMI is so wrong it hurts! You can have two people with a healthy BMI stand side by side and one can be fit as a fiddle but the other can be quite fat and out of shape. Ideal weight based on height? I don’t think so. Body fat percentage is a much more accurate way of judging your health in terms of your weight. I’ve recently done some research on metabolic typing as well as soma types and to my surprise I found out I’ve been eating the wrong things for my personal metabolic type for years. No wonder the pounds pile on so easily. My body does not know how to use the fuel I’ve been giving it. It really clears up the mystery as to why some people can lose a ton of weight on a certain diet, and for others the scale does not budge on the same diet. I don’t know if the medical community will ever accept that not everyone needs the same food to be healthy and weight loss programs are not “one size fits all” It simply does not work that way. Let me know if you want the link to see what your body thrives on. You might be surprised.

  3. Duane Storey says:

    Actually, I clinically have hyperinsulinemia, or at least once was fairly insulin resistant. I had high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and high blood glucose.. That basically implies that my body is extremely sensitive to carbohydrates.

  4. Amber says:

    Ouch. I’m supposed to keep my Carbs at 20 % ( I was surprised at this) . I’ve been averaging 25-35 % and the weight is flying off.

  5. Duane Storey says:

    Yah, most anecdotal accounts are similar to yours. I did about 10% carbs a few years ago and lost 56 lbs in about four months. I didn’t even exercise, nor was I hungry.

    I’m not preaching a low-carb diet though. While it works wonders for most people, there is a percentage of the population that responds to low-fat diets. The difference between the two camps, at least the current hypothesis for it, has to do with their bodies inherent insulin sensitivity. Those that seem to be sensitive do well with diets that have carbohydrates in them. Those that are insensitive to insulin (or insulin resistant), seem to do far better with a low-carbohydrate approach. That being said, triglycerides are pretty much universally accepted as contributing to heart disease, and those are primarily a function of carbohydrate intake. So keeping your carbs low in your diet almost always improves blood profiles with regards to heart disease.

    Another point that is routinely left out of reports is when low-fat diets are compares against low-carb diets. Often the authors will say that the degree of weight loss between the two groups is fairly similar. Often it is. However, the amount of body fat lost (as a percentage of total fat) seems to be dependent on carb intake. Another way to say it is the people in the low-fat group lost a lot of weight, but a large portion of it was actually muscle mass and not actually fat mass. Part of that explains the “yo-yo” effect seen in many dieters, since their diet actually causes muscle (which is metabolically active) to waste away. Therefore their metabolisms were measurably lower after dieting. High carbohydrates in a diet seems to set up the body’s hormones to preferentially attack lean body mass (muscle) for energy requirements instead of taking it from fat stores.

  6. Amber says:


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