Big Fat Fake

The Atkins diet controversy and the sorry state of science journalism.

It was exactly what millions of obese Americans wanted to hear: Diet guru Robert Atkins has been right all along; conversely, the "medical establishment" that has routinely criticized him has been entirely wrong. Unlimited-calorie, high-fat meals are the key to low-fat bodies. So claimed award-winning science writer Gary Taubes in an 8,000-word New York Times Magazine blockbuster that appeared last July, "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?"

The magazine's cover was even juicier than the title: It featured a slab of steak topped with butter and asked, "What If Fat Doesn't Make You Fat?" In fact, Taubes declared in his article, the consumption of too little fat could explain the explosion in obesity.

Atkins quickly wrote an editorial for his Web site claiming the article "validated" his work. Gushingly favorable follow-up stories appeared on NBC's Dateline, CBS' 48 Hours, and ABC's 20/20. Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, with 11 million copies already in print, shot up from No. 5 to the top spot on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous" books. It went from No. 178 to No. 5 in Amazon's rankings. Taubes himself landed a book contract from publisher Alfred A. Knopf for a big fat $700,000.

But there were serious problems with this revolutionary argument about one of our nation's most serious health problems. For example, Taubes omitted any reference to hundreds of refereed scientific studies published during the last three decades that contradicted his position. Researchers from whom he could not pull even a single useful quote supportive of his thesis were banished from the piece, while many of those whom Taubes did end up quoting now complain that he twisted their words.

"I was greatly offended by how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins diet," says one such source, Stanford University cardiologist John Farquhar. "I think he's a dangerous man. I'm sorry I ever talked to him."

Upon closer examination, Taubes' "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" turns into a big fat mess. The misguided hoopla over the New York Times Magazine article and the Atkins Diet is a short study in the sorry state of scientific and medical reporting, not to mention a diet industry that routinely panders to people's worst impulses.

The Fat Shall Set Ye Free?

In Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, Robert Atkins claims that by simply minimizing your carbohydrate intake you can quickly lose massive amounts of weight, even while pigging out daily on fatback, pork rinds, and lard. He also claims his diet will relieve "fatigue, irritability, depression, trouble concentrating, headaches, insomnia, dizziness, joint and muscle aches, heartburn, colitis, premenstrual syndrome, and water retention and bloating."

Claims like those should make anyone suspicious, even those who have barely scraped through high school biology. Gary Taubes has gone well beyond that level. He's a contributing correspondent to America's preeminent scientific journal, Science. He has won the National Association of Science Writers' Science in Society Journalism Award three times -- the maximum allowed. Only one other writer has ever achieved that status.

Nonetheless, at the very outset of his piece (viewable in its entirety at Taubes set forth the proposition that Atkins was crucified by the "American medical establishment," which claimed his diet was ineffective and possibly dangerous and in so doing encouraged the "rampaging epidemic of obesity in America."

There is a nugget of truth in Taubes' criticisms of establishment dietary fat advice. Well-meaning but misguided health officials and health reporters, joined by opportunistic anti-fat diet book gurus, have convinced much of the public that the major culprit -- perhaps the only culprit -- in obesity is dietary fat. Avoid fat, we were told, and you won't get fat. Given license to eat as many calories as we wanted from the other nutrient groups, many of us have done exactly that. This goes far to explain why almost one-third of us are obese and almost two-thirds of us are overweight. But even here Taubes is no pioneer; the damage caused by fat-free fanaticism was pointed out long before. (See, for example, my own 1997 book, The Fat of the Land.)

Moreover, the Atkins-Taubes thesis of "fat won't make you fat" encourages obesity in a similar way: It offers carte blanche for consuming limitless calories, only this time swapping carbohydrates for fat. Taubes made that swap while presenting a far less scientific case than is presented in an Atkins infomercial.

Ask Stanford endocrinologist Gerald Reaven. He's best known for calling attention to "Syndrome X," a cluster of conditions that may indicate a predisposition to diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Among Reaven's recommendations for lowering the risk of that syndrome is to reduce consumption of highly refined carbohydrates such as those present in soft drinks and table sugar. But that's where the overlap with Atkins ends.

"I thought [Taubes'] article was outrageous," Reaven says. "I saw my name in it and all that was quoted to me was not wrong. But in the context it looked like I was buying the rest of that crap." He adds, "I tried to be helpful and a good citizen, and I ended up being embarrassed as hell. He sort of set me up." When I first contacted Reaven, he was so angry he wouldn't even let me interview him.

But his position on Atkins was all over the Internet in interviews posted long before Taubes talked to him. Do "low-carb diets like The Zone [by Barry Sears] and Atkins work?" one asked. Answer: "One can lose weight on a low-calorie diet if it is primarily composed of fat calories or carbohydrate calories or protein calories. It makes no difference!"

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  • ||

    Having read all three pieces in this debate, Fumento's critique of Taubes is so wholly inadequate I feel embarassed for him, and disappointed that Reason didn't vet Fumento seriously before publishing his original critique of Taubes. Taubes' position is increasingly permeating the research community and will likely be vindicated, leaving Fumento's piece as an embarassing example of Reason failing its mandate to provide critical analysis of contemporary debates. Reason's standards should be higher than merely being a forum for dissent -- you should have some standards for the dissent, and recognize dogmatic clinging to establishment thinking when you see it. The sooner the Lipid Hypothesis dies and refined carbs are recognized for their negative health effects the better the health of the world. We owe Taubes a serious debt of thanks for his integtrity and iconoclastic pursuit of reason. He shouldn't have had to offer this defense, likely only read by a fraction of those who read the original critique.

  • ||

    Taubes responds to this (google Taubes response to Fumento) and it's pretty devastating. I love Taubes, he's awesome. Read his Good Calories Bad Calories

  • TT, R.D.||

    Ya, he has no education in nutrition or medicine, so let's put faith in his writing. Until you do, you have no idea how strenuous and rigorous the education truly is. For example, "his low carb diet will reduce headaches." Interesting. Since glucose is a necessity to the and astrocytes at the blood brain barrier are selective in allowing substances to pass into the cerebral cortex, I find that extremely hard to believe. Read a textbook one time, not a BS journalists made up science.

  • ||

    Did you read his book? I wonder, as a registered dietician (presumably that is what R.D. stands for in your handle) are you just a little worried that you might be responsible for promoting faulty dietary advice--we tend to defend practice which we become dependent upon for our livelihood. I'm just sayin'...

  • ||

    In other words, you have nothing with which to debunk the dietician, so you try to slander him instead? Nice. Not.

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    Interesting how low carb "doesn't work" considering I lost over 120 lbs in 8 months after only being able to lose (at most) a handful of lbs on low fat. I've kept it off for nearly 7 years now. My cholesterol, blood pressure and A1c all dropped to textbook levels on it. And BTW, why would I care how "original" a diet is if it works to make me healthier?

  • ||

    Fumento quotes Seeley, "If you're only allowed to shop in two aisles of the grocery store, does it matter which two they are?" Wouldn't it matter to you which two you eat from exclusively?
    Two aisles: "HBA" and "Paper Products."
    Two aisles: "Candies" and "Pastries."
    Two aisles: "Meats" and "Produce."

  • ||

    Amazing. The arguments against Taubes' conclusions are no more than continued repudiations based on the very faulty assumptions Taubes refutes in his book. Naysayers cite the seemingly sensible but scientifically weak arguments which have caused the spike in overweight, obesity, and disease. Remember Galileo? I hear he had this funny idea (not completely original) about the Sun. You see, it might look light it rises and sets, moving around the earth, but in truth we had it backward. Our observations were limited by our presumptions and assumptions. Hear it didn't go to well for ol' Galileo, but the rest of us have benefitted immeasurably because other scientists had the humility and curiosity to pursue study which had already resulted in exile and denunciation. Seems the more things change the more they stay the same.

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    Having read the dodging and weaving of Taubes' "response" slander, and juxtaposing this against Guyenet's recent analysis of the moneybags cherry picker's conclusions, it's hard for me to read a comment calling Taubes "awesome" because of the tears of laughter in my eyes. What seems awesome to me is the amount of money Knopf paid for this hill of beans. Er, pork rinds.

  • Karl jones||

    Shame I didn't read this tripe earlier I'd have saved myself the easiest time loosing 80 pounds, dropping my blood pressure, looking ten years younger, and a six pack to boot. Lets cut the crap, low carb is right.

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  • rpavich||

    Wow...I thought that the name of this site was "Reason" not "misrepresentation of a position and sloppy thinking"?

    I've read a lot of hit-pieces and this is one of the more blatant examples.

    Next time try and represent what Gary says fairly, and THEN TRY and refute his position based on sound logic and evidence.


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