Public Health

Big Fat Lies and Carb Calumny

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In his New York Times science column this week, John Tierney takes on the idea that calories from fat are especially bad for you. Gram for gram, fat does provide more calories than protein or carbohydrates do. But critics of low-fat diet advice have long argued that total calories are what matters for people concerned about their weight, and that overemphasizing fat reduction can actually encourage overeating (as when people gorge themselves on "low-fat" snacks that have about the same calorie content as the standard versions). In his book Good Calories, Bad Calories (which Tierney has read but I have not), science writer Gary Taubes goes further, questioning the conventional wisdom that fat consumption contributes to heart disease. Tierney agrees with Taubes (who is famous/notorious for his 2002 New York Times Magazine cover story suggesting that high-fat, low-carb guru Robert Atkins was onto something) that physicians rushed to judgment about the cardiovascular impact of fat consumption. Tierney describes the anti-fat consensus as the result of an erroneous "informational cascade," in which a few prominent endorsements triggered an avalanche of authoritative statements with little scientific basis.

Tierney is not so sure about Taubes' attempt to vilify carbs instead of fat, and I share his skepticism. Are we condemned to forever swing between these two extremes of nutritional wisdom? Is it possible that the boring old advice about a balanced, omnivorous diet is closer to the truth after all? Or maybe it's just the safest course in the face of uncertainty.

Michael Fumento attacked Taubes' New York Times Magazine piece in the March 2003 issue of reason. Here is Taubes' response and Fumento's reaction to it.

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  1. One would think, outside of potential allergic reactions, that a calorie is a calorie regardless of the source. The only downside to carbs may be the fact that they metabolze faster and may cause glucose surges and crashes, causing a person to feel hungry sooner. There are people who have had amazing success with Atkins-style diets in terms of weight loss, and people who have not. Maybe, just maybe, different bodies react differently to different foods.

    Personally, I prefer fats and proteins over carbs, and like eating few carbs, and mostly meat and vegetables (and fruit). However, eating a carb fest like pasta does nothing negative to me.

  2. It depends on how caloric content is determined, Episiarch.

    Usually the food is fried in a bomb calorimeter to determine total energy (caloric) content. The body isn’t that efficient.

    Our metabolisms are most efficient at extracting energy from carbohydrates, and least efficient at extracting energy from fats. However, fats contain the most energy (calories) on a per unit mass basis.

  3. Got a link, he who shall not be nominated? This topic is a hole in my knowledge that has bothered me for some time.

  4. Is it possible that the boring old advice about a balanced, omnivorous diet is closer to the truth after all?

    Could it actually be our mothers are correct?

    My mom, a degreed dietitian and home-ec teacher had one rule she taught her pupils: make your plate colorful. A little brown (meat), a little white (starch) and orange/yellow/green/red (veg & fruits); presto – you’ll have a well balanced meal by default. Could it really be that easy? Yes, but then she wasn’t trying to sell a book.

  5. The only people who should really concern themselves with the insulin effects of carbohydrates are diabetics and bodybuilders. For the rest of us, it all comes down to one word:

    MODERATION

  6. Is it possible that the boring old advice about a balanced, omnivorous diet is closer to the truth after all?

    Nah. That would mean Mom was right. Couldn’t be, she’d never been to college.
    I laugh at every nutrition craze, diet book and Ag Dept. food pyramid that is released. The public’s demonstrated gullibility on this issue affirms my low opinion of humanity.

  7. For me carbohydrates are a bit too easy to metabolize. I’ve become a lot more efficient at work now that I have given up eating pastas and breads at lunch.

    Glucose surges and crashes are a real phenomenon for me. However, a nice 10 oz. marbled steak will have me feeling just fine.

  8. I have an idea. How about the admission that people who are trying to lose weight but can’t are clearly not doing it right (for their bodies), and should therefore try something else. Trial and error is really quite effective if it’s paid attention to. I realize that there are other things than weight at stake (cholesterol, blood sugar, etc.), but largely, can’t people stop victimizing themselves and surrendering to people who write hit revolutionary diet books that are reviewed on Oprah?

  9. It depends on how caloric content is determined, Episiarch.

    Right, but at the end of the day if I have had 1500 calories (after metabolizing), does the source matter? I am not talking about vitamins and nutrients here, just energy.

    It would seem the answer is yes, but the real world seems to say no. For instance, if you ate 1500 calories from sugar packets each day and then took supplements for amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, would you be fine?

    I wouldn’t want to do it, because I don’t think I would be fine.

  10. “Low fat”, and “diet” snacks always seemed funny to me. It’s a really awful behavior modification program for someone who really wants to lose weight, teaching oneself that one could enjoy such goodies and lose weight.

    But, yeah, it seems for the most part, calories are calories regardless of source. Consumption of empty calories may be more detrimental than the source.

  11. I feel like a lamb being lead by shepards when it comes to nutrition- I never know what to believe, and usually follow the current trend.

    I once had a professor who was adament that cholesterol levels were irrelevent, their notariety spawned more by correlation than causation, and conveniently advertised by big pharma who’s most profitable drugs are anti-cholesterol.

    Is there a sound scientific argument that cholestol-scare is just a big scam?

  12. Maybe, just maybe, different bodies react differently to different foods.

    Impossible. We’re all exactly the same, genetics, gender and body sizes be damned, and therefore a single one-size-fits-all approach is all that is necessary. And moderation is bullshit: if eating forty pounds of ice cream a day is bad for you, then eating any amount of ice cream is bad for you.

  13. And moderation is bullshit: if eating forty pounds of ice cream a day is bad for you, then eating any amount of ice cream is bad for you.

    Ice cream is only bad for you because of all of that fat! or was it carbs? Anyway, I only eat a serving (LIE!!!!) of carb conscious low fat sweetened-with-splenda ice cream once a week (LIE!!!!!) and still can’t lose weight!

    *sobs*
    I’m only crying because I’m going through perimenopause

  14. overweight female baby boomer, you forgot to call for regulation like a good baby boomer. And we need a story about how great it was when you were a kid and things were so safe and wonderful and there was far less regulation (oops).

    You know, “we used to ride our bikes with no helmets all the way out to the quarry and go diving with no lifeguards” type of thing.

  15. overweight female baby boomer, you forgot to call for regulation like a good baby boomer. And we need a story about how great it was when you were a kid and things were so safe and wonderful and there was far less regulation (oops).

    You know, “we used to ride our bikes with no helmets all the way out to the quarry and go diving with no lifeguards” type of thing.

    Episiarch, damned well put. My generation needs a good jap slap from time to time.

  16. we used to ride our bikes with no helmets all the way out to the quarry and go diving with no lifeguards

    Oh yes. Me and Peggy Jo used to raid her mother’s liquor cabinet before we went and share it with the boys at the reservoir. There weren’t as many cars back then, so it was actually safe to ride our bikes. What we need now are more publicly funded bike trails which I’d never let my children go on even if they wanted to because they’re a magnet for creepy rapists and dope fiends. We need to hire full time security on these trails, but not after 7pm since kids shouldn’t be out past then anyway.

  17. “I once had a professor who was adament that cholesterol levels were irrelevent, their notariety spawned more by correlation than causation, and conveniently advertised by big pharma who’s most profitable drugs are anti-cholesterol.

    “Is there a sound scientific argument that cholestol-scare is just a big scam?”

    I’m not sure about the science, but I find that theory incredibly easy to believe; possibly because I love whole milk and real butter.

  18. Tierney is not so sure about Taubes’ attempt to vilify carbs instead of fat, and I share his skepticism. Are we condemned to forever swing between these two extremes of nutritional wisdom?

    Restricting carbs is a good way to lose weight. Once you hit your goal weight, you can eat between 70-100 grams of carbohydrates a day without gaining weight. That’s not the 300 grams a day recommended by the AMA, but it’s not steak and eggs for every meal, either (although that would be perfectly healthy). Oddly enough, a lot of folks who go on low-carb diets end up eating more vegetables than they ever have in their lives.

  19. Trial and error is a good point. For my part I tried a quasi-vegetarian/low-fat diet in college, and promptly gained about 10 lbs in a month (not the good kind of weight, either). And this was at the ripe old age of 20.

    At 30, my diet is primarily lean meats, eggs/nuts, vegetables and fruits, along with some fats (olive oil, salad dressing, cheese mayo, etc). The most bread I eat is typically a tortilla. When I have potatoes, I don’t have much. I almost never have rice or pasta. Truth be told, I probably drink most of my carbs. And I’m much leaner, stronger, healthier, and have a lot more energy than when I was 20.

    When I do deviate from this pattern (say, have a plate of pasta or heaping pile of fries) I invariably regret having done so.

    I could never do Atkins–I like beer way too much to ever give it up completely–but I do think he was onto something.

    The main thing, really, is that most people don’t pay enough attention to how certain foods make them feel, and modify their consumption accordingly.

  20. The family of one of my friends had a “lake house.” We used to ride our bicycles off the roof of the boathouse into about eight feet of water. When we weren’t shooting each other with bb guns and/or drinking beer, that is.

  21. OWFBB, you need to get with the current program: all children under age 18 need full-time, supervised nanny care in a location removed from any possibility of second hand smoke, slips and falls, contact with those who are different, inappropriate foods, a whiff of alchoholic beverage, etc. etc.

  22. My generation needs a good jap slap from time to time.

    It needs a hell of a lot more than that, but Social Security will turn this nation into Mad-Max land soon enough, and as us few survivors pick clean the bones of baby boomers, we will chortle to ourselves. JUST WALK AWAY.

    However, to look like the Humungous I will now begin eating only chicken breast, protein shakes and broccoli. NO CARBS, AND I WILL SPARE YOUR LIVES.

  23. The only effective way to control weight is exercise. Hell, I learned this years ago from watching an episode of The White Shadow.

  24. The only effective way to control weight is exercise.

    I shouldn’t exercise at my weight. I’m allergic to leaves when I walk outside and it hurts my knees, and even if I walk on a treadmill inside I don’t lose weight as fast as I’d like. I spent all this money on ridiculous clothing to exercise in. I bought tummy shrinking exercise equipment from TV, but it’s too hard to use. I just don’t have the body type that these people have that makes it so easy for them. Little did I know it would actually require effort!! They didn’t say that on TV!! They shouldn’t be allowed to sell these things to people who are desperate to lose weight when they make it look so easy!!

    *sobs again*

  25. OWFBB, you need to get with the current program: all children under age 18 need full-time, supervised nanny care in a location removed from any possibility of second hand smoke, slips and falls, contact with those who are different, inappropriate foods, a whiff of alchoholic beverage, etc. etc.

    Now if more libertarians would talk good sense like that, you might get yourselves elected to something…

  26. “…I love whole milk and real butter.”

    There’s nothing like real butter but, for my money, Rapa(TM)[sorry – don’t know how to superscript] scrapple with bacon bits is the shit!

    If you consume more calories than you burn, your body stores it as fat. If you consume less calories than your body consumes then you metabolize that stored energy.

    And the theory behind Atkins is that carbs – especially sugars and fiber – are simple chemical compunds that, if unused, are turned into body fat much more easily than dietary fat, which is rather more difficult to digest. Much of the dietary fat that we eat is simply passed through undigested. I apologize in advance for those of you on your lunch break.

    Best diet plan: Crystal meth.

  27. Episiarch, did you read anything other than the first line of my previous post?

    Warty, no link, just memory from physiology and biochemistry classes

  28. Yes, I did. I don’t see the disconnect.

  29. RE: Cholesterol

    Additions and reductions in dietary cholesterol affect blood serum cholesterol levels by only 2% or less. It is eating saturated fats and hydrogenated fats that trigger the liver to produce more blood serum cholesterol.

    Eat all the eggs you want. Just don’t fry them in bacon grease.

  30. Hey, Pi Guy, you stole that meth idea from 30 Rock last night! The doctor recommended Meth for weight loss (as long as you weren’t too concerned about teeth retention).

  31. Two quick notes:

    1. Yes, all calories are equal to the body in the broadest sense. That said, a growing body of evidence indicates that protein promotes the most satiety. Atkins CLAIMED his diet was high protein but researchers crunched the numbers and found it was really just low-carb, high fat. As a former fatty, I now eat a high protein diet.

    2. The comment about exercise appears to be true for anybody who has once been fat, like me. If you’ve never been fat, you can be a couch potato and simply watch your calories. If you’ve been fat, watching calories just isn’t enough. You’ve got to get out and move.

  32. Best diet plan: Crystal meth.

    I’M GONNA BE ON TELEVISION!

  33. The answer be fish.
    Fish be the answer.
    Fish for all, all for fish.
    Eat fucking fish, you fuckin’ fuckers.
    Fish.

  34. I shouldn’t exercise at my weight.

    OK, admittedly, the “White Shadow” was just a TV basketball coach played by Ken Howard. Maybe I shouldn’t take everything he said as gospel truth.

  35. Thought experiment: two obese people are dropped onto separate deserted islands bereft of food. They are both air-dropped each day a packet of food containing 1,000 calories. One person gets a fat-intense packet, the other a carb-intense packet.

    Do they both lose weight, and at pretty much the same rate?

    The equation for weight loss is to burn more calories than you consume, taking into account that at starvation levels your body processes food more efficiently (by hanging onto it longer before excreting waste) and ramps down metabolism. Doesn’t really matter how you get those calories.

  36. The Zombie Diet: Get unstoppable energy, life after death, and the slender figure you have always wanted.

    The Secret?

    BRAINS! BRAINS!

  37. Prolefeed said, “The equation for weight loss is to burn more calories than you consume, taking into account that at starvation levels your body processes food more efficiently (by hanging onto it longer before excreting waste) and ramps down metabolism. Doesn’t really matter how you get those calories.”

    Perhaps not at starvation levels but under normal eating conditions, when one’s body is not feeding on itself so to speak, the type of caloric intake has a profound effect on hormonal regulation which determines what the body does with various configurations of protein, fat, and carbohydrate.

    Another consideration has to do with how one’s body is configured biochemically and physiologically. For further discussion on this, read “Biochemical Individuality” by Roger J. Williams, PhD.

    The debate regarding what happens to calories once they enter the body seldom involves consideration that the digestive tract exists, in a sense, outside the body. As a chambered tube with an entrance and an exit, the digestive system is usually considered to be 100 percent efficient at transferring the energy contained in protein, fats, and carbohydrates from the digestive tract to the bloodstream. We know this isn’t the case because researchers in Africa have measured caloric excretion rates ranging up to 60 percent of total caloric intake. (For more on this Google “unabsorbed calories” or “calorie excretion.”

    It’s good to see that a few of you posting comments here are somewhat aware of this.

  38. I see the word “saturated” once on this page (and not at all in Tierney’s column), which surprises me. I thought that was a pretty well-supported distinction…

    from Wikipedia’s entry for “saturated fat”:
    Diets high in saturated fat are correlated with an increased incidence of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease according to a number of studies, both African green monkeys[2] and human [3] [4][5] [6]. Numerous studies have suggested that diets high in saturated fat increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Epidemiological studies have found that those whose diets are high in saturated fatty acids, including lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acid, had a higher prevalence of coronary heart disease. [7] [8] [9] [10] Additionally, controlled experimental studies have found that people consuming high saturated fat diets experience negative cholesterol profile changes. [3] [11] [12] [13] A 2003 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that diets high in saturated fat negatively affected cholesterol profiles – predictors of a heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases.[14]

    Experiments in which subjects were randomly assigned to either a control or Mediterranean diet (which replaces saturated fat with mono and polyunsaturated fat) showed a significantly decreased likelihood of suffering a second heart attack, cardiac death, heart failure or stroke. [15] [16]

  39. Foods that are good for our wellbeing generally taste good. Nature isn’t trying to fool us. We evolved eating the good stuff and avoiding the nasty tasting stuff. People who avoid pleasure with the dream of eternal life probably worry too much to be healthy.

  40. For example, not only is daily drinking making me smarter, it also increases my good carbs. And the heavy coffee drinking is saving my liver from the drinking. I’m not sure what the big fat steaks are doing but, boy they make me happy.

  41. Foods that are good for our wellbeing generally taste good.

    Consistent with my hypothesis that bacon is Nature’s Perfect Food.

  42. “We evolved eating the good stuff and avoiding the nasty tasting stuff.”

    We also evolved living 25 years or so. Partly due to infection and other challenges, of course. I’m just saying that evolution’s game was to keep up alive long enough to raise some kids, not take cruises in our 80’s. An appetite that helped the former at the expense of the latter was a net gain, genetically. We are maladapted to many aspects of modern society. Example: we evolved to like attractive women, not images thereof that waste our time and run up our credit card bills.

  43. Keven, exactly, that’s why we have little business living past the age our dicks fall off and can no longer reproduce..

  44. “Impossible. We’re all exactly the same, genetics, gender and body sizes be damned.”

    I completely disagree with the idea that all bodies metabolize food exactly the same. I spent some time in northern Quebec (beyond the tree line) with the Inuit. Their diet is almost pure fat, like muktuk (blubber) and meat from whales, seals and walrus. Their cholesterol and body weight was lower than mine. My cholesterol is always between 139 and 160, the good cholesterol always the highest. Yet the Inuit had cholesterol in the 130’s. consequently all bodies do not metabolize the same.

  45. Which happens about fourteen years before you are too frail to handle a thirteen year old girl.

  46. That might ought to say raise a thirteen year old girl. And I should have said good chloresterol not carbs earlier.

  47. Total cholesterol levels have no impact on heart health – what is dangerous is triglycerides. A low-carb diet commonly reduces triglycerides up to 75% within a matter of days. There are two books on the cholesterol myth with the exact same name: “The Great Cholesterol Con”, one by Anthony Colpo and one by Dr. Malcolm McKendrick. These can answer your questions about the evidence exonerating dietary cholesterol.

    The body does not “need” glucose from carbs, it can happily derive glucose from protein (gluconeogensis), but the body also runs perfectly well on ketones, which are the product of metabolized fat. Fat is merely stored excess glucose, and this storage process of glucose is controlled by Insulin. (The body does not store excess generic calories as fat, it only stores glucose which mostly comes from carbs). Ketosis is the perfectly normal process of metabolizing this fat for fuel, and lowering carbohydrate intake to 20 grams daily puts the body automatically into this fat-burning state, without any additional need for counting or lowering of calories. Caloric lowering does not have any effect of inducing ketosis.

    This is how dietary metabolism works, a dynamic completely missed by most researchers of the last 70 years, and most recently re-discovered and expressed by Dr. Atkins, though it has been known since the 1860’s.

    Different types of calories are not metabolized the same, therefore they are in no way equivalent to the body, another science myth. It is common among low-carbers to increase caloric intake while continuing to lose weight. Low-calorie “starvation diets” simply deprive the body of all nutrition, while low-carb is a “nutrient dense” diet, which maximizes caloric nutrition. Keto-acidosis is the unhealthy process of metabolizing one’s own muscle as a result of starvation dieting. This has no relation to ketosis.

    Americans never had a high-fat diet, a third science myth. The incidence of heart disease, weight gain and diabetes exactly matches the addition of highly refined carbohydrate into the US diet over the last century, and spiking after 1970 with the introduction of corn syrup into many foods. Every single symptom of Metabolic Syndrome is reversed by a low-carb diet (for level-one evidence of this see Volek and Feinman report below). This should be evidence enough to demonstrate an extremely strong correlation between our great “mystery epidemics” and dietary carbohydrate. No such correlation exists for dietary fat.

    In other words, overweight, diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol are all merely symptoms of ONE disease, and their cause is not caloric, but metabolic. Dietary calories have little direct correlative effect on metabolism, but dietary carbs have a very direct correlative effect.

    Read Taubes’ book if you want to see evidence for all of this, he’s not making any unsupported claims. For that matter, read Atkins’ book. Also see “Men’s Health TNT Diet” by Adam Campbell and Jeff Volek, a leading low-carb researcher, for some very compelling recent research. In the end, these writers and researchers are touting low-carb because it frequently works, and dramatically well, where low-fat and low-cal have largely failed. If low fat was true, then we all would have attained perfect health over 30 years ago – instead we are all far sicker. Considering this, low-carb is just asking for equal time, credit and funding in the laboratory, at the very least.

    For more information online, see:

    http://www.weightoftheevidence.blogspot.com (Regina Wilshire)
    http://rjr10036.typepad.com/askdrvernon/ (Dr. Mary Vernon)
    http://www.proteinpower.com (Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades)
    http://www.diabetes-normalsugars.com (Dr. Richard Bernstein)
    http://www.dsolve.com

    Dr. Ron Rosedale on the role of Insulin in dietary metabolism:
    http://drbass.com/rosedale2.html

    Volek and Feinman comprehensive review of carb-restriction studies (2005):
    http://weightoftheevidence.blogspot.com/2006/04/level-one-evidence-to-treat-metabolic.html

  48. It is most unfortunate when people give their opinion based on nothing other than “what they feel.” Science, not opinion is my motto but, this column appears to have few who share this creed. If this opinion instead of science was followed by building engineers, we’d have skyscrapers falling down with a 1 in 10 probablity. We’d never have quantum physics (because it sounds “crazy”) leading to mobile phones and hand-held computers. Unfortunately, America gets fatter and sicker by the day because so few listen to biochemical science likes Taubes gives. The biochemistry and physiology are NOT OPEN TO OPINION. Type II Diabetes didn’t exist pre-1940) and obesity are now both national epidemics with no end in sight. Perhaps because we have become so stupid in this area we deserve to prematurely die while becoming the size of a house, diabetic,exhausted and cancer-riddden.

  49. “Is there a sound scientific argument that cholestol-scare is just a big scam?”

    Yes. Taubes makes it in his book. GCBC is not a diet book or a way-to-eat book but a sound look at much of the science that his been done in this area. I found it a fascinating and well written read. If you have any interest in the subject matter then I highly recommend that you read the book, and not just other’s opinion of it. (I’ve read quite a collection of “other’s” opinions on the book online and they run the gamut from well informed to knee-jerk reaction crap.

  50. Peskin and Taubes have it right. Anyone who says “a calorie is a calorie” whether it’s fat, protein or carbohydrates does NOT know what they are talking about. If you study the science, you know that the body treats fat, carbs and protein very differently. Fat is almost entirely turned to energy, protein is used for re-building muscles and nerves and tissues, and carbohydrates, unless they are immediately burned for energy, get stored as fat on your body. The occurs because insulin kicks in. Cause your pancreas to produce insulin too often, you get diabetes. Carbs are the problem. A high protein diet, with fat too, is the solution. With protein, because it is more difficult to break down, your body burns a good percentage of the calories in the protein during digestion, and it pulls carbs (or ketones) from your system in order to process the protein. That’s why it is COMPLETELY WRONG and ill-informed to say that “a calorie is a calorie” regardless of source. A protein calorie IS treated differently by your body than a fat or carb calorie. Carb calories are mostly stored as fat. Understand this people: your body treats the three types of food differently! You are not a simple heat engine, it’s not a matter of calories in versus calories expended. That is just plain incorrect, scientifically.

  51. Gary Taubes has a fascinating article in a recent issue of New York magazine. The article is called, “The Scientist and the Stairmaster: Why most of us believe that exercise makes us thinner-and why we’re wrong”. Taubes argues that exercising doesn’t lead to weight loss, because the body simply compensates by increasing your appetite. Sounds radical, doesn’t it? Read the article. Here’s a link:

    http://nymag.com/news/sports/38001/

  52. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/13/AR2007101301071.html

    This link has absolutely nothing to do, at all, with this story, but I am posting it anyway. Why? Because for weeks, this website posted the same old tired bullshit about how people that claimed Iraq was improving were liars peddling vile propaganda. However, given the nature of this site, I expect to see no blog entries at all making corrections. Therefore I will be posting this link in every blog entries comments section. Time to eat crow, assholes.

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