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Gary Taubes on How Big Government Made Us Fat

The attack on fatty foods, in favor of carbohydrates, contributed to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.

Science writer Gary Taubes has a knack for subverting the conventional wisdom. Sixteen years ago, he published a groundbreaking feature in the The New York Times Magazine, arguing that decades of government-approved nutritional advice attacking fatty foods and praising carbohydrates was flat-out wrong, ideologically motivated, and contributed to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.

He was widely attacked—including in the pages of Reason. His 2007 book Good Calories/Bad Calories followed up on that story, as did Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, which appeared in 2011. Today, his thesis is gaining traction among heath and nutrition researchers, and has been highlighted once again in The New York Times and Time magazine.

Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Taubes in his kitchen in Oakland, California, to talk about his latest book on nutrition, The Case Against Sugar, which recently came out in paperback.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Camera by Paul Detrick, Justin Monticello, and Weissmueller. Additional graphics by Brett Raney.

"The Rat King is Coming" by Krackatoa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) Source: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/krackatoa)

Photo Credits: Timkiv Vitaly/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: The Case Against Sugar is framed as a kind of prosecutorial case. Can you lay out the opening arguments that you make against sugar for us?

Gary Taubes: We have obesity and diabetes epidemics everywhere in the world. Worldwide, they manifest whenever a population shifts from whatever their traditional diet is to westernized urban diet and so you could think of the western diet and lifestyle as the vector that carries obesity and diabetes into these populations. Then the question is, what is it in that diet?

Gillespie: Describe the western diet? Does that mean processed foods?

Taubes: Well, so that's a question. Processed foods, sedentary living-

Gillespie: Totino's pizza rolls, microwaved food?

Taubes: Pizza rolls, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald's, Coca-Cola-

Gillespie: So the whole reason that we live, the things we wait for, are the things that are killing us?

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This can't have any basis in science. Not one mention of the BMI.

  • Flinch||

    If you're talking about the height vs. weight garbage engineered during Bill Clintons presidency [that lowered standards across the board], I submit that Joycelyn Elders spent her tenure in the Surgeon General's office always looking for an "epidemic" of political convenience anywhere she could find it. At the same weight, I went from being mildly overweight, to being just at the obesity line overnight. Since then, I pretty much ignore anything coming out of the CDC being touted as wisdom. Like most other agencies, our government pretty much makes it up as they go along, leaving out key parts of studies or sweeping science under the rug altogether, as lobbyist contributions [or promises of future employment] dictate. We're on our own, and always have been.

  • Deplorable||

    And it will be memory holed.

  • ||

    What are Gay Tubes?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Oh boy, you're gonna have fun googling that.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    You know how the Internet is just a series of tubes? Well, some of those tubes are happy.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    So the government was completely wrong and made the world unhealthy?

    I, for one, am shocked!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    He was widely attacked—including in the pages of Reason.

    You know who else changed their opinion on contrarian ideas?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Not anyone who's a regular commenter on Hit'n'Run, that's for sure.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I used to think that, but not any more.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Why not call US nutritional research crap and only pay attention to Irish, British, French, German, Italian, Japanese research?

  • sarcasmic||

    That reminds me. I've got to remember to pick up ingredients for a boiled dinner.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    1 joint of beef (to include at least 40% cartilaginous gristle)
    3 quarts water
    2 tbsp coarse-ground mustard

    Add the beef and water to a stock pot and bring to a boil. Cook for at least 3 hours or until beef reaches desired flavorlessness. Serve with mustard. For dessert, cigarettes, and football on the telly.

  • Paper Wasp||

    For dessert, cigarettes, and football on the telly.

    WTH kind of Irish household is this? Dessert is a fifth of Jameson and a lengthy and bloody domestic row.

  • Zeb||

    I think sarc has had enough of that sort of thing for a while.

  • Iheartskeet||

    That would cause a trade deficit in research, putting US researchers out of business. Sad !

  • Flinch||

    The nationalities you mention demand that we label beer a food group - excluding France, but that's another story. No, not the mass produced bilge that A-B became known for cranking out decade after decade in the US. The first step is to ditch alchohol content labeling requirements - the production process of waiting for a specific alchohol number, then killing the yeast to meet labeling requirements guarantees the production of bilgewater. Let it do it's thing: if it takes 3 weeks or 6 weeks to mature beer properly, then that's what it takes.

  • SoCal Deathmarch||

    I have tried many diets over the years and I have now been 'Whole Foods Plant Based' for the past year. I reached some personal conclusions.

    1. Eat real food. Processed foods should only be eaten on special occasions.
    2. Eat a lot of complex carbohydrates. Stay away from refined carbohydrates as much as possible.
    3. No added sugars. No soda. Sugar is the devil.
    4. Eat healthy fats. Nuts and seeds are the best.
    5. Eat fiber, fiber, and more fiber.
    6. Try to eat one large salad daily. Leafy greens are probably the best thing you can put in your body.

    Veganism is an insufferable cult. I use the term 'Whole Foods Plant Based' when describing my eating habits. It takes a lot of planning and self control to maintain this sort of lifestyle, but I feel like I have turned back the clock 10 years.

  • DajjaI||

    I'm on the "Whole Foods" diet. That's where you buy lunch at Whole Foods on Monday and then can't afford to eat for the rest of the week.

  • silver.||

    Adoubleplus joke. Love me some fancy foods, but I can only afford it twice a year.

  • Flinch||

    You're doing it wrong Dajjal. Go to the nuts & grains aisle, and "taste test" your way to a meal every day. Yes, you have to endure a gaggle of free range morons, but hey: nothing is free in life.

  • brec||

    (I eat the same way.)

    It takes a lot of planning and self control to maintain this sort of lifestyle...

    It's easier if you're persuaded that your life depends on it—or at least, that's my guess as to why it doesn't seem so difficult for me. It's also easier once you get used to it. I began 5+ years ago.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I feel my best eating meat and leafy greens and avoiding bready carbohydrates and sugars. My wife feels best eating a ton of bread and avoiding meat; she's also got the metabolism of a hummingbird and can eat sugar all day with no effect.

    She does most of the grocery shopping, so guess what.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Maybe your wife is into feederism with you?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Naw, she just likes bread.

  • silver.||

    Man, I know some ladies who can put away starches and sugars. Contrarily, I can eat a 3lb steak with ease...

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Same here. I once slow-cooked a whole pork shoulder, ate most of it myself, and then rearranged the entire upstairs of the house. Give me a bagel, though, and i'm just gonna sit around feeling bloated for hours.

  • Longtobefree||

    Drop all of your insurance policies and see if that has an effect.

  • Flinch||

    You beat me to it, Longtobefree. Funny how marriage warps the mind.

  • silver.||

    I know some very picky vegans who are literally malnourished. Very few plant-based proteins are as well-rounded as meat, especially eggs, so you have to really pay attention to nutrition. It can absolutely be done, though, and your kidneys and bowels are probably pretty happy. Avoiding processed foods, refined / enriched carbs, and sugars are just good advice for everyone. Enriched flour was created because processed flours lack crucial B vitamins that are contained in the whole grains and people ended up with pellagra and shit. I'm sure the shelf-life of processed grains has saved millions of people, but given the choice we should avoid them.

  • 1980-f||

    "Avoiding processed foods" can be a bit tricky when you really feel that aching desire, late at night, to wash your vegetables before eating them. Cooking, too. That's of the Devil.

  • Tony||

    So what's the latest on diet soda? Because I feel like not drinking a tall glass of sugar is at least better on balance.

  • silver.||

    Dude sugary soda is a complete waste of calories. I don't understand how people drink that shit, I barely even drink juice. I know some peeps get headaches/GI problems from artificial sweeteners, but I don't, so leave me alone.

    Diet soda has more caffeine, too.

  • gphx||

    Diet soda causes people to say stupid things like 'Dude'.

  • GlenchristLaw||

    The latest thinking seems to be that even diet soda is bad because the carbonation in the stomach disrupts the body's ability to determine "fullness" and thereby regulate hunger sensations.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    I don't know about diet soda, but I drink a lot of seltzer and I haven't had an issue controlling my hunger. It actually helps keep me from wanting to snack during the day.

  • ||

    Are you consuming the seltzer at mealtime?

    There are lots of these effect/no effect studies that usually have timing as a significant confounding variable.

    I could see how carbonation in a diet soda at meal time would fuck with your sense of fullness and leave you feeling empty empty at snack time while a seltzer to satiate your hunger for a snack would do the opposite.

  • Tony||

    Well they'll pry my fizzy water from my cold dead hands.

  • TGoodchild||

    Ice cold, non-Splenda Diet Coke, please.

  • Paper Wasp||

    Artificial sweeteners also spike your insulin just like sugar and HFCS does. So you don't get the calories, but you get the same "jeez I feel weak from hunger" sensation after drinking diet soda.

    I'm not into self-denial, however, so I don't mind having a diet or even a sugared soda once in a while, like once every couple of weeks or so.

    There are certain things that just taste really good with regular Coke (especially Mexican Coke): good hot dogs/sausages, pizza, pastrami on rye. So I'm never giving up soda entirely. Sorry Gary Taubes!

  • Headache||

    Mexican Coke uses real cane sugar.

  • Iheartskeet||

    You could almost call it Cokecane

  • Paper Wasp||

    El CokeCano.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Diet soda will fuck up your metabolism and give you the beetus, too. One theory is that drinking diet soda makes you feel like you've been "good," so you reward yourself by overindulging in other foods. Another is that insulin spikes are triggered by the mere experience of sweetness in the taste buds, since human evolution hasn't caught up to the idea of Splenda yet.

  • silver.||

    I buy both theories. My dog ate a pack of Tident gum with xylitol in it, developed serious hypoglycemia, and nearly died. The pancreas of dogs and cats can't differentiate between certain sugar alcohols and sugar, so it dumps insulin to break down the "glucose" from the gum. There actually isn't any sugar, so it depletes their normal amounts. Pet owners ought to know about xylitol, although I think it's seldom used these days.

    Clearly large amounts of insulin aren't dumped when tasting fake sugar, but I think it could contribute to the phenomenon of reduced insulin sensitivity in some way.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Oh yeah, they're certainly not mutually exclusive theories.

  • Paper Wasp||

    The artificial sweeteners actually do spike your insulin, so believable.

  • Headache||

    Ant don't eat what they gather. The ants grow fungus and eat that. Ants will collect Splenda and dump it in the fungus garden. Splenda kills the fungus and the ants have to move out and start over.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    And how does being a big fat ass help solve global warming?

  • Flinch||

    Thanks, Red Tony. You've got what it takes for the next edition of Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    If we bury them in a non-degradable casket, all the co2 they've sequestered will be out of the environment till the zombie apocalypse or whatever.

  • Longtobefree||

    Drink enough real coffee, no cream or sugar or anything, to get your heart started in the morning, then drink water.

  • 1980-f||

    You mean, you wake up dead?

  • Flinch||

    Sugar is not good, but it appears the chemistry of artificial sweeteners will end your life even earlier by a different set of maladies. Stay away from the DIEt soda...

  • Devastator||

    This is bullshit Dr. Oz "wisdom"

  • Devastator||

    Diet sodas are fine. The FUD on the internet is bullshit. Sucralose and aspartame are some of the most tested substances on the planet, and they don't do anything to you. Drink up.

  • DajjaI||

    Can we sue?

  • The Last American Hero||

    There is but one God of Paleo, and Taubes is his prophet.

  • ||

    Yeah, I can still remember preaching the good word as an undergrad.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Back when i was still on Facebook, one of my friends got into paleo AND CrossFit at the same time. I had to unfollow him.

  • Flinch||

    Did he survive the combo, Citizen X? I'd guess a number of endocrine system maladies presented themselves if the routine was followed for an extended period of time.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Is that the diet where you hunt your food with stone-hewn weapons?

  • Longtobefree||

    Close.
    That is the diet where your food eats you.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    The two are not mutually exclusive

  • maddarter||

    How to get good coverage from Reason: rebrand your criticism of industry into a criticism of government.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    When it comes to agriculture in this country, that Venn diagram isn't much more than a single circle.

  • Devastator||

    He criticizes the government and lobbying by Big Food throughout his books (written years ago). It has nothing with getting on Reason. Your accusation is ignorant and utter bullshit

  • Longtobefree||

    To determine whether to follow nutritional guidelines, read all of them back to the beginning of time, and figure out if all those changes are based on science or political donations. Then remember what your grandmother said.

  • Longtobefree||

    Fingers faster than brain: follow GOVERNMENT nutritional guidelines

  • Paper Wasp||

    rising rates of obesity and diabetes

    As a libertarian, though, I haven't yet seen a compelling case for why I should give a shit. Make people responsible for their own healthcare, and I no longer care how many Americans are digging their graves with their spoons.

  • Zeb||

    I'm pretty sure libertarians are allowed to care about people they don't know, even if it's not required.

  • LynchPin1477||

    REAL libertarians don't have feelings, Zeb. At least not for other people.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    REAL libertarians have to completely know other's feelings, because otherwise you can't effectively screw them over in the free marketplace.

  • Flinch||

    I have feelings. I just don't demand the government act on them, or consider them as part of public policy. That sort of behavior is for the vagina hat crowd.

  • Paper Wasp||

    But let's be honest, Zeb. You don't care about people you don't know. You just don't like seeing fat people, so you are cool with schemes to tax and/or limit what they can choose to eat.

    It's not about "caring." It's not about "health." It's about hatred and classism.

    You're right, I don't give a shit about people I don't know. I don't care whether they live or die. (Also true of most of the people I do know, TBH.) But if you want to throw down on virtue-signaling (and it seems you do), it's arguable that people like me--who are fine with complete strangers choosing whatever it is they want to use or eat so long as it causes me no harm, and having whatever body sizes or illnesses that result--are the more caring, because we're respectful of the rights of adults to choose their own destiny. If you love them, Zeb, set them free.

  • Devastator||

    You're paying for it with your taxes, you should care.

  • Hank Phillips||

    The government's taxes aren't yours. Forcing you to sign a confession (to "file") in no way alters the fact.

  • OtterDevastation||

    I cut refined sugar and grains from my diet, and I've lost 35 pounds in three months.

  • Zeb||

    I feel like I should cut down on sugar. But if I lost 35 pounds it would be really bad.

  • Devastator||

    You will replace the calories with good calories from protein and fat, you'll be fine. Cut the sugar.

  • LynchPin1477||

    It may be worth mentioning that a pair of seemingly quality studies recently showed little difference in weight loss or insulin resistance when comparing low fat vs low carb diets, and consumption of sugary drinks vs milk vs water vs non-calorie sweet drinks.

    This one on low-fat vs low-carb, sponsored by Gary Taubes-affiliated Nutritional Science Initiative

    This one on insulin resistance and sugary drinks

  • LynchPin1477||

    Also, I struggle to understand the obsession with the lifestyle of our pre-historic ancestors. I'll accept that for several hundred thousand years, human beings probably subsisted on high protein, high fat, low carb diets, and went through periods of feast and famine. But why should that make it *healthy*? Just because we evolved under those conditions doesn't mean they are optimal for health, it just means our ancestors were the least bad of their peers at dying under those conditions.

  • mamabug||

    The thing that most of these studies fail on is that they tend to actively exclude diabetics from the start. People with insulin sensitivity (which increasingly is being shown to be genetically related not only weight related) and those who don't are fundamentally different in how they respond to sugars. All most of this research can show is the effect on
    those with a normal insulin response.

    On the first study, they excluded diabetics. If you don't have an insulin issue then eating Low-fat/High-carb works equally as well as High-fat/Low-carb. This is where the paleo/atkins people go wrong because, for the general populace, either method works. What nobody can do is eat High-Fat/High-Carb.

    On the second study, the results are somewhat useless. All it really proves is that what you drink isn't a contributing factor when the study doesn't control for diet. A lot of the negative or inconclusive studies for artificial sweeteners have that same basic issue. The most accurate study would be to test a High-fat/Low-carb diet where one group drank only water, tea, and coffee and the other drank diet soda.

  • Devastator||

    "Lets test a bunch of college students with the metabolism of a jack russell and see which diet works best for them" . Uh no, get a bunch of fat, pre diabetic 40 years olds and try some diets and see which one gets back the best health benefits. You probably won't see that study though.

  • LifeStrategies||

    Since diabetes is, I'm given to understand, the disease of your system to effectively regulate the amount of sugar in your body, the role of too much sugar in your diet seems to be obvious.

    Yet Big Sugar has long diverted culpability to too much fat, too much this, too much that, too much of anything except sugar.

    Is the world finally waking up to the impact of too much sugar as the primary if not the only cause of adult-onset diabetes?

  • nicmart||

    If only science were logic; but it isn't.

  • Longtobefree||

    Correct. Hasn't been since the first federal grant.

  • DrZ||

    "If only science were logic;"

    If only science were not political.

  • Devastator||

    There is no Big Sugar. There are Big Food Conglomerates that do this. There is a Big Difference. It's up to the consumer to do their own research, but most people are mindless pringle munching couch potatoes.

  • jcbinok||

    "Well, you try what everyone tells you to do, which is eat less and exercise more and if that doesn't work, which it doesn't, then, if you're smart, you look for other methods."

    Huh? Works for me. Eat less (junk food) and exercise more is exactly what one should do to reduce body mass. I have lost 20 lbs in the last 18 months doing just that.

  • Butler T. Reynolds||

    So, you haven't been doing just that. You didn't just eat less, you cut out the junk food. Then you threw in exercising more.

    You should have tried changing just one variable at a time. What do you think your results would have been if you had just quit eating junk food.

  • Devastator||

    It does work. It's just that keto and low-carb eating work a lot better than other diets. It really reduces my appetite. If you can handle the food and keep discipline you can be like me and lose 80lbs and I've kept it off over 15 years. I added in more carbs but the lesson stuck. I eat a lot less carbs than I used to probably less than 50-60g a day.

  • Rajeev Samuel||

    Sweden and South Africa are now Ketogenous countries and their food supply chain has changed.

    As for diet, the Indian diet is just as bad as the western diet if not worse, since we invented sugar processing after all, super high in carbs, very little animal fat since the switch to vegetable oil from ghee.

  • nicmart||

    I miss the days when Fumento called almost anyone who disagreed with him mentally ill. Give him credit for presaging what has become the national pastime.

  • DrZ||

    A guy sent some Cola to a lab to see what was in it.

    The report he got back said his horse had diabetes.

  • Devastator||

    Taubes is a hero of mine. He probably added 20 years to my life with his wisdom. This give me 20 more years to shitpost on reason and other online comment sites.

  • gphx||

    Taubes does brilliant work.

  • Hank Phillips||

    The Glucose Trust, yeast and malt syrup and powder companies bought the votes that ratified the 18th Amendment. All waxed fat until Food Czar Herbert Hoover became president. Hoover used tax laws to seize assets and obtain indictments against large sugar and yeast companies and their executives. The flight of liquidity from where banks and brokerages agents could seize it collapsed the economy. Beer was relegalized, Germany was again defeated--but not before the Glucose Trust had regained some of its power. So this time, instead of bootleggers converting that sugar to alcohol, food companies inject that sugar, excuse me, HFCS, into foods? In OUR mixed economy?

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