Gary Taubes has fascinated me from the moment I first learned about him shortly after I was diagnosed with type 2 in 2003. I soon realized that in some quarters he was seen as a sort of anti-Christ, a menacing liar whose goal was to unravel years of hard work and expert advice from professionals in the field of nutrition and inflammatory diseases.
Taubes’ sin? He questioned the almost 50-year-old orthodoxy that said obesity, heart problems, and likely diabetes were the result of too much fat in the diet. It was better; we’d been endlessly told, to lay off fats and too much protein and focus more on complex carbohydrates if we wanted to avoid assaults on our bathroom scales and hearts.
He pointed out that as Americans began following the advice of scientists to cut back on fat (even meat suppliers started breeding beef and pork to have less marbling), the rate of heart disease and diabetes increased. Was it possible, he asked, that the correlation some scientists saw between fat consumption and inflammatory diseases was incorrect? What if the chief dietary culprit was the very nutrient we were being advised to consume in larger quantities: carbohydrates?
His landmark 2007 book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease,” followed by, “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It” in 2010, delivered hard kicks to reigning notions about which foods we consume are the most harmful to us.
Taubes would have been easy to dismiss if he had been a garden-variety crank standing at the far edges of respectable science or spouting his heresies on some obscure late-night radio program. But he was an accomplished Harvard and Stanford graduate (physics and astronautics) who took on yet a third specialty—journalism at Columbia University—after he became inspired by the success of Carl Woodward and Bob Bernstein’s Watergate scandal investigations (“All the President’s Men”) and the effect they’d had on changing public perceptions.
Along the way he took on writing assignments that involved nutrition, and soon developed a fierce investigative take on things that combined thorough research, superb writing skills, and the keen, dispassionate eye of a scientifically trained mind. He began to suspect that the number of calories we consume matter less than their origin. It’s like comparing the energy provided by a burning log to that of a solar panel. While their energy outputs might be similar in terms of measurement, their means of delivering those outputs radically differ. One produces an abundance of particulate matter and leaves a heavy residue, while the other produces virtually no pollution: same energy value, much different after-effect.
Taubes was the first heavy lifter in what has now become a theory that has considerable heft and weight: The epidemic of diabetes and heart disease that America is now suffering through is much the result of a bill of goods we’ve all been sold over the past half century. Taubes popularized notions held by some worthy predecessors, such as Dr. Richard K. Bernstein of Mamaroneck, Long Island, and Dr. Richard Feinman at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, who long suspected that the crusade against fat was really like Don Quixote’s attack on the windmills: a battle against a non-existent foe.
Taubes now is long past being one of a few voices in the wilderness. The evidence for his point of view is mounting. A headline in a recent Annals of Internal Medicine—hardly an anti-establishment publication—reads, ” Low Carb Beats Low Fat for Weight Loss, CV Risk.”* Wired magazine has an extensive profile (“Why Are We So Fat? The Multimillion-Dollar Scientific Quest to Find Out”)** of studies currently underway to examine Taubes’ theory that carbs, not fat, are the great culprit in this era’s epidemics of obesity and inflammatory diseases.
The Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” isn’t a totally negative sentiment. While such times bring their share of upheaval and discomfort, they also produce amazement and revelation. I find the idea that I might be able to sit down someday soon to a highly marbled steak dinner without a shred of guilt to be very. . . interesting.