Sparkly vampires that don’t die in sunlight and fall in love with inarticulate teenage girls, zombies eating brains with grapefruit spoons and their pinkies out (or off?) with Elizabeth Bennett, hapless-yet-cunning teens battling to the death in a reality show that makes Jersey Shore look like The Christian Ladies Aid Society – these are the types of books that keep most people up at night. Me? I’ve been up for a week now reading the gripping tales of The Fat-Cholesterol Hypothesis and The Carbohydrate Hypothesis spun by Gary Taubes in his game-changing tome Good Calories Bad Calories. Kinda like the Bible and Moby Dick, lots of people will talk about this book but very few of them have actually read it.
Not that I blame them. It’s 576 densely worded pages of research paper hell. And I used to be a Graduate Assistant that was paid to write research papers so I know that of which I speak. I’m going to be honest: I read most of it. Skimmed the rest. Fell asleep and drooled all over the “Conservation of Energy” chapter. Was just like college but without all the PowerPoint atrocities.
Good thing for all of us, Taubes includes a four word summary – a dietary rebus, if you will – on the front cover. Take this handy quiz:
Like the old woman/young woman illusion, what you see is all about your perspective. In this picture, is the piece of bread the “good calories” and the butter the “bad calories” or vice versa? For years, as any of you who lived through the nineties (check yes if you ever included “grrrl” in a description of yourself!) can attest, fat – especially saturated animal fats like butter – was the devil in the Devil’s food cake. Even today, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 7% of your daily calories come from saturated fats and no more than 25-35 % from any fat. Most of us are well versed in the “good fats” and “bad fats” doctrine. It is, as Taubes takes the first 4 chapters to point out, the conventional wisdom. (I can’t complain too much though because it was during this introduction that I got to meet a delightful 18th century Brit named Banting who lost so much weight on a low-carb diet that he went on a pamphlet-strewn publicity tour that puts Atkins to shame. Banting is like Jared the Subway Guy dressed like Marie Osmond on Nutrisystem and with an evangelical spirit that’s half Kirstie Allie and half Richard Simmons. I love him.)
According to Taubes, everything you “know” about diet and nutrition is wrong. He backs up this assertion with very (very very) detailed analyses of all the research ever done on the subject, branching into a conspiracy theory about scientists suppressing evidence and changing study results that I would have found laughably ludicrous had I not worked in academic research for so many years and found out first hand what sharks professors on tenure track can be. But I digress. Here’s a summary – you’re welcome – of the myths busted by Taubes:
1. Eating fat makes you fat.
2. High cholesterol is bad and the best predictor of heart disease.
3. Cholesterol should be lowered at all costs.
4. The best way to lower triglycerides and cholesterol is through cutting out dietary fats, especially saturated animal fats.
5. That Western illness like cancer, diabetes, dementia and heart disease are inevitable if you live long enough.
Basically, Taubes postulates that the surest and best way to help people not only lose weight but also live the longest, healthiest lives possible is to eat lots of fat (all kinds) and protein but cut out carbohydrates. He especially blames sugar for societal ills – no shocker there – but also includes “good” carbohydrates like fruit and whole grains. Not only do carbohydrates not provide good nutrition in the form of energy, says he, but also have the deleterious effects of leaching vitamins and weakening the body in other ways. For those of you who are familiar with Atkins or with the Paleo/Primal diets, Taubes’ book is scripture. For the rest of us, these assertions fly in the face of everything we have been taught about good nutrition.
Honesty, Part Two: He makes a very compelling case. Taubes is a highly acclaimed science writer and this background is evident in his meticulous review of every study out there. He not only tackles famous studies, like the Nurses’ Health Study, The Seven Countries Study and Ancel Keys’ starvation studies, but he includes every minor paper, even previously unpublished ones. About halfway through the book I wanted to throw my hands up and just accept whatever he said as true because he was clearly willing to do a lot more studying than I am on the subject.
And the science is catching up to him on some points. Recent papers have come out breaking the supposed link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease (yay, we can eat eggs AND their yolks again!). Saturated fats are getting lots more good press – indeed I have had a very positive experience adding more fats of all kinds to my diet. The problem for me is when he starts dissing my beloved whole grains and fruit. No matter his comprehensive body of research stating otherwise, I do better and feel better when I eat a diet that includes those two things. That’s why I flunked out of the Primal Blueprint. Twice. (Of course, new science is also contradicting him.)
It is at this point in the story my brain kicks into full-on Crazy. Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe I’m just in denial. Was my mid-afternoon crash the result of my Tabata workout or the whole grain bread I wrapped around my tuna? Maybe I SHOULD try low-carb again! If I don’t, I could die a horrible death of diabetes, heart disease or cancer! Or all three at the same time!
The only thing that stopped me from dumping my oatmeal down the disposal that very second was remembering how well my current Intuitive Eating Experiment is going. I’m happy. I’m healthy. I’m 2 pounds away from my pre-pregnancy weight and 5 from my “happy” weight (not to be confused with my ideal weight, also known as the weight I should never weigh again because even though I thought it was ideal it was really too low and I looked sick and didn’t menstruate and was kind of a witch so yeah.) In a fit of reason – I’m not possessed of those nearly as often as I ought to be – I e-mailed my dear friend Dr. Jon who, also being British and therefore super cool, gave me a different perspective on Taubes, writing,
“Based on all my years of experience, I’m a great believer in moderation when it comes to diet . People lose sight of certain primary physiological facts and become obsessed with Super Foods, antioxidants, detox diets and supplements . To take some examples, a low fat diet isn’t healthy because the body needs both saturated and unsaturated fats to maintain its health, LDL cholesterol is vital to well being, and reduced salt intake can literally kill anybody who works out heavily . That’s the major difficulty with laying down rigid guidelines – they don’t work for everybody and can actually do major harm .
A while back we talked about the Okinawan diet and I told you that the preliminary results indicate that that population’s longevity and general good health seems to be both genetic and influenced by a more restricted diet and reduced intake . It is a relatively low-fat diet too, but too much must not be read into that . The Chinese diet is less restricted and pretty high in fats of all descriptions, and the typical French diet is enough to make a dietitian’s eyes water . Yet all three countries have a far lower incidence of heart disease than the USA, Canada and the UK – just a thought, but maybe speaking English is the causative factor ???? 🙂What you are doing these days, returning to intuitive eating and trusting your body to tell you what it needs, is the sanest and healthiest way to live . Logically, the human body has developed over the last couple of hundred thousand years and evolved the ability to signal its requirements . The plethora of mad ideas out there is truly mind-boggling . We have one particular “guru” over here who you should really have a look at . Her name is Gillian McKeith, aka the Poo Lady (if you have a look, you’ll understand why – she’s obsessed with it) . Amongst her insane ideas is that chlorophyll “helps to oxygenate the blood” by swallowing it !!! If you remember your highschool biology, chlorophyll is what makes plants green and uses light to photosynthesise carbon dioxide into carbon for the plant to grow, releasing the oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct . The only way I could imagine obtaining oxygen from chlorophyll in the gut would be by sticking a searchlight up the unfortunate soul’s butt – and then what ??? The gut does NOT have gills !”
What are your thoughts on carbohydrates – all good, only the whole kind, or as little as possible and no grains? How much fat do you normally eat? Any of you read Good Calories Bad Calories? Do you always look for experts or research to tell you what to do, like I do??