Review of Epilogue: Good Calories, Bad Calories

About this time last year, Mom was struggling her way through a book by Peter Taubes called Good Calories, Bad Calories. She consistently called it a fine example of “not an easy read” and this is my mother talking, who is not at all shy about tackling big books on Shakespeare or Polar exploration.

Knowing my father would never read even the first chapter, she gave him the pages of the epilogue and handed it off to my dad. “Read this,” she said. “It’s important.” Dad, who never does anything unless he thought of it first, put it in his briefcase and forgot about it until he was on the plane to Argentina, and his friend and seat-mate Ray discovered that he’d packed his novel in his luggage and not his carry-on. Accordingly, he pulled out the pages, and said, “Read this; Karen says it’s important.”

A few days later, almost reeling from the experience, Ray handed the pages back and said, “Jesus, Bill. This is the most important thing I’ve ever read!” Humbled by the reality that his best friend and his wife both told him he should read it, Dad sat down and read the epilogue to Good Calories, Bad Calories on the ship in the Roaring Forties, sailing around the Horn on his way to Antarctica.

And now he’s passed it on to me. “Read it, and do it,” he said in his letter. “Your mother and I have utterly changed our eating habits as a result of this, and it’s made all the difference in the world.”*

Taubes is a writer for Science magazine, and I gather from the bio page that part of his job was and is the professional, rigorous critique of scientific studies. It is his job to poke holes in methodologies and statistical analyses, and reject papers for publication. In other words, it is his job to deflate bad science and find good science for publication in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. In this book — of which I admit I’ve only read the Epilogue, though I now would like to read the whole thing — Taubes turns a critical eye on the whole body of scientific literature relating to diet, heath and nutrition of the last half-century, and goodly elements of the century before that.

His conclusion is startling. He says it would be a mistake to call it science. Time and again, so-called food scientists have proposed that fat and meat and protein are the cause of heart disease and obesity, when quite the opposite is true — that starches and sugars are the likely cause of obesity, heart disease, and (brace yourself) Alzheimer’s. That high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose probably do most of the heavy lifting needed to raise the BMI of Americans, and it may be poking swiss cheese-fuls of holes in your gray matter, too.

The most astonishing thing he says is this: it’s not simply that the so called nutritional professionals have misinterpreted their own data; it’s that they have done so criminally and willfully. His principal nutritional discoveries, as best he can muster, are listed in the epilogue in a short list of 10:

1. Dietary fat is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.
2. The problem is the carbohydrates in the diet, their effect on insulin secretion, and the hormonal regulation of homeostasis.
3. Sugars, particularly sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup are especially harmful because the combination of fructose and glucose simultaneously elevates insulin levels and overload the liver.
4. Through their effect on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are the dietary cause of heart disease and diabetes. They are the likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases of civilization.
5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating, and not sedentary behavior.
6. COnsuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter, any more than it causes a child to grow taller; expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss, but hunger.
7. Fattening and obesity are caused by imbalances in the hormonal regulation of adipose tissue and fat metabolism.
8. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage; when its levels are elevated either chronically or after a meal, we accumulate fat in our fat tissue; when levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and use it for fuel.
9. Since they stimulate insulin secretion, carbs make us fat and cause obesity. The fewer carbs, the leaner we become.
10. By driving fat accumulation, carbs also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.

So that’s it. I’ve cut bread, pasta, sugar, potatoes and corn from my food list. Again. I’ve upped my water intake to account for the extra protein and spinach, but I’m down about 10 pounds in 12 days or so. I’m not hungry – I’m eating well at every meal. But I have more energy, too. You can do as you wish, but this worked for me on Atkins, and it’s working for me now.

8 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this! I just finished the book and wanted to copy Taubes’ epilogue list. But the thought of all that typing, ugh! And lo! You’ve done the work for me. Thank you. It really was a good–and tough to read–book.

  2. Hey, great post. I’ve only just come across Gary Taubes and his books. I see you were experimenting with his diet recommendations back in 2008! Do you still apply this information to your current diet? How did it go?

    • I used it for a while, but it’s difficult to carry out his dietary recommendations daily for weeks or months on end. “Festival” food, in particular at holiday times like now, is laden with sweets and grains which are difficult to refuse or avoid. Still, when I follow his recommendations, I drop weight like nobody’s business, and keep it off for a while.

  3. I think there are reasonable critiques of some of his claims that aren’t from people with vested interests. I’m sure there’s a lot of value in the book, particularly the history of science parts, but I wouldn’t take that list as gospel.

    Here’s a glib response to #6: if excess calories don’t cause fat accumulation, how do squirrels (and other hibernating creatures) get fat for winter?

    Some of the foods you’ve cut have been dietary staples for hundreds and thousands of years. That’s not long in evolutionary terms but the epidemic of obesity and diabetes is very, very new. I understand modern food production has fundamentally changed many foods, I heard from the film “King Corn” that modern corn bears little resemblance to the crops American Indians once raised, but instead of entirely cutting something like bread, couldn’t you just eat less “modern” bread?

    Don’t you love baking bread? I don’t see the point in giving up something you enjoy so and making it but not eating it is just masochistic.

    You say you’re cutting things out “again.” Perhaps it’s not a sustainable diet, not in nutritional terms but societally. What’s the cost and what’s the benefit? Would more modest changes have no effect? If not, that would make me skeptical about the premises. Remember your Aristotle 😉

  4. It’s a problem for the first six-to-eight days. If you can get through that, you’re in a substantially better place. Even three is an improvement, because there is a withdrawal period, because it is a drug.

    I gave up soda several years ago, and at the time I was thinking soda = fat.

    Now I’m thinking sugar = Alzheimer’s, dementia and cancer. Hmmm.

  5. I think part of the point of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the point of this book, is that the fast food places don’t cater to an Atkins type diet because they can’t.

    I think that what you have to do is learn to cook, which is an enjoyable and delightful experience. The Italian Communist Slow Food movement is in fact all about rediscovering the joys of eating well as a political act, and this is a political act. It’s also an economic act, because eating this way is not easy, and not cheap. As summer gets going, I recommend starting to discover your local farmers’ markets.

  6. I bought a book a couple of years ago called “The Insulin Resistant Diet”. It’s based on the same basic concept, that eating too much carbs causes an insulin spike which then adds to fat absorbtion/creation.

    I’m still trying to summon the courage to give up sugar. It’s too much of a damn addiction for me 🙁

  7. I’d kind of like to try this, at least for a while, but…I don’t cook for myself, and fast food places by and large don’t tend to cater to an Atkins type of diet. How would I go about implementing this?

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