October 25, 2007

Taubes Good Calories Bad Calories - A Lost Opportunity?

I recently got a copy of the new Gary Taubes book, Good Calories Bad Calories, which a lot of us have been waiting for with high hopes.

Alas, this was not the book I had hoped it would be. Taubes has done a heroic job of studying and analyzing the history of 75 years worth of dietary research. No one with a shred of intellect can read this book without coming away convinced that the Politics of Personality caused nutritional research to go where the data never led it and to spend 40 years wandering in that high carb/low fat desert.

But the Taubes book is 600 pages of some of the densest writing I've encountered in a long life of reading popular science. How dense? Well, I managed to sprain a finger reading it, that was how heavy it was. And the prose is just as dense as the paper. Long convoluted sentences that just don't come up for air, and explanations of technical issues so impenetrable that they left me scratching my head trying to figure out what the heck was he talking about.

And I'm someone who reads a lot of big fat information dense books. For example, I just this week read, and loved Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver by Arthur Allen which covered as much controversial medical research history as Taubes does and was a similar length.

But where I was reading the Allen book with the kind of excitement with which I read a good detective story, because Allen made his line of argument very clear no matter how much data he introduced, with the Taubes book every fifty pages or so I found myself taking deep gulping breaths and skimming despite myself because Taubes had just plain buried me under the weight of his data.

And if I had that reaction--a person who reads at least a dozen health and nutrition research reports every week and often more--I cannot imagine what Joe Public would make of this book. Indeed, as someone who led a long and happy career in nonfiction publishing I am bewildered as to who exactly it was written for. To me it seemed as if the target reader was envisioned to be someone who reads Science at the breakfast table and then digs into Nature on the train to work. If there are enough of those folks to make this book a success, I'm all for it.

But my impression just looking at the title, cover and packaging is that Good Calories Bad Calories is being marketed to the diet book buyer. Who is going to get about 25 pages into this book and then fall dead from exhaustion.

That is probably why it is looking like this book is only getting discussed online by the hard core diet wonks who already know what it is that Taubes is trying to document: that the mainstream dietary advice that blames saturated fat for heart disease and recommends a high carb/low fat diet as "healthy" was never based on good scientific research and that carbs in general and fructose in particular are probably what is causing the so called "obesity epidemic."

But if the only people reading the book are those who already know what it has to teach us, it's a failure. Which is tragic. Because its core message is VERY important. Fat has never been proven to do any of the things "everyone knows" it does and high carb/high sugar diets are just plain killing people.

If I had a buck for everyone who told me they are eating a low fat diet to lower their cholesterol and prevent heart disease I'd be rich. Ditto all the doctors convinced that saturated fat is what causes heart disease. Reading this book could cure that. But I can't see those people reading this book.

So I came away wishing that there was some way that Taubes could come up with "Taubes Lite"--a 250 page book that would extract the "pearls for practice" buried in his data and pitch that book to the person trying to figure out what a "healthy diet" might be. Something that would help people with diabetes understand why the ADA insistence that they should eat all the sugar they want is dangerous, and get the media to understand that obesity is not caused by overeating. It is caused by eating foods that short circuit the metabolic systems our body uses to keep our weight in homeostasis, foods high in carbs and fructose.

But it ain't going to happen with this book, and that's a damn shame.


nonegiven said...

I read it once, it took about 3 weeks, but I'll probably have to read it again. I doubt a lot of people would make it all the way through and there is a lot of interesting stuff in even the last chapter.

Maybe if enough doctors and low fat researchers read it?

Anna in San Diego said...

I am reluctantly agreeing with you. I have been waiting for the publication of this book for two years and was hoping I could send copies to everyone. Ain't gonna happend because it will become a doorstop. And this is the shortened version. According to Dr. Mike Eades of Protein Power (who read several draft versions), it was edited down from over 700 pages.

My husband does read Science and Nature (and lots of other scientific stuff that is Greek to me)and I can tell you, he isn't reading this book (though he was telling me years ago that eating butter and cheese wasn't a death sentence). I am definitely one of those readers who already knew and accepted the main premise of this book, and am now absorbing and adjusting my understanding of the finer details, like the tidbits about fructose that you pointed out in an earlier post.

I thougth Protein Power Lifeplan was pretty eay to comprehend, but some folks complained that even that was too much biochemistry and technical stuff. So this just doesn't have a chance with the public. But I do hope it has a chance with some in the medical community, if they can get past the title and cover (it does look like a diet book). I am still thnking about sending copies to my primary doctor and endocrinologist.

Jenny said...

I doubt very much that doctors or nutritionists are going to read this book.

Few of them appear to have much interest left in their area of concentration as they are so burned out. But they've invested so much time in getting the professional credential, they are stuck with doing it, day in and day out.

If the book had become a big buzzseller, a book everyone has to pretend to have read to stay trendy, yes, people would pretend they'd read it. But it doesn't seem to be heading that way.

Ginny said...

Sorry, but I thought the Taubes book was a great piece of journalism. I found it compelling, persuasive and even fun to read. Taubes ideas are heretical in the context of today's nutritional dogma, so it was imperative that he load the book up with technical explanations, examples, and footnotes. That's his only chance of getting taken seriously.

Jenny said...


I don't argue that the book was full of information people need to know about. I only question whether someone who isn't already a convert to Taubes' way of thinking would have the patience or interest in reading it.

Have you been able to get people who believe in the erroneous mainstream dietary beliefs to go through it?

Anonymous said...

He was damned either way. The book you wanted to read he did as the article "What If It's All Been A Big Fat Lie?"

There are legions of doctors, drug companies, farm state megacorps, cereal, bread, and cookie manufacturers, the soft drink industry, ad infinitum, with tens of billions of dollars at stake in pooh-poohing him. He was simply obligated to explain the entire chain of science because there's too much cash associated with breaking the chain.

Taubes is not the problem. The fact that our entire society has become so intellectually lazy is the problem. We have an administration that can speak dismissively of the "reality-based community" -- those who read -- as a fringe group. And you know what? It is a fringe group.

Paul said...

My agreement too. One issue is that he may have wanted to build a watertight case, knowing he was going to be attacked. But to give a typical example of over-watertightness, when he discusses Banting, he tells the reader that Banting's doctor was Harvey, and Harvey was influenced by Bernard in Paris, and Bernard was preceded by three other French scientists, Brillat-Savarin and two named others, and two named English scientists were having the same idea at the time. That level of detail is fine as required, but when it is everywhere it becomes hard to see the wood for the trees.

A second issue is organizational - he waits to the final chapter to pull everything together. Preceding chapters contain many threads that lead to his conclusion. But it might have been clearer to describe the alternative hypothesis to low-fat first, and the mechanics of it, then describe the evidence. That way the reader would at least be placing everything in a stated framework.

Oh well, it is anyway a superb resource for all the key (and minor) results, I'm glad I have it around. My second reading may be targeted chapters which I imagine could be more digestible!

Jan Burke said...

I'm reading it now and finding it fascinating. I do hope doctors read it.

Maybe the light version will be out there one day, but for now, I'm glad for the documentation.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Dutchmen living in Holland, but I read this book from perm to perm without taking one breath... I absolutely do not agree with you. The book reads like thriller. This kind of thorough, investigative journalism is, in the end, the only way to expose things and to change them. By the way, Andrew Weil (of all media doctors) openly changed 'camp' on Larry King Live a couple of days ago, totally embarrising Oprah's private 'low fat' physician Mehmet Oz. So Taubes has influence and this will have effect. Just have some patience.

Hans Brinkers,

The Netherlands

Jenny said...

I certainly hope those of you who found the book fascinating are in the majority!

Weil has always struck me as being a self-promoting fraud pretty much in the same category as Chopra. While I'm glad he's seen the light, I think it may be more opportunism than any sign that the medical establishment will change course.

Until the medical people advising the AHA, WHO, A Diabetic A, and A Dietitic A, react with something other than the scorn that seems to be their conditioned response to any scientific data that challenges their religiously held nutritional beliefs, nothing will change.

From what I'm seeing that isn't happening. The critiques of Taubes make it pretty clear that no amount of data will ever change their minds. That, and the amount of money that Junk Food and Big Pharma donors give those organizations.

Taubes' book pretty much exposes the fact that high grossing Statin and other LDL lowering drugs are being sold based a fraudulent proposition and that the high grossing diet and exercise industry is selling snake oil.

The diabetes drugs that are enriching a generation of investors would not be needed if people actually took his advice. In short, it would be an economic disaster to the people who FUND health organizations if any of his ideas became mainstream.


Anna said...

There's a book review of Vaccine at http://www.jpands.org/vol12no2/bookreviews.pdf .

Jenny said...


That review is written by someone who was clearly of the "vaccines cause autism" school of thought which the Vaccines book did a good job of debunking. The criticisms were petty and I would take the whole review with a huge grain of salt.

Anonymous said...

For those who want the lite version:
Good Calories
These are from foods without easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars. These foods can be eaten without restraint.
non-starchy vegetables.

Bad Calories

These are from foods that stimulate excessive insulin secretion and so make us fat and increase our risk of chronic disease—all refined and easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars. The key is not how much vitamins and minerals they contain, but how quickly they are digested. (So apple juice or even green vegetable juices are not necessarily any healthier than soda.)

Bread and other baked goods
cereal grains
sugar (sucrose and high fructose corn syrup)
ice cream
soft drinks
fruit juices
bananas and other tropical fruits

Jim Purdy said...

I'm almost 2 years late commenting on this thread, but I just found it when I did a search for comments about Gary Taubes' GCBC. I'm about 2/3 of the way through GCBC, and I've skimmed ahead to much of the rest, and I have to disagree with you. I find the book fascinating, easy to read, and persuasive. Shucks, Jenny, it's easier to read than many of your technical discussions. My only criticism of GCBC is that I think he largely neglects some excellent vegetarian foods that are both low-carb and high-fiber -- foods like avocados, flaxseed, pecans, and walnuts.