Interview With Gary Taubes the Author of Good Calories Bad Calories – Part 1 of 2

(As taken from Gary Taubes is an award-winning science and health journalist, and co-founder of thePrimal Power Method Gary Taubes non-profit Nutrition Science Initiative ( He is the author of Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It (Knopf, 2011) and Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease (Knopf, 2007). Taubes is the recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator Award in Health Policy Research, and has won numerous other awards for his journalism. These include the International Health Reporting Award from the Pan American Health Organization and the National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Journalism Award, which he won in 1996, 1999 and 2001. (He is the only print journalist to win this award three times.) Taubes graduated from Harvard College in 1977 with an S.B. degree in applied physics, and received an M.S. degree in engineering from Stanford University (1978) and in journalism from Columbia University (1981).

PRIMAL GUY: Having a background as a scientific writer, what initiated the concept for the New York Times bestseller Good Calories, Bad Calories?

GARY TAUBES: I had pitched an article to the New York Times magazine back in 2001 on what caused the obesity epidemic, which was new enough in the public consciousness at the time that I thought you could do an article about what the likely causes were. I had a couple of hypotheses that had come out of an article I had recently done for Science—“The soft science of dietary fat”.

What we knew about the obesity epidemic is that it’s localized in time between two National Health and Nutrition Examination surveys, between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Two very relevant things happened during that time period. One was high fructose corn syrup. It was introduced in 1977-78.  By 1984 it replaced the sugar in Coke and Pepsi and it continues to replace the sugar in other drinks and food products. As a result, sugar consumption—caloric sweetener consumption—in the United States starts to increase dramatically for the first time in about 80 years. So, can you blame it on HFCS?

The other hypothesis is related to the institutionalization of a low-fat diet as a healthy diet, a process that began officially in 1977 and also peaked in 1984. As a result, all these foods that in the 1960s were considered inherently fattening—pasta, bread, potatoes—were transformed by the 1980s into heart-healthy diet foods, and the public health authorities were telling us they should be the staple of our diet. They went on to become the base of the Food Guide Pyramid. So this also happened at the same time.

As I’m doing the story, the HFCS hypothesis doesn’t hold up on its own because, well, it’s just another form of sugar. I was interviewing food industry analysts and they’re saying, “Look, it’s not that there’s something inherently more fattening abut HFCS than sugar.” What’s relevant is that we start consuming more caloric sweeteners in part because we didn’t believe the HFCS was sugar. The sugar refiners were pitching it as a kind of healthy fruit sugar. Then the idea that a low-fat diet is healthy went along with a hypothesis making the rounds at the time that if a food didn’t have fat in it, it couldn’t make you fat. Yogurt’s a classic example: you remove a little bit of the fat from yogurt so that you can call it a heart-healthy, low-fat food, and you replace the fat with HFCS. So, take a little fat out, put in a lot of sugar, now you have a healthy food and we’re back to the low-fat dogma. And now you can eat it to excess—or so we thought—because it wouldn’t make you fat or give you heart disease. But what you’re eating is more sugar, although in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

Now, while I was doing the research for this story I came upon 5 clinical trials that had been completed and presented in conferences, but not yet published. These trials compared the Atkins Diet to a low-fat, low-calorie American Heart Association Step One diet. In each case, the Atkins Diet not only resulted in greater weight loss—you could eat as much as you wanted, you just had to stay away from carbs—but it also improved heart disease risk factors, which was the exact opposite of what’s supposed to happen if you believe that dietary fat and saturated fat cause heart disease.

You go on this diet where you are eating as much as you want of bacon and fatty meat and cheeseburgers without the bun and cheese and butter and lobster Newburg and your heart disease risk improves. Which suggested not only that carbohydrates caused obesity and you’ve got your deus ex machina for the obesity epidemic, but that this whole low-fat dogma was completely misplaced. That this was one fundamental reason for the obesity epidemic. And that’s how I ended up writing this famous—or infamous—story for the New York Times Magazine, “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” and that got me a big book advance and I spent the next 5 years of my life writing Good Calories, Bad Calories.

PRIMAL GUY: So basically these 2 articles are what inspired you to go on to write the book?

GARY TAUBES:  Yes; the article for Science had made me question the whole low-fat dogma itself: the idea that a low-fat diet is Gary Taubes Good Calories Bad Calories - Gary's Health Tipsinherently a healthy diet. And then the research for the New York Times magazine article led to this idea that not only is a low-fat diet not necessarily a healthy diet, but it’s a high-carb diet, and that will not only make you fatter, but actually cause heart disease and diabetes and other disorders (depending on the carbs you’re now eating). Then throw in the sugar issue with HFCS on top of all this and you’ve got a national disaster in the sense of the obesity epidemic and the diabetes epidemic that goes with it.

PRIMAL GUY: I understand that the controversy with HFCS is because of the “double whammy” effect: the glucose rise causes an insulin spike and then the fructose comes in with slower processing and turns into fat via metabolism by the liver.

GARY TAUBES:  I discussed this first in Good Calories, Bad Calories and then in a piece I did for the New York Times Magazine this past April, “Is Sugar Toxic?” Once a few influential authorities start blaming obesity on HFCS, the industry responds by making “No HFCS” a selling point. Back in the 80s, what made HFCS so popular was everyone knew that sugar was this generally noxious nutrient, so if you could have your foods, sweets, drinks without sugar but using this HFCS that corn refiners were pitching as a healthy alternative, that would be great. Now, 25 years later, corn refiners are backpedalling like mad to get us to realize that HFCS is sugar. The problems is that yes, it is sugar, and it’s not that it’s as harmless as sugar, it’s that it’s as harmful as sugar. Or at least that’s what I think. And the problem, as you point out, is that you get the glucose stimulating insulin secretion, and the fructose being metabolized mostly in the liver. The liver responds by turning it into triglycerides, and the insulin and the glucose end up influencing how the liver metabolized the fructose and you get a perfect storm of metabolic and hormonal response that appears to be the fundamental cause of insulin resistance. A few papers have just come out on that from UC Davis—which is one of the few research groups studying this in the United States—and once you become insulin resistant, then all these easily digestible carbohydrates are problematic.

PRIMAL GUY:  You have a background as a science writer and now you’ve become an authority on nutrition. Can you comment on that transition?

GARY TAUBES:  I’m always writing about good science and bad science. Even in my blog, when I write, infrequently as it is, I’m writing about good science and bad science, and about why I believe “x” and usually why other people believe “y”. This was always my obsession as a science writer: what does it take to get science right, to get the right answer? But it’s weird being a nutrition guru of sorts; somebody who people go to for advice. It’s kind of wonderful to know I have this effect on people, that I change their lives for the better, that I’m told this when I lecture, and I get these emails—it’s what keeps me going. It’s frankly a crusade, but having a crusade is fundamentally at odds with being a journalist. Even with investigative journalism you’re supposed to hit your subjects and then move on. And now it’s hard for me to move on.  As I was explaining to someone the other day, what you want to do as an investigative journalist is uncover wrongs that are being perpetrated, and then the establishment steps in and fixes the problem. But what if the problem is the establishment and it’s system-wide—in this case, much of the nutrition, obesity, research community is doing science in a way that cannot establish reliable knowledge, and they may be perpetrating ideas that in this case actually affect the lives of the entire population.

How can you just walk away, and say, “Well, I wrote that, so now I’m going to do something else. I’m going to look into some fraud case in nuclear physics, for example, or some other subject that looks ripe for a good investigation.” So the situation locks you in and, as I say with my colleague Peter Attia, in the co-founders letter on our NuSI website, you get to a point in life where you think somebody has to do something, and that somebody appears to be you. There’s no one to whom you can easily pass the buck.

Back when carb-restricted diets were being studied in any significant way back in the 50s and 60s, medical doctors read the literature and said, “This is interesting, carbohydrates seem to cause obesity, so what happens when I go on a carb-free diet, or carb-restricted diet?” They lost weight effortlessly and then they prescribed it to their patients and their patients lost weight effortlessly, and then in a few cases some them said, “This is important, I know how to cure obesity,” and they wrote books about it and the books sold really well. And the establishment response is to label them as quack diet book doctors whose only motivation is to make money.

From the research perspective, one of my repeated, depressing experiences is when I go to research seminars and you see these people who are getting funded to cure or prevent obesity, and yet their subjects are so arcane. For instance, a few years ago I listened to a talk at a childhood obesity conference about gene expression in the arcuate nucleus of zebra fish. I wanted to say to the researcher who gave the talk, “What if your research panned out beyond your wildest dreams and you were to win a Nobel Prize for it, how many decades do you think it would be before it affected the weight of one person?” Yet for this researcher, this was her life.  This is not just what she’s interested in, but this is what she gets paid to do—it’s her job. She has to get grants from the NIH (National Institute for Health) and the grants have to be on the gene expression of the arcuate nucleus of zebra fish. And that’s what she does, that’s her niche, her schtick. And the whole conference was filled with people just like her. Not a single one of them is addressing environmental or lifestyle causes of obesity in a meaningful way. And they’re not, in part, because they believe those issues are settled—people eat too much and there’s too much junk food out there, etc. etc. So they’re studying these arcane subjects and they get funded to study them, and so this whole research establishment is self-perpetuating, and their motivation may have been to learn the truth about something, but it was also to keep getting paid to do this research that would never address the weight of a single individual. It’s a crazy world.

PRIMAL GUY:  It’s the same when I try to explain to people who actually fund the ADA (American Dietetic Association now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), and they can’t believe it.  The ADA is the backbone of registered dieticians and nutritionists, and when people find out that Kellogg’s and Coke are some of their head financers, and in fact, fund a lot of the research, they can’t believe it.

GARY TAUBES:  Why don’t other journalists care? Wouldn’t that be a great story for the Washington Post: The food industry support of the American Dietetic Association? The American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association. I have colleagues at major newspapers, whom I’ve known for 25-30 years. I’ve tried to get them interested in these stories, and I can’t do it. Often their response has been, “That’s your story, and we don’t want to infringe on your story.” And I say, “But don’t you understand, if I do it, the story will be marginalized because I did it! I need other journalists to care!” They don’t say I’m wrong or that these aren’t good stories; they just don’t want to get involved.

PRIMAL GUY:  Is it the fear of being ostracized?

GARY TAUBES:  I don’t know what it is. If it’s that important they wouldn’t be ostracized—certainly not at the New York Times. Now it’s true that what I’ve been writing conflicts with what people they work with have written—Jane Brody and Gina Kolata—so maybe they don’t want to do it because they don’t want to be in a situation where they’re implicitly criticizing their colleagues, but it’s a little crazy.

PRIMAL GUY:  Did you think Good Calories, Bad Calories would cause so much controversy as you were writing and researching it?

GARY TAUBES:  Well, yes and no. I actually thought it would create more controversy. And then I had to be reminded that no book can create as much controversy as a New York Times magazine cover story. I had thought that when the book came out it would make a huge splash and people would be debating it in the literature and medical research. It’s been a slow and building controversy, and it’s growing, but I thought it would be bigger than it was. People can ignore a book, but if you have a New York Times magazine cover story, even if you want to ignore it, your neighbor or your assistant or your boss will read it and at least ask you about it, so you can’t ignore it! A book? Easy to ignore; especially a 500-page book with a faux diet book title and is a dense and difficult read.

PRIMAL GUY:  Why do you think scientists and researchers are so hung up on the calories in-calories out theory as it relates to weight loss—the law of thermodynamics?

GARY TAUBES:  There are a few reasons. First, it seems obvious, which is why we all believed it. Even if you think about it for 5 minutes, you just don’t bother to question it—I just assumed it was true. Even when I wrote the original New York Times magazine story in 2002, I was still thinking in terms of calories in and calories out. It just seems obvious and you’d never really think about it.

The other reason is that everyone else you know thinks the same way. If you live in the world where everybody thinks that the sun rotates around the earth rather than vice versa, you’re going to think that way also. And if you ever start suspecting that it doesn’t, you’re going to get in trouble and look like a quack when you start arguing with everyone else that something so simple is wrong. If everyone you respect believes something, then you’re going to believe it also. And one of my jobs now, I feel, is to show the research community that everybody they respect actually doesn’t believe as they believe anymore. These people have taken a look at what I’ve been saying, taken it seriously, and as a result, have changed the way they think.

GARY TAUBES: So here are the reasons in short: first, this idea seems obviously true; second, everyone else you know believes it is obviously true; third, if you argue that it isn’t, you get marginalized. (One of my favorite lines on this was from a British researcher who told a friend in the UK who was giving him my argument, that he “sounds like a creationist.”) This is classic cognitive dissonance. When someone like me comes along arguing that this seemingly simple truth is just wrong, it’s far easier to believe that I’m a nut then that there’s substance to my arguments. And then part of this is the assumption that there must be hard evidence refuting these counterintuitive arguments. There has got to be evidence that what I am saying is wrong and what they’re believing is right. So the perfectly reasonable approach in 99.999999… percent of cases, is to ignore these arguments and get on with whatever else it is they’re doing—their productive work. Then there is this sort of a gut feeling we all have that when we work out a lot we lose a little weight. When we eat less, we lose a little weight. When we eat more, we gain a little weight. So maybe what Taubes is talking about is relevant to some weird special cases, but the conventional wisdom is right about everything else.

PRIMAL GUY: When it comes to calories, they don’t matter as much as people think, but it’s the quality of calories that truly counts. Explaining calorie quality is one of the most difficult concepts for me to explain to my clients. I always use the 2,000 calories of Doritos (11 ounces) compared to 2,000 calories of carrots (8 pounds) example.

GARY TAUBES: That’s a good way to do it. And everyone would accept that as obviously true, but there are still ways to explain it that are consistent with the conventional wisdom—i.e., the calories in the Doritos are denser calories, and so you can eat more of them. When I give my lectures, I think I do a good job of getting the audience to accept that they don’t really benefit by thinking of fat accumulations in terms of calories consumed or expended. And I think most of the audience typically does get it. They are all nodding and they understand, they see the point. But I feel like once they leave it takes about 36 hours before the vast majority return to their conventional way of thinking about it. That’s their default position and it’s resistant to change.

PRIMAL GUY: Calorie counting is what we were taught and it’s completely ingrained into us from day one. When I take clients on the “Primal Shopping” service, I have to show them how to read labels, and even then they will revert to the calories per serving habit.

GARY TAUBES: I got an email from a friend the other day with an excerpt from an interview with a nutritionist at Boston University talking about putting patients on calorie-restricted diets. So this BU researcher, when someone comes into her clinic, she puts them on a 1,200 to 1,500 calorie a day diet, significantly lower than the 2,000 calories a day that a normal moderately active female eats or the 2,500 a day that a male might eat. And then the interviewer says, well, with that degree of calorie restriction, most people produce a chronic hunger. And the BU researcher agrees, and says that, indeed, many people cannot tolerate hunger for too long and that’s why most diet programs fail. And I’m thinking, well, why then are you putting these poor patients on this diet? You’re basically starving them. Of course, no one can tolerate starvation for long. But for whatever reason, this BU researcher doesn’t see the lunacy of this approach, or the inconsistency in the thinking. How do you get their attention? Wake them up? And the answer is, it’s going to take time because appealing to common sense doesn’t work.

PRIMAL GUY: It really doesn’t, that is the amazing thing too about the fad programs that I tell people. Such as the P90X and Insanity workouts, they are great workouts, don’t get me wrong. I mean, the workout portion is based on pretty solid principles, but when you dig a little deeper, you see that the diet uses the typical starvation philosophy based on calories in vs. calories out. You are eating somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,100 to 1,200 calories while working out 6 days a week for an hour and half a day or whatever it is. You are basically working out at maximum intensity and I tell people you are not losing weight primarily because of the workout, but you are just starving yourself at this point. Sure it is possible to get ripped in 90 days, if you can stick with it. I have only met one person who has made it through the entire P90X program. At least they told me that they finished it. But yeah, it is tough.


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