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May 11, 2012 10:16 AM

Gary Taubes: Why the Campaign to Stop America's Obesity Crisis Keeps Failing


"...the very first childhood-obesity clinic in the United States was founded in the late 1930s at Columbia University by a young German physician, Hilde Bruch. As Bruch later told it, her inspiration was simple: she arrived in New York in 1934 and was “startled” by the number of fat kids she saw—“really fat ones, not only in clinics, but on the streets and subways, and in schools.”

What makes Bruch’s story relevant to the obesity problem today is that this was New York in the worst year of the Great Depression, an era of bread lines and soup kitchens, when 6 in 10 Americans were living in poverty. The conventional wisdom these days—promoted by government, obesity researchers, physicians, and probably your personal trainer as well—is that we get fat because we have too much to eat and not enough reasons to be physically active. But then why were the PC- and Big Mac–-deprived Depression-era kids fat? How can we blame the obesity epidemic on gluttony and sloth if we easily find epidemics of obesity throughout the past century in populations that barely had food to survive and had to work hard to earn it?..."

  1. i was interested in some of your posts on a brown rice thread. i would be very interested in hearing some more of your thoughts on diet.
    incidentally, my younger brother, 53, just had a heart attack, he put off seeing doc as he thought it was acid reflux. had several stents put in the day he saw doc. he is active and in fairly good shape. he has switched to a plant based diet (forks over knives?) and has lost about a pound a day for the last 2 weeks. just diagnosed as prediabetic. now taking a simvistatin (low hdl high ldl), bp meds, plavix. no oil diet.

    2 Replies
    1. re: divadmas

      I'm really sorry to hear about your brother's health and also his diet advice/medications. CH doesn't want medical discussions here, and the best advice I can give you is to have him check out and also, for lay language discussion of statins, diet and heart attack prevention, maybe Michael Eades Protein Power blog... both very reliable, science based. I'm a long time diabetic who reversed long standing kidney and nerve damage and tightly controls diabetes without meds, it's been about 14 years now.

      1. re: mcf

        it was a shocker since he appears in good health and watches his diet. i don't want to go off ch main thrust but diet is such an important part of life and there is so much contradictory information out there. thank you for pointers, i am 10 year+ diabetic and need to do more myself. thanks.

    2. It's the same message as expressed in The New York Times by Gary Traubes, discussed in a previous thread:

      Except in the Newsweek article, the message is delivered with more restraint: "... sugar may have been the primary problem all along." (Traubes in Newsweek, May 14


      Sugar is the problem, either in the form of sucrose (table sugar) or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

      3 Replies
      1. re: GH1618

        Sugar from starches, fruits, additives, all are the problem. Different folks have different tolerance levels, but all tax metabolism severely.

        1. re: mcf

          That is not true. Different sugars are metabolized differently. Fructose, specifically, is the main problem, because of the way its metabolism differs from that of glucose, which is the primary fuel of the body. Fructose constitutes half of sucrose and HFCS. This was thoroughly discussed in the previous thread, so I will not belabor it here. One either accepts the theory promoted by Dr. lustig (and by Taubes), or not. I accept it.

          1. re: GH1618

            There are differences in metabolic pathways, but your pancreas doesn't care where the glucose came from, it's stressed by high carb meals and the need for a hyperinsulinemic response in a hurry after them. I don't reject Lustig's assertions about fructose, but Taubes' body of work says exactly what I've said here, and Lustig is seeing one (admittedly important) tree, but not the forest.


        Obesity fight must shift from personal blame-U.S. panel
        Report by IOM released at the Weight of the Nation conference, a three-day meeting hosted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

        1. so is focus shifting from activity to diet?

          5 Replies
          1. re: divadmas

            I hope so. Activity has a lot of of health benefits, but does not control diabetes alone. OTOH, carbohydrate restriction without activity does, immediately and even without weight loss.

            1. re: divadmas

              Some people want to focus on diet, sugars in particular. The main stream medical (and public health) approach remains multi-pronged.

              1. re: paulj

                I believe that's a false characterization, not only of Taubes' body of work, but of the mainstream approach.

                1. re: mcf

                  To quote the article: " This theory implicates specific foods—refined sugars and grains—because of their effect on the hormone insulin, which regulates fat accumulation."

                  1. re: paulj

                    Have you read Taubes' other articles or his books? His discussion is not limited to certain sugars or starches.

            2. Does Taubes give us an accurate picture of Hilde Bruch's ideas and work? Other sources talk about her focus on emotional problems related to diet, particularly anorexia. Those initial observations in NYC may have planted a seed for the later work, but I don't see evidence that she focused on sugar as Taubes does.

              Poor exercise/play options could have been just as much a problem in Depression Era NYC as in modern cities and states. I suspect Taubes is going beyond the available data in focusing on refined carbs, then and now.

              12 Replies
              1. re: paulj

                Have you *read* any of Taubes' works/books? He's an assiduous researcher who, despite your suspicions, provides gadzillion citations. Not just on nutrition, either. He's a scientist who reviews science objectively *before* arriving at conclusions.

                1. re: mcf

                  Then why does he come across as someone who is at odds with other scientists? Is he the only one not corrupted by big-bad-corporate-money? I think it is more accurate to call him a science writer than a scientist.

                  1. re: paulj

                    He is a science writer who has degrees in science, engineering, and journalism. My evaluation (as an engineer myself) is that he seems well trained for his profession, and in the articles I have read seems to have a good understanding of the methodology of science.

                    Can you give a specific example wherein he is "at odds with other scientists"?

                    1. re: GH1618

                      He has no training in the field in which he is commenting. It is like saying, as an engineer who has read scientific articles, you are qualified to comment on various articles in the field of psychology.
                      Scientists in their field will create hypothesis, test them, observe, comment, do further research.
                      Science writers create a hypothesis (preferably controversial ones, because that's what sells), cherry-pick the existing literature to substantiate what they want to say, then publish a book, do a publicity tour (after all, they've picked something controversial), and repeat for max profits.
                      BIG difference.
                      We'll see the outcome in 20 years -- maybe he's right. Most likely, he's wrong, and the ones who will suffer (if the China Study has shown anything) are the fervent proponents of his theory. And another theory will come along, from another science writer, and the whole scenario will repeat.
                      It's an industry, just like any other.

                      1. re: freia

                        Your viewpoint seems to rule out journalism generally — leave policy to specialists, with no public review. That's not the way it works in a free society. I don't understand your apparent hostility to Taubes' work. Perhaps he challenged some cherished belief of yours.

                        Anyway, the question was for paulj. What is the basis for claiming that he is "at odds" with scientists?

                        1. re: GH1618

                          LOL no, Taubes isn't the issue. My POV doesn't rule out journalism at all, but what Taubes and any science writer with a profit-driven agenda does is not journalism. The issue is when science writers, on a profit-driven basis, purposefully select controversial theories and cherry pick research to fit, create villains and conspiracies, and present all of this as the truth. Which is fine, until one sees people taking an unproven, controversial and profit-driven POV as gospel to the point of excluding any reasonable discussion of alternative POVs. Which we all have seen and continue to see on these Boards. And which is out of the boundaries of what I thought Chow/Chowhound was about. Proselytizing controversial theories under the guise of "hey, look at this neat article" is really outside of the margins, IMHO, because the intent is clearly not to have a discussion. And again, this isn't the only thread on which this happens (I believe you referred to other threads of this nature).
                          In any event, to address the OP's alleged question/observation, there are many reasons for obesity: Taubes has one POV. Authors of The China Study have another. And it should be noted that no matter what extreme one follows, the science writer has the money in the bank while the die-hard followers will bear the medical consequences of that POV many, many years down the road. We simply don't know what those consequences are. Science writers 20 years ago were purporting a certain food regime with consequences seen today. Science writers are trying to "correct" this with current food theories. Followers of high protein/low grain and low carb diets very well may see increased levels of cancer in the future (if you believe the China Study). We won't see the consequences for another 20 years. At which point another science writer will create another theory, cherry pick the data, and go on another profit-making tour. People forget is that science writing is all speculation for profit without regard for what the possible consequences are for individuals down the road. There are very few absolute truths in the field of nutrition especially when discussing "optimal" dietary compositions. Accordingly, the safest thing to do may very well be to consume all things in moderation with the exception of crap food (and we all know what that is).
                          Why are we obese? We eat too much junk, too much processed/refined foods, too few natural foods, and sit on our butts for hours in front of the TV and behind the wheel of the car. Lifestyle and food choices are key. I look to no one but myself for responsibility and accountability, and I feel dismayed when science writers vilify food groups and create conspiracy theories to deflect responsibility from the person who is holding the fork.

                          1. re: freia


                            you may want to take a look at this, from an m.d., regarding the "china study." dr. campbell himself offers it is nothing more than a collection of observational studies and correlations. hardly stuff with which to stick a stake in the ground. only the beginnings of data with which to form hypotheses and then conduct experiments. it is scientific proof of exactly nothing.

                            and if anybody was cherry-picking it was ancel keys. the guy we have to blame for the lipd theory.


                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              This is my point, exactly. If you take any literature review from an individual who is purporting a theory and has no credentials in the area that they are researching, you are reading simply a theory. My other point is that to take any theory and purport it as the "truth" may have consequences far down the road (well WELL down the road) that we simply don't see today. IF the epidemiological data in the China Study is to be believed (pure epidemiology, not the dietary theory), cancer rates will be significantly higher down the road in those that follow high protein, low carb/low grain diets. But then again, if you look at other epidemiological studies, you may have higher rates of certain other types of cancer if you are low protein and high grain/carbs. There is a ton of research out there that links high dairy consumption with increased weight loss and lower body fat. But if you believe Dr. Campbell's research, liver tumors can be turned ON if you exceed a certain amount of dairy intake, and tumors can be turned OFF if you reduce your dairy intake. This is the very nature of dietary theorization and research -- so much research out there, so much conflicting evidence, so many science writers looking to make a buck, and so much finger pointing and blame around obesity. So to point to Taubes, or to The China Study, or to Keys, or to anyone as having the "real truth" and thinking that there really is any original thought out there about diet optimization is IMHO ridiculous. There IS no "real truth" out there. We've turned the issue of diet optimization for health over and over and over again since the late 1700s and we are still no further ahead in any significant definitive way.

                              Dietary theories are constantly cycling in and out of favor and have been since the days of Brillat-Savarin (considered the father of the low carb diet craze dating from the late 1700ss) and Dr Kellog (low protein,high grains), Fletcherism, obsession with body weight and body mass (just consider how body ideals have changed from the days of Lillian Russell in the late 1800s to today -- heck, just think of the change from her time until the era of the Flappers!). Taubes, the China Study, Keys -- they are simply our generational iteration of dietary fad promoters.

                              The only sustained and proven concept has been all things in moderation -- kind of hedging one's bets so to speak. Don't demonize anything (except crap food and we all know what that is), eat in moderation, exercise, and have a happy life.

                              1. re: freia

                                Taubes has credentials, that's why he's an award winning science writer published in some of the most prestigious peer reviewed journals for offering cogent, assiduously researched reviews of data, not just slogans and personal opinions as evidence.

                                1. re: mcf

                                  "published in some of the most prestigious peer reviewed journals"
                                  Can you give examples from the last decade when he's been focusing on 'the big fat lie'?

                                  1. re: mcf

                                    Makes no difference: he's a science writer pure and simple. I never said he offered slogans and personal opinions. I said that science writers create a controversial theory, cherry pick the data to substantiate it, create villains for publicity, and reap the profits. His vested interest is money in his pocket, and he gets that through publicity created by a controversial theory. Plain and simple. And the worst part? It isn't even new information -- his theories are simply a reiteration of a cycle of nutritional hype and "optimization" which makes the rounds every 20 years or so.

                    2. re: mcf

                      According to his own website, he is not a scientist. He is a science writer. BIG difference.