One of the many wonderful benefits of our incredible age of information is the research that journalists and other non-scientists can write and educate on what was formerly the domain of the scientific researcher. Journalists like Gary Taubes can, in a reasonable time frame, go back through the medical literature as well as the memoirs and press statements of prominent researches and tell the macro-story of subjects normally only understood in parts. This is exact what Taubes did in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories.
Taubes is a writer of some renown in the science writing community. He is a contributor to Science magazine and before writing Good Calories, Bad Calories, had written a book called Bad Science and another called Nobel Dreams. Both earlier books described the scientists involved in cold fusion and particle physics in less than glowing terms. Even brilliant scientists, Taubes chronicled, are subject to nasty personal traits and pervasive biases. They are human and subject to the same traits as all humans. They are imperfect. They also influence each other and make close friends and bitter enemies. The way Taubes tells the story really good science is exceedingly rare.
Poorly designed and described science is particularly pervasive in food research. There is a lot of money given out for food research from several agencies of the government, various advocacy groups, and from the food industry itself. But, even when lavish funding is available, it is difficult to impossible to do real food research on humans. There is no way to do a double-blinded placebo controlled food experiment on humans. People know what they are eating, there is no such thing as placebo food, and it’s impossible to control with 100% certainty what any person eats over an extended period of time.
And so, the science that follows eating is mostly observational. From the surveys and observations about eating habits across populations, various hypotheses are formed. Of course, the food theories change over time and Taubes has painstakingly documented the work of literally 150 years of scientific research and opinion on eating.
The common medical problem Taubes is interested in is obesity. Scientists and doctors struggled to fully explain obesity when it became observable in the early 19th century. Obesity was simply not observed in anything but the most lavishly pampered royalty for millennia until the 19th century when it appeared in several populations including the very poor. After much observation, the consensus was reached about what foods prompted obesity; it was the baked good, the potatoes, the sugar, and the beer. In short, it was the carbohydrates. By the 1920s, the basic mechanism of carbohydrates, glucose, and insulin was very well understood and by the 1950s, the entire chemistry of the metabolic process could be described in detail.
But, in a tale of lost knowledge for the ages, the research on heart attacks and dietary fat began to make eating very few carbohydrates and plenty of fats and proteins less tenable. Taubes describes the heart attack that President Eisenhower suffered in 1955 as being the point in which the fat warriors took over scientific research on food and at that point, the availability of cheap, highly processed, sugar-filled carbohydrates radically increased. The food industry pounced and suddenly, ‘heart-healthy’ foods appeared that required the body to secrete massive amounts of insulin. Around the world but particularly in the US, human bodies stored millions of pounds of excess glucose as fat. Obesity was born here.
Since carbohydrate consumption could not be cited as the cause of obesity, the ‘energy balance equation’ was promoted instead, and it states that it is calories, regardless of what food makes up those calories, that explains obesity,. If you eat more calories than you burn, the body stores the excess energy as fat. Fat people, under this hypothesis, are lazy and undisciplined and therefore, acceptable targets for shaming and ridicule. Entire comic careers have been built on fat shaming.
Good Calories, Bad Calories is a long book, clocking in at 609 pages with the complete index. But, it is an incredible journey through the world of food and food research. Taubes has done the world an invaluable service chronicling how medical and scientific opinion on food and eating has changed. So much of what the public thinks is true about food is just pernicious nonsense and people who refuse to follow the consensus science have gotten far better health results than those that followed the USDA guidelines. Taubes has documents for all to read just how we got so far off track. His book is essential reading for those that want to know how to eat, thrive, and live.
The book is available on Amazon here.
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