This is a study of the RationalWiki article on Gary Taubes (Wikipedia) as created by John66 (Darryl L. Smith), as of January 18, 2019. The lead:
Gary Taubes is American author, journalist, low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) promoter, anti-sugar campaigner and cholesterol denialist. Taubes disagrees with mainstream medical advice on dieting. He believes that refined carbohydrates and sugars should be avoided, not fat. Taubes disputes the evidence that saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease.
Taubes has been accused of misrepresenting scientific data and quoting medical researchers out of context to support his biased low-carb agenda.
Smith is expert at cramming a series of dense misrepresentations into a few words. As is typical, the “mainstream” is presented as if monolithic, when it never has been on this subject, but rather “majoritarian,” i.e., there is are dominant views, never fully accepted by experts, and especially not the researchers. Dietary advice can lag science by decades.
Taubes is not an ordinary journalist, he is a science journalist, specifically, highly qualified for that. Smith had edited the Wikipedia article on Taubes. Taubes’ qualifications are ignored in the RatWiki article. From Wikipedia:
Taubes has won the Science in Society Journalism Award of the National Association of Science Writers three times and was awarded an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship for 1996–97. He is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation independent investigator in health policy.
low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) promoter. So a journalist researches a topic in depth (Taubes spent years on his investigations) and reports what he finds. If what he finds shows that widely-held opinion is not based on science (more than weakly), and that there are contrary hypotheses that fit the data better than what supports mainstreamopinions, and then he acts to secure funding for research to address open issues, is he “promoting” the contrary hypothesis?
Calling him a “promoter” is an attempt to toss him in the basket with “woo diets” and “quack medicine.” Most solidly and persistently, what Taubes is promoting is science and scientific skepticism.
anti-sugar campaigner. His book lays out the case against sugar. In fact, his conclusions (i.e, his formed opinions from review of the evidence) about the general harm of sugar are widespread. Again, though, the attempt is to portray him as a fanatic, as Smith does with all his targets.
Taubes disagrees with mainstream medical advice on dieting. What Taubes does in his books on fat and obestity is to examine, in detail, the history of the “mainstream views,” which radically shifted around 1970, to almost the opposite of what they had been before. On obesity, especially, he goes into excruciating detail on the shift.
Anyone who challenges popular views, that happen to support major vested interests, is going to be widely attacked, it’s like clockwork. As a member of the public, critically interested in the issues (this is about my health and that of my children!), that someone criticizes a skeptic (or an advocate of mainstream views) does not negate the views, rather, if this is done within scientific — or journalistic — protocols, I will want to see specifics.
Perhaps now is the time to use a meme.
I am fully aware of this problem (“confirmation bias”), and so is Taubes. It is possible to criticize anything. Taubes’ general opinion on nutritional science is that the state of it is poor, there is a great deal that has been accepted on faith or wishful thinking about what is actually shown in the studies that have been done. Taubes examines all this, presenting copious evidence. And, of course, he’s not perfect! But is he significantly incorrect?
He believes that refined carbohydrates and sugars should be avoided, not fat. This is typical for RatWiki. An unorthodox conclusion or hypothesis is presented as a “belief.” And then everything from that person is presented as flowing from what they believe, as distinct from what they have witnessed, or for a journalist, what they have found in sources and analysis seeking reality.
Was Taubes seeking reality or was he just trying to write a popular story, to advance his career? I’ve been following Taubes for more than a decade. He does far more research into the topics that he has been engaged to write about than makes sense economically. What he has been able to accomplish, besides selling some books, is funding for research, and not research to “prove” his ideas, but to test them (and, as well, “mainstream” ideas.)
His ideas are not new, in fact, but definitive research has not been done, studies have been flawed, etc. Decisions were made based on other than science, based on unscientific ideas that, if wrong, they would do no harm.
Smith is going after a genuine scientific skeptic, because . . . because why? Well, it could be from his relationship with the faction that has, to some degree, protected and encouraged him on Wikipedia and RatWiki. He has discovered that his attack articles are popular with the Rats. He is lying about his identity and motives, and this is a fundamental problem with the wikis, where they allow not only anonymous editing, but anonymous administration. It removes personal responsibility. That was a choice that Wikipedia made early on, and it became fixed in stone. RationalWiki takes this to an extreme, originally for the lulz.
Note 1 points to a Guardian review of Taube’s latest book, The Case Against Sugar. The story covers the same suggestions as I have been making here. Smith clearly believes that the idea of Sugar Bad Fat Good is preposterous and he knows that many, maybe most, of the Rats will agree with him.
Gary Taubes’s latest assault on the ruinous effect of sugar on our lives and the promotion of fat-free diets is detailed and compelling
For the last 15 years, US journalist Gary Taubes has been the self-nominated public enemy No 1 of the global “healthy eating” establishment. His heresy has been to argue powerfully and publicly that the official diet advice we have been encouraged to follow since the 1970s is fundamentally wrong. It is refined carbohydrates and sugars that we should be avoiding, he says, not fat.
His apostasy was dismissed by many health professionals in a sustained, near operatic chorus of censure. After all, he had committed the cardinal crime of suggesting that august government nutrition professors and the academic researchers who inform them had made an inexcusable error of judgment, with catastrophic consequences: an epidemic of obesity and diet-related ill-health of a magnitude that had no precedent.
Taubes’s latest book, The Case Against Sugar, looks to be less controversial, if only because so-called guardians of public health have of late subtly re-emphasised in government eating guidelines the role of sugar as a dietary villain, adopting what Taubes calls the “we knew it all along” approach. They have yet to admit that the natural saturated fats they have long demonised, such as butter, are healthier than the highly refined liquid oils and polyunsaturated margarine spreads they continue to recommend, even though the scientific inadequacy of this advice is being steadily exposed. In Taubes’s view, major nutrition authorities “have spent the last 50 years blaming dietary fat for our ills while letting sugar off the hook”.
How is it that Smith can cite this article, the sense of which is radically opposed to his article? Well, he needed a source to claim that Taubes “believes” what he wrote. It does not, in fact, support that wording. Taubes has explicitly term his views an “alternative hypothesis.” That is, he infers his views from study of the evidence, and he is, himself, sufficiently convinced to (1) share what he has found and (2) pursue testing. He gathered millions of dollars to do this, and that work is under way. He is going to be called every name in the book, as the Guardian article points out.
Will Smith go on to create an article on Joanna Blythman, who wrote that story for the Guardian? How about a story on the conspiracy of greedy book authors and journalists to deceive the public for fun and profit?
Taubes disputes the evidence that saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease.
Smith either doesn’t care about accuracy, or doesn’t know enough to distinguish between cause and risk factors, and the history on this issue is huge. “Saturated fat” would have to mean “saturated fat in the diet,” and studies showing that were early, weak, and inconclusive. That idea is almost entirely discredited among current researchers, but still lives on in recommendations, and, even more in the memories of those who followed the recommendations and have not kept up on the research.
Reference 2 is a Taubes article in the New York Times, January 27, 2008. I notice right away that the article is quite old, but it is presented as evidence for a current position. Smith’s text is a misrepresentation of what Taubes actually wrote, even back then.
Taubes does not generally dispute “evidence.” That is an ontological error that Smith could be expected to make. He disputes some of the conclusions from evidence, particularly when one looks at all the evidence. “Believers” and “pseudoskeptics” dispute evidence, often claiming “there is no evidence,” when there obviously is. Practically speaking, and in ordinary language, we become “beleivers” when we have seen enough to come to conclusions based on the preponderance of evidence, but if we follow the scientific method, this is never a certainty, it is provisional — and ideally we are open to correction, particularly if extraordinary evidence arises.
These are serious accusations if made about a professional journalist. From the Guardian article, we can expect accusations like this. An accusation like that without evidence is meaningless or worse. Let’s look at each one. First, the link is to the RatWiki article on quote mining, and it is hilarious to see this from Smith. Quote mining is practically all that he does!
3. A blog post from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the most dedicated promoters of supposedly healthy diets that weren’t, and attackers of anything that disagreed with them. (I used to receive their newsletter, years ago. I never noticed that they were actually promoting science, i.e, research to confirm the recommendations they were making, so they would be a poster boy for what Taubes has uncovered. “Science” that is not. The title: The Truth About the Atkins Diet.
Okay, what is the truth? I was advised to try the South Beach diet in about 2004 by my physician. My wife was on Atkins, and I read the South Beach book and Atkins, and decided there was more science behind Atkins than Agatston, the South Beach author, with what might be called “Atkins light,” which avoids saturated fats. My doctor did not argue with me, and encouraged me. And the diet worked (which is now well known, and that’s what his nurse told me when I mentioned Atkins). I lost about forty pounds, was down to a healthy weight. Sometime around 2005 I did a lot of reading on Atkins, the arguments for and against, and I found that most negative comments flat-out did not understand the Atkins diet, and misrepresented it. So what do we have here?
Taubes claims that it’s not fatty foods that make us fat and raise our risk of disease. It’s carbohydrates. And to most readers his arguments sound perfectly plausible.
Yes. This was about the NYT article, “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” which was added,
Taubes has mentioned, by the editors. His title was “What if fat doesn’t make you fat?” And that is actually a quite reasonable question. Does fat make us fat? How would we know? I know the arguments, but let’s see what CSPI comes up with:
Here are the facts—and the fictions—in Taubes’s article, which has led to a book contract with a
reported $700,000 advance. And here’s what the scientists he quoted —or neglected to quote—have to say about his reporting.
Right away, I notice that they are effectively claiming to have interviewed or obtained statements from all those quoted. Have they? I don’t know, and it will take some time to research.
Perhaps the most telling statement in Gary Taubes’s New York Times Magazine article
comes as he explains how difficult it is to study diet and health. “This then leads to a research literature so vast that it’s possible to find at least some published research to support
virtually any theory.”
He got that right. It helps explain why Taubes’s article sounds so credible.
“He knows how to spin a yarn,” says Barbara Rolls, an obesity expert at Pennsylvania State University. “What frightens me is that he picks and chooses his facts.”
She ought to know. Taubes interviewed her for some six hours, and she sent him “a huge bundle of papers,” but he didn’t quote a word of it. “If the facts don’t fit in with his yarn, he ignores
them,” she says.
Instead, Taubes put together what sounds like convincing evidence that carbohydrates cause obesity.
However Taubes does massive research. He does not use all of it. This is someone claiming that Taubes ignored what she sent him. She does not know that. She only knows, if it is true, that he did not cite her material. Taubes did explain how the “fat myth” developed. As is accepted here, the literature is vast.
In his 2008 book, Taubes goes of the history of concepts about obesity, and quotes many many publications. That the cause was carbohydrates was a very common idea until roughly the 1970s. The switch to fat being the problem was heavily influenced by the idea that fat also caused heart disease. Much of that early “consensus,” and it did become a widespread opinion, where contrary views were attacked and even suppressed (which is still going on to some degree), was utterly wrong and has been rejected, but the “cholesterol” and “fat” hypotheses keep morphing, with ad hoc explanations, a sign of defective theory.
“He took this weird little idea and blew it up, and people believed him,” says John Farquhar, a professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University’s Center for Research in Disease Prevention. Taubes quoted Farquhar, but misrepresented his views. “What a disaster,” says Farquhar.
CSPI is not a reliable source. First of all, the “weird little idea” was widespread, long before Atkins and Taubes, and, second, it is not established that Taubes misrepresented anything. It is possible,. for sure, but CPSI does not seem to care about fact, but about spin. They also have this from Farquhar:
“I was greatly offended at how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across
as supporters of the Atkins diet,” says Stanford’s John Farquhar.
The plot thickens. Farquhar said something, accurately quoted, apparently, but Farquhar did not like what it implied, in the context of Taubes’ “story.” The Atkins diet was, still, by 2002, roundly condemned and to support Atkins would seem to be a major heresy. By 2002, there was little evidence on the issue of the safety of the Atkins diet, and lots of inference that it must be Bad. What did Farquhar actually say?
Looking for it, I came across a sensible article, and various fanatic ravings. )The latter cites some NuSi research that supposedly falsified Taube’s hypothesis, but that is far from clear. It is simply another claim. That latter also cites the CSPI article. In other words, find a loon, find a flock of loons. No surprise.
Taubes quoted Walter Willet, David Ludwig, Eleftheria Maratos-Flier, Kurt Isselbacher, Katherine Flegal, Kelley Brownell, William Dietz, Basil Rifkindm, Alan Stone, Judith Putnam(?), Michael Schwartz, Albert Stunkard, Richard Veech, George Blackburn, Linda Stern, Sam Klein.
This is what Taubes wrote about Farquhar:
This is the state of mind i imagine that mainstream nutritionists, researchers and physicians must inevitably take to the fat-versus-carbohydrate controversy. They may come around, but the evidence will have to be exceptionally compelling. Although this kind of conversion may be happening at the moment to John Farquhar, who is a professor of health research and policy at Stanford University and has worked in this field for more than 40 years. When I interviewed Farquhar in April, he explained why low-fat diets might lead to weight gain and low-carbohydrate diets might lead to weight loss, but he made me promise not to say he believed they did. He attributed the cause of the obesity epidemic to the “force-feeding of a nation.” Three weeks later, after reading an article on Endocrinology 101 by David Ludwig in the Journall of the American Medical Association, he sent me an e-mail message asking the not-entirely rhetorical question, “Can we get the low-fat proponents to apologize?”
This is astonishingly clear. First of all, did Taubes accurately report what was said to him? I would assume he has interview tapes. Assuming the quotes were accurate, and the interpretation of what Farquhar said reasonable (it all fits with his later complaints, actually!), he did not want his ideas to be repeated, and Taubes correctly pointed out that these were not to be repeated as his belief. And Taubes did not do that. He was claimed to have mentioned these things as possibilities, i.e., “might.”
The Farquhar complaint appears to be fluff, someone highly involved with the nutritional and policy establishment who did not want his true views or ideas to be known. What was misrepresented? I found nothing claimed. It would only be, then, the context, which was clearly speculative, that Farquhar might be undergoing a “conversion,” clearly presented with some evidence of this, but not a claim that he was a “supporter of the Atkins Diet.” (As an example, he might have been acknowledging the possibility that Atkins “worked,” for weight loss, but then still be unconvinced that Atkins was safe — which was a common comment on the research results coming out by 2002 or so that Atkins did work as well or better than other diet recommendations, that it had not been proven to be safe.
The irony in all this was that massive health recommendations to avoid cholesterol in the diet (Eggs Bad), and fat, originally all fat, only later it became saturated fat, when the obvious result of that advice would be an increase in carbyhydrate consumption, were made without any showing that this was safe, and if Taubes is right — and he’s not far off, I suspect — the cost of that was millions of premature deaths. Millions. The consequence of not distinguishing solid science from weak inference and politics.
Still on the CSPI post:
Farquhar did give more detail to CSPI:
Taubes’s article ends with a quote from Farquhar, asking: “Can we get the low-fat proponents to apologize?” But that quote was taken out of context. “What I was referring to wasn’t that low-fat diets would make a person gain weight and become obese,” explains Farquhar. Like Willett and Reaven, he’s
worried that too much carbohydrate can raise the risk of heart disease.
“I meant that in susceptible individuals, a very-low-fat [high-carb] diet can raise triglycerides, lower HDL [‘good’] cholesterol, and make harmful, small, dense LDL,” says Farquhar.
Farquhar is agreeing with Taubes much more than disagreeing. Taubes did not claim what he is objecting to. It is true that one could synthesize that. The question still stands. Low-fat proponents did not clarify the point and clarify that to be sustainable, low-fat must mean high carb, and they did not limit the advice, nor, in fact, was it based on study of low-fat diets.
Where Taubes differs from Farquhar is in an understanding that carbs are more dangerous than previously recognized, not confined to particularly susceptible individuals. The real issues are quite complex, but yellow journalists and pseudoskeptics make it very simple: there are cranks and fringe believers on one side, and experts and scientists on the other, and if a scientist is on the “crank” side, Q.E.D., they are cranks. Reality doesn’t matter, only opinions.
Carbohydrates are not what has made us a nation of butterballs, however. “We’re overfed, over-advertised, and under-exercised,” he says. “It’s the enormous portion sizes and sitting in front of the TV and computer all day” that are to blame. “It’s so gol’darn obvious—how can anyone ignore it?” “The Times editor called and tried to get me to say that low-fat diets were the cause of obesity, but I wouldn’t,” adds Farquhar.
This is, again, remarkable. So there were fact-checkers at the New York Times, editors who reviewed articles, and Farquhar can read their minds, what they “wanted.” In what Taubes reported, he gave Farquhar’s opinion, apparently reasonably fairly.
Farquhar is weird, my summary. He knows enough to suspect that Taubes might be right, but doesn’t want anyone to know, and his alternative idea is that the problem is enormous portion sizes and lethargy, an idea which Taubes traces back to early origins and intensely deconstructs, with massive data. Cause and effect have been completely confused. There is an obesity epidemic. What caused it? There is an obvious suspect, but there is an attempt is to erase the evidence with a lot of hot air.
I think this topic is important, too important for anyone to sit back and trust anyone without verification. When I started to see Smith going after Taubes, I decided to buy the rest of his books. I just finished Why We Get Fat, and next is The Case Against Sugar. Notice that the title is not Proof that Sugar is Evil. As to why we get fat, Taubes cites centuries of research. Talk about quote-mining, it appears that when the “consensus” was being formed, countless studies and a great deal of evidence was ignored, and as contrary evidence appeared, it was always explained away, even clear and strong evidence that something was off about “mainstream” thinking.
Again, the CSPI article, about the misleading claims.
CLAIM #1: The experts recommend an Atkins diet.
TRUTH: They don’t.
The reality: some do and some don’t, and this is obvious. The article, however, simply did not make the claim stated. Instead, it talks about a “small but growing minority have come to take seriously what the low-carb diet doctors have been saying all along.” It talks about researchers starting to actually study the Atkins diet, and some early results from that. I could find no actual recommendation from any expert, and Taubes was not dispensing advice. So the CSPI article is misleading.
An Atkins diet is loaded with meat, butter, and other foods high in saturated fat. Taubes implies that many of the experts he quotes recommend it. Here’s what they say:
Atkins is an ad libitem diet for protein and fat. It only restricts non-fiber, nutritive carbohydrates. Atkins did not specify saturated or unsaturated fats, and in the early days. the l0w-fat opposition to Atkiins did not discriminate, all fats were considered bad.
So an Atkins diet is only “loaded” with fat if that is what the person wants to eat. Taubes, in his later work, strongly advises against eating more than appetite. However, ultimately, Taubes’ conclusion from review of the evidence is that saturated fats are not, in general, harmful, and may even be cardio-protective. But that goes against the opinions of many!
I still remember buying margarine because the propaganda was that it was better for us than butter. This was everywhere, my adult life experienced the full force of the “anti-fat” crusade. I trusted my doctor and did not actually research the issue, so I reduced fat, and began, for the first time in my life, at about 40, to be a pasta-eater. What Taubes “implies” is in the mind of the reader. That statement, though, is a retreat from what is in the headline. It is just “many,” instead of being a blanket statement about experts. That is still misleading: Taubes was clear that this was still a minority. So the error was?
It’s clear: In 2002, “Atkins” was still a synonym for “dangerous quack fad diet, it doesn’t work except for a little while, while you lose water, it gives you bad breath, constipation, you lose weight only because the diet is so boring that you eat less, etc., and you will die from the fat clogging your arteries.”
That “artery clogging” trope I remember from the CPSI Nutrition Action newsletters. When they would describe how much fat was in a MacDonald’s hamburger with french fries, it was always prefaced with “artery-clogging.” They may have convinced that company to replace lard with trans-fats, which switch had no basis in science, only the assumption that trans fats were either safe or less harmful than saturated fats. (I think the idea was that trans fats are liquid at room temp, whereas saturated fats tend to congeal, so the idea that they could clog arteries seems to make sense, until we realize that fats do not actually enter the bloodstream as such.
According to Taubes, Harvard University’s Walter Willett is one of the “small but growing minority of establishment researchers [who] have come to take seriously what the low-carb-diet
doctors have been saying all along.” True, Willett is concerned about the harm that may be caused by highcarbohydrate diets (see “What to Eat,” page 7). But the Atkins diet? “I certainly don’t recommend it,” he says. His reasons: heart disease and cancer. “There’s a clear benefit for reducing cardiovascular risk from replacing unhealthy fats—saturated and trans— with healthy fats,” explains Willett, who chairs Harvard’s nutrition department. “And I told Taubes several times that red meat is associated with a higher risk of colon and possibly prostate cancer, but he left that out.”
Again, no misrepresentation, because Taubes did not claim that Willett endorsed the Atkins diet, and because of the heart disease concerns, it could have been unethical to do so, until and unless he became convinced that the heart disease and cancer risks were red herrings. That is a concern about red meat, and the Atkins diet does not require red meat, at all. It merely does not forbid it. As to the claim about an association with cancer, association is the weakest of evidence, unless it is quite strong. Is it? CSPI doesn’t verify this, because they are not interested in reality, but in promoting their decades-old agenda, all the while claiming some reprehensible agenda on the part of Taubes.
I looked this issue up. I don’t trust the official organizations, from years of reviewing what they recommend, I know (independently from Taubes) that these organizations can develop conflicts of interest and, for whatever reason, do not do what I’d hope for them: facilitate genuine scientific consensus, while delineating where there is still a level of reasonable controversy. The Cochrane Collaboration was intended to be that. How successful they have been, I’m not sure. There are difficulties in doing this, and organizations tend to become corruptible if precautions are not taken early on, and maintained.
In any case, what I found was mostly very unspecific, with only vague claims that conflate association with risk. The official cancer organizations tell us their conclusions, but do not reference what they were based on. How difficult would it be to have a page for those interested with sources and more detail about the recommendations, limitations, etc. I do not trust organizations that come to strong conclusions, of major import, but do not disclose how they arrived at them. I have seen far too much to naively believe that being “nonprofit” somehow immunizes them to bias. I have seen the opposite, too many times (and even as a board member of a nonprofit organization, a free clinic, very noble, very good, and easily corrupted).
(Non profits have executives who are often very highly compensated, and these organizations must raise operating funds, and if they make recommendations not to the liking of those who support them, what happens to that support? This is simply ordinary social function, not a conspiracy theory. If a nonprofit recommends what is contrary to general opinion, it can be devastating to their support. We need organizations that are truly supported by those they serve, the public, but mostly the public is asleep.)
This was the best, and could reward more study. I am reminded of the flawed epidemiological studies that set of the whole anti-fat crusade. The risk of cancer from red meat, appears, at first glance, to be quite small, as absolute risk, and in real decisions about diet, what I need to know is absolute risk, to compare, for example, with the risk of obesity, which is very, very risky. If an Atkins diet is more effective at controlling obesity, that could totally outweigh the cancer risk.
There are some recent papers on the protective effect of sun exposure. When this is pointed out, the risk of skin cancer is always brought up, and I’ve seen a generation of people become sun-averse because of all the propaganda about skin cancer. Turns out that if all-cause death rates are considered, sun exposure is associated with a lower death rate. Skin cancer can be caused, but most skin cancers are relatively easily treated, not fatal. Narrow analysis of data on one disease can generate very misleading recommendations.
CLAIM #2: Saturated fat
doesn’t promote heart disease.
TRUTH: It does.
Because we say so. Really, the evidence on this is very weak, at best.
“Fifty years of research shows that saturated fat and cholesterol raise LDL [‘bad’] cholesterol, and the higher your LDL, the higher your risk of coronary heart disease,” says Farquhar
Is Farquhar to be trusted? This is supposedly the “Center for Science in the Public Interest.” Someone who claims “fifty years of research” with no references is unreliable. Farquhar, from what he said to Taubes, not contested, cannot be trusted to reveal what he actually understands and considers possible, but is determine to protect himself, so determined that he errs badly, as he should have known. I understand why Taubes became so noplussed about Bad Science in the field.
Farquhar is repeating ideas, relied on by CSPI as if “fact,” that I think were obsolete by that time, but that certainly are now. Cholesterol in the diet does not raise blood cholesterol, at all. Hence the older advice to avoid egg yolks, high in cholesterol, has been withdrawn. The evidence on LDL is complicated, and studying the effect of saturated fat is difficult. Under some conditions, people with higher LDL appear to have a lower risk of all-cause death.
If we read that section of the CSPI article carefully, they are talking about relative strength of evidence, which can be quite subjective. Basically, the question is controversial, but they take one side and call it “Truth.” This is the behavior of fanatics, which I concluded they were long before I became aware of low-carb diets. They quote another supposed expert, who uses clear scientific terms like “good” and “bad.” Bad sign.
CLAIM #3: Health authorities recommended a low-fat diet as the key to weight loss.
TRUTH: They didn’t.
Ah ha ha, ah ha ha ha ha. This is a huge red herring. Some did, and the net impact of the recommendations, when they tricked down to my doctor, was to go on a low-fat diet. It was not for losing weight, it was over concerns about cholesterol. This is all about interpretation of what the health authorities recommended, where much of it can be ignored in favor of recommendations that can be interpreted differently.
I see again and again on this page that Taubes was “wrong” because what he pointed out as being an unscientific consensus among health authorities is contradicted by health authorities. The implication was of extensive misquotation and misinterpretation, and they failed to show that. They are misleading their readers, in order to establish that they have been right all along. This is not “science in the public interest,” it was far from it. It was political and self-interested activism.
CLAIM #7: The Atkins diet works because it cuts carbohydrates.
TRUTH: If the Atkins diet works, it’s not clear why.
Well, this is clear: this is an example of how they present opinions as “Truth.” “Not clear” is a judgment, an assessment, indicating confusion. Who is confused? That’s left out, it is presented as if it were an objective fact. Again, very common for fanatics.
The Atkins Nutritional Approach (calling it a “diet” is somewhat misleading) does one essential thing: it encourages the person to monitor the carbohydrates they eat, by reading labels and the link, and to limit those carbs, exempting fiber, and to follow appetite and common sense about everything else. There are indeed speculations, and attempting Atkins low-fat is strongly discouraged, and probably quite dangerous, because the only other possibility is protein, and high-protein, low fat diets are very dangerous. The Atkins approach works for many people, that’s obvious, it’s really not debatable. It can work long-term (because the diet allows thorough enjoyment of food, I have never become bored with an LC-HF diet). Today, I have been seriously restricting carbs, I normally keep them low, but I wanted to see what would happen with zero carbs. I commonly have two meals a day. So for the first meal, I had a 6 oz ribeye steak, lightly broiled. Delicious. For a second meal, I’m still eating it, I savor it, a piece of sushi-quality tuna, thawed from flash-frozen, 4 oz, eaten raw with no-sugar soy sauce. Delicious!
(My other nourishment for the day is heavy cream in two cups of coffee. On other days, I eat eggs (sometimes with a single piece of toast and butter, about 10 grams of net carb), vegetables such as Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Salmon — broiled with parmesan cheese sprinkled on it, which browns like breading would, and I have a wide variety of foods in my cupboards, food that makes my mouth water when I think about eating them, and that I find thoroughly satisfying. I melt butter on the vegetables and sprinkle them with Parmesan.)
So then, as to an alleged danger:
The problem: All the protein that Atkins recommends leads to acidic urine.6 “And there’s no dispute that an acid urine leaches calcium out of bones,” says Blackburn.
What this shows is that Blackburn has no clue what he’s talking about. This is an old canard about Atkins, that it is a high-protein diet. It is not, unless someone cuts carbs and tries to go low-fat. Atkins diets tend to be moderate-protein. As Taubes points out in How We Get Fat, there are cultures where the diet is almost all meat, and in those cultures, strong effort is put into eating as much fat as possible, it is preferred. These people did not have the diseases of civilization until processed foods were introduced to them. Someone doing Atkins’ approach may use ketostix or equivalent urine test strips. I’ve done that many times, the purpose is to verify that one is actually burning fat for fuel. The ketone levels I saw were on the order of 15 mg/DL, occasionally as high as 40, which is considered “moderate.” Ketoacidosis is what they are talking about, a complication of diabetes, and the ketone levels can be on the order of 150-250.
Too much protein in a diet is known to cause health problems. This can arise with an Atkins diet if one eats lean meats, avoiding fat. In general, making major changes in diet, I recommend medical supervision. That does not necessarily mean doing what the doctor says, but communicating about what one is doing, and listening to the doctor, as well as the other side of it, the doctor listening to you. Doctors are constrained by standard of practice, but if one learns how to ask questions, it is possible to encourage a doctor to say what they really think, and, as well, how they what they know, and where they don’t know the answers to questions. A good doctor will admit ignorance, and will, naturally, tell you what the standard of practice is and, if asked, what they think about it.
There is no substitute, though, for becoming informed oneself, there is so much misinformation out there — including misinformation promoted by “experts.” Read the studies! Read the critiques, if it matters for your health, become familiar with the arguments, and then make your own choices, taking responsibility for your choices. That is general advice on how to live, not just about diet and cholesterol and statins.
In this case, my choice is clear: CSPI is full of what the body rejected. They are absolutely not to be trusted.
Okay, but Smith cited five sources for his claim. Impressive! Must be true then. Not. The number of sources matters far less than the reliability of the sources, and we already expect, from other sources, that Taubes is going to be criticized up and down, right and left, and inside and out, for any perceived defect in his articles, which is to be expected when one challenges what amounts to religious belief disguised as science.
This is a blog post by someone who calls himself an “expert.” Not particularly a good sign. This source, being a blog, was rejected on Wikipedia, absolutely inappropriate there. (And I see an IP edit, rather obviously Smith, reverting the removal, using a Tor node. Because of context, this was certainly Darryl Smith, first edit I have found that was him, there, after the “leaving” claim. But Smith is asserting this as a criticism, which it is.
This is an interesting review, but it boils down to a complaint that The Case Against Sugar is a case against sugar, instead of a neutral scientific review. Guyanet, the blogger, deserves much more attention that I would give him here. Smith in the text that he sourced with five references, actually made three claims:
- misrepresenting scientific data
- quoting medical researchers out of context
- to support his biased low-carb agenda.
Guyanet would be expert on some scientific data, at least (and does write like an expert). On that point, though, he accuses Taubes, not of misrepresenting the data but of cherry-picking, not reporting all the possible relevant information. Quoting out of context is not supported by this source. Guyanet does claim this is coming from a biased personal agenda, but he does not really determine it, and he is not an expert on journalistic psychology. In the book reviewed, Taubes is acting as a book author, continuing a theme, as a result of personal conclusions developed in approaching the topic as a journalist. So I will want to examine Guayanet more closely. He cites another source as a second expert review. Okay, following Guayanet’s thinking, this would be the Defense against Taubes’ prosecution. So who is the judge and jury?
Well, someone who needs to know. And I need to know, so that’s me. I will take my time in deliberations.
And then I find that Guyenet is offering his own “lose weight program.” Basic is free, Pro is only $9.;99 per month. Hey, a Guy has to make a living!
The second expert is intensely involved in conflict with Taubes, over a story that will be told as part of all this. These are not functioning as neutral experts. But Guyenet does point out good things about the Taubes book, he simply advises taking it with salt, which is ironic, because Taubes also, before getting involved in the very hairy controversy over fat and obesity and heart disease, also debunked myths about salt for Science magazine.
I also advise healthy skepticism, that does not depend on authority, other than realistically, understanding that authorities can be, literally, dead wrong. Choose authorities carefully, then trust and verify! I’ve learned with doctors to become informed so that I can ask informed questions. If I don’t know what questions to ask, and so I don’t ask, I usually get no answers, just “advice.” If I ask ignorant questions, I get answers designed to communicate with someone who is ignorant. Funny how that works!
The third source,  is another blog, an example of “opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.” This is total fluff, an echo of the CSPI post, only 14 years later. I am far from inspired to read it in detail (quite differently from Guyenet, who at least raises issues of interest.
The fourth source,  is Big Fat Fake / The Atkins diet controversy and the sorry state of science journalism. by Michael Fumento. The site is heavy with intrusive ads that make it hard to read the page. This is quite old, 2003. He claims, like some others, that Taubes only presented one side of the issue (in a newspaper article, clearly limited for space, with Taubes basically using the opportunity to raise a question. He did not write: “It’s all been a big fat lie,” but “what if?”
My introduction to Taubes on diet was Good Calories, Bad Calories, which is voluminous and heavily referenced. Did he cherry-pick there? Perhaps. Telling all sides of a story can be a formula for creating books that nobody will read. All authors will do it, at least all successful authors. But that’s not the end, if we have a free society. Others can write, and then other still can review and assess, and ultimately reviews appear in journals that are dedicated to science and not to supporting orthodoxy. It can take decades, sometimes more. Anyway, Fumento has:
There is a nugget of truth in Taubes’ criticisms of establishment dietary fat advice. Well-meaning but misguided health officials and health reporters, joined by opportunistic anti-fat diet book gurus, have convinced much of the public that the major culprit — perhaps the only culprit — in obesity is dietary fat. Avoid fat, we were told, and you won’t get fat. Given license to eat as many calories as we wanted from the other nutrient groups, many of us have done exactly that. This goes far to explain why almost one-third of us are obese and almost two-thirds of us are overweight. But even here Taubes is no pioneer; the damage caused by fat-free fanaticism was pointed out long before. (See, for example, my own 1997 book, The Fat of the Land.)
He is agreeing with Taubes’ central point. Taubes also states, over and over, that his ideas are not new, and credits older sources, going back into the 19th century. Taubes, however, has been very effective in his “pointing out” of what was known for a long time. Atkins based his nutritional approach on scientific research (deficient, to be sure, but as well-founded as what became the wide-spread and heavily-promoted guidelines, and common medical opinion that rather rapidly turned upside down with inadequate evidence. When I told my doctor about my first experience with Atkins, he took me into his office and pulled a book from the shelf, a book from the 1920s about diabetes, in which it is explained that many cases of diabetes (meaning type two) can be resolved by a diet that avoids starches and sweets, and for others, there is insulin (which was fairly new then). Later, diabetics were sold the idea that they could eat anything they wanted as long as they took insulin. This was terrible, terrible advice, and I suspect it had commercial motives behind it. However, he goes on:
Moreover, the Atkins-Taubes thesis of “fat won’t make you fat” encourages obesity in a similar way: It offers carte blanche for consuming limitless calories, only this time swapping carbohydrates for fat. Taubes made that swap while presenting a far less scientific case than is presented in an Atkins infomercial.
This is unrealistic, imagination. People eating a high-fat diet simply don’t consume “limitless calories” unless they force-feed themselves and continue eating beyond appetite — which is quite unpleasant! Fat satiates. The point of the Atkins diet is that, setting aside carbohydrates, appetite will normally restrict how much we eat. Whether Taubes “insulin hypothesis” is correct or not, when I went on a low-carb diet, hunger disappeared. I found that, once in ketosis, burning fat, I simply did not get “hungry” in the same way as when I was eating carbs. That’s what Atkins and Taubes predicted, and this story is repeated by many, many people who have tried Atkins for long enough to go into ketone metabolism. One doesn’t get hungry, that sense of an urgent need. Rather, one continues to eat for various reasons, some useful, some not so useful. One eats for pleasure, and Atkins allows, essentially, most of my favorite foods from childhood. One eats for health, choosing foods for nutritive value, and one eats for habit, I have called it an oral addiction. Gotta put something in my mouth!
And if I don’t have low carb snacks available, I’ll fudge on the diet. A few bean chips, high fiber, but nice and crunchy …. and I keep eating them. Just another won’t make that much difference. . . . This is all very familiar, since I spent a lot of time studying addiction.
Very important for an Atkins diet: have food available that will satisfy. To satisfy the desire for “crunch,” the best thing I have found is crackers made from flaxseed. I pretty much have to make them myself.
Bottom line, Fumento didn’t understand the Atkins approach. It does not encourage “limitless calories.” It encourages appetite-limited calories (which requires discipline with regard to oral addictions, which is not difficult, once it is distinguished for what it is). I have never enjoyed food as much as since I started Atkins, and quantities are quite limited. I simply eat food that I enjoy tremendously, and it satisfies me. If someone is not satisfied on an Atkins diet, something is missing, and I’d recommend consulting with experts. At the very least, there are forums where questions can be asked, and experts do reply.
Consider this experimental science, where each person can test and find out what works for them. I found forums.lowcarber.org/ very useful, over a decade ago, I haven’t looked lately. Remember not to trust anything just because it is on the internet, but consider suggestions as being ideas to investigate. Find out!
(The idea that there is one diet best for everyone is probably quite incorrect. Taubes makes this point in What Makes Us Fat, we differ genetically, there is variation. And studies and statistics will not tell us what is best for us, they can, at best, give some guidelines, possibilities.)
Fumento deconstructs the CSPI objections to Taubes, the claimed misrepresentations.
“I thought [Taubes’] article was outrageous,” Reaven says. “I saw my name in it and all that was quoted to me was not wrong. But in the context it looked like I was buying the rest of that crap.” He adds, “I tried to be helpful and a good citizen, and I ended up being embarrassed as hell. He sort of set me up.” When I first contacted Reaven, he was so angry he wouldn’t even let me interview him.
But his position on Atkins was all over the Internet in interviews posted long before Taubes talked to him. Do “low-carb diets like The Zone [by Barry Sears] and Atkins work?” one asked. Answer: “One can lose weight on a low-calorie diet if it is primarily composed of fat calories or carbohydrate calories or protein calories. It makes no difference!”
I find it rather obvious what happened. Reaven was attacked by colleagues for appearing to agree with Atkins, which was rank heresy. It makes no difference is the calories-in, calories-out concept that is commonly asserted as basic physics, which is misleading, as Taubes has amply explained. There is the controversial issue of metabolic advantage — which Reaven was denying, without evidence. There is a complex interplay between insulin levels and appetite and “energy.” If it doesn’t matter what kind of diet one eats, as long as calories are low, how about eating something that will satisfy hunger with fewer calories? If it is fat, the argument always was, fat is calorie dense, compared to carbs. But it is also more satisfying, and the idea of eating too much fat actually makes me feel sick. But carbs? This is the common wisdom about “Chinese food,” the commercial restaurant kind, which is often high carb. Eat it and you are hungry an hour later. The mechanism for that is obvious. Fat has no such effect.
The fifth source is another blog, title in all caps, GARY TAUBES IS A BLOWHARD. The blogger seems to think like Rats. He covers a Taubes blog post on the “red meat cancer” issue. In fact, it’s more about Zoe Harcombe. Nuff said. Why should I even read a blog that is so obviously a personal attack, not about the science.
His about page has “So who the hell are you and why should I even listen to your stupid podcast?”
Indeed. He says nothing to indicate why, at least not on the subject of Taubes. He has a BS in Nutrition and an MS in the same, but he is young and I see no clue that he actually understands the issues — unlike Guyenet. It’s appropriate that Smith cited him, because his thinking is like that of Smith: grossly oversimplified, defending I Am Right by claiming Someone Else is Wrong. There is one point he raises that I intend to check, because that issue of red meat interested me, and I wondered what Taubes had to say about it, and he has links. I noticed problems with the conclusions when I looked at what might be the same paper. This is also a blog. The author does not make his identity clear, but appears to be Seth Yoder.
So, reflecting the spirit of opinionated blogging that is amply demonstrated in the cited post:
SETH YODER IS A SELF-IMPORTANT ORIFICE FOR WASTE DISPOSAL
This is an issue of extreme importance, affecting millions of lives. People are being accused of being “murderers” for stating their opinions, including journalists and scientists, and it is possible (there is evidence, enough to “indict,” if not to convict) that mainstream advice has caused millions of unnecessary deaths. Some think it is proven, but there is always the question of who is the judge and jury. And in that context, and on that topic, someone who has done an incredible amount of work, whether or not is conclusions are correct, stimulating and facilitating genuine scientific investigation, is condemned as a “blowhard.”