Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes

I'm on a roll with this book review stuff! :)  I actually read Good Calories, Bad Calories a few months ago and am just now getting around to writing up a 'report' on it.  It's so good for me to review it though.
The only bad thing about waiting a few months to put my thoughts into words is that initial awe has worn off.  At the same time, I've seen how it's affected my day-to-day more by waiting.  So hopefully I can remember and recapture some of what I learned, while also being able to share what has 'stuck'.

Gary Taubes is a science journalist.  His credits and background are impressive.  And his techniques, while not perfect, are very... scientific.  He seems to specialize in controversial science in regards to public interest.

I just found these 'notes' on the book.  If you want a shorter version of it-although I agree that you really should read the whole thing if you are able.  

This book, written in 2008, was very detailed and 'heavy'.  I must confess that a lot of it went over my head.  But I was able to retain enough to be impressed by it.  And I do hope to read it again and understand more the next time through.   His style of writing is very much what I enjoy.  Quite a bit of dry humor among some rather weighty discussion.  It is very long.  450 pages long.  But very well researched and riveting.

For me, it was basically the science behind what I already believed to be true in regards to nutrition and the body. And he had some great quotes all throughout the book.  I, of course, want to put all of them on here. :)

Taubes reason for writing: "The reason for this book is straightforward: despite the depth and certainty of our faith that saturated fat is the nutritional bane of our lives and that obesity is caused by overeating and sedentary behavior, there has always been copious evidence to suggest that those assumptions are incorrect, and that evidence is continuing to mount. "There is always an easy solution to every human problem, " H.L. Mencken once said-"Neat, plausible, and wrong."   It is quite possible, despite all our faith to the contrary, that these concepts are such neat, plausible, and wrong solutions.  Moreover, it's also quite possible that the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets we've been told to eat for the past thirty years are not only making us heavier but contributing to other chronic diseases as well."

The book is broken down into 3 parts.  Part I chronicles the 'Fat-Cholesterol Hypothesis'-that dietary, esp saturated, fat causes high cholesterol.  Part II follows the 'Carbohydrate Hypothesis' from the early 19th century where it began to the present dogma that it has become.  Taubes goes into great details about the scientific (and not so scientific) studies behind the various hypothesis.  I was amazed to see how politically motivated they were, esp considering the weak legs they stood on to begin with.  Ancel Keys seemed mostly responsible for the Fat-Cholesterol hypothesis. At first he was mocked for it, but somehow later managed to make it a 'scientific hard fact' that changed the way Americans ate.  Huh?!?  How did that happen?

Part III was basically a rebuttal to Parts I and II. He named it 'Obesity and the Regulation of Weight'.  He not only gave the political and scientific history behind a low-carb diet, but he also went into GREAT detail about the biochemistry behind it.  I kept shaking my head and saying 'fascinating'. Because, well, it was fascinating!

I am no scientist, I never will be.  God gave me some fabulous gifts with which to glorify Him with.  However, intelligence of that level is not one of them.  But, if it's a subject that I am interested in, I can generally grasp just enough of it to appreciate the complexity of it.  And generally wish, just a little, that I could grasp even more.  Because it's so... fascinating.

How anybody (esp intelligent people like molecular biologist) can believe that this incredibly intrinsic world just 'evolved' without an intelligent being is beyond me.  I acknowledge my simple-mindedness. But I really do think that when you study things like the body, and it's relation to the world, it takes a LOT more faith to believe in random chance then to believe in a higher being.  Even if it's not the God of the Bible that I believe in.

To briefly (and unfairly) recap the book: Taubes tied, with great scientific evidence, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, cancer, eating disorders, infertility, obesity and pretty much every other modern disease in America today, to our consumption of refined carbohydrates-mainly sugar and refined starches.  He gave anecdotal as well as scientific proof that they are the main culprits in our health crisis today. And he freed the much maligned fats and animal products from their unearned 'time outs'.

I was particularly impressed by:

1.  The studies he shared about weight loss.  A group of soldiers were put on a diet that was relatively high in calories (1400-2100 a day), but with very little fat, meat or dairy (p.252).  They all ended up psychotic or 'character neurosis', constantly dreaming of food, depressed, even suicidal. Later, Taubes told about a study that was done with a diet that was approx. 800 calories, but containing a high percentage of fat (sometimes 50%) and meat.  The results were amazing.  The subjects' weight evened out and they were not hungry or even mildly mentally disturbed. 

2.  My biggest fascination was in the studies and the chemistry behind 'adipose tissue', i.e. fat storage.  He explained in great detail, what happens to food once it enters the stomach.  Specifically how the various nutrients are released and used by the body.  The glands (hypothalamus and thyroid esp) are constantly monitoring and determining what cells need what as far as fat storage and energy.  When you eat protein, the nutrients are sent immediately into the blood stream.  The glucose is used by the cells for energy production and the adipose tissues are not 'fed'.  However, when carbohydrates are eaten, they first must go to the liver, where the glucose is released, along with the fatty acids.  This causes a change in the molecular structure of the glucose and releases the fatty acids, which is then picked up by the adipose tissues. Our genetics determine the location of our adipose tissue-hence the tendency for families to gain weight in similar areas.  The insulin levels change based on the blood sugar level and the level of glucose in the blood. All of this is absurdly simplified and does not do the subject justice.  If you are interested in more details-you MUST read the book. This is a great video that explains it better. My kids love it.

3. I wish he would have gone into more detail in regards to the different types of carbohydrates.  He did not differentiate much between soaked whole grains and white flour.  I'm thinking that they still have to go through the liver, and since our livers are so over-taxed as it is, and our systems so overrun with the chemicals and lack of good gut flora, even properly prepared grains are a problem for some people. My niece gets really hyper if she eats too many grains, even my soaked sourdough bread.  But I have such a hard time with that, since grains were eaten by man since creation (or at least the fall).  Either way, I'm more determined to feed my family less grains in general and try harder to feed us more fats and animal products.

4.  I was familiar with a number of the scientists' names and various studies that were mentioned.  It brought some cohesiveness and validity to what I've heard and  learned about the necessity of fat in the diet. 

Some quotes I enjoyed:

"The danger of simplifying a medical issue for public consumption is that we may come to believe that our simplification is an appropriate representation of the biological reality.  We may forget that the science is not adequately described, or ambiguous, even if the public-health policy seems to be set in stone.  In the case of diet and heart disease, Ancel Keys's hypothesis that cholesterol is the agent of atherosclerosis was considered the simplest possible hypotheses, because cholesterol is found in atherosclerotic plaques and because cholesterol was relatively easy to measure.  But as the measurement technology became increasingly more sophisticated, every one of the complicates that arose has implicated carbohydrates rather than fat as the dietary agent of heart disease."  p. 153

"The two most important conclusions in their (Journal of the National Cancer Institute-1981) analysis were that man-made chemicals-in pollution, food additives, and occupational exposure-play a minimal role in human cancers, and that diet played the largest role-causing 35% of all cancers, though the uncertainties were considered so vast that the number could be as low as 10% or as high as 70%." p. 210

"The prevalence of overweight in children six to eleven years old more than doubled between 1980 and 2000; it tripled in children aged eleven to nineteen." p.230

"The evidence for the failure of semi-starvation as a treatment of obesity hasn't stopped obesity researchers from recommending the approach.  The Handbook for Obesity...says that 'dietary therapy remains the cornerstone of treatment and the reduction of energy intake continues to be the basis of successful weight reduction programs', while also saying that the results of such calorie-restricted diets 'are known to be poor and not long-lasting'."  p.259
"The belief in physical activity as a method of weight control is relatively new, however, and it has long been contradicted by the evidence." p.259

"We have thrifty metabolisms when we are undernourished and spendthrift metabolisms when we're overnourished, so as to avoid excessive weight gain and obesity.  ...But the amount that they (our cells) actually metabolize is ultimately determined by the quantity and perhaps the quality of the nutrients delivered in the circulation.  This determination is made on a cellular and hormonal level, not a cognitive or conscious one." p.302 
"...Animal products contain all the amino acids, minerals, and vitamins essential for health...  A calorie-restricted diet that cuts all calories by a third, will also cut essential nutrients by a third.  A diet that prohibits sugar, flour, potatoes, and beer, but allows eating to satiety meat, cheese, eggs, and green vegetables will still include the essential nutrients, whether or not it leads to a decrease in calories consumed." p.456

 I want to put in so many more quotes.  But I must stop at some point, so that last one seems a very practical one to end on.
If you believe in a traditional, high-fat, low-carb diet, but wish you had more 'hard proof' for it, this is a must-read.  Some of it feels like wading through a quagmire, but don't give up, it's a great read until the very end.

Good stuff, eh?


  1. it is a facinating book, i'm in the process of attempting to read it all.

  2. I got about halfway through this one before I had to return it to the library. It was definitely very heavy, but very informative, and I'd recommend it to any 'skeptics' about real food.

  3. It was slow. I was impressed by the variety of studies and people that worked on things. Very often books have one study or one person that they quote (or quote others quoting the original person). I think this backs up what he is saying.

    As far as the grains go--not everyone is grain tolerant. While soaking will allow many people who don't tolerate grains to eat them, if there is a real sensitivity they may not be able to eat them. Dr. Campbell-McBride also talks about grain sensitivity in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome.