He went to Harvard and Stanford universities to become a scientist, but then Gary Taubes discovered investigative journalism. He had a bachelor’s degree in physics and was working on a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Stanford when he chose a different career path. He earned a master’s in journalism from Columbia University and began writing for Discover magazine. But it was a 2002 article in the New York Times Magazine that changed his trajectory. He challenged research backing the low-fat diet craze and concluded that a diet high in animal protein and fat was a better way to lose weight. Now 58 and the author of “Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It,” he is currently writing a book about the side effects of sugar on insulin and fat storage. His research uncovered older studies that support the benefits of an Atkins-style diet.
Have you ever had a weight issue?
I was a mediocre to poor Ivy League football player in college. I was a defensive lineman so I tried to be as heavy as humanly possible. At 6-foot 2, I could get up to 238 pounds, which was sufficient for Ivy League football [laughs]. When football ended, I went on a crash diet and got back to a reasonable weight for me, which was 210-215. I kept that through my 20s. I moved to California around 1988 from New York City and started putting on about 2 pounds a year despite eating what I thought was an ideal, healthy diet. This was Los Angeles, so a very low-fat diet. [I was] working out an average of an hour a day.
So by the time I was 40 I was probably back up to 230 pounds, but now effortlessly, now without trying as I was in college. I was never in danger of being obese although my BMI was high because, you know, I’m built like a linebacker. I was gaining weight and I assumed that was just the way things were.
What is the most common argument you encounter from proponents of the low-fat, no meat lifestyles?
The assumption has always been since the 1960s that this low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet was high in saturated fat from a lot of animal products and that is going to give you heart disease because the saturated fat is going to raise your cholesterol. One of my favorite quotes from 1965 in The New York Times was by Jean Mayer, who was the leading nutritionist in the country at the time. He said that for doctors who prescribe these diets it was the equivalent of mass murder. It was because of this belief that had yet to be tested in rigorous experiments that high-fat diets cause heart disease.
Doctors were saying you could eat as much as you want, just don’t eat carbohydrates -- you know, most famously Atkins. The idea is we all get fat because we eat too much. So if you are telling a fat person they can eat as much as they want, you are obviously a shyster who doesn’t care what happens and just wants to make money. So these diets were treated as quackery That was the assumption up until five or 10 years ago. I and other people have changed the arguments a bit. Studies have actually come out where you can tell people they can eat as much as they want of a high-fat diet and not only will they lose more weight than if they tried to watch their portion sizes on a low fat diet, but their heart disease risk factors also improve.
It is so ingrained that fat is bad, people find it hard to swallow, so to speak.
This is what got me into this field to begin with. When I was writing this cover story for the New York Times Magazine in 2002, I stumbled upon these five clinical trials that hadn’t been published yet. They had compared this low-carbohydrate, high-fat, eat-as-much-as-you-want diet to low-fat, calorie-restricted diets that the American Heart Association wants us all to eat. In all five studies, the Atkins [-style] diet did much better -- better heart disease risk factors and better weight loss, even though that is the exact opposite of what you would predict. That simple concept has determined the last 12 years of my life, much to my chagrin.
You have talked with T. Colin Campbell of “The China Study” and others who know these studies. So what is the reluctance?
I met T. Colin Campbell and I liked him. I specifically did not argue with him when we were both on this panel at a Mayo Clinic conference because I liked him so much. One of the arguments I have made recently in The New York Times and other places is the reason there is so much confusion is that it is too expensive to do the kind of experiments that we need to settle the issue. So instead we rely on sort of substandard evidence.
I know you have written about sugar. When looking at both diets -- protein-based and plant-based -- I wonder if it all boils down to insulin levels and the amount of sugar that is consumed.
That is one of the arguments we make. What all these diets have in common is they restrict refined sugars and grains, usually for the same reason. They elevate blood sugar and insulin levels and they appear to cause insulin resistance. So maybe all these different diets work for the same reason: They keep blood sugar levels even. They get rid of the offending carbohydrates.
Both of my books are basically arguments that refined grains and sugars are the cause of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and any diet that restricts them will be healthier. The question is are some diets more effective than others in keeping blood sugar and insulin low and could that differ between patient populations. Somebody who is naturally lean might be perfectly healthy on a carb-rich diet. But apparently those who are predisposed to obesity or diabetes, which is apparently a significant portion of the U.S. population, might be healthier on a diet that replaces carbohydrates with mostly fats.
How do you feel about so many of these studies being financed by food corporations?
That’s a double-edged sword. I spent nine months on this investigative article on whether or not salt causes high blood pressure. I don’t think it does. I concluded after nine months of research that the evidence didn’t support it. But nobody is going to study it unless they pay people. So they end up paying people to study it and then people say we studied it and decided the salt industry is right: Salt isn’t bad. Then people say, “Well, look who funded the study.”
Now we are saying sugar is toxic. I believe sugar is the primary problem with the modern diet -- sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. If the sugar industry wants balance, then they have to fund the study. It is a problem with how studies are funded in this country and how the research is done. It is very easy to get funding to do drug research and very hard to get funding to do diet research.
Do your wife and children follow your diet?
Lets say it’s a constant struggle. I hate to speak for my wife, but she mostly restricts carbohydrates and I think she would say because of that she is 20 pounds lighter than she would be otherwise. She looks gorgeous. My kids, I would say they consume a lot less sugar and a lot less junk food than their peer groups. I try to keep it to what our mothers fed us in the ’60s [laughs].
So more moderate.
Yeah, it’s a losing battle trying to keep kids away from all sugar. They get more than I would prefer, but a lot less than most of the other kids that they know. I am willing to live with that.
We should make one point if we are going to talk about my books. There is a fundamental argument about why we get fat and that the conventional wisdom is we eat too much. This has been since the 1950s in the United States. What I learned doing my research was that it was not the conventional wisdom prior to the Second World War. In Germany and Austria, where all the meaningful medical science was done in that period, scientists had come to conclude by 1940 that obesity was a hormonal disorder. After the war, nobody in Europe cares about obesity. The center of thinking on obesity in the U.S. becomes the Harvard School of Nutrition. We switch over to this idea that obesity is just about eating too much and exercising too little.
Who switched the thinking about obesity and weight gain?
It was the researchers themselves. A lot of these guys had fought in the war. They hated the Germans and they wanted nothing to do with them. Imagine if physicists had decided they were going to ignore all that the Germans and Austrians had learned about physics. We embraced it because we had bombs to build and a Cold War to fight, but in medicine we actually rejected [their] thinking.
In the 1960s, they realize that insulin pretty much controls and regulates the amount of fat you are going to store. You raise insulin levels and you store more fat. You lower insulin levels and you store less fat. We secrete insulin primarily in response to the carbohydrates in our diet, and sugar and refined grains in particular.
Diet doctors read the same scientific research I did 40 years later and they said, “Hey, look. It’s insulin and if it’s insulin, it’s carbohydrates. Let’s see what happens when you put someone on a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet.” The research community responds by saying it is quackery. All I have been doing since 2002 is saying, “I think those guys in the 1960s were right.”
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.