I haven’t been more excited, while at the same time dreading the process of writing the review for “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. I don’t dread writing it because it is a bad book, but rather because of the fact that this is such a good and important book, and I feel that my writing won’t do it the justice it deserves. I guess I am showing my hand a little early in a review on how I feel about the book, but please read on to see why I feel this is must read for everyone.
It took Gary Traubes just over five years to write this book and it shows with the wealth of information and science that is packed into this book. It also felt like a labor of love in reading the book. Not only is this a large book, but it can be very technical at times. Not so much so that I didn’t understand what the author was saying, but detailed enough that there were times I felt I needed to slow down to grasp everything he was saying. My life has been very busy as of late, but even in the hustle and bustle of life it is rare that a book will take me almost two months to read like this one has. I have also wrestled with how to review this book. I could review the book in such a way that covers the main talking points throughout the book, but even if I did that it would create a review that is so long you might as well read the book for yourself. I could also review it by giving a very high overview of the book, but then I run the risk of making this book seem so basic that no one would want to read it. So I have decided to settle somewhere in between, with the hope to write on some of the issues discussed in this book in more detail in later posts.
I think the easiest way to accomplish this is by posting the ten “inescapables” the author took away from researching this book that he wrote in the epilogue of this book, and then giving more detail where I can to give the claim some “meat”. So here we go:
“As I emerge from this research, though, certain conclusions seem inescapable to me, based on the existing knowledge:
1. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.”
For decades the medical, fitness, and diet world have been preaching that fat is the bane of all sorts of evil within the body. This is the reason why people become obese and die from things like heart disease. This message is starting to die off as science is showing that this just isn’t true. It is hard to find someone now who will say that eating fatty foods is what will make you fat. As science has shown that our bodies can process, and need, fats within food their message has changed from the fat making us fat, to the calories in the foods making us fat. But more on that later.
Sadly though, fatty foods are still touted as the cause of all sorts of heart disease. If someone suffers from a heart attack then the are told they need to cut the red meat, lower their blood cholesterol, and so on. The problem is science just doesn’t back this up, or if it does it is because it lowers the risk of heart attacks by 1-2%. What they fail to tell you though is that while it might lower the chance of getting a heart attack it raises the risk of other types of diseases by as much as 10-20%. Just like the drug industry, the side effects may not always be worth the “cure”.
There were two different studies that stuck out to me in the book. The first was a study that took place in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. The scientist took two different mental institutions and put one on a low fat, higher carbohydrate diet, while letting the other one continue to eat more fatty meals. This study took place for around a decade and the results were not what the scientist thought they would be. While both mental institutions had about the same amount of deaths from heart disease, the group that was put on the low fat, higher carbohydrate diet died from cancer at an alarmingly higher rate.
The second study was one that showed that in both men and women that high blood cholesterol did not correlate to a higher chance in the person having heart disease. What was even more astonishing was (that at least in women) when a woman’s blood cholesterol was higher she had a lower chance of getting cancer.
“2. The problem is the carbohydrates in the diet, their effect on insulin secretion, and thus the hormonal regulation of homeostasis—the entire harmonic ensemble of the human body. The more easily digestible and refined the carbohydrates, the greater the effect on our health, weight, and well-being.”
This is starting to become more accepted within the health community as a fact. The rise in obesity in America, and throughout the world, is directly proportional to the amount of carbohydrates in the person’s diet. The problem is no two people are the same. You could have two people, one which is lean, and the other which is obese, and they could both have the same lifestyle and diet. The difference is their genetics. The obese person most likely is much more sensitive to the insulin their body produces, or their body produces loads of insulin.
The author wrote about one study in the book in which different animals were inject with small amounts of insulin and started to store much more body fat. If this holds true in humans, then if we increase our insulin levels even slightly (which happens by eating more carbohydrates) then we to will start to store more body fat.
“3. Sugars—sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup specifically—are particularly harmful, probably because the combination of fructose and glucose simultaneously elevates insulin levels while overloading the liver with carbohydrates.”
As stated above, the correlation between obesity and carbohydrates is directly proportional, so is the skyrocketing of obesity in America and the amounts of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in the American diet.
“4. Through their direct effect on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease and diabetes. They are the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the other chronic diseases of civilization.”
This is one area that would take pages to write upon to do it justice, but I will attempt to “dumb it down”. In short, when a person’s insulin levels are constantly raised, either from a hormonal imbalance, a diet high in carbohydrates, or a combination of both, their fat stores increase. A lean person will store a little fat, burn a little fat, store a little fat, burn a little fat, and so on. When a person’s insulin levels are raised they will store a little fat, become hungry and eat more, store a little more fat, become hungry again, and so on. These fat store are what will cause all sorts or diseases within the human body which is a result of high insulin.
“5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating, and not sedentary behavior.”
For decades it has been said that a person is obese because they eat to much or don’t exercise enough. While both those things may help a person become more lean, it does not mean that it the root cause of their obesity. As stated above the root cause is most likely an issue of raised insulin.
“6. Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter, any more than it causes a child to grow taller. Expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss; it leads to hunger.”
The author would argue that eating excess calories is not what makes us fat, but we eat the excess calories because we are becoming fat. A child does not become taller and grow because he or she eats more, but they eat more because they are becoming taller and growing. He would argue the same holds true in adults when it comes to exercise and obesity. This is one area where I have changed my mind after reading this book. I will give more details into why later.
“7. Fattening and obesity are caused by an imbalance—a disequilibrium—in the hormonal regulation of adipose tissue and fat metabolism. Fat synthesis and storage exceed the mobilization of fat from the adipose tissue and its subsequent oxidation. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue reverses this balance.”
I couldn’t have said it better than him or added more to that statement, so I will leave it at that.
“8. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated—either chronically or after a meal—we accumulate fat in our fat tissue. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and use it for fuel.”
This is what we discussed in point #4.
“9. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. The fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.”
This is a logical conclusion which studies are starting to show more of. As we raise our carbohydrate intake we raise our insulin, as we raise our insulin we raise our fat stores, and on and on.
10. By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.
Another study that stood out to me in the book was one that was done on pigs. One set of pigs was given a diet high in fat and protein, while the second was given a diet high in carbohydrates. What was found was that both groups would eat until their bodies met their needs in fat and protein. This means the second group of pigs very large portions of their food, and more often. in other words, they were hungry more often.
Hunger has always been (as still is to an extent) a hard thing for scientist to figure out. Is it in our mind? Is is pain from our stomach contracting when it needs food? Whatever it is, it has been shown that people who eat larger amounts of carbohydrates become hungry more often and eat more frequently.
As I stated at the start this review, I found this book to be very important. It is rare that I read a book that will change my view on a subject as much as this one has. The biggest area my mind has been changed is in the area of calories. I very much fell into the camp that believed in the law of thermodynamics within the human body. A law which says we will become more fat if we consume more calories then we burn. After reading this book I am finding that not to be true. When I first got serious in my fitness journey the main thing I changed was my diet. I had always lifted weights and worked out hard, but I would eat whatever I wanted. Once I started counting calories I started to lose the excess fat and went from around 250 pounds down to around 215 pounds. I was a believer in calorie counting. That had to be where my success came from, right? Not so fast though. As I started to reflect on the types of foods I had cut out of my diet, and the types of foods I started to eat more of, my thinking fell much more in line with what Gary Taubes writes about in this book. I use to eat cereal for breakfast and many times as a snack at night. Lunch many times involved some sort of bread or a tortilla in a wrap. Ice cream was also an easy snack I liked. When I got serious I started to eat more eggs for breakfast and grilled chicken plain or on a salad for lunch. When I got hungry at night I started to eat more plain Greek yogurt. In other words I had cut A LOT of carbohydrates out of my diet and lost fat because of it.
In fact I am so confident in this theory that I started a little self experiment. For two weeks I would eat nothing but a diet high in fat and protein, and as low in carbohydrates as I could get. The diet would also be 500-1000 calories above the suggested caloric intake for my body mass ever day. I will write more on this later in a different post, but so far I am a week in and feel less hungry all the time, have actually lost a few pounds so far, and feel great!
Another great point the author made (and another reason for my self experiment) was the point of how we test our theories on dieting. We always take a person that is struggling from diabetes, or obesity, or whatever else, and see if we can come up with ways to “cure” them. We put someone that is obese on a diet that is low in calories, we make them exercise more, raise or lower their carbohydrate intake, and they lose weight and become more healthy. But what was the cause of their change? Was it the diet? Was it the lower calories? maybe it was the exercise? Scientist don’t have a good answer to which factor was the cause of their success. What they should be doing is changing just one of those factors in the person’s lifestyle at a time and see what the change is. Gary Taubes would argue that we need to take someone that is fit and see if the reverse is also true. We should should take a fit person see if they become more obese by raising the amount of carbohydrates they eat in their diet.
The only point of disagreement I have with the author is how he puts little importance on exercise when it comes to losing fat. This was a point my friend Jeff Barton made in his review of Gary Taubes’ other book “Why We Get Fat and What We Can Do About It”. I think we all know that person at the gym that shows up most days, works their butt off, but doesn’t seem to lose a pound of fat. I see that guy at the gym I go to regularly. He shows up with his liter of Diet Pepsi, works his but off, but is still just as obese as he was a year ago. If I had to guess he either has a diet high in carbohydrates or has a hormonal issue which keeps his insulin levels high a lot of times. Here is the deal, I don’t disagree with Gary that fat lose happens by lowering our insulin levels, what I do disagree with is that exercise can help in doing this. Iowa State University has done studies which have shown that exercise helps lower insulin levels and the effects of insulin. So, can you lose weight without exercise? Sure. The point is though that exercise can help do this quicker because of the effects it has on insulin itself.
This is by far the best book I have read not only this year, but possibly in the past 5-10 years. The book was a very enlightening book in this field that left me angry at times. The book could have been called “Good Science, Bad Science” and got the same message across. The science that has been preached by the FDA and American Heart Association isn’t only bad at times, but very well could be the cause of many people’s deaths. It was interesting to see why things like the food pyramid were around when I was little and why it is no longer there. Why we are told eggs are bad, then good, then bad again. In short it gave me a fire and passion to understand this topic in much more detail, because if the science is right, this book can save your life!
Here are a few resources if you are interested in learning more:
Bullet points of each chapter in the book
Gary Taubes’s website
Gary’s lectures which he has done on this subject