Book of the Month: Review of Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (Vintage)When I first picked up Good Calories, Bad Calories, I got the feeling I wasn’t in for a light read (perhaps the 2.2 lb weight tipped me off?). This book isn’t meant to be skimmed, and you may have noticed it took me two full months to wade through it (I also burned out two highlighters in the process). So, was it worth it?

The short answer: yes. If you’ve ever wondered how researchers came to the conclusions they did about health and nutrition during the last several decades, look no further. I was dumbfounded to read the real story behind why we are told to avoid butter like the plague and suck down fiber supplements like there’s no tomorrow. I knew these claims weren’t right, but I didn’t realize just how unfounded they were until now.

Taubes did a lot (and I mean a lot) of research for this book, and says he tried to approach the highly controversial subject of nutrition with as little bias as possible, which undeniably is not an easy task. His research is well cited and probably some of the most comprehensive work ever done, at least for a book intended for the masses.

Why We Think Saturated Fat is Bad

Taubes explores the myths and facts surrounding subjects like saturated fat, cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, modern disease, sugar, carbohydrates, and fiber. How did researchers determine dietary fat was bad for us? It would seem like the evidence must have been undeniable since it prompted authorities to recommend that every single American reduce their fat intake, but in reality the solid evidence they claim to possess is little more than a well-dressed delusion that manages to survive through fervid propagation, not factual proof. In fact, according to Good Calories, Bad Calories many dietary recommendations that exist today are based on evidence that is sketchy, incomplete or just plain fabricated.

The chapters I followed with the most intensity were those on hunger and obesity. Taubes is not interested in repeated the same tired "eat less, exercise more" mantra. He wants to examine fat gain at a biological level. According to Taubes:

“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.”

Blame the Carbs?

In the end, Taubes concludes that the theory that most needs to be tested at this point is the “carbohydrate hypothesis,” which is the idea that excess carbohydrates are to blame for modern disease and obesity as opposed to fat (or the calories-in/calories-out theory). Taubes explains this is because eating carbohydrates stimulates insulin production, which in turn tells the body to store fatty acids rather than burn them as energy.

While I agree this is an important piece of biochemistry, it’s somewhat simplistic as well. After all, the carbohydrate hypothesis fails to explain the traditional cultures who consumed diets high in carbohydrates and yet did not suffer from modern disease or obesity.

Taubes does make some effort to distinguish the idea that refined carbohydrates (particularly sugar and high fructose corn syrup) may be a principle factor behind the modern obesity and disease epidemic, but at the end of the book you walk away with the feeling that low-carbohydrate diets must be the answer to all our ills.

This is where Taubes and I part ways. I think his hypothesis is valid and his work commendable. However, I think the answer is more complex and likely includes other biochemical factors such as leptin and cortisol.

But truly, in a book with more than 450 pages of readable material I didn’t expect to agree with everything. And clearly Taubes embraces one of the most important dietary philosophies:

Our modern diet fails to sustain us in the way our ancestors’ diet successfully sustained them.

Good Calories, Bad Calories is not an easy read, but I personally felt the information in this book was pertinent to my own pursuits in the field of nutrition, so in that sense I'm glad I read it. However, for the general population, it's one heck of a long read and should probably be summed up in a more digestible way (which Taubes attempts in his next book, Why We Get Fat). You could just sit down and watch Fat Head and get the gist of many of the ideas from this book.

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