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Good Calories, Bad Calories

May 28, 2017

I just finished Gary Taubes’s first nutrition book, 2007’s Good Calories, Bad Calories. Unfortunately, that is a terrible title for what this book is all about. I’d heard of it before now, but I just figured it was some tweak on a calories-in-calories-out diet model.

I could scarcely have been more wrong. And I am so glad I picked this beauty up.

Good Calories isn’t even really a diet book. It’s a survey of the last 100+ years of nutritional research. Taubes walks us through the various hypotheses regarding the dietary causes of obesity, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses, and how experts’ answer to “what should we eat” has changed. Most thrillingly to me is how he walks us through the research supporting the hypotheses and the accompanying dietary guidelines for each. (Yes, I find a historical survey of the nutritional literature thrilling. Sue me.)

Spoiler alert: the research is rather second rate when it comes to the field of nutrition and the influences of our diet on the “diseases of civilization.” Saturated fat causing high cholesterol? Maybe, kinda. Cholesterol causing heart disease, diabetes, other illnesses? If you squint, you can kinda see something there, but not really. Carbohydrates the “healthy” macronutrient? Probably not–certainly not to the point of justifying recommending them as the vast majority of our calories.

I know those statements don’t represent 100% consensus already. Poking holes in them (or outright contradicting them) is nothing new to me. I guess what invigorated me about seeing the research framework laid out like this is that I now feel I have my head around the bases of why the official recommendations are what they are as well as why they might not be as solidly supported as they could be. It’s nice to have a big picture to work with, instead of a a lot of piecemeal, loosely related points of contention rolling around my head with nothing to link them.

It’s also quite freeing to see that the mainstream guidelines (like saturated fat > cholesterol/obesity > heart disease and calories in = calories out ) are not even very strongly supported by the research findings. I don’t have to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance of why does this supposedly work for everyone else but not for me? Turns out, no, it doesn’t really work for most other people either.

Not that we’re entirely certain about what does work, though. According to Taubes, there are good reasons to think that carbohydrates–especially sugar and refined carbs–are the much bigger driver of obesity, probably through their effects on insulin and other hormones. But a side effect of the status quo being so entrenched is that we haven’t been able to explore the kinds of rigorous studies we need to really get to the bottom of cause and effect when it comes to carbs either.

And that’s pretty much where he leaves it. Taubes does have two newer books, Why We Get Fat and The Case Against Sugar. I assume they look at the continuing accumulation of evidence and take the investigation further, and I can’t wait to read both.

But like I say, I’m feeling motivated to jump in and learn even more about this. Something about the way Gary Taubes is attacking this problem is really getting me going.

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