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Science Lessons from Gary Taubes and David Katz On The Obesity Epidemic

Read both published articles. Both have many merits if you maintain The Big Picture and just step off Your High Horse for a few minutes. This is what education is all about.

…But first, as an aside, gratuitous name dropping (my version of a message from sponsors). I exchanged an email or too with Peter Attia last week and told him, “tell Gary I’m not doing ‘XYZ thing,’ anymore;” that thing being what Gary scolded my ass over when he called me over right after I took this pic on the campus of Harvard at AHS12. Peter knowingly lafed back.

Gary Taubes
Gary Taubes

Some longer time readers might guess. Water. Bridge. Under.

I happened to hit the sac early last night, about 10:30, slept through with a single wakeup for a relief. And then, a few hours later at 5:15, I awoke to do what I often like…to just lay in peace for a while and think about what sort of blog I might love to write that day (conception, implementation, publish in hours…totally unlike book writing). But: blank. I’m so far gone into the book that’s scary approaching 400 pages with scary hundreds of refs (thanks Tim and Grace—our new science editor…a mention also for Gabriella Kadar, DDS as well, helping on a chapter about microflora other than the gut) that I find it difficult and curiously futile, even counter-productive, to put a lot into the blog. I’ll resolve & compromise. No serious worries after 6am.

Gary wrote in The New York Times (yea, again!): Why Nutrition Is So Confusing. Money quote, but just read the whole damn thing, or I’ll get pissed. It’s an uncharacteristically short piece, for Gary.

In 1960, fewer than 13 percent of Americans were obese, and diabetes had been diagnosed in 1 percent. Today, the percentage of obese Americans has almost tripled; the percentage of Americans with diabetes has increased sevenfold.

Meanwhile, the research literature on obesity has also ballooned. In 1960, fewer than 1,100 articles were published on obesity or diabetes in the indexed medical literature. Last year it was more than 44,000. In total, over 600,000 articles have been published purporting to convey some meaningful information on these conditions.

Dr. David Katz weighed in, and no matter your love of Gary, if you read all of Gary’s read David’s, too: Diet, Weight, and Health: Confused Only If You Want To Be! Here’s my assessment of the money quote, trying to be as fair as possible, given my own bias:

For now, let’s note the following. The advice to cut fat was intended to direct us to the naturally low-fat foods that existed at the time, namely vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, and lean meats. Does anyone doubt that if America ran mostly on such foods (rather than, as Madison Avenue seemingly now contends, donuts and coffee) our health would be much better? I do not. […]

I would argue we are not, and were not confused – we are, and were conflicted. We were, and are, active participants in a massive collusion at the level of our culture. We wanted to have our low-fat cake and eat it, too. In other words: we probably really knew all along that “low fat” advice really meant eat more mixed greens, but we WANTED it to mean: keep eating pastrami, and dilute the calories with low-fat cookies. And so we did. And here we are.

Gary admits to his bias in his piece (refined grains and sugar), and I’ll go out on a limb and say that that for Katz, probably processed food in general, implicitly.

Here’s what I like about Gary:

  1. He is annoyed by nutritional science in general. He cut his teeth catching people trying to scam hard science (cold fusion, if I recall). Hard science is beautiful in that it fully meshes with the scientific method so wonderfully; bringing up Karl Popper is yawn worthy.
  2. Hard science is the hardest thing to do, but is rewarded by a rather easy and objective payday qua method: It is very easy to dismiss bullshit right off the bat. hard scientists might entertain an hypothesis, but in those sciences (math, physics, chemistry, etc.) it’s rather elementary for those in the field to devise tests and if a few tests falsify the hypothesis, it’s move on time. Out of mind forever, save finding something wrong with testing method. 1+1=2 stuff.
  3. Such is not the case in nutritional science, ever. Not once I’ve ever seen. More on that in my conclusion.

I’ve been watching Gary forever and to me, his frustration is palpable. Yet, he is a conspicuously Big & Tall, thoughtful, and kind man. He’s pro. He thinks hard and long before he writes, quite unlike me. I have a daily, self imposed deadline. No excuse, no material comparison—and I’m not even sure “material” is the correct modifier.

David Katz; I don’t know much about, read a handful of articles here and there. Here’s what I like about his piece:

  1. It’s not really about restricting carbs or fat.
  2. It’s about real food (references to Pollan, etc.)

This part of it rather puts Gary to task, in my view, because both the low carb and low fat bullshit will be history, dead and buried, and you can mark my words on that. Everyone, long time ago ought to have dismissed it out of hand. “What, you want me to eliminate roughly a third of food and make up the difference with the other two in some curious way?”

Go fuck yourself!

That’s what everyone ought to have realized and verbalized. Times. Ago. Long.

Here’s what I find suspect, or gratuitously self-serving, about Katz’s piece though.

  1. It’s a plea for a full employment scheme for more research that his livelihood self-admittedly depends upon, all the while he asserts that we’ve really known the answer forever.
  2. No number 2.

I used to used to use the term “Grant Whore” a lot. Because, Gary scolded me on the campus of Harvard over the c-word (I think), it’s always on my mind as I write (…’what would Gary’s mom think’…yes, he invoked his mom in that scolding). It was good and gracious that Gary took the time to do that for me. He didn’t have to. Took me a few months but I took it to heart, eventually, mostly—with only the rarest relapse.

Gary Taubes and Bea
Gary Taubes and My Wife Bea

Physical scale. Gary is a Big Dude. Football Big.

I’ll have more to say, but to wrap it up for this nearly daily installment of FTA, I have read the full texts of hundreds of studies of the sort Dr. Katz’s livelihood depends upon, for about 6-7 years, now. Funny thing about them. Initially, they’re written in Greek. Keep reading them, and you lean Greek; Or, at least, enough to get by so you can order up a meal and get your utilities paid.

Here’s what I’ve noted:

  1. They always begin with “Little is known about….”
  2. They always end with “More study is needed….”

Gary mentioned in his piece that 600,000 published studies have been done.

Anyone care to bet me that there’s even a single lone one in 600k that says anything like.

  1. Opening: “We’re trying to disprove a hypothesis.”
  2. Conclusion: “Falsified. It’s total bullshit. Nothing more to see here, nor another penny to spend.” Keep looking, but look elsewhere.”

I’ll bet I Grok Gary better than you.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

29 Comments

  1. Vanner on February 10, 2014 at 14:30

    Ah…the long lived ethical battle between good science and the people with the check-book.

  2. Kate Berger on February 10, 2014 at 14:49

    ” Here’s another possibility: The 600,000 articles — along with several tens of thousands of diet books — are the noise generated by a dysfunctional research establishment. Because the nutrition research community has failed to establish reliable, unambiguous knowledge about the environmental triggers of obesity and diabetes, it has opened the door to a diversity of opinions on the subject, of hypotheses about cause, cure and prevention, many of which cannot be refuted by the existing evidence. Everyone has a theory. The evidence doesn’t exist to say unequivocally who’s wrong. “.

    Good point!

  3. GTR on February 10, 2014 at 14:54

    Notice that science uses “peer-review” instead of traditional quality control. Peer review means that within one filed one subgroup judges work of another subgroup.

    If both subgrups (producer and judge) are hoplesly incompetent then it means that the published papers are likely to be hopeless too (unless they copycat someone competent), as first – the producers are hopeless, then – the controlers are the same.

    The solution to this would be to introduce a professional quality control by people who specialize/study quality control, rather than “peers” from the same field. This may be either an additional layer/step of quality control – you can have both professional quality control first, then a peer review later, or to completly replace the old system.

    The presence of professional quality controllers would bring standarization in quality of work accross the fields, suddenly dietary experts would be held to the same work quality standards as quantum physicists, which would be a great service to the world.

    • Richard Nikoley on February 10, 2014 at 16:45

      “Notice that science uses “peer-review” instead of traditional quality control. ”

      While I’m no expert and I surely have not been privy, I imagine the difference between a peer group of nutritional scientists and a bunch of physicists.

      Think about it.



    • Richard Nikoley on February 10, 2014 at 17:02

      “The presence of professional quality controllers would bring standarization in quality of work accross the fields, suddenly dietary experts would be held to the same work quality standards as quantum physicists, which would be a great service to the world.”

      Sorry. GTR, and also referencing your previous para,I have to laf.

      The reason hard science is way better at this is because they simply can’t get away with saying ‘not a lot is known about 1+1, we’ve just spent three years sorting it out, we think it might =2, but more study is required and our next grant application is being drafted.’

      Either: they’re just pumping opportunists or, nutritional science is a sink and ought to be at least recognized as such and differentiated from hard science.



    • Harriet on February 10, 2014 at 19:30

      Sorry but most of the scientists I know are as committed to their own theoretical framework as all the rest. Just how committed depends on whether they are functioning on a committee where their further funding depends on it or whether its over a cup of tea in the staff room exploring hypotheses (when they are usually very flexible).

      Also as a fairly rigorous peer reviewer I was always miffed when I did a full critique of a paper (to help a possibly new researcher) only to find the paper was published as it was because one of the names on the paper was a big name in the field and so got away with publishing rubbish. Politics is politics in science and academia and we must never forget it.

      So while academic publications are a start we should never let our personal research be confined to their results or controlled by them when the data takes us elsewhere.



    • Richard Nikoley on February 10, 2014 at 21:16

      Harriet

      I might quote you on my follow up to this post.



  4. BrazilBrad on February 10, 2014 at 15:23

    Love this. See “thoughts” #1 to #4 towards the bottom.
    Attia on Fat flux…

    http://eatingacademy.com/weight-loss/how-to-make-a-fat-cell-less-not-thin-the-lessons-of-fat-flux

  5. EatLessMoveMoore on February 10, 2014 at 19:09

    Gary always seemed like the real thing, even if one disagreed with his conclusions. Why Evelyn took him on (and continues to take him on) so vehemently is beyond me. By not sticking with the obvious scammers like Jimmy, she unfortunately lost a potentially much larger audience.

    • Richard Nikoley on February 10, 2014 at 21:04

      Laf. Evelyn has the absolute largest audience she will ever have, which is not even a drop. Last I checked above 2.5 million on Alexa and I’ll bet 50% of her traffic is people like me checking in to laf. Nigel loves the place, last I saw. It’s perfect for him.

      Have you seen that Superhero shtick? I still laf when she ever writes “my readers.” That’s presumptuous. She properly ought to be saying, my guests, because it’s basically a dinner party.

      I don’t actually know if Evelyn is deluded, or too stupid to understand how much she missed her mark and nobody cares.

      You’re a fucktard, ELMM, even though, for one single time, you didn’t comment about Jimmy. I loath you and hope you get tired of my blog soon; fade away into the forgettable distance.



    • doogiehowsermd on February 10, 2014 at 22:55

      Actually Richard, I believe ELMM did comment about Jimmy – see the last sentence of ELMM’s comment. So the ELMM every comment refers to Jimmy record remains unscathed.



    • Richard Nikoley on February 10, 2014 at 22:58

      You’re right. Got exuberant for a second there but stand corrected.



  6. bornagain on February 11, 2014 at 02:32

    I miss Sean. I really do. ):

    • EatLessMoveMoore on February 11, 2014 at 19:01

      I know… Asked at his site if the breakup was for reals this time; got banned. Guess that was his answer.



    • Richard Nikoley on February 11, 2014 at 20:38

      No kidding?

      Wow.



  7. Doug on February 11, 2014 at 06:38

    We need a whole blog devoted to exposing the myriad levels of corruption througout the agro-pharma-media-govermenment-academic complex (catchy, isn’t it?).

    Especially the high level stuff, like where FDA officals go to work after they leave goverment, or the income sources of the guys who are at the top of Harvard’s research projects. Most have mutilmillion dollar “consulting” incomes from companies like Pfizer.

    That’s where the rubber meets the road for a lot of these genocidal crimes against humanity, like raising the “normal” guidelines for cholesterol and lowering them for blood pressure etc.

    • Harriet on February 11, 2014 at 14:23

      Hmmm… don’t get me started. This is one of my hobby horses. I decided I had to retire after my last contract expired after I had spent a whole year exploring the literature and finding that I could no longer work with my colleagues on the basis that they were enforcing the standard memes expected by the “offical version”.



  8. rs711 on February 11, 2014 at 09:38

    Excerpts from Katz’s rant (yes, angry rant).

    “we probably really knew all along that “low fat” advice really meant eat more mixed greens” – that has to be one of the weakest arguments I’ve seen in a while…

    “As a formally trained clinical researcher myself who has run a lab for nearly 20 years and published roughly 200 scientific papers” – why appeal to authority/credentials if your argument/reasoning is solid & verifiable? LAME

    “NEVER EVEN REDUCED OUR FAT INTAKE!” – happy to ignore the types of fat that replaced the ‘naturally’ occurring ones our grandparents ate? I thought so…

    “we increased our total calorie intake” – question is WHY? Katz is going around in circles —> ‘we’re fat because we eat more, we eat more because we’re fat, we’re fat because we eat more…..’ you get the idea. Again, GREAT contributions Katz! [sarcasm for those with an intact blood-brain barrier]

    “I would argue we are not, and were not confused – we are, and were conflicted” —> I am [confused]. I’m still trying to understand the Inuit & the Kitavans. I can try to guess at the subtleties between his intended distinction between ‘confusion’ & being ‘conflicted’…but this detracts from the argument, making me more……..confused, or conflicted? Damn.

    “Mr. Taubes is one of many New-Age nutrition Messiahs who have spawned a thriving cottage industry in iconoclastic messages” —> well that is simply an ad-hominem attack which calls for an equally measured response = bullshit.

    “We knew that “cut fat” meant eat more kale; we just pretended it didn’t” —> anyone know what kind of crazy home-grown he’s on? I’d love to pass one of those around…

    “Mr. Taubes and others like him- the iconoclasts out to save us from our confusion […] They can go on indefinitely under a veil of pseudo-erudition generating seemingly impressive answers to fatuous questions —-> Katz’s own book is called…? “DISEASE PROOF” Wow, just…wow

    Thanks for pointing to the article out RN, but my head hurts now and my faith in the “established nutrition/obesity researchers” has dropped lower still.

    • Tony K on February 11, 2014 at 11:17

      I read about half of Katz’s article before I couldn’t take anymore. While I think there is some truth that the food industry took the low fat ball and abused it, we need to keep in mind that the base of the Food Guide Pyramid is still nutritionally empty grains–not kale and chard.



  9. Kirsten on February 11, 2014 at 09:39
  10. EF on February 11, 2014 at 10:51

    I’ll always be grateful to Gary Taubes for getting me to think and question nutritional dogma.

    I think his latest NYT article is laying the foundation for him to soften his stance on carbs.

    Regardless of whether he was “right” about carbs, he’s making a positive difference in nutrition. And that’s a tall task for a “non-scientist” in the field to do.

    Nice work, Gary, as always.

  11. John on February 11, 2014 at 11:19

    I’ve always liked Taubes’ work. I’ve both followed his conclusions regarding carbs and rejected them, yet always appreciate his thinking and contributions. No one assimilates data for the purpose of explaining “bad science” and the related problems as well as he does, and this is an extremely important realm. He is an exceptional writer (one of a handful I’m simultaneously envious of and inspired by).

  12. Moreorless on February 12, 2014 at 00:06

    Gary is a major source of confusion and misinformation himself. I’m surprised people here haven’t seen through him yet. He misquotes researchers and misinterprets studies to fit his agenda. I suppose that’s what you do when you get paid upfront and set out to write a book about how carbs make people fat.
    His misunderstanding (or completely made up?) views on insulin and fat gain still to this day have you seeing people on forums scared of potatoes and bananas because of the scary insulin spiking/belly fat creating effects they think it will have on them. Gary wasn’t the creator of this but he helped spread it further and longer.
    How is going on OZ and telling everyone potatoes and rice make you fat not contributing to confusion.

    The nusi studies will probably be the same old same old you get in low carb studies. A shitty diet vs a low carb diet for the overweight.

    As far as obesity rates rising. They had been rising well before 1970 as the wealth of the nation increased and would have continued to rise no matter what advice the government gave out. That’s just common sense when you look around at the millions and millions served each day at Taco Bell, KFC, Mcdonalds, Pizza shops, Wendy’s, Donut Kings, restaurants, etc etc.

  13. George on February 12, 2014 at 15:49

    The glaring difference between Taube’s articles and Katz’ is that Gary’s mind is orderly. even if you disagree, you can clearly see where he is trying to take you. Katz on the other hand is an example of disordered thinking, or at least very bad exposition. This man writes nutrition science papers? His writing is confusing, and you need to read closely to see he’s pulled a few fast ones (replacing animal fats with vege oils was, and still is, an official recommendation from Science – man up and see the connection with the obesity epidemic, instead of blithering on about low-fat junk food. That people combine low-fat junk with heart-healthy oils and spreads is the disaster. We had low-fat junk in the 60s, it was called white sugar, white bread. These were pretty much the only sugar and bread available and had been for generations.

    • Richard Nikoley on February 12, 2014 at 18:35

      George

      In all honesty, I didn’t see Katz’ piece that way and understood it fine. Setting aside the fact he’s a grant whore and makes his living off of Gary’s confusion or his conflict-ion, he’s actually saying that he’s willing to continue to make money off of what is already well known for a long time.

      That’s the criticism due Katz, in my opinion.



  14. Mr Dave on February 12, 2014 at 20:42

    Even though this was set up as bit of a conflict, by Katz. I don’t really see them as really at odds. I think it can be true that diet can be very much matter of common sense, and the science can be confusing. within a spectrum of low carb or low fat, a person could eat a pretty unhealthy diet or a very healthy diet.

    Gary is saying the current science is confusing, but how much can the science tell us any way. Can we really ever test all the variables of Paleo LC, Paleo high carb, zone diet, whole foods and grass-fed vs super market beef and frozen vegies from the freezer rack? can all these things be tested against each other over decades in large numbers of people. and do we need that to happen to understand why people get fat? Maybe scientifically yes. But watch the fat people shows on TV, where the guy is bed ridden and eats all day and its all junk like pizza, fried food, take out. I have a theory, if the morbidly obese ate less they would lose weight, with rare exceptions. It would be better if they ate some salads and less pizza. I don’t need a study to tell me that. But the science can tell us things we wouldn’t know other wise, the recent topics on this blog about gut flora and RS I think are ripe for much more research and it could tell us very useful things. I suspect there are all kind of overlapping improvements in overall health by improving gut flora, I look forward to seeing where that topic goes.

    I enjoyed both articles great deal. I think they were both right about a lot things.

  15. GTR on February 14, 2014 at 14:07

    Your Gary Taubes tag doesn’t display this article

    https://freetheanimal.com/tag/gary-taubes

    • Richard Nikoley on February 14, 2014 at 19:22

      Thanks GTR. Had forgotten I had a tag. Unfortunately, all the auto-tag generators are as worthless as spell checkers and auto-correct.

      It’s pathetic how pathetic spell checkers have become. Now, I just use plain Google search. Best spell checker ever.



  16. GTR on February 16, 2014 at 08:58

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