Best-selling science writer Gary Taubes should have expected serious push back when he declared to a room full of Tufts University nutritionists last week that Americans became fat from fruit -- not burgers. Yet, he tells me, he was a bit surprised by the negative reaction:
"I think I may have insulted much of the faculty by giving the lecture from the standpoint that I knew the truth and they don't."
The "truth" as Taubes asserts in his latest book Why We Get Fat is that weight gain isn't about eating more calories than we burn; rather it's about basing our diets on starches, cereal, sugar -- and yes, berries -- rather than on steak, chicken wings, and fried eggs.
Can anyone say Atkins?
Taubes -- who caused a national stir with this 2002 New York Times Magazine piece questioning the vilification of dietary fat -- admits that's the plan he's advocating. He lost weight on Atkins more than a decade ago and has been off and on it ever since. "I eat scrambled eggs and bacon and lose weight effortlessly without ever having to consciously eat less," he tells me. "I eat the meals I used to fantasize about."
It's all about hunger, he says. Eating carbohydrates drives up the hormone insulin -- which rapidly clears glucose (the component of all carbs) from the blood and shuttles it into fat cells. Blood sugar levels drop and we get hungry again, making it easy to overeat.
"It's hard to get people to overfeed on fat," Taubes contends, whereas studies have shown that people on high-carbohydrate diets can easily overeat because they don't feel full for very long.
Exercise presents the same hunger problem, he says. Sure, we burn off calories when we sweat, but then our bodies compensate by making us hungrier to replace all that expended energy. That could explain why research hasn't shown exercise to be particularly effective for weight loss -- though some studies have shown that it helps with maintaining weight loss.
Taubes insists, though, that the calories in-calories out theory of weight gain and weight loss is just plain incorrect.
Of course, most nutritionists -- which Taubes is not -- would say that he's the one who's wrong.
"The problem is people's inability to know how many calories they burn and eat," said Dr. George Blackburn, associate director of the Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School in this article written by Globe contributer Judy Foreman. "If you put a person in a metabolic chamber, where you know exactly what they eat and what they burn, the calories in, calories out idea is always reconfirmed."
Taubes is keenly aware that he's controversal. "I get accused of being too rigid," he says. "I think the medical community is scared to embrace a diet high in saturated fat." Or one that rejects high-fiber whole-grains and fruits bursting with antioxidants.
He tells me that obesity experts at the premier Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA, where he gave a recent talk, rejected his ideas outright. One man stood up and said, 'Mr. Taubes, one subtext of your talk is that you think we're all idiots.' "
Indeed, Taubes likens them to those who once believed the sun revolved around the earth. "Their fundamental paradigm is incorrect," he says. "It's all about insulin, not calories."
Since Taubes prefers to write about science rather than dietary advice, the eating plan in his book is buried as a seven-page appendix. Developed by the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Duke University Medical Center, it calls for eating red meat (even processed deli), chicken, fish, and eggs, as well as salad greens and non-starch vegetables like cucumbers, celery, and peppers.
Cheese, cream, and mayonnaise (low-carb) are allowed in limited quantities. All fats and oils are allowed -- except, oddly enough, nuts.
But no beans, peas, or potatoes. Nor bread, nor cereal of any kind. No whole-grains, rice, flour, or sugar. And, most controversial of all, no fruit.
Taubes contends the eating plan is easy to stick with for life. Others may beg to differ.
Tell me what you think. Have you ever tried an Atkins-style diet? Did you lose weight? Was it easy to follow?
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