Sparkly vampires that don’t die in sunlight and fall in love with inarticulate teenage girls, zombies eating brains with grapefruit spoons and their pinkies out (or off?) with Elizabeth Bennett, hapless-yet-cunning teens battling to the death in a reality show that makes Jersey Shore look like The Christian Ladies Aid Society – these are the types of books that keep most people up at night. Me? I’ve been up for a week now reading the gripping tales of The Fat-Cholesterol Hypothesis and The Carbohydrate Hypothesis spun by Gary Taubes in his game-changing 2007 tome Good Calories Bad Calories. Kinda like the Bible and Moby Dick, lots of people will talk about this book but very few of them have actually read it.
Not that I blame them. It’s 576 densely worded pages of research paper hell. And I used to be a Graduate Assistant that was paid to write research papers so I know that of which I speak. I’m going to be honest: I read most of it. Skimmed the rest. Fell asleep and drooled all over the “Conservation of Energy” chapter. Was just like college but without all the PowerPoint atrocities.
Good thing for all of us, Taubes includes a four word summary – a dietary rebus, if you will – on the front cover. Take this handy quiz:
Like the old woman/young woman illusion, what you see is all about your perspective. In this picture, is the piece of bread the “good calories” and the butter the “bad calories” or vice versa? For years, as any of you who lived through the nineties (check yes if you ever included “grrrl” in a description of yourself!) can attest, fat – especially saturated animal fats like butter – was the devil in the Devil’s food cake. Even today, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 7% of your daily calories come from saturated fats and no more than 25-35 % from any fat.
Most of us are well versed in the “good fats” and “bad fats” doctrine. It is, as Taubes takes the first 4 chapters to point out, the conventional wisdom. (I can’t complain too much though because it was during this introduction that I got to meet a delightful 18th century Brit named Banting who lost so much weight on a low-carb diet that he went on a pamphlet-strewn publicity tour that puts Atkins to shame. Banting is like Jared the Subway Guy dressed like Marie Osmond on Nutrisystem and with an evangelical spirit that’s half Kirstie Allie and half Richard Simmons. I love him.)
According to Taubes, everything you “know” about diet and nutrition is wrong. He backs up this assertion with very (very very) detailed analyses of all the research ever done on the subject, branching into a conspiracy theory about scientists suppressing evidence and changing study results that I would have found laughably ludicrous had I not worked in academic research for so many years and found out first hand what sharks professors on tenure track can be. But I digress. Here’s a summary – you’re welcome – of the myths busted by Taubes:
Basically, Taubes postulates that the surest and best way to help people not only lose weight but also live the longest, healthiest lives possible is to eat lots of fat (all kinds) and protein but cut out carbohydrates. He especially blames sugar for societal ills – no shocker there – but also includes “good” carbohydrates like fruit and whole grains. Not only do carbohydrates not provide good nutrition in the form of energy, says he, but also have the deleterious effects of leaching vitamins and weakening the body in other ways. For those of you who are familiar with Atkins or with the Paleo/Primal diets, Taubes’ book is scripture. For the rest of us, these assertions fly in the face of everything we have been taught about good nutrition.