The Shakes break was not planned; it came about as a result of things suddenly getting very busy over at Shapely Prose. As a few people have remarked, I seem to be running more of a message board than a blog these days -- something Liss has lots of experience with, but I don't. Or didn't, until recently. For the last couple of months, I've been up to my neck in comment moderation, and to be perfectly honest, every time I thought about posting over here, I got a little queasy thinking that would mean even more comments to deal with -- and around these parts I don't have the power to simply delete anyone who pisses me off. This queasiness persisted despite my knowing that Liss and other Shakers will always go to bat for me in comments, to the point where I could sit back and completely ignore what's going on in the thread, secure in the knowledge that my position would be well represented by people smarter and more eloquent than I.
I just got overwhelmed, basically.
But now, finally, I've adjusted to the changes and am more normally whelmed by Shapely Prose maintenance. And boy, I've missed this place. Hi, y'all.
So. About Gary Taubes. I still haven't read his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, since I first heard about it in September. My thoughts on what I know of the book -- to wit, he's a skeptic about THE OBESITY CRISIS BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA, which is terrific, but you only have to look at the title to know why I'm skeptical of his research -- can be found here. So when like a dozen people besides Liss sent me the Alternet interview, I wasn't sure if I even wanted to deal with it. I'm thrilled that someone who questions the obesity party line is getting media attention; much less thrilled that his ultimate thesis is that carbs are making us fat, and yet somehow this is not just Atkins redux.
As it turns out, it's a really good interview (and kudos are owed there to Courtney Martin for asking really good questions). Mostly.
Here are a few quotes, for instance, that make me want to kiss Gary Taubes:
I don't like taking anybody's word for something so important, so I look for the actual data, which often means following the references in the relevant papers and books backward in time until I eventually get to the underlying data themselves or find that they don't exist.
[F]unding agencies like to support studies that will give positive results, and they like to support studies that themselves support the beliefs of the funding agents -- i.e., the dogma. So it's hard to get money to really test a hypothesis, because such a test implies that you might find out that your hypothesis is wrong and not worth pursuing further. And it's certainly hard to get money to pursue a hypothesis that conflicts with the establishment's beliefs, because everyone involved with deciding whether your grant proposal is worth funding will also believe that you're dead wrong about what you say, and so why bother spending money to find out? The result is a world in which, in general, the funding helps to assure that only established beliefs are tested, and when they are, that they're confirmed -- whether they're actually right or not.
Health journalists (or at least the worst of them, who are the ones that regrettably dominate the field) seem to think that if you give someone an M.D. or a Ph.D., like the Wizard of Oz, you're bestowing on them the position of unimpeachable source. I wish that was actually the case, but it's just not, and the sooner health journalists take to their beat with the same kind of skepticism that political writers take to the politicians they cover, or even sports writers to the ballplayers and athletes, the better off we'll be.
[T]here was always this belief that if you allowed fat people to believe that their condition was somehow preordained by biology and/or genetics, you were condoning their gluttonous and/or slothful lives. So even those researchers who suspected that obesity was caused by a genetic predisposition and so might be unavoidable up to a point, would still argue that the obese must just try harder than the rest of us to eat less and exercise more.
The researchers and authority figures in this business seem utterly uninterested in finding out whether what they believe is true or not. It's as though their God, whichever one that might be, told them that obesity is caused by eating too much -- by gluttony and/or sloth -- and so they believe that unconditionally, and no amount of contradictory evidence, no failure to explain the actual observations can convince them to question it.MMMMMWAH! SMACK! SMOOCHY SMOOCHY!
Atkins almost assuredly had it right -- that we get fat because of the quantity and quality of the carbohydrates in the diet and their effect on insulin... [More on the medical profession's response to Atkins snipped.] And because people tend not to stay on the Atkins diet -- thus the "Atkins craze" -- physicians, health journalists and the dogmatists in this business tend to see this as a reason to reject the underlying science as meaningless. (Imagine if we all took the same line on cigarettes and lung cancer: Because most smokers fail to successfully quit, the fact that cigarettes actually cause lung cancer must be irrelevant to the public health. Weird, huh? But that's the same logic.)Oh. Oh, no. Gary, why'd you have to go and hurt me like that?
As a fat smoker, and someone who has both dieted off more than 35 percent of my body weight at a time and quit smoking more than once, let me tell you why that analogy is a load of fucking horseshit.
What it comes down to is this: smokers really can simply choose to quit smoking. It's incredibly fucking difficult, and a lot of people start up again, but a lot of people also manage to give up tobacco forever -- often after several tries. On the surface, this looks kinda like dieting. People try it, have some success, then end up right back where they started. The difference is, with dieting, that can go on forever, because the problem isn't just people "giving up" on diets -- it's that their bodies go into starvation mode and their metabolisms readjust, so that even if they keep eating the same way, they stop losing weight. And then, if they stop eating that way, they start to regain, even if they're not "overeating" by the standards of any human being other than Jenny Craig.
Which is why more than 90% of dieters are right back where they started within 5 years. Meaning, one cannot necessarily choose to lose weight permanently, the way one can choose to quit smoking permanently -- even if both processes begin with hard decisions to change one's behavior. How thin your body will let you become is really not up to you; whether you ever let yourself have that one drag that starts the slippery slope back to Smokerville is up to you. That's a big fucking difference, even if the voices in your head saying "ONE DRAG WILL NOT MAKE YOU AN ADDICT AGAIN, AND IT WILL BE SOOOOOOOO GOOD" are so loud and powerful, it doesn't seem like a legitimately free choice.
Trust me, I know those voices. Those voices are why I'm smoking as I write this. But it is at least theoretically possible to ignore them (and plenty of long-term ex-smokers prove it's practically possible as well). Your body does not somehow force cigarette smoke into your lungs, despite your sincere best efforts to quit. At some point, you have to consciously light the smoke or bum the drag that's the first step toward becoming a smoker again.
Lots and lots and lots of people think it's basically the same way with dieting. As long as you never put another french fry or bite of cheesecake in your mouth, you'll never get fat again. But it doesn't work that way, folks. If your body doesn't want to be thin, it will start fighting back as if starved, no matter what sort of conscious decisions you make. That's why there aren't nearly as many formerly fat people out there as there are former smokers, demonstrating that it really is possible if you put your mind to it. It is within the realm of possibility for every smoker to quit forever. It is simply not within the realm of possibility for every fat person to get thin forever via dieting -- unless we're talking about actually starving them, and making "forever" a much shorter time. (If one more person makes the "There are no fat people in concentration camps!" argument, my head's going to fucking blow, and I don't care who gets splattered. There are no healthy people in concentration camps, either, y'all.)
So Taubes's argument here -- that the fact that an Atkins-style diet doesn't create permanent results is no reason to assume it couldn't create permanent results if only... uh... if only... -- doesn't impress me. To say the least.
Even if he is right that carbs cause fatness (which is a horrendous oversimplification of his research, and I will say that even though I'm skeptical, I wouldn't rule it out at least until I've read the book), then that theory still demands a much better solution than, "Put the fatties on Atkins." 'Cause the fatties have tried Atkins. And South Beach. And every other permutation of the same concept. If you're old enough, do you remember how the "diet plate" in every restaurant you went to before the "fat makes you fat" craze of the '80s was a bunless hamburger patty and a blop of cottage cheese? Yeah. This high-protein/low-carb concept is not new. And it hasn't worked any better than any other diet. Gina Kolata's Rethinking Thin, which I recommend every damn chance I get, follows a group of dieters who spent two years on an Atkins-style plan, under clinical supervision -- go ahead and guess how it ends.
I'm not saying Taubes is right or wrong about the relationships among carbs, insulin, and fat. I haven't read the book, and I'm not a scientist. But I can tell you this much -- if the proposed solution after all that research is, "We need to find a way to get fat people to stop giving up on their diets" he is still, like so many others, barking up the wrong fucking tree. The problem is not fat people failing at our diets, low-carb or otherwise. The problem is the diets failing us.