What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?

by Gary Taubes
hat tip: New York Times

If the members of the American medical establishment were to have a collective find-yourself-standing-naked-in-Times-Square-type nightmare, this might be it. They spend 30 years ridiculing Robert Atkins, author of the phenomenally-best-selling Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution and Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, accusing the Manhattan doctor of quackery and fraud, only to discover that the unrepentant Atkins was right all along. Or maybe it’s this: they find that their very own dietary recommendations – eat less fat and more carbohydrates – are the cause of the rampaging epidemic of obesity in America. Or, just possibly this: they find out both of the above are true.

When Atkins first published his Diet Revolution in 1972, Americans were just coming to terms with the proposition that fat – particularly the saturated fat of meat and dairy products – was the primary nutritional evil in the American diet. Atkins managed to sell millions of copies of a book promising that we would lose weight eating steak, eggs and butter to our heart’s desire, because it was the carbohydrates, the pasta, rice, bagels and sugar, that caused obesity and even heart disease. Fat, he said, was harmless.

Atkins allowed his readers to eat ”truly luxurious foods without limit,” as he put it, ”lobster with butter sauce, steak with béarnaise sauce . . . bacon cheeseburgers,” but allowed no starches or refined carbohydrates, which means no sugars or anything made from flour. Atkins banned even fruit juices, and permitted only a modicum of vegetables, although the latter were negotiable as the diet progressed.

Atkins was by no means the first to get rich pushing a high-fat diet that restricted carbohydrates, but he popularized it to an extent that the American Medical Association considered it a potential threat to our health. The A.M.A. attacked Atkins’s diet as a ”bizarre regimen” that advocated ”an unlimited intake of saturated fats and cholesterol-rich foods,” and Atkins even had to defend his diet in Congressional hearings.

Thirty years later, America has become weirdly polarized on the subject of weight. On the one hand, we’ve been told with almost religious certainty by everyone from the surgeon general on down, and we have come to believe with almost religious certainty, that obesity is caused by the excessive consumption of fat, and that if we eat less fat we will lose weight and live longer. On the other, we have the ever-resilient message of Atkins and decades’ worth of best-selling diet books, including The Zone, Sugar Busters, and Protein Power to name a few. All push some variation of what scientists would call the alternative hypothesis: it’s not the fat that makes us fat, but the carbohydrates, and if we eat less carbohydrates we will lose weight and live longer.

The perversity of this alternative hypothesis is that it identifies the cause of obesity as precisely those refined carbohydrates at the base of the famous Food Guide Pyramid – the pasta, rice and bread – that we are told should be the staple of our healthy low-fat diet, and then on the sugar or corn syrup in the soft drinks, fruit juices and sports drinks that we have taken to consuming in quantity if for no other reason than that they are fat free and so appear intrinsically healthy. While the low-fat-is-good-health dogma represents reality as we have come to know it, and the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research trying to prove its worth, the low-carbohydrate message has been relegated to the realm of unscientific fantasy.

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February 17, 2010
Copyright © 2010 New York Times

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