A couple of years ago science writer Gary Taubes published Good Calories, Bad Calories, which argued that the conventional view that obesity was due to overeating was inconsistent with the evidence was likely false. Yaubes argued, rather, that it was more likely, and more consistent with the evidence, that carbohydrates in the diet were the problem. He also argued that the evidence that saturated fats were the cause of heart disease was extremely weak. He then went on to argue that many other conditions may be associated with increased carbohydrate consumption.
I am not a medical doctor, a biochemist, not nutrition expert. But I am a researcher and methodologist. From that perspective, I was extremely impressed with the quality of his argument. He convinced me that his argument was a very serious and important one.
As a researcher and methodologist, I know that we never trust people, especially in medicine and the human sciences, who have discovered that received belief is wrong. It is all too easy to become convinced by good rhetoric. Therefore, I sought out critiques of his work. At least at the time, a few months after the book came out, most critiques I could find were hatchet jobs. In one instance an author claimed that Taubes misquoted him. Taubes, however, produced the entire email from this researcher in which his meaning was clear. But Taubes went further. He showed that he had sent a followup email to this researcher asking if he really meant to say what Taubes interpreted him to say. The researcher was unambiguous in reioterating the correctness of Taubes’ interpretation.
Other critiques simply reiterated received wisdom on the value of low fat, high carbohydrate diets, with no real presentation of evidence, and essentially accused Taubes of being a danger to society. When I saw the quality of these “critiques,” I figured he likely has such a command of the facts that few were willing to challenge him at that level.
Taubes recently summarized his argument regarding obesity at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in a lecture: Why we gain weight. Judging from the questions, he received a very sympathetic and open-minded response. Perhaps at least parts of medicine are finally ready to take seriously this evidence-based challenge to received wisdom.
Watching the lecture, I was again reminded of the power of his argument and his mastery of a vast amount of evidence. He concludes. “I’m not trying to convince that it’s true. I’m trying to convince you that it’s worth taking seriously.” In that spirit, I recommend the lecture, and the book, very highly.
Watch it here. Do not take Taubes’ position to be the truth. But do try and encourage experts in relevant fields to seriously engage with it. Even if wrong, the science can only advance by taking this sophisticated argument seriously.
1 comment January 9th, 2010