Good Calories, Bad Calories

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

The more I learn, the more I am convinced that if a scientific idea is popular, it is most likely untrue. Examples?
The four humors determine one's personality.
The sun revolves around the earth.
Leeches can cure a fever.
If a woman floats, she's a witch.
I'm sure you're nodding your head and rolling your eyes about those ancient, ignorant people. But what about our enlightened modern times? You might also believe, for example, that Americans are responsible for global warming. Did that one hit a little closer to home? No? Okay, how about this: maybe you think, like I used to, that saturated fat causes heart disease, eating fat is bad for weight loss, and lots of dietary fiber prevents colon cancer. Nutritionally speaking, this book rocked my socks.

Good Calories, Bad Calories was written by a distinguished science writer, not some dietary crusader. He seems to be writing for others in the scientific community and not the average Joe, so this book is quite technical, and frankly, a little too thorough for my sleep-deprived mommy brain. It's easy to get lost in the myriad of studies, interviews, hearings, and medical journals; I wish I would have taken notes as I read it. It would have helped me better summarize it for you, dear reader, and better argue with my husband about the best route to weight loss. I bogged down in chapter 9, when trying to keep track of the five different lipoproteins carried in triglycerides. I need to finish it later when I don't have a baby and a toddler competing for my attention. (I might watch this 1 1/2 hour webcast sometime when I don't want to read the entire book. What I did read, however, was thoroughly convincing and I'm already trying to eat differently based on what I learned.

He starts off with a brief bio of William Banting, who I had never heard of before. He describes how America, and then the rest of the world, came to believe ideas that are just plain wrong. For instance, did you know that high cholesterol is associated with longer life, especially in women? Indigenous people groups who eat no fiber have the healthiest digestion? And what we think of as common health problems (cavities, cancer, appendicitis, or really, almost every chronic disease) are almost totally absent in native, traditional diets. To make a sweeping generalization, not all calories are the same. Refined carbohydrates such as sugar, white flour, and white rice wreak havoc on our bodies. Here's an excerpt from the Prologue (page xvii):

The reason for this book is straightforward: despite the depth and certainty of our faith that saturated fat is the nutritional bane of our lives and that obesity is caused by overeating and sedentary behavior, there has always been copious evidence to suggest that those assumptions are incorrect, and that evidence is continuing to mount. "There is always an easy solution to every problem," H. L. Menken once said--"neat, plausible, and wrong." It is quite possible, despite all our faith to the contrary, that these concepts are such neat, plausible, and wrong solutions. Moreover, it's also quite possible that the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets we've been told to eat for the past shirty years are not only making us heavier but contributing to other chronic diseases as well.
This book is just as much an indictment of modern science as it is an expose of nutrition. It's amazing to read how researchers and policy-makers became even more committed to certain hypotheses with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. To paraphrase that old saying about law, bad science makes bad food.