Low-Carb Gurus and skinny people eating sweets

About a mile and a half up the road is a cute neighborhood bookstore, and Gary Taubes did a book signing tonight for the paperbook version of “Why We Get Fat“.  I’m not one of his devotees, but he’s made such a buzz among certain circles that you can’t read the comments on any mainstream media blog post about weight without someone referring to his books, saying calories don’t matter, fat doesn’t matter, exercise is useless, and all that counts is carbs>>insulin>>obese!

He’s actually kind of funny, surprisingly.  But here’s the things he said that didn’t pass my sniff test.  First was the Pima, a tribe that used to be skinny and now has a high proportion of obesity and the highest diabetes rates in the world.  He made it sound as if they used to eat nothing but fish and meat, then Whitey came (obviously I’m paraphrasing here) and then there was famine and then they were fat.  He doesn’t mention that their diet back then was a lot of starch (70-80% carb diet), they were farmers too, not just hunters and gatherers.

Second thing that struck me wrong was his explanation of calorie counting.  He asked how many people in the room tried to balance their calories.  A few of us raised our hands.  He went on to say how silly it was, how if you’re even 10 calories off, it causes however much weight gain or loss, and nobody can count that carefully, thus the whole concept fails.  I don’t think it works like that, the body regulates much better than that.  I don’t think eating an excess or deficit of 10, probably not even 100 calories a day, will cause weight change, I think most people subconsciously adjust, (or fidget, run warmer or colder, etc.)  unless they’re actively dieting, in which things can go wonky.  I think regular overeating is needed to really gain a lot of weight, and for most of us, difficult efforts to lose much.   I don’t count calories, I get on the scale, and if it’s moving the wrong direction, I eat less of them.  I don’t need specific numbers.

Which leads to thermodynamics.  I did not enjoy physics nor physical chemistry, though they kind of blow my mind, and while I can’t explain most of the concepts very well, my bs detector works decently.  He made an analogy of why are more people coming into the bookstore than leaving, thus thermodynamics tells us nothing.  Wait, what??!?  He seems intelligent, and has a physics degree, I don’t see why he’s feigning ignorance.

I got a chance to ask him a question, so after thanking him for getting me off of low-fat eating, I mentioned that I used to be about 60 pounds larger, and though I don’t eat low-fat, I also don’t eat low carb.  Not just fruit, grains, beans, but even sugar in my coffee, even occasional french fries (he talked about them a lot).  In other words, Eat Less Move More worked for me.  He said, I’m lucky.  Or maybe he’s wrong.  And though he hates to say it, as I get older, it might not work so well.  I’ll give him that point, but the current empty calories in my diet tend to be both high in carbs and fat, as they always have been, now just much less of them, and I don’t see much reason (or science) in just blaming one and giving the other a free pass.

I didn’t buy the book, instead bought a book about the strange phenomenon of science denial.   I like neighborhood bookstores, I try to support them when I can.  Five years ago, I would have gotten a cookie or a brownie, now I just go look at them, and all the skinny people eating them.   I’m not thin enough to eat that stuff, I go home and eat blood oranges, write this post.


13 Responses to “Low-Carb Gurus and skinny people eating sweets”

  1. 1 Betsey
    February 3, 2012 at 4:03 am

    Eh, I’m with you. I think weight loss is accomplished by eating fewer calories than you need. It’s pretty simple, and I don’t know why people try to make it much more complicated (unless it’s to sell books).

  2. February 3, 2012 at 4:22 am

    You know that I agree with you. I think although we as woman do likely need to monitor carbs more closely as we age to offset hormonal changes, the final word is the calorie balance. I am surprised that he said just as few as 10 calories a day can cause weight change? I’ve never heard anything like that from a scientists or a weight-loss person. Thanks for sharing!

  3. February 3, 2012 at 6:03 am

    I agree with you, and all of my experience agrees with you as well. I’m 47 and what you’re talking about still works for me at this age. I eat empty calories, just not too much of anything, and have lost a lot of weight (over 200 lbs. so far).

    The body is capable of adjustment, and it has been proven that people do not lose or gain weight with moderate adjustments in calories. He’s simply wrong and science has proven it as well as common sense. That whole business of an extra butter pat a day being enough to make you fat is hogwash, but it won’t stop people from pretending it matters.

  4. February 3, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Well, I’M VERY interested in that book you bought about science denial! LOL. There is so much about contemporary science–especially, perhaps, medical science and/or neuroscience–which has been bothering me (making me seriously ponder many things), at least as it is practiced in my culture (late capitalist, corporate sponsored and funded, and quietly driven by other obscure, non-scientific forces). Don’t get me wrong. I just help to edit a book manuscript on ecosystems, and it was SERIOUS science for an audience of hard-core biologists. I have great respect for the philosophy of science and its traditions. But. The good stuff is becoming more rare, or maybe it was always more limited by a kind of mystique that I just didn’t see before. I guess my eyes were opened most in nursing school when I started recognizing what crappy studies have been passing as solid evidence. O boy. Sorry. I didn’t mean to derail your main ideas! In a way, though, Taubes is very useful because he inspired me to start looking MUCH more carefully at popular mythologies behind weight issues and weight loss. FOR SOME PEOPLE, like me, carbohydrates have a very strange history of being closely linked with compulsive MENTAL actions. I guess I’m saying weight-related issues and eating behaviors are far more complicated (for some of us) than Taubes and virtually all writers attempt to make them seem. 🙂

  5. February 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    I’m so glad you told him of your success! I think he’s kind of caught up in the devotion of his followers and is losing his credibility. Too many absolutes and unproven statements for me.

  6. February 6, 2012 at 7:58 am


    The way to get well known, elected, or sell books is to tell people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear (and listen to)! I suppose I’ll never know, but too many people with decent ideas sell out when fame, power, and money come their way.

    Seems you have done a good job debunking Taubes in words and in how you have changed with what you learned in your own behavioral changes.

    I like that you mentioned fidgeting 🙂 There are studies supporting how people with “set points” can burn many more calories than most would imagine with that.

  7. February 7, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Betsey – Always best to question the motives of someone trying to sell you something.

    Diane – I THINK he was setting up a straw man argument, I don’t know anybody saying that either. Easier to use this to “prove” that calories are irrelevant, rather than attack the real evidence. But, here’s a riddle: if the average person gains a pound/year, the theoretical math would be about 10 extra Cals daily, unless it’s all gained between Christmas and NYE?

    SFG – Holy cow, 200 pounds? That’s incredible. It must feel so different! BTW, since I am unable to comment on your blog, well wishes to your sister (and you, too).

    Hopeful and Free – Have you ever checked out Ben Goldacre? He writes a column “Bad Science”, I believe for the Guardian. Good stuff.

    Cammy – I agree with you completely. I think he was struggling, looking for a journalism career, and he found a niche. A profitable career, minions included!

    Dr J – it was hard for me to read his expressions or figure out how much of what he says he really believes, but he seemed surprised by me, as if he’d never met someone who lost weight using that outdated and unrealistic “eat less move more” cliche. I’m puzzled even more by him, though.

    • February 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      Goldacre is interesting and smart–although I do NOT appreciate his deconstruction of the “chocolate is GOOD for you” scientific *evidence* (mythology). Not one little bit. LOL. There are some things I prefer to remain delusional about (I’m a *true believer* in the many health benefits of chocolate.) 🙂

  8. February 28, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Giving advise on relationships is about as risky as on weight 🙂

    The relationship we have often has lessons for us to learn, but destructive relationships can take a serious toll.

    Keep preaching and setting an example in yours, as sometimes we preach to change others, and sometimes we preach so that others do not change us!

  9. February 29, 2012 at 7:05 am

    Weight gain from just eating 10 calories more? That don’t sound right. I have days when I would eat 2000+ calories and about 1,500 calories immediately afterwards. My appetite balance itself out in the long right.

    I work with a lot of engineers and scientists. Just because someone has an impressive list of letters after his name does not automatically means he have common sense. Besides common sense does not sell books.

  10. April 17, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Yeah, it should be simple. People complicate it to sell things… and people buy it because they want to buy thin,

  11. June 4, 2012 at 4:10 am

    I’m with you… none of these weight loss gurus with all or nothing approaches and books to sell seem to convince me they have all the answers.

    The one thing I’ve managed to figure out: everyone’s body is unique, and programs that work well for one person totally suck for another. For me, I’ve discovered late in life that limiting carbs to the ones I truly crave works pretty well and lets me eat huge quantities of non-carbs, which works well with my piggish greedy nature. The key seems to be trying lots of approaches and tailoring and finding what you love that works… and not giving a f*ck what anyone else thinks you should be doing.

  12. July 1, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    For those of us that have carbohydrate/insulin/blood glucose issues, Taubes approach works. If you are obese due to psychological issues, or stress, or emotional, core belief issues, sugar addiction, gladlin addiction, or any of the other multitude of reasons, it will not help. Obesity has many causes.

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February 2012

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