Why We Get Fat

This book by Gary Taubes, which came out in 2011, does a pretty impressive job of bringing in anecdotes from different locations and times to help dispel the notion that “calories in = calories out” regarding human activity and weight gain. I listened to it as an audio book, though given the references and facts, it would have been good to have a paper book to flip back as needed. He argues, quite persuasively, that there are specific ways in which our bodies accumulate fat (insulin breaks down glucose for storage), and thus we should avoid foods that encourage our bodies to do that (refined carbohydrates and sugars). In addition, he discusses how our bodies break down protein and fat, and finds that these processes do not initiate fat storage, thus making them good foods for consumption that will not increase our body weight. As a summary — he argues very well for an Atkins-like diet with low/no carbohydrates.

Roughly the first half of the book is focused on dispelling two current health notions: first, that we are facing a modern obesity epidemic, and second, that the first law of thermodynamics (in a closed system, the total energy remains the same; it cannot be created nor destroyed) does not apply to biological systems. While he uses an aggressive language, the message ultimately seems on point. For the first notion, he draws a very wide range of examples from the last 200 years showing that obesity has more or less followed the distribution of refined grains and sugars around the world — when Europeans colonized and brought large barrels of flour with them, that began triggering obesity. He brings up the fascinating point that these barrels were good to ship around the world, because the food never spoils and rats/rodents never ate it. Well, that seems to be a pretty good argument that humans shouldn’t eat it either! He traces the spread of these foods among native populations worldwide, and how closely it and an array of associated illnesses (cancers, heart problems, diabetes) spread in parallel. For the second point, debunking ‘calories in = calories out’ he does get me pretty close to convinced. Drawing on other cliches of modern life, he talks about the idea of “working up an appetite” as a truism, and that thus exercising (to increase the calories out side of the equation) does not help with weight loss, as our bodies will naturally increase consumption to match. There are many other benefits to exercise — increasing muscle mass, an endorphin rush, enjoying a sport — but as a weight loss strategy, exercise is unnecessary, and that simply decreasing consumption is just as effective. I am persuaded by this argument, given the fact that exercising rigorously for a half hour will make me extremely hungry, but only burn maybe 400 calories, which is hardly anything. Along with removing the need for exercise, he also argues that we do not need to semi-starve ourselves through diet in order to lose weight. His position is that as long as we remove carbohydrates, which is what our bodies translate into fat, we can eat as much protein and fat as we want. He debunks the notion that saturated fats drive heart disease, showing it as correlation rather than causation, and gives credit to the body for being able to manage those food types better. I’m also struck by a relatively recent report that the food/sugar industry has been pushing any excuse for obesity besides their product, which very much explains why modern health advice points to anywhere but carbohydrates/sugars, when the science points directly at them.

The book also triggered some personal recollections. The first is that, quite a few years ago, I had dinner with a friend,one with whom I regularly engaged in very smart discussions. He is a fairly strong libertarian, and I tend to lean liberal, and we were discussing health at the time. He was offering ideas such as this one, though my recollection is that it was at the mitochondrial level. After hearing him out, I mostly dismissed the premise, saying that the vast majority of weight loss is simply eating less and expending more. After reading this book, I feel bad for not listening better. As is often the case, I would have greatly benefited by talking less and listening and being open to new ideas more.

One reason I and others have seen regular “decrease consumption” diets work is that restricting overall eating does decrease carbs too. With a normal breakdown of 20% protein, 30% fat, and 50% carbohydrates, reducing caloric intake ends up disproportionately reducing carbs — and probably even moreso, as cutting out breads and sweets and caloric drinks is usually the first step of a diet. An interesting twist is that Taubes is not a big fan of fruits, and bananas and grapes in particular. His point is that, while humans ate fruits for millennia, it was only for a couple months per year, and that we have cultivated new kinds (fuji apples, honeycrisp apples, etc) that are much sweeter and with higher sugar contents than our ancestors ate. I don’t particularly agree with this, although I can recognize it as a fringe case; apples are unquestionably better than potato chips, so while they may not be perfect, they still deliver fiber and other nutrients that bring value.

Ultimately — simply reducing carbs and sugars and increasing meats and cheeses and vegetables is the broad takeaway. I do ultimately buy his argument that calories in = calories out is flawed. I will continue to exercise, as it feels good and makes me feel stronger, even if it may not be critical for weight loss. And the freedom to eat other foods in essentially unlimited quantities helps cushion the dread of giving up so many treats. Perhaps by limiting those foods, and making them occasional treats rather than daily treats, we can get back to being healthy and savoring treats when they do come.