Gary Taubes is an award winning science writer who is best known for his 640-page tome Good Calories, Bad Calories (affiliate link), which challenges conventional wisdom about nutrition, weight loss, and disease.
His more recently published Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It (affiliate link) is billed as shorter, but more reader friendly version of Good Calories, Bad Calories.
I reasoned it would be a good idea to first read Why We Get Fat so I could share it with you.
Why We Get Fat is split into 2 sections:
- Biology, Not Physics – Gary goes into detail about some scientific flaws of the calories in/calories out model of weight loss and how conventional nutrition wisdom has changed over time. This section is about 1/3 of the book.
- Adoposity 101 – In this section, Gary takes a closer looks at the “Laws of Adiposity” and how hormones and carbohydrate intake play specific roles in how our bodies gain and lose fat. He also explores genetic and behavioral implications of fat loss, along with briefly discussing the paleo diet, which is how he suggests you should eat.
Here’s what I think are the pros and cons of the book:
History of academic nutrition research – I have to give Gary a lot of credit for doing a ton of research to introduce many intriguing studies about how conventional nutrition wisdom has changed over time, along with some serious flaws of current conventional wisdom. Tons of studies are mentioned along with the major pioneers of the different schools of thought. You come away believing that conventional wisdom is flawed and reducing carb intake (especially processed carbs and sugar) could be a very helpful strategy to maximize fat loss. In addition, Gary also introduces some important concepts such as we dramatically changed our eating habits at the start of the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago, which only represents 0.5% of the history of our species. Why not explore how we ate previous to this deviation in our eating habits (this isn’t easy of course, but still interesting)?
Interesting & relevant facts – How can women who are starving still be obese? Why does a camel have a hump filled with fat? Why are we the only animals in the animal kingdom that have bodies which do not regulate weight and fatness? Here are some other interesting tidbits that Gary shares, “We don’t get fat because we overeat, but we overeat because we are getting fat” and “the foods that make us fat also make us crave precisely the foods that make us fat”. These are just a few of the interesting facts related to fat loss that are explored.
Scientific analysis of fat loss – I’ve only come across descriptions of how fat gain and fat loss work at the hormonal level in research journals, or more esoteric bodybuilding books like Everything You Need To Know About Fat Loss (affiliate link), but to see it in a more mainstream diet book was great. Discussion of insulin and other hormones and their role in fat loss and fat gain makes the process more tangible. In addition, Gary explores how genetics can effect fat loss in the chapter “Why I Get Fat and You Don’t”.
Overly Biased/Not Convincing – Yes, we know Gary believes the “calories in/calories out” and “eat less/move more” model of weight loss is baseless and carbs are solely responsible for weight gain, but do you agree after you read the book? Probably not. The first 1/3 of the book, Gary goes into painstaking detail about how the energy balance model of weight loss came about (i.e. as long as you eat less calories than you burn, you will lose weight). But yet I felt he didn’t answer some fundamentally important questions that challenged his assertions such as (1) if only carbs are important, can I eat as many calories as I want of fat and protein and never get fat, like 10,000 per day? and (2) What about the people on the Twinkie and Banana diets comprised almost purely of carbs, but yet they restrict their calories and lose weight? I think Gary makes a lot of interesting points about carbs, but to say the amount of calories eaten has no impact and doesn’t matter at all is anathema to both research and experience.
Pepperoni and String cheese? No fruit? Really? – Frankly I took this book a little less seriously when the one and only menu (at the very end of the book) listed pepperoni slices and string cheese as a healthy snack. To feature high sodium and highly processed food seems odd to me and took away from some of the credibility the book offered. In addition, fruit is not allowed because of the purported effects of fructose on fat loss. I find it hard to believe eating a handful of berries (like 7g of sugar) packed with vitamins and minerals is going to prevent fat loss. Certainly, some fruit can be like candy from modern farming practices etc., but to cast all fruit as fattening and recommend they be avoided without sufficient evidence to the contrary seems extreme and unnecessary.
Not very useful – This book may be informative, but it’s definitely not useful, which was a major frustration as I read the book. Let’s say you agree you should decrease carb intake, how do you do it? How do you incorporate more veggies into your diet in a way that’s manageable? If you experience carbohydrate withdrawal, what should you do? Any symptoms that should be concerning? Where are the menu, or snack guides? I think you’re catching the drift. The chapter, “What We Can Do” is only 6 pages! The parts of the book I was hoping would have more detail had less. Taking into account Gary is himself a journalist, it seems like the book was intended for journalists (even though it wasn’t) who want to write reports on morbidly obese individuals who are insulin resistant, not someone interested in changing their eating habits and losing fat. Finally, exercise is discussed only briefly in the “Elusive Benefits of Exercise” chapter with some impressive cherry picking of research studies. To describe exercise as having no benefit from a body composition perspective despite innumerable research studies that have proved the opposite is just disappointing. Does Gary have a six pack? Nope, he doesn’t (but he’ll blame it on genetics).
If you are looking for useful information on the paleo diet, how to reduce carb intake, and improve your overall health and well being, this is definitely not the book for you. But if you would like to learn more about the history of academic nutrition research, explore some fat loss conundrums, and have the phrase “carbs make you fat” inculcated into your brain, than you will enjoy the book!
Interesting review BUT I think you miss an important point -if you exclude carbs your hunger suppression is more effective because you are not suffering ‘sugar highs’!
I also think Gary is fairly explicit about how responsive or non responsive different metabolisms are – it is an intelligent review of his views and I believe that most people -if they understand the book- can work out what to eat or not to eat.
I’ll forgive him the pepperoni and cheese strings though ugggg…!
@Andrew Porter – Thanks for the comment. In terms of appetite suppression, what I’ve read and experienced is that a higher protein diet can help create satiety. No necessarily less carbs. In fact, of all the various diets I’ve tried, I was hungriest on a low carb diet for a given number of calories, but that’s just me.
Just read the reviews on the book 4.5 stars out of 5 with over 300,000 comments in the positive.
Geoff – Check out this article about the carbohydrate hypothesis and Gary Taubes written by a PHD: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2011/08/carbohydrate-hypothesis-of-obesity.html.
Just because 300,000 people like something, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Gary Taubes falls under the “Paleo” genre, which is why I think so many people “liked” the book because it helps support their beliefs. While I draw inspiration from Paleo philosophies and have read tons of articles and even books on the subject, in my opinion “Why We Get Fat” was the least useful of all and is based on pseudoscience.
you should read some criticisms of Guyenet’s criticism of GT because there’s a lot of holes in it. He seems to have a big grudge against Taubes and it clouds his mind. here’s one:
@Michael – Thanks a ton for pointing out this rebuttal. I didn’t know about it. I have to read it and get back to you, possibly in a few weeks (I’m majorly backed up on my fitness/nutrition reading). I do want to warn you that even if there is some truth to the carbohydrate hypothesis, I find following the dogma is a recipe for hunger and disappointment. I say that from experience unfortunately.