I read Good Calories, Bad Calories about a month ago, and it’s thrown me for a bit of a loop. I’ve had reasonably high cholesterol for a while, and one of my grandfathers died from a heart attack at a younger age than I’d prefer to die, so I’ve been vaguely curious about the subject for a while. But, on the flip side, I like to eat, and there’s a lot of food out there with a high fat content that my life would be much less rich without.
So, for now, I’ve been mostly sitting on the sidelines, watching amused as the fat evidence changes over the last few years. Olive oil is now not only not bad for you but actively good for you; high-fat fish, ditto; while trans fats are now demonized as uniquely bad for you. All of which fits well with my personal preference to eat good food: I’ll take butter over margarine any day and will happily avoid processed junk food where partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is high on the list of ingredients. I was very happy with the “chocolate is good” studies, too; I’m eagerly waiting for somebody to show that cheese is similarly beneficial, though ice cream seems like a bit to much to hope for even to me.
Still, my cholesterol is high, and was a good deal higher when I got it checked a year ago than it was back in my grad school days. My doctor didn’t like that, so she put me on simvastatin; my cholesterol level responded quite nicely to that, yay.
But I perked up when I read about Taubes’s book. I’m pretty sure I read this New York Times article, which discusses Taubes’s claim that the evidence for a link between high fat consumption and heart disease is not very strong.
Which is the subject of the first part of the book; reading it, it looks to me like he’s done a pretty good job of gathering his evidence. His reasoning seems sound, his critiques of others’ reasoning seems sound. Maybe he’s misrepresenting the evidence, I’d like to see an equally well-done refutation of his points, but right now I’m not very convinced at all by the “fat is bad” claims.
What I wasn’t expecting was the rest of the book. One of Taubes’s points is that studies frequently focus on links between cholesterol and death from heart disease. And heart disease is bad, no question, but what I really want to do is increase my (enjoyable) life span, not decrease my chance of dying from heart disease while increasing my chance of dying from something else. (I also don’t want to increase my life span by two months at the cost of having to eat mediocre food for decades, but that’s a separate matter! Not an unimportant one, though.) After talking about fat, he turns to a range of other diseases (diabetes being the one that stuck in my head the most) that, apparently, are completely unknown in many populations before they start moving towards more western lifestyles. (And not unknown solely because of lower life expectancies, either.) So there really is reason to believe that dietary changes over the last century have had significant negative impact on our health; fat, however, doesn’t seem to be the smoking gun.
With which he turns towards presenting a case against excessive carbohydrate consumption. I’d assumed that the Atkins diet was just another fad diet; apparently, it has a rather long history, and the science behind it is a good deal more interesting than I’d thought. (Including links between it and some of the bad kinds of cholesterol; I’ll pay more attention to my triglyceride levels in the future.)
I’m not completely convinced by either the “fat is ok” or “carbohydrates are bad” parts of his argument. (And I don’t think he expects readers to be; the impression that I got is that he’d like a lot more research in certain areas and a lot less reflexive going along with the crowd.) But this doesn’t mesh too badly with my experience; in particular, one of the big changes in my diet since moving out here is that (partly because of the best cookbook ever), we eat pasta all the freaking time. And, going back to my “eat good food” mantra from above, I have a hard time supporting the notion that our diet isn’t rather too pasta-heavy; I’m sure Italians would look at our family menus with horror. So it does seem time to reconsider that part of our diet. And also to ask some basic questions: I’d never seriously considered eating brown rice or whole-grain pasta; maybe I should try them out and figure out if I like them? (The answer turns out to be that I actually seem to prefer brown rice in most contexts; I’m not completely sold on whole-grain pasta yet.)
So we’re experimenting, and our meals have gotten more varied. I’ve done some googling to try to figure out if Taubes is a crackpot or not; so far, I’m not seeing much reason to reject him. Take, for example, this article on carbohydrates from the Harvard School of Public Health. In one section, it talks about measuring the effects of different diets, including the Atkins diet, and says “it looked as though the women in the Atkins group had lost the most weight … and 3.5 for the Zone group. (18) Levels of harmful LDL, protective HDL, and other blood lipids were at least as good among women on the Atkins diet as among those on the low-fat diet”. Note the use of “looked as”: already, we see a rhetorical anti-Atkins positioning in an attempt to mute what sure sounds like good news for Atkins.
They justify their skepticism by saying “If you read the fine print of the study, though, it turns out that few of the women actually stuck with their assigned diets. Those on the Atkins diet were supposed to limit their carbohydrate intake to 50 grams a day, but they took in almost triple that amount. The Ornish dieters were supposed to limit their fat intake to under 10 percent of their daily calories, but they got about 30 percent from fat. There were similar deviations for the Zone and LEARN groups. What this and other diet comparisons tell us is that sticking with a diet is more important than the diet itself.” And, frankly, they should be ashamed of that conclusion: they’re trying to pretend that all of the diets would be equally effective if people stuck with them, without a shred of evidence presented in favor of that, while simultaneously brushing away what evidence the study actually presents.
This is exactly the sort of thing that Taubes mentions over and over in his book, where studies are interpreted in as anti-fat a method as possible. And there’s more of it later in the article: they admit that certain studies give evidence that certain low-carb diets are good for you, but present this in a tone of “well, if you go the low-carb route, you probably aren’t consigning yourself to early death, but who knows” rather than “you know, maybe these low-carb people really are on to something”.
If nothing else, being kicked out of a diet rut is to the good. And I’m happy to no longer have to feel guilty about eating bacon.
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