Gary Taubes Uses Hyperbole Instead Of Science To Make A Point

Here’s Gary Taubes’ new article in the New York Times:

Diet Advice That Ignores Hunger, Gary Taubes, New York Times Sunday Review, 29 August 2015

Taubes discussed two studies in his new article:  the 1945 Minnesota Starvation Experiment, and this NIH study that I blogged about when it came out a couple weeks ago (Eating Low-Fat Results in More Body Fat Loss than Eating Low-Carb):

Taubes selected the classic starvation study, a study we wouldn’t conduct today because it is unethical, to drive home his argument that eating less causes people to become depressed and suicidal … to chop their fingers off! Pure hyperbole.

The men in the Minnesota Starvation Study were not cutting back to lose a few pounds for their health. They were purposely starved, their health purposely damaged, to investigate how severe food restriction affects the body and mind, to mirror the experience of starvation in World War II concentration camps. The Minnesota men lost 25% of their original healthy weight. Do you think they might have been depressed?

Here are some actual photos of men in The Minnesota Starvation Study. (BBC and Civilian Public Service.)

MinnesotaStarvationExperiment2 MinnesotaStarvationExperiment4 MinnesotaStarvationExperiment3

Taubes is being disingenuous here. Someone needs to call him on it. Dr. Ornish did. Here’s a comment Ornish left on the article saying that Taubes was appealing to people’s emotions rather than science:

Dean Ornish Sauslito 2 days ago
The idea that most people following a very low-fat diet are going to become depressed, lethargic, irritable, suicidal, and start chopping off their fingers is just demagoguery.

Almost 3,000 people who consumed a whole foods, plant-based diet with about 10% of calories from fat cut their depression scores almost in half after 12 weeks and after 1 year. BMI decreased by 8% after 12 weeks and maintained that degree of weight loss after one year. People ate whenever they were hungry until they were satiated; they ate more food, and more frequently, yet lost weight and kept it off. All biomarkers improved. Without counting calories. And they still have all of their fingers. [Am J Health Promot. 2010;24:260–266.]

What creates satiety is not just the number of calories; it’s also the volume of food. Fat has 9 calories/gram whereas protein and carbs have only 4. When you eat less fat, you consume fewer calories without eating less food.

Most studies comparing different diets find that adherence to any of the diets is not very good, so it’s hard to make judgments. What makes the NIH metabolic ward study you cited so important is they knew exactly what people were consuming. Just because you don’t like what they found — calorie for calorie, reducing dietary fat results in 67% more body fat loss than reducing dietary carbs — doesn’t make it wrong. And trying to obscure that fact with fear and loathing is not going to change that.

Dean Ornish, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Medicine, UCSF

Taubes is also being disingenuous when he says:

Questions like these about the relationship between calories, macronutrients and hunger have haunted nutrition and obesity research since the late 1940s. But rarely are they asked.

Of course these questions are asked. There is a lot of science that reflects just these questions. There is a lot of science that supports consumption of a low-fat diet, not just for weight loss but for long-term health. Taubes says people cannot lose weight eating a low-fat diet because it will cause them to feel hungry. Let me show you why that’s not true (besides the study Ornish cited).


Photo of the actual food participants ate during The Evo Diet Experiment. From BBC.

Remember the Evo Diet? A group of volunteers were housed at a British zoo for 12 days and fed “the sort of diet our ape-like ancestors once ate.” Each morning a cooler containing 11 pounds of fruits, vegetables, and nuts was delivered to each participant (see photo). It was a very high-carb, low-fat diet that provided enough calories so that participants wouldn’t lose weight. Well, participants lost weight. And they weren’t hungry. Many couldn’t finish their 11 pounds of food.

After just 12 days on the Evo Diet:

  • Cholesterol dropped 23% (e.g. From 210 to 162 mg/dl)
  • Blood pressure dropped from 140/83 to 122/76
  • Weight dropped 9.7 lbs

Barnard et al. found the same thing when he told his study participants, who were not in a zoo but were free-living, and who had diabetes no less, to eat unlimited amounts of plant foods, raw and cooked.1  That included … potatoes, squashes, corn, rice, oats, wheat, beans, legumes, and all manner of fruits and vegetables.  It was low-fat, very high-carb diet – over 70% of their food energy came from carbohydrates.

After 6 months on the plant-based diet:

  • Weight dropped 14.3 pounds
  • HbA1c fell 1.23 points (HbA1c is a measure of blood glucose)
  • LDL cholesterol fell 21.2%

They also experienced reductions in BMI, waist circumference, total cholesterol, had improved kidney function, and many reduced their diabetes medications. They were eating unlimited amounts of food.

It is simply not true that a low-fat diet is not satisfying or cannot contribute to weight loss.

1A Low-Fat Vegan Diet Improves Glycemic Control And Cardiovascular Risk Factors In A Randomized Clinical Trial In Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes, Diabetes Care, August 2006

3 thoughts on “Gary Taubes Uses Hyperbole Instead Of Science To Make A Point

  1. Bix Post author

    Really, you could pick any restriction of these men in the starvation study – say, alcohol or cigarettes or caffeine – in addition to, of course, the fact that they were starving, that might have caused them to be depressed. Not the macronutrient content of their diet.


  2. Pingback: 3200 Calories In 1945, 2640 Calories In 2010. But We Weigh More. | Fanatic Cook

  3. Pingback: 3200 Calories In 1945, 2640 Calories In 2010, But We Weigh More | Fanatic Cook

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