One-Minute Book Reviews

October 9, 2007

Gary Taubes’s ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

 

The latest in a series of occasional posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish themGood Calories, Bad Calories

Title: Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease. By Gary Taubes. Knopf, 601 pp., $29.95.

What it is: An investigative report on the diet advice fed to us by government and other nutrition authorities. A major theme is that obesity “experts” have demonized fat on the basis little or no scientific evidence. Refined carbohydrates, Taubes argues, pose a greater threat to health. And those fat-free brownies may hurt you more than foods that have more fat but fewer carbs. Taubes sums up his conclusions in a 10-point list on page 454. Point No. 1 is: “Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.”

How much I read: The prologue and first chapter, the epilogue, and a couple of chapters in between, nearly 100 pages.

Why I stopped reading: I liked this book and, because of it, had a salad for dinner instead of the steamed pork dumplings from the Chinese place. But it develops ideas I’d read in other books and in an article Taubes wrote for The New York Times Magazine (“What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?,” July 7, 2002). So its arguments, though strong, weren’t strikingly new to me. And Good Calories, Bad Calories is getting so much attention, it didn’t seem to need me as much as, say, books by obscure poets who live on canned ravioli because those ultra-refined carbs are all they can afford.

Best line in what I read: “Between 1987 and 1994, independent research groups from Harvard Medical School, the University of California, San Francisco, and McGill University in Montreal addressed the question of how much longer we might expect to live if no more than 30 per cent of our calories came from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat, as recommended by the various government agencies…

“The Harvard study, led by William Taylor, concluded that men with a high risk of heart disease, such as smokers with high blood pressure, might gain one extra year of life by shunning saturated fat. Healthy nonsmokers, however, might expect to gain only three days to three months …

“The UCSF study, led by Warren Browner, was initiated and funded by the Surgeon General’s Office. This study concluded that cutting fat consumption in America would delay 42,000 deaths each year, but the average life expectancy would increase by only three to four months. To be precise, a man who might otherwise die at 65 could expect to live an extra month if he avoided saturated fat for his entire adult life. If he lived to be 90, he could expect an extra four months. The McGill study, published in 1994, concluded that reducing saturated fat in the diet would result in an average life expectancy of four days to two months.”

Worst line in what I read: None by Taubes. So let’s go with a clinker written by the New York Times’s Jane Brody, who kept promoting high-fiber diets long after large-scale studies showed that they had few or no long-term benefits: “But dietary fiber … has myriads of benefits,” Brody wrote. Taubes quotes this line in a chapter on fiber that debunks much of the media hype about it.

Recommendation? This is not a diet book, but a book in the spirit of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Greg Critser’s Fat Land. Don’t miss Taubes’s brief and low-keyed – but nonetheless damning — analyses of Brody’s Personal Health column in the Times.

Published: September 2007 www.aaknopf.com

Furthermore: Taubes is a correspondent for Science magazine who, according to his dust jacket, is “the only print journalist who has won three Science in Society Journalism awards, given by the National Association of Science Writers.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

10 Comments »

  1. Losing and gaining weight is absolutely simple:
    Eat enough to provide you with energy for what you do on a daily basis – and no more.
    Take note of your descent, if you are from a particular place in the world in ancestry, you may need to eat more or less or cut/add certain foodgroups that were/were not available where your ancestors lived.

    If you want to go on a ‘diet’ – eat soup.

    Comment by Tim Wheatley — October 9, 2007 @ 6:25 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Janice, I LOVE this series of entries. There were several books I didn’t (couldn’t!) finish this year. Thank you for making me feel less guilty about it.

    Comment by lisamm — October 10, 2007 @ 1:28 am | Reply

  3. Tim: Your point about ancestry is interesting and rarely made. To this day my tastes in food are still shapes by having spent much of my childhood living with my Hungarian grandmother. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Lisa: My pleasure. One of the things that I hope comes through in this series is that the books I can’t finish aren’t always bad. Taubes’s book, what I read of it, was very good. But it’s 600+ pages, and the world is full of tempting books …

    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 10, 2007 @ 10:11 am | Reply

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  5. [...] 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom wrote a fantastic post today on “Gary Taubesâs âGood Calories, Bad Caloriesâ (Books I Didnât Finish)”Here’s ONLY a quick extract“The Harvard study, led by William Taylor, concluded that men with a high risk of heart disease, such as smokers with high blood pressure, might gain one extra year of life by shunning saturated fat. Healthy nonsmokers, however, might … [...]

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  6. Keep reading – the new stuff comes later in the book, and really challenges the way we think about obesity and eating.

    Cool blog!

    Comment by provisdom — October 15, 2007 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

  7. Thanks for the encouragement. This is one of the books I actually would like to finish.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 15, 2007 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

  8. Her’es more encouragement to finish it: if you only read the prologue, epilogue, chapter 1, and a couple of additional chapters, you probably missed the most amazing part of the book. Taubes argues that we have mixed up cause and effect. Most people (including your first commenter) think that people are fat because they eat too much and don’t exercise enough. Taubes argues, with plenty of research to back him up, that it’s just the opposite: people eat too much and exercise too little because they are fat. That is, obese people have a metabolic condition that causes most of their energy intake to be stored as fat rather than used by other cells. This induces a state of cellular starvation that makes people hungry and tired all the time. This suggests an answer to why so many people fail at low-calorie diets, or if they do succeed in losing weight, gain it all back later. It’s because a low-calorie diet doesn’t address the condition that causes the body to overfill the fat cells at the expense of starving the other cells in the body.

    Comment by psipsina — October 16, 2007 @ 4:58 pm | Reply

  9. Very pithy summary. Thanks! I still hope to get back to Taubes’s book. But month the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced last week, the Man Booker winner will be named in an hour or so, and then there are the just-released names of National Book Award finalists … So these are busy times for literary bloggers.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 16, 2007 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

  10. psipsina – but unlike the chicken and the egg argument, we know that people are not born fat, so what made them be fat enough to have that fat metabolic condition in the first place?

    Most people fail on diet and exercising actually because initially they are likely to put on weight, they need to build muscle to carry the fat around under their new regime – and they do that quicker than the fat will burn away.

    …and while I’m on a roll, the Rooster came first.

    Comment by Tim Wheatley — October 30, 2007 @ 7:36 am | Reply


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