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.”