Saturday, September 25, 2010

Diet and Obesity: What Causes What?

Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes' attempt to bring down the current nutritional paradigm, should be read more than once. I'm on my second time through.

Let me attempt to distill the argument down to its essentials. It has both a negative and a positive aspect. The negative is its criticism of current nutritional science. The positive is its construction of a causal arrow to explain the explosion in obesity and its associated diseases. I'll lay out the positive first. (I will simplify but will take care to say nothing flatly false.)

Let us consider the so-called SAD - the Standard American Diet. It is a diet rich in sugars and starches. The root cause of obesity in those who eat the SAD, Taubes argues, is the quality of the calories ingested. When we eat carbohydrate-rich foods such as sugar, wheat, rice and potatoes, this leads to a spike in insulin. This spike in insulin results both in an increase in fat stores and in an too-early onset of hunger. This hunger is again sated through ingestion of sugar and starch, and thus we circle back again to fat storage and resurgent hunger.

If this is so - if, as Taubes argues, the root cause of obesity (and its attendant diseases) is the quality of the food we eat - then to attack the root of the problem, we must change not the amount but the kind of foods we eat. We must, in a word, cut out the carbs. The sugars must go; the starches must go. They must be replaced by an increase in fat and protein. (Just how much of each? This is not the place to answer, but I will say that we must lose our fear of fat. Fat does a body good.) If this is so, the body will no longer find itself in fat-storage mode. Fat stores will be released; pounds will be shed. Moreover, the body will seek out its proper weight, and the maintenance of that weight will be just as much a matter of homeostatic equilibrium as is body temperature. If we give the body the proper sort of food, then the body will adjust to fluctuations in caloric intake so that it might maintain an ideal weight. Less than is necessary and it will raid its own fat and protein stores; more than is necessary and it will "turn up the thermostat" and simply burn the excess calories off.

Now let's consider the negative aspect of Taubes' argument. This is his brilliant critique of the diet and nutrition and status quo. That status quo would have us believe that the body does not seek out an ideal weight, that it will always put on extra weight if fed an excess of calories. It will not adjust. It will burn calories at the same rate no matter what we eat or how much. If this were so, then to attack the root cause of obesity, we must simply convince the obese to eat less, and indeed this would be the only way to attack the obesity epidemic. Obesity is, on this view, a matter of behavior and behavior alone. The obese choose to overeat, and as a result they grow fat.

Taubes' objection to this is that it gets the direction of the causal arrow wrong. Of course the obese eat more than they use; if they did not, they could never have gained weight. But that this is so does not imply that their overindulgence is the cause of their obesity. Indeed another hypothesis has much stronger empirical support. The other hypothesis flips the direction of causation. On it, we aren't fat because we overeat. Instead it would be much closer to the truth to say that we overeat because we are fat. The same mechanism that drives fat accumulation - spikes in insulin production - is the very same mechanism that drives us to overeat. This mechanism is the product of the quality of the food we eat. It comes about because we eat too little fat and protein and too much carbohydrate.

Here's a little suggestion. Give a low-carb diet a try for two weeks. Cut out all sugar (except for the minimal amounts contained in low-carb vegetables). Cut out all grains and potatoes. Eat meat and fat to satiety, and make certain that those fats are of the "old" sort - tallow, lard, butter, olive oil and nut oils. Observe your weight. Compare your new energy levels to those from before. (You might feel unwell in the first few days. Some do, some don't. The body has to undergo a basic metabolic transformation. It has to transform from a machine that burns carbs to one that burns fat.) I do believe that you will find that Taubes' arrow of causality is the right one. You won't be hungry, but you will begin to burn off your fat stores and lose weight; and if you're anything like me (or the thousands of other folks who've done the same) you'll feel great.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I feel as if we here in the U.S. have gone astray. I feel that something has gone very wrong.

I take myself to know that the Standard American Diet (SAD) has been a disaster. We're fatter and sicker than we've ever been. We're weak and indolent. We're fearful. We're resentful. This is all due in part (in greater part I think) to our diet.

But it's not only our diet that's gone far off track. There's much else wrong too. I see it in my students. Many are passive. Many don't value their education; many don't take an active role in it. Many just sit back, listen a little, work a little, and hope for the best. They seem to have little idea of what it means to actually learn a thing. You can't just sit back. You've gotta get up off your behind and get to work, and you've gotta get help if you can't do it by yourself. Lord have mercy! I don't know how many times I've begged students at risk to come to me with their questions only to watch them miss even the most simple problems on test day. Was it that they didn't really know that they didn't get it? Probably not. It's just that they didn't really care.

Why didn't they care? Why do I watch my foreign-born students work their little brown butts off while their many of their peers from the U.S. just sit there? Here's my guess. We here in the U.S. have come to take our prosperity for granted. We take it for granted that, no matter how much we screw around, everything will turn out fine. This was true for awhile - perhaps from 1945 until just a few years ago. But it ain't true anymore. The economy has tanked, and it's not gonna come back anytime soon. What was true before has become true again: If you screw around, you might just be screwed. My students from India, Mexico and China know this. My students from the U.S. don't. They figure they'll be fine no matter what. I'll predict that they'll suffer for this.

Here's a list of other deep problems in our culture. I'm sure that you could add to the list. I'm sure that I could too.

The sexualization of youth
The proliferation of pornography
The scourge of drug and alcohol abuse
The endless hours spent inside in front of a monitor or television
The endless hours at work and the resultant neglect of family
The millions of children born out of wedlock

But why focus on the negative? Isn't there some good here too? Of course there is. But the good is on the retreat. The bad is ascendant. We have to get hold of the bad and beat it back down. But this we'll never do until we know where it comes from.

I have an idea about the source of our problems. There's a thread that runs through all the problems, a thread that binds them all together. We've come to embrace fakes! Take, for example, the crap that we eat - all the bread, pasta, candy, soda, and all the rest. It's all fake food. Yes, it's food-like. Yes, the body can run off it (not well, of course, but it does at least prevent starvation). But it's not the real thing. The real thing is what we were made to eat. The real thing is meat (and a bit of fruit and vegetable). Grains are new food - a mere 10,000 years old at most. Refined sugar is new food. Soy is new food. Moreover, we've come to find that they're not good food. They rot the body from the inside. I'd call them fakes.

Another example. Students today don't know what it is to really learn a thing. They think that education is something that just happens. Of course that's as wrong-headed as wrong-headed can be. They've accepted a sham, a mock-up, for the real thing. Education is an active, focused endeavor. It's work. Many students don't get that. They've accepted a sham, a mock-up, for the real thing. I suspect that they don't even know what the real thing is.

Pornography is obvious fakery.

Drugs cause fake experiences. Yes I know that the highs are intensely pleasurable. But the mind wasn't made to experience that sort of pleasure whenever we happen to want it. It was meant to be rare, and when we make it common we've created a sham. (We destroy ourselves too, just like with SAD.)

I'll end here. But I have a challenge for you. Look back over my list. In every case we've allowed ourselves to be fooled. We've fallen for the allure of an easy fake. Try to explain why. (It shouldn't cause you too much trouble. The fakery is plain.)

Here's the moral if you missed it. Don't accept fakes. They make you sick, stupid and miserable. Demand the real thing. Do what's necessary to get it. It's out there. Find out what it is and got after it.