Is sugar toxic? To lose weight, do we reduce the carbs in our diet, or the fat? Why do many people find it easy to lose weight, but nearly impossible to keep it off?
These are the some of the nutrition-related questions that the journalist Gary Taubes has addressed more assiduously than probably any other science reporter in the country in recent years. On Sunday, in a piece in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times, he gives us the answers to these and similar questions. But not the answers we might like.
The answer to many of these questions, Taubes writes, is: We don't know. That's despite what he says are more than 600,000 articles on obesity or diabetes (a frequent consequence of obesity). Taubes:
Because the nutrition research community has failed to establish reliable, unambiguous knowledge about the environmental triggers of obesity and diabetes, it has opened the door to a diversity of opinions on the subject, of hypotheses about cause, cure and prevention, many of which cannot be refuted by the existing evidence. Everyone has a theory. The evidence doesn’t exist to say unequivocally who’s wrong.
He goes on to say that "advice to restrict fat or avoid saturated fat has been based on suppositions" about what might have been learned if expensive, large-scale studies had been launched in the 1960s. But such studies, which might have cost a billion dollars and come up with the wrong answers anyway, were deemed too expensive, he writes.
This is a first-rate analysis of the problems involved in doing the research to help prevent obesity, the diseases it leads to, and the huge expenditures of treating those diseases.
I have not always agreed with Taubes, who has often seemed to me to be too certain about what should be done to combat obesity. In a cover story in the Times Sunday Magazine in 2011, he praised a researcher who was "willing to insist publicly and unambiguously, when most researchers are not, that sugar is a toxic substance that people abuse." He made a very strong case against eating sugar, arguing that it not only makes us fatter, but that it causes cancer and a variety of other disorders. In a post I wrote on that story, I said that I thought Taubes was too sure of himself, too sure that sugar was toxic when the evidence wasn't in. In fairness, he concluded his piece by saying that. "Officially I’m not supposed to worry because the evidence isn’t conclusive, but I do," he wrote.
In yesterday's piece, he took a more moderate stance, writing, "Obesity and diabetes are epidemic, and yet the only relevant fact on which relatively unambiguous data exist to support a consensus is that most of us are surely eating too much of something. (My vote is sugars and refined grains; we all have our biases.)"
Taubes ends with a call for more research, but what he doesn't say in the article is that he has helped to launch an effort to push for such research, something he calls the Nutrition Science Initiative, which I described in a 2012 post. (The article does identify him as a co-founder of the initiative.)
Taubes is an interesting example of how a reporter who is passionate about an issue can become an activist and still write about it. In a comment on my post about his sugar story, he wrote, "Much of my struggle writing about these issues is to convince my journalistic peers that the arguments I'm making should be taken seriously, even though I'm just one of them, a journalist, and don't have an endowed chair at an institution of higher learning."
In my view, Taubes has struck the right chord in this most recent piece. He argues and he persuades, and he also informs. That's not easy to do.