KSJ Tracker December 13, 2012

Science reporter turns activist: Gary Taubes helps launch a nutrition research institute.

Credit: Kirsten Lara Getchell

Gary Taubes is the author of two of the most controversial and potentially explosive articles that The New York Times Magazine has published in the past decade. One appeared in 2002 under the headline, "What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" The other was published in April, 2011, with the cover language "Sweet and Vicious: The case against sugar."

The first challenged the notion that low-fat diets are the way to lose weight. He quoted researchers who said that "low-fat weight-loss diets have proved in clinical trials and real life to be dismal failures, and that on top of it all, the percentage of fat in the American diet has been decreasing for two decades. Our cholesterol levels have been declining, and we have been smoking less, and yet the incidence of heart disease has not declined as would be expected."

The second reports on the case against sugar as a "toxin" or a "poison," as simply "evil." One of the researchers he talks to describes sugar as "the most demonized additive known to man." Taubes is not shy.

Taubes is a smart, seasoned, and talented reporter. Yet I have expressed some hesitation about his writing, arguing that while it was provocative, I was never entirely convinced by his arguments. I've had trouble explaining why that is; the best I can say is that when I finished each of these articles, I felt Taubes had not quite made his case.

Now Taubes is back with a surprising and interesting announcement. In an article in Nature, he reports that he has co-founded an organization called the Nutrition Science Initiative to encourage research on what he and his colleagues believe are the real causes of obesity--sugar and refined carbohydrates, not fat and lack of exercise.

The headline of the Nature piece is "Treat obesity as physiology, not physics." In other words, get rid out of the calories-in, calories-out idea that, in order to lose weight, we must consume less than we burn. "The alternative hypothesis — that obesity is a hormonal, regulatory defect — leads to a different prescription," he writes. "It is not excess calories that cause obesity, but the quantity and quality of carbohydrates consumed." He continues:

This conclusion is based on endocrinology that has been understood for 50 years: insulin regulates fat accumulation, and blood levels of insulin are effectively determined by carbohydrate intake. The more easily digestible are the carbohydrates we eat (the higher their glycemic index) and the sweeter they are (the higher their fructose content) the higher are our blood insulin levels, and the more fat accumulates.

Taubes and his colleagues at the Nutrition Science Initiative searched the scientific literature for all relevant studies on these questions but could not find "the rigorous experimental evidence necessary to establish definitively the truth or falsehood of either hypothesis," Taubes reports.

The new initiative "aims to fund and facilitate the trials necessary to rigorously test the competing hypotheses," he writes.

While I've expressed some concerns about Taubes's writing, I have no hesitation here. Taubes is taking his writing reporting in a fascinating and unexpected direction, and I wish him and his colleagues well.

-Paul Raeburn


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