Book Review: Why We Get Fat

I found Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat to be provocative and persuasive. It challenged my long held assumption that the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. Taubes’ hypothetical exposes the oddity of the “eat less, exercise more” maxim:

Imagine you’re invited to a celebratory dinner. The chef’s talent is legendary, and the invitation says that this particular dinner is going to be a feast of monumental proportions. Bring your appetite, you’re told—come hungry. How would you do it? You might try to eat less over the course of the day—maybe even skip lunch, or breakfast and lunch. You might go to the gym for a particularly vigorous workout, or go for a longer run or swim than usual, to work up an appetite. You might even decide to walk to the dinner, rather than drive, for the same reason. Now let’s think about this for a moment. The instructions that we’re constantly being given to lose weight—eat less (decrease the calories we take in) and exercise more (increase the calories we expend)—are the very same things we’ll do if our purpose is to make ourselves hungry, to build up an appetite, to eat more. Now the existence of an obesity epidemic coincident with half a century of advice to eat less and exercise more begins to look less paradoxical.

I also liked this sentence:

To ‘explain’ obesity by overeating is as illuminating a statement as an ‘explanation’ of alcoholism by chronic overdrinking.

The thesis of the book is that what you eat determines weight loss. Namely, what kind and how many carbohydrates. Taubes advocates the Atkins diet — low carb, high protein, high fat. Taubes is a science journalist, not a researcher himself, so he positions himself as a syntheizer of the literature. Here’s his recent podcast interview with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. For a more skeptical take, here’s a blog post from Scientific American.

I reccomend Why We Get Fat to anyone interested in nutrition, diet, and health. Thanks to Saar Gur and Tod Sacerdoti for the recomendation.

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Also from the book: diet and disease:

Eat Western diets, get Western diseases—notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is one of the primary reasons why public-health experts believe that there are dietary and lifestyle causes for all these diseases, even cancer—that they’re not just the result of bad luck or bad genes.

To get a feel for the kind of modern evidence supporting this idea, consider breast cancer. In Japan, this disease is relatively rare, certainly not the scourge it is for American women. But when Japanese women emigrate to the United States, it takes only two generations for their descendants to experience the same breast-cancer rates as any other local ethnic group. This tells us that something about the American lifestyle or diet is causing breast cancer.

Colon cancer is ten times more common in rural Connecticut than in Nigeria. Alzheimer’s disease is far more common among Japanese Americans than among Japanese living in Japan; it’s twice as common among African Americans as among rural Africans. Pick a disease from the list of Western diseases, and a pair of locations—one urban, say, and one rural, or one Westernized and one not—compare people in the same age groups, and the disease will be more common in the urban and Westernized locations and less common outside them.

10 Responses to Book Review: Why We Get Fat

  1. FMT says:

    I read Taubes book, in one sitting, about 15 months ago and changed my way of eating to low carbs that same day. The results were almost instant; within 2 weeks I was tightening my belt. The fat loss continued rapidly. I was obese for years (and gradually getting bigger and bigger), but lost it all within 6 months and returned to a normal weight. And its been sustainable – I only eat low-carb now. So, of course, I highly recommend the book.

  2. JSB says:

    Check out the Nutrition Science Initiative, which Gary Taubes and Peter Attia just launched. The plan is to do the first-ever large-scale and well-controlled dietary studies. http://nusi.org

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    It was hard to go low carb, but after 2 years, I’m able to do so without too much difficulty.

    It’s probably no coincidence that I’m the only one of my college friends that hasn’t gained over 30 pounds since graduation.

  4. David Casnocha says:

    See 9/22/12 NYT editorial by Dean Ornish of UCSF for another perspective on healthy eating and losing weight.

  5. Rick Cecil says:

    Loved the book. And agree that low-carb is much healthier than the diet recommended by the FDA. That being said, I’ve found that the paleo diet provides a richer source of nutrients as it emphasizes lots of vegetables, meats, and healthy fats and doesn’t allow overly processed foods in general. The real turning point for me, with low-carb diets, was when Atkins started promoting their own brand of low-carb candy bars (disguised as energy bars). Seemed a bit ridiculous that they were discouraging some fruits, but allowing candy bars?

    Anyway, I strongly recommend looking into the paleo diet. If you ignore the “eat like a caveman” mythos and look at the foods it recommends, I think it is an incredibly healthy outlook on food.

  6. Kare says:

    Ben I believe in Dean Ornish’s approach
    link to nytimes.com

  7. The first quote is not a strong argument; it does nothing to refute the proposition that weight loss will result from calories in << calories spent

  8. Colin Post says:

    Low-carb is a great diet for people who are already obese or overweight. But it’s not good for people who don’t need to lose weight, and it’s detrimental for athletes and active people.

    Carbohydrates are the only nutrient capable of fueling anaerobic activity. You could never play basketball (sprinting and jumping) without carbs. You could never lift weights or strength train. To incorporate hard sports or activity, you’ll need carbs.

    Every nutrient plays an important role in the body. Carbs fuel anaerobic energy. Protein builds muscle. Fats support hormone production. The Western diet easily goes overboard on all three, but the only people who should go low-carb long-term are overweight or obese.

    I think Paleo is the best fad diet in a long time because it’s based on natural foods. Jack LaLanne said, “If man made it, don’t eat it.” However, too many people use Paleo to justify massive quantities of meat and fat. In Paleo times, man ate one calorie of fruits / vegetables for every calorie of meat. Do you have any idea how much volume of vegetables that is? A true Paleo eater would eat more vegetables than a vegetarian.

    You mentioned Asian diets. They eat rice everyday – the antithesis of low-carb – and remain slim and healthy.

    I think obesity comes down to what you originally believed: excess and abundance in food combined with little to no physical activity. I’d add education and nutritional knowledge.

  9. Michael Rosenman says:

    Very nice review, but I strongly disagree about the low carb high fat part. A low carb diet is fine for people who have significant weight to lose. In this case, the benefits of losing significant weight outweigh the detriments of not having carbs. The excess weight will come off quickly, which is fine, but carbs are essential over time, and need to be consumed as part of any healthy nutrition program. The idea of a high fat diet being healthy is insane. Giving the blood stream a consistently high concentration of cholesterol will not result in happy arteries. Certain fats may be better than others but, given the unfortunate state of our population, I believe that the benefits which come from promoting a low fat nutrition program would far exceed the benefits that come as a result of trying to get people to understand that some fats may be better than others. Little benefit for a lot of detriment….

  10. Finja says:

    The first paragraph is not a description of “exercise more, eat less” but of “exercise more, be hungry, eat more” – my solution has always been “exercise more, be hungry, don’t eat”… surprise surprise, haven’t gained a pound in ten years.
    It’s apparently the “eat less” part that people don’t get because it’s pretty hard to do… but if it was easy, everybody would be thin, right?

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