Science, logic sorely lacking in pro-Atkins article
Back in 2002, when The New York Times was still the most respectable American newspaper imaginable, its magazine section ran a piece by Gary Taubes with the headline “What if it’s All a Big Fat Lie?” and people around the nation, journalists, scientists, and the everyday public alike, rushed to reconsider their notions of fat and nutrition. In the ensuing year, the Times has seen its credibility torpedoed by twin scandals of bogus reporting, but so far Taubes’ 7,700-word pro-Atkins essay – illustrated by a cut of butter-slathered steak – has largely escaped close scrutiny. Indeed, his fat apologia has been picked up by the mainstream press as the operating story, and new studies, even when inconclusive or negative toward Atkins, are being spun as further proof of the new paradigm.
In “Big Fat Lie,” Taubes gleefully trashed decades of nutrition advice from various experts to prove that “Atkins was right all along.” Robert Atkins, who died in March of a slip on the ice, was of course the most famous proponent of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets, author of the best-selling “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.” The fact that Gary Taubes, an Atkins devotee, was assigned by the Times to write a seemingly objective analysis of the good doctor’s theories is just one of many questions raised by “Big Fat Lie.”
A close look finds Taubes misquoting, misrepresenting, equivocating and running logical loop-the-loops to persuade us that Atkins had the answer, before finally revealing that he’s on the diet himself and doesn’t really care whether it shortens his life. Doubtless most readers are unaware of the CNN report in which scientists quoted by Taubes backed away from the concepts attributed to them. And few probably saw the Washington Post article citing all the peer-reviewed scientific studies that directly contradict Taubes’ “low-fat diets don’t work” mantra.
Even on its face, “Big Fat Lie” isn’t what it appears. Taubes, the daring iconoclast, “exposes” the fact that fat can be good for you and that low-carb diets can cause weight loss, then tries to put these together to form an endorsement of the healthfulness of Atkins’ program. But wait: Nutritionists never said NO fat was healthy; and it’s not whether they cause temporary weight loss that concerns people about Atkins-style diets – it’s whether they’re harmful to your overall, long-term health. In other words, Taubes’ great achievement in 7,700 words is to knock down two obvious “straw man” arguments that no one ever made.
What he fails to prove, though, is their converse – that SATURATED fat is good for you, or that Atkins’ diet ISN’T dangerous over the long term – exactly where the argument has been all along. So he slams the establishment for vilifying “fats,” Taubes means “saturated fats,” but when he cites positive health effects of “fats” he cites studies on monounsaturated fats.
Similarly, when he warns of the dangers of “high carb” intake, he means sugar, corn syrup, and some starches, not the fruits, beans, and whole grains that make up such a large part of a healthful, plant-based diet. Now, it’s true that the USDA Food Pyramid does probably err in presenting grains as an undifferentiated, eat-all-you-want base for our diet, but Taubes wildly overstates the effect this has had on American eating patterns. In his thinking, we’ve become more obese because we’re eating exactly as the Food Pyramid tells us to, so the pyramid must be completely wrong. He conveniently avoids any mention of how few Americans actually eat according to the guidelines (fewer than a third, according to the Department of Health and Human Services), and ridicules the notion that our food choices may be more influenced by our ad-saturated instant-gratification culture than by the opinions of scientists.
Shortly after this piece appeared, an American Dietetic Association survey showed that most of us get our nutrition advice from commercial television. But in Taubes’ world, that’s irrelevant: We eat junk food because of USDA “low fat” guidelines. We guzzle soft drinks, he says, because “they are fat free and so appear intrinsically healthy.” That’s right: Soft drinks “appear intrinsically healthy!” Have you ever heard ANYONE make a health claim for Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Mountain Dew because they’re “fat free?” It’s no secret that these things are heavily branded sugar water, or that sugar makes you fat. But it’s more important to be cool, to be refreshed, to obey your thirst, to get that jolt of caffeine and sugar right now.
Taubes finds it inconceivable “that the copious negative reinforcement that accompanies obesity – both socially and physically – is easily overcome by the constant bombardment of food advertising and the lure of a supersize bargain meal.” In other words, being obese is so punishing that people who continue to live on fast food must be doing so because they consider it healthy. This disingenuousness underlies much of Taubes’ analysis, which seeks to tie a decades-long rise in obesity to recent recommendations to lower our fat intake.
The impact of the food pyramid, which replaced the “Four Food Groups” in 1992, was apparently so great that it caused us to gain weight a full ten years before the pyramid appeared!: “The percentage of obese Americans,” Taubes reports, “stayed relatively constant through the 1960’s and 1970’s at 13 percent to 14 percent and then shot up by 8 percentage points in the 1980’s.” Taubes feigns mystification at the fact that during this rise, we’ve been eating less fat as a percentage of calories. Yet a few sentences later he mentions that we’re also eating 400 more calories every day. As it happens, we’re NOT eating less fat now, we’re eating slightly more – something he never finds room to mention – but we’re definitely eating way more food, way more calories – you know, the thing that makes you fat? So what’s the best way to avoid excess calories and still get good nutrition? Easy: Nutritious foods that are low in calories – a description that befits most unprocessed plant foods. Remember that gram for gram, fat has twice the calories that carbs do, without providing twice the vitamins.
But that’s OK, because Atkins’ plan is for you to get vitamins elsewhere – namely, from the Atkins Center, which sells “Atkins” brand vitamins at phenomenal prices. The “Diet-Pak,” for instance, containing “a month’s supply of all the nutritional support your body needs to survive and thrive during controlled carb weight loss,” is on sale for $53.96 (marked down from $63.96). That word “survive” is a little jarring – the implication is, if you want to be sure this diet doesn’t kill you, fork over $640 a year (assuming that sale price holds) to get the nutrients missing in your “nutrient-dense” food supply. Taubes doesn’t bring any of this up, of course, but he tacitly admits that the diet is dependent on vitamin supplements to deliver adequate nutrition. In his prime example of a clinically successful Atkins-style diet, he reports that “the diet was ‘lean meat, fish and fowl’ supplemented by vitamins and minerals.” Note that even the meat is lower-fat. This is a big fat endorsement? There are other interesting omissions in this very long article, not least the many non-vitamin-related health liabilities associated with a high-animal-protein diet (see sidebar). Nor does Taubes seem to want to discuss the charge that Atkins-style diets cause constipation. After all, what’s a little discomfort here and there when you’re improving your health through the power of saturated fat?
As if weak logic, straw-man arguments, and careful selection of factoids was not enough to drive his point home, Taubes apparently stooped to misrepresenting his sources and to denying the existence of data that didn’t fit.
Some would be surprised that in his thorough examination of the relationship of high- or low-carb diets to heart disease, Taubes conveniently forgot to consider the peer-reviewed successes of, say, Dean Ornish, but it’s much more than that: his summary of what science has found out about these issues is so skewed as to border on outright fraud.
Scripps Howard columnist Michael Fumento quotes Stanford University cardiologist Dr. John Farquhar as saying “I was greatly offended by how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins Diet. I’m sorry I ever talked to him.”
And, CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen (7/8/02) spoke to three of the Harvard researchers spotlighted in Taubes’ piece – the ones representing a major shift in thinking about Atkins – and heard from them that Taubes had misrepresented their positions on the matter of fats vs. carbs. They all explained that there are good fats and bad fats, and good carbs and bad carbs, making the categorical distinctions that Taubes had worked so hard to elide. And “…cheeseburgers, pork chops, butter and bacon,” Cohen says, “the folks who I talked to said: ‘You know what? We don’t like that kind of fat. We don’t think that’s good for people.”
One Harvard researcher Taubes cited is Walter Willett, who has long been a critic of the prevalence of starchy grains in USDA recommendations, among other things. Taubes seems to elicit phrases from Willett supporting his cheeseburger-based regimen. Yet Willett told Time Magazine (12/24/90): “The less red meat, the better. At most, it should be eaten only occasionally. And it may be maximally effective not to eat red meat at all.”
Has Willett changed his viewpoint, or has he been misrepresented? If we’re to believe the Washington Post, it’s the latter. In “Experts Declare Story Low on Saturated Facts” (8/27/02), Sally Squires spoke to Willett regarding Taubes’ remarkable advice to “eat lard straight out of the can” to “reduce your risk of heart disease.”
Willett recalled speaking to Taubes about lard, but stressed that “I don’t think that lard is part of a healthy diet.” Instead, he told Squires, the idea is to “‘replace unhealthy fats with healthy fats,’ such as those found in fish, nuts, olives and avocados.” After explaining at some length why those fats, unlike lard, have a positive impact on your cholesterol, Willett added: “And I have gone over this a number of times with Gary, but he barely mentioned it in the article.”
That’s not the only discrepancy Squires found in Taubes’ reporting. As the author contends throughout “Big Fat Lie” that low-fat diets have proven to be “dismal failures,” Squires found dozens of peer-reviewed studies that proved exactly the opposite and asked Taubes why he ignored these reams of data – especially when they came from his own sources. A researcher named Arne Astrup, for instance, whom Taubes interviewed for a half-hour, said he provided Taubes with “all the evidence suggesting that low-fat diets are the best documented diets and was extremely surprised to see that he didn’t use any of that information in his article.”
Taubes’ excuses for these omissions – ranging from an opinion that one prominent scientist “didn’t strike me as a scientist,” to an assessment that another didn’t cause quite enough weight loss, to his own “gut feeling” that the head of one peer-reviewed study “made the data up,” to a breezy dismissal of the entire science of epidemiology – come off as comically bogus. Squires may have been giving Taubes a taste of his own selective-quote medicine, especially by concluding her article with his quote “I know, I sound like if somebody finds something I believe in, then I don’t question it.”
Well, yeah, that’s just it. Taubes launches his “Big Fat Lie” broadside by explicitly linking the conventional, low-fat wisdom to religious zealotry. In his introductory paragraphs, he stresses this is something “we’ve been told with almost religious certainty … and we have come to believe with almost religious certainty.” But after a careful examination of the article’s construction and its history (at least according to the other people involved in it), it becomes clear that Taubes, an Atkins disciple, is projecting his own zealotry onto those he disagrees with.
While some manipulations in his writing seem very carefully calculated – e.g., waiting until the next-to-last paragraph to include three major bombshells (that he is on the diet himself, that over consumption of saturated fat can indeed shorten lifespan, and that “Atkins had suffered with heart troubles of his own”) – it would seem that Taubes was not exactly trying to deceive his readers. Instead, he just wants us to believe as fervently as he does; his judgment of what’s relevant and what’s not, what’s logical and what’s not, is somewhat skewed by his faith in the animal-fat credo.
All in all, the article is not without some merit: It encouraged more discussion of the role of different fats, and the possibility that different levels of fat and carbs may work differently for different people. Since “Big Fat Lie” appeared, some studies have confirmed, once again, that Atkins-style diets can indeed cause weight loss, and without any short-term health effects. On the other hand, a massive Stanford University survey of low-carb trials confirmed that the key to the diet’s success is simple calorie restriction rather than any “magical” metabolic process. And, in one of the “success story” studies (New England Journal of Medicine, May 2003), people on the low-carb program gained twice as much weight back after a year than did the low-fat participants, leading the Washington Post to call the “long-term benefits negligible.” And in June, another New York Times writer, Jason Epstein, penned a public apology to readers for his earlier Atkins evangelizing.
Who knows? Maybe a new scientific study will indeed find the perfect combination of body type and fat/protein mix to validate Atkins’ theories. On the other hand, maybe the answer will be: It worked for some people because, like Taubes, they really, truly believed it would.
Vance Lehmkuhl is a writer and political cartoonist for the Philadelphia City Paper. A collection of his vegetarian cartoons is published as a book, “The Joy of Soy.” Vance is featured as a speaker and entertainer at Vegetarian Summerfest.