Book Review: Good Calories Bad Calories

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Science. Whenever we want a trusted answer to one of life’s quandaries, we typically turn to science to provide it. Why is the sky blue? We know because of science. Is there life on Mars? That one’s still being determined through science. Does saturated fat cause heart disease? Cue the screeching breaks.

Turns out the science behind this dietary belief that pervaded the later half of the 1900’s, and still persists to this day, was based on very shaky “science”. As is the belief that weight gain is simply based on thermodynamics, i.e. calories in calories out. While some scientists started moving into the camp of “fat causes us to get fat and diseased”, several scientists were warning that it was refined carbohydrate causing heart disease, obesity, and other “western” diseases, not fat.

It is this disparity between belief and what science was proving (or complicating) that is the focus of Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Let me start by saying this book is LOADED with information. Taubes researched the book for 5 years, and has the 111 pages of notes and bibliography at the back of the book to prove it.

The book starts out by introducing us to William Banting, a recently retired undertaker in 1860’s London. Starting in his 30’s, Mr. Banting gained weight, and by his early 60’s the 5’5″ Banting weighed over 200 pounds. He consulted a surgeon, William Harvey, who prescribed him a diet that cut out sugar and starches, and relied heavily on meat. Banting lost 50 pounds in just over a year, and was so enthused by how he felt that he published a pamphlet describing the diet and his results. It was popular, and the low-carb diet fad became know as Bantingism.

Taubes used this example well to set up his book. Low carb dieting has been around for a long time, and has been successful for weight management for as long as people have been doing it (hello cavemen). In his prologue he states the goal of his book, which is simply to answer the questions: “What constitutes a healthy diet? What should we eat if we want to live a long and healthy life?”

Taubes takes an intricate look at the science (and sometimes lack thereof) that led to the belief that obesity is caused by eating fat, and a host of other diseases that follow. He also explains how the belief came to be that obesity is a psychological issue, but that science creates a case for excess fat being caused by a defect in fat metabolism that creates a viscous cycle of fat accumulation. It has nothing to do with fat consumption, and everything to do with insulin. Plus, when stuck in this cycle, exercise doesn’t tend to help much.

I had moments reading this book where I became angry (and I’m not quick to anger) and disappointed at how readily faulty hypotheses were excepted in the field of health and nutrition without proper clinical studies, and and was then pushed by our government as the best path to health.

This book was published several years ago, so I’m obviously a little late to the party. But the information contained within is so important that I hope people keep discovering it and educating themselves on what truly constitutes a healthy diet for optimum human health.

Gary Tuabes wrote a simpler version of the book, entitled “Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It“. It’s good, but not nearly as fascinating as the goliath Good Calories, Bad Calories. If you’re an information nerd like me, go with the later.

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