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Interview With Gary Taubes on 'Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It'

Science writer says carbs and sugars are to blame

Who doesn't love a big bowl of pasta and a hunk of garlic bread for mopping up the sauce?

why we get fat

— Siegfried Marque/Gallery Stock

Award-winning science writer Gary Taubes, that's who. In his latest book (read an excerpt from Why We Get Fat), Taubes has bad news for us wheat-o-philes: Carbohydrates, not fatty stuff like bacon, cream and butter, are what make us fat. So do even seemingly innocent foods like toast with jelly on top and a side of rice — anything that goes into the body as sugar or turns into sugar soon after. Sadly, that means many of our favorite nibbles and comfort foods are foes to our health. Soda and muffins are on the list, not surprisingly, but so are whole-grain bread, orange juice and that apple a day.

This isn't some newfangled discovery: It's been known for decades. Unfortunately, the low-fat diet we all thought was the solution to reducing our weight and waists, based on the "calories in/calories out" paradigm and the pervasive idea that fat-rich foods are the enemy, hasn't made us skinny. In fact, it has coincided with an obesity epidemic. Why? Most "skim" or low-fat foods (think skim latte, low-fat cream cheese) simply replace the fat with carbs. And carbs, say it with me, make us fat.

If that's not hard enough to swallow, Taubes reveals that — surprise! — fatty foods aren't actually bad for our hearts. We're not fat, he says, because we eat too much or sit around watching TV — it's the other way around: We sit on the couch because we're fat. It's the carbohydrates we eat that prompt our fat cells to suck up our energy, making exercise a chore. What's more, he explains, we eat too much not out of gluttony but because our bodies have been conditioned — by our own eating behavior — to crave the types of foods that go straight to our hips and muffin tops. It's a vicious cycle that's been weighing us down for decades.

Taubes' book is a primer on how the hormones and enzymes that control the body's fat storage really work, how what we've been eating has mucked up our systems, and how we got on a such a faulty dieting path. Finally, he helps us see why we need to run the other way as fast as our portly legs can carry us if we truly want to live longer, slimmer lives.

Taubes spoke with the AARP Bulletin about his new non-diet book that could change the way you eat.

Q. You're telling me that the advice to eat a low-fat diet is a bunch of hooey?

A. That's right. When you look carefully at the data, there's no real evidence that this approach works. Low-fat doesn't make you lose weight long-term. You might lose a number of pounds but after six months you start gaining it back. Yet as a country, for the last 40 years, we've been told low-fat, low-calorie diets work. Meanwhile, we've gotten steadily fatter and more diabetic.

Q. But doesn't high-fat food mean big thighs, bad heart and high cholesterol?

A. Also false. These kinds of "facts" are why I got into writing about this subject. I was researching a piece about the cause of the obesity epidemic, when I came upon the results of five clinical trials that tried to prove if we eat low-fat diets and eat less overall, we will have good heart disease numbers, good risk-factor profiles, and we will lose weight.

Q. What happened?

A. The people on a high-fat diet eating more overall lost more weight, had a drop in blood pressure and triglycerides, and their good cholesterol went up. What the trials really showed was that if we tell people to do precisely what the conventional wisdom suggests should kill them, they actually lose weight and their heart disease risk-factor profiles improve.

Q. How did we get here?

A. We've been led down two faulty paths. One is the calories-in/calories-out hypothesis. It seems like common sense that you need to burn what you eat — like something preordained by the laws of physics. If you eat more than you expend, you must get fat. But it's just wrong. It's like saying the sun revolves around the Earth.

Q. And the other path?

A. It says fat makes us fat and gives us heart disease. That's just based on bad science. Some compelling characters in the nutrition community in the 1950s and early '60s came to believe this, but it was based on no meaningful research. When they actually did the research, they couldn't confirm it.

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