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interview: gary taubes

What made you go after this topic in the first place?

Two things. I'd been reporting on salt and blood pressure, which is a huge controversy, and some of the people involved in that were involved in the advice to tell Americans to eat low-fat diets, and they were terrible scientists. These were some of the worst scientists I'd ever come across in my 20-odd year career of writing about controversial science.

You cannot say that because fat consumption associates with heart disease, that that means it causes heart disease, because a lot of other things, for instance, associate with fat consumption.

I literally called up my editor and said, "I just got off the phone with so-and-so, and he's [taken] credit for getting Americans to eat less eggs and less fat. This guy's one of the worst scientists I've ever talked to, and if he was involved in this, then there's a story there." And that was it. I didn't know what the story was. I just knew there was a story.

[Was there a personal motivation?]

Bfore I did it, I was up at MIT, interviewing an economist about another story, a guy who runs a laboratory of financial engineering. He told me about being on the Atkins diet, and how effective it was. He was an Asian-American who had lost 40-50 pounds by giving up white rice, in effect.

I thought I would try it as an experiment, since I was going to write about fat and whether it really did cause heart disease and weight loss. I tried it, and it was amazing. You know, it's everything -- the 20 pounds that I'd never been able to lose, in six weeks, and I stopped exercising. It was kind of a surreal experience, and probably, in a sense, informed my opinions from there on in. I mean, after that happens, you say, "I want to know what's happening, and I want to know why."

Science journalist Gary Taubes wrote the controversial July 7, 2002 New York Times Magazine article, "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" which turned the spotlight onto high-fat, low carbohydrate diets. In this interview, Taubes explains his motivation for writing his piece, the science behind the low-carbohydrate diet, and the contention he faced when he published his findings. "I got crucified in a variety of publications," he says "... It was fascinating. They go after the messenger as much as the message." He is currently writing a book that is a historical and scientific exploration of the hypothesis that weight gain and chronic disease are caused by excess consumption of easily digestible and refined carbohydrates. This interview was conducted Dec. 10, 2003.

Why is it so easy for us to believe that fat is a bad dietary ingredient?

The idea is that fat has nine calories per gram, and carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram, and somehow the theory is that the denser the calories, the more easier it is for us to eat more of them. What happened is in the '50s and '60s, when researchers started fingering fat as a cause of heart disease, the obesity researchers, the obesity community started advocating low-fat diets, which they had never done before. A low-fat diet is by definition a high-carbohydrate diet.

But you had this sort of synchronicity where you had the heart disease people saying, "Give up fat, saturated fat, for heart disease," and the obesity people started saying, "Give up fat because it must be the best diet because fat is the densest calories." They moved from there without ever testing actually either of those hypotheses, so the obesity people start recommending low-fat diets; the heart disease people are recommending low-fat diets. They have actually no idea whether it's going to cure heart disease, and the obesity people have no idea whether these diets even work. But because they believe that it's only the calories that [are] important, obviously if you give up the major source of calories in the diet, you must lose weight.

You get this hypothesis that animal fats are the worst kind of fats. That seems reasonable.

That came out of studies where you compare the fat consumption in various countries versus the heart disease rates. Basically that's what we still believe, that the Japanese have a very low fat consumption. Greeks have very low animal fat consumption. They have low heart disease rates. The U.S., Sweden, Finland have high fat consumption, they have high heart disease rates, and that's the genesis of that whole belief. "It's a worthless exercise," is what one researcher in the '50s called it. You cannot say that because fat consumption associates with heart disease, that that means it causes heart disease, because a lot of other things, for instance, associate with fat consumption. Wealthy nations have a lot of fat. They eat a lot of fat; they eat a lot of sugar; they get less exercise; they smoke more cigarettes; they drive more cars; they have more televisions.

There's a world of difference between the countries that eat low-fat diets and the countries that eat high-fat diets. And to finger fat because that's what you have in your mind to go in [to the study], is just bad science. But that's what they did, and that's how animal fat came out of it. We knew that animal fat, saturated fat, raised cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol, and it was just this sort of series of suppositions--

And we knew that cholesterol was associated--

And we knew that cholesterol was associated with heart disease. The higher the cholesterol, the higher the heart-disease risk. Although when you actually look at the studies, [it's] kind of amazing. If you or I were to reduce our cholesterol levels by 30 milligrams per deciliter, we would probably increase our chances of living an extra 2 years by one-thousandth of a percent or something. For the actual individual who doesn't have extremely high cholesterol, lowering cholesterol makes very little difference in how long you're going to live.

There were several studies done in the late '80s, where they actually calculated how much longer you would live if you cut back on saturated fat. If everyone in the country cut back on saturated fat to that recommended by the government, and cut back their total fat consumption, you could then calculate from these studies how much longer you would live. And the answer was a days to a few months. And as the authors of this study pointed out, that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, those are at the end of your life. It's not like you get an extra month between 46 and 47. It's, you're in the nursing home and you die at, say, 77 and three weeks instead of 77 and one week. One commentary that was published along with one of these results said this is the equivalent of rearranging the [deck] chairs on the Titanic.

So you think right off the bat something went wrong. Clearly the differences between these countries has to be environmental factors?

Yes. The idea was, when you follow immigrants from one country to another, they tend to adopt the heart disease rates and cancer rates of the country they've moved to, so that suggests that it's not genetic, it's environmental. And then the question is: What is the environmental factor?

In the '50s, '60s, and '70s, there were a school of British researchers who said it's sugar, flour, white rice, what we now call "easily digestible carbohydrates" or "high glycemic-index carbohydrates." The diet doctors pushing low-carbohydrate diets, like Atkins and Taller and people like this, were sort of disciples of these British researchers. They read some of their writing, ad the idea was, primitive peoples, when they adopt Western diets, [they] adopt Western diseases as well: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, the foremost ones; some cancers -- colon cancer and breast cancer.

These British researchers pushed this theory and it kind of got run over by the dietary fad, cholesterol, heart disease dogma. [Other] researchers said: Well, if sugar and refined carbohydrates don't raise cholesterol, then they can't cause heart disease. Or if we can't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that every country that has a high sugar consumption has high heart disease, then that means the theory's not true.

There were two different standards at work. In the heart disease dogma, every piece of positive evidence supported the hypotheses and moved it forward, and every piece of negative evidence, contradictory evidence, was ignored. In the refined carbohydrates theory, every piece of negative evidence was proof that the theory was wrong, and every piece of positive evidence was ignored. So you had two entirely different standards. One of them moves forward to become the theory we're living by today, this idea that if we cut back on fat, we'll be healthier. And the other sort of gets squelched.

You start to see the quality of this science, the foundation, is not what you thought?

Well, the first thing I did, I wrote an article for the journal Science, where I just looked at the question of fat and heart disease. And it was fairly clear from that, that if saturated fat has any effect on our heart disease risk, it's small. Having done that, and not being enraptured by this idea that saturated fat is evil, I then actually just pitched a story to The New York Times Magazine, saying, "I want to find out what started this obesity epidemic."

The obesity epidemic starts between 1976, say, and 1986. We're fairly confident about that because there're these series of National Health Examination surveys, and we know that in the third NHANES survey, obesity rates are still 14 percent.

Up until about 1980.

Yeah. Basically, up until about 1980, the obesity rates in this country are 12 to 14 percent. And then somewhere in that period between the late '70s and late '80s, they shoot up to 22-25 percent. That's known as the obesity epidemic, and the idea is: What explains it?

From my fat research, I already knew that there were two major changes in the country during that period. One was, high-fructose corn syrup came in as sort of the primary caloric sweetener in America, which was my personal bias. I thought that it was high-fructose corn syrup because I'm allergic to high fructose corn syrup. …

The other theory was that we started pushing the low-fat diets during this period. Starting in 1977, the government started telling all Americans to eat less fat, and starting in the mid-'80s, we started producing these low-fat products that in effect replaced the fat in the yogurt or the cookies or the whatever with carbohydrates. We went from being a country that ate about 40 percent of their calories in fat and 45 percent carbohydrates, to 34 percent fat and that much more carbohydrates. Conceivably, this belief that set in, that carbohydrates could be eaten to excess and wouldn't cause weight gain, that they were both heart healthy and the ideal diet, might have had some effect on weight.

I just went off to try and find out what the answer was. I didn't know when I went in, and the more research I did, the more it became clear that this argument, this hypothesis, the alternative hypotheses that carbohydrates cause weight gain, had validity. Didn't mean it was true. Just meant that it had validity. It could be true, and if it could be true, then the way you would check is to put people on low-carbohydrate diets. You go and look at the low-carbohydrate diet idea, and lo and behold, there's Robert Atkins, who's been pushing low-carbohydrate diets for 30 years, and people swear by them. I had my former experience where I knew that at least for me, I knew it was very easy to lose weight on this diet.

I found out while I was doing my reporting that there had been five studies recently done, clinically controlled trials comparing high-fat, high-protein diets like Atkins to low-fat, low-calorie diets of the kind the American Heart Association was recommending. And in each case, the people on the Atkins diet had twice the weight loss, and their cholesterol profiles, if anything, got better than the people on the American Heart Association diet. So I felt confident saying: Here's an alternative hypotheses that has validity. Here is one set of tests from the hypotheses, that seem to confirm it. Doesn't mean it's true, but it seems to confirm it, and what now needs to be done is more studies.

So your article comes out. … What was the reaction?

Some people said it was the best article they ever read, went on the diet. I got crucified in a variety of publications. A Washington Post reporter went after me, who had been advocating low-fat diets since the early 1980's. The Center for Science in the Public Interest went after me for having the nerve to suggest that low-fat diets might not be healthy. They'd been probably the primary force in the 1970s pushing low-fat diets, and through the 1980s. It was fascinating. They go after the messenger as much as the message. ...

[Talk about the difference between diet and other topics you have covered.] Is there more ideology?

Certainly diet became a religion. The whole low-fat idea, as much as anything, came out of the counterculture and Berkeley and San Francisco in the '60s, this idea that eating fatty meat, in effect, is the dietary equivalent of conspicuous consumption. There were famines going on around the world, people were starving, and here in America we were eating eggs and bacon for breakfast and huge steaks for dinner. This was just unacceptable politically, sociologically, ideologically. It merged with this idea that fat might cause heart disease, and then blossomed in the '70s.

Many of the health reporters who cover this, many of the researchers who report on it, are vegetarians or close to vegetarians. So it becomes much more than just a subject -- I mean, people are more polarized in this than they are in politics. I've had friends who have accused me of having a brain transplant, because suddenly I turned around and said maybe low-fat diets don't work, and may low-carbohydrate diets are the answer. It's as though the data becomes irrelevant. The evidence becomes irrelevant. Everyone knows what the answer is, and it's a little frustrating even from my point of view, because no matter how much research you do, you're going after a monolithic dogma, in effect. And dogmas protect themselves.

That's what I found out when I wrote my Times piece. Everybody involved says, "We're right. We've invested our whole lives in this. We believe it." Everyone believes it, and it's hard, once it's established, to even criticize it or be skeptical without being pegged as somebody who's self-interested or somebody who doesn't care that Americans are out there dying of heart disease.

Nutritionists do admit anecdotally that Atkins works. How do they explain it away?

The first Atkins-like diets were explained away because the people who advocated them suggested they had a metabolic advantage over low-fat diets. Say you have two diets that are 1,200 calories, one's low fat, one's low carbohydrate. These people said the low-carbohydrate people will lose more weight on the same amount of calories. Researchers came along and they did studies and they said, "No, if we give both groups 1,200 calories, they're going to lose the same amount of weight." So that allowed them to say the [low-carbohydrate] diets are no different than any other diets.

Then the diets kept coming up. They kept being popular. And the next question was: Well, the people on the low-carbohydrate diets don't eat as much calories, so even though you tell one group of people, "Eat less fat and east less calories," [on] a calorie-restricted diet, and [for] the Atkins-like diet, you say, "Eat as much fat as you want, eat no carbohydrates, eat as much food as you want. So you can go out and have 10 porterhouse steaks a day, but as long as you don't eat carbohydrates, you're going to lose weight."

First the critics said this is thermodynamically impossible. Who knows? I have no idea. If you eat 10 porterhouse steaks a day, maybe you'll lose weight, maybe you won't. That's another long story.

So [low-carb advocates] said, "Okay, if people are losing weight on this diet, we're telling them to eat as much as they want but they're eating less. So why are they eating less? Why is it so easy for them to eat less?" And the answer was: Well, they're either getting nauseous, because this state of ketosis which is caused by these diets can sometimes create nausea in the beginning, or you just can't replace the calories. If you give up the carbs in the diet, you can't eat enough fat and protein to make up for it -- which is kind of ironic because since the early 1980s, we've been told that what makes us fat is not the bread but the pat of butter we put on top of it, not the baked potato but the sour cream that [we] put on top of it. It just seems that they want it both ways. On one hand they say, if we just add one pat of butter and sour cream to a baked potato, on our white bread, we're going to get fat, and it's the butter and the sour cream that do [it]; but if we only eat the sour cream and we only eat the butter, we can't replace the bread and the baked potato with enough meat or fish or cheese or whatever, to replace those calories. ...

The other response to the Atkins diet has been to say it was unhealthy.

Yeah, there're two factors. The Atkins diet, because it's very low in carbohydrates, it can be ketogenic. That's why your body, in effect, stops running on glucose, on blood sugar, and starts running on fat, and the fat's broken down into these ketone bodies. Ketosis is a mild version of diabetic ketoacidosis, which is the state that occurs in uncontrolled diabetes, and it's fatal.

This whole medical society grew up basically thinking ketosis is bad, ketoacidosis is bad, and therefore ketosis in these diets is bad and you should do anything you can to avoid these ketogenic diets. In fact, many of the compromise diets from the 1930s through the 1990s were diets that cut back carbohydrates to just the level above which you won't have ketosis.

So on one level, ketosis is bad. That was always the message, and the other level was, these diets are high in fat, and if they're high in fat, they're going to cause heart disease. One study was done by this fellow John La Rosa, who went on to be a big administrator in the American Heart Association. He did a study in 1981 where he said he put these people on a Atkins diet and their cholesterol levels skyrocketed. Their weight plummeted, and if you actually look at the study, it's almost impossible [that] what he says happened. It's really fascinating that you take somebody from the American Heart Association, you have him do a study on the Atkins diet in 1981, and the cholesterol levels skyrocket, even though the people lose like 20-30 pounds. What he said happened should not happen, even if the diet was atherogenic, as they say.

Then 20 years later, you have unbiased people do the same experiment. Lo and behold, cholesterol doesn't go up at all. [However], once [the American Heart Association] showed that cholesterol went up, that was the end of the Atkins diet. Cholesterol caused heart disease. You go on this diet, it may reduce your weight, but you're going to die of a heart attack.

One of the things I had always tried to understand, the orthodox wisdom is [to] cut back. Just eat less, and yet people eat less and they don't lose weight. I've eaten less and I've not lost weight. I mean, it doesn't seem to work, and I kept saying to myself: Why can you tell people over and over again [to] eat less, and yet they don't lose any weight? One possibility is that every time you tell them to eat less, you tell them to eat less fat as well. That's what we did in the '80s and '90s. We even stayed away from avocados and peanut butter, which we now know have good fats in them. ...

And now the consensus is that the Atkins diet is not necessarily dangerous but it's a trick.

Yeah, that's the compromise position: "Okay, it doesn't raise cholesterol. We were wrong about that." Other people said, "well, there're probably other reasons saturated fat causes heart disease." It's fascinating. There was this train of logic that said saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol and that's a risk of heart disease. Then if they come up with a diet that says saturated fat doesn't raise LDL cholesterol, then they turn around and they say: "Well, saturated fat must cause heart disease in other ways." So saturated fat, by virtue of being saturated fat, is now unhealthy. There's nothing you can do to change that. Even if you have a diet high in saturated fat that doesn't raise cholesterol, it's still a risk factor for heart disease. The logic is circular and sophistic. …

The thing they never pay attention to -- and I've interviewed probably 300 or 400 researchers in the obesity/heart disease field in the past four to five years, and in obesity in particular -- they do not consider hunger a physiological phenomenon. They will talk about hunger hormones, hunger genes ... But hunger to them has always been something that's purely psychological on some level, so they could put people on a diet.

Now, here's the thing. If you just reduce the amount of calories, you'll lose weight, even though there's not a single study that's ever shown that. But this [is] what they know for sure, so we're going to put people on a diet, we're going to tell them to eat less calories, and if they don't lose weight, that's because they didn't eat less calories. If they didn't eat less calories, that's because they don't have any willpower, and willpower's some psychological concept that you don't have but I do. I'm thin because I have willpower. And that's what it comes down to. …

When you look at the history of these Atkins-like diets, like the protein-sparing modified fast -- which is a sort of fancy name for an Atkins-like diet with a little more protein and a little less fat -- when you look at the history of these studies, even the ones that said they didn't have a metabolic advantage over low-fat diet, they all said the patients, the subjects didn't seem to be hungry. Study after study from the '40s onward. We put them on the diet, if they eat less calories, they do it because they just don't seem to be hungry. That's a physiological phenomena, and you have to be able to explain it. ...

So high-carb diets, even with less energy density, make you hungrier and therefore make you fatter.

That would be the theory. Exactly. You're hungrier. Insulin actually used to be known as a hunger hormone up until about the '60s; the idea being, diabetics are hungry to begin with because they don't have the insulin to push the blood sugar and the fat into the cells, so their cells don't see it. There used to be a treatment for anorexics. You would just inject them with insulin and they get hungry and eat. The question was: Does this cause some kind of hypoglycemia, very low blood sugar? Is that how it works? Or does it work in some other way? It was always assumed that it works by just causing very low blood sugar, which in effect causes a state called hypoglycemia, and you get nauseous and dizzy and tired, and you have to eat.

But [now] everyone agrees that insulin is the hormone that controls the deposition of sugar and carbohydrates and fat in your body. They agree that if insulin levels are high, you'll preferentially store calories as fat; and that as long as insulin levels stay high, you won't be able to get to that fat to use it for fuel. They agree that carbohydrates will raise insulin levels more than -- fat doesn't have an effect on insulin, although if you force-feed enough calories, you can [raise] it. All of that is given.

What they don't agree is that somehow the carbohydrates, the actual macronutrient content of the diet, will do this. [Scientists] will say a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. They'll admit that a calorie of carbohydrates has an entirely different effect on your hormonal system than a calorie of fats. They'll admit that your hormones can control your weight; that insulin and estrogen have effects on weight, hunger, and body weight regulation. But they will never go from the step where they say: Hey, maybe the amount of carbohydrates and the kind of carbohydrates in the diet will have an effect -- through their effect on insulin, through insulin's effect on the deposition of calories, through that effect on hunger -- [on] being a functional diet.

To me, it's almost mystifying, because I've interviewed people who have done research on each step of the way. And then I say, "This should be the null hypotheses. You should assume carbohydrates cause weight gain until proven otherwise, not the other way around. Why don't you believe that?" And they'll say, "Well, because my rats get fat on fat." And it's true. Rats will get fat on dietary fat, fatter than they will on carbohydrates. So then the question becomes: Are rats a good animal model for human obesity?

So this theory would explain a big part of the rise of obesity on the high-carb diets?

This theory would explain a big part of the rise of obesity on the high-carbohydrate diet. Yes. Basically it says: The things that are making us fat -- sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, these kinds of easily digestible sweets, flour -- some people may get fat even if they eat vegetables. I really don't know because they've never done the research. Because they've been so convinced that somehow the type of calorie is irrelevant, I'm not sure this is still an open question. But the theory would explain why we started putting on weight just when we started thinking "if we would just reduce the amount of fat in the diet, that'll make the difference."

It's not just the calories. That's the point. It's the effect of the calories on the hormones, and the effect of the hormones on how your body decides to use the calories you're eating -- is it going to burn them as fuel or store them as fat -- and that effect on hunger.

But clearly the quantity of calories has to be going up. You're saying the mechanism for that is that the carbs make us hungrier?

The quantity of calories appears to be going up. Whether we would get fat anyway -- we've all had this experience where our weight fluctuates, apparently independent of how much we seem to be eating. If you chronically change your insulin levels, you will change your weight by doing it. So the question is: Can you do that by increasing calories, or do you do that simply by increasing carbohydrates and keeping the calories constant? Good research in the '80s by established researchers showed you can do that just by changing the amount of carbohydrates. ...

Does your story have big holes in it too? Every time you try and reduce things to single macronutrients, you run into--

No, actually, you look back to one of the things that prompted the whole dietary fat and heart disease theory was the reduction in heart disease rates in occupied Europe during World War II -- and diabetes rates and cavities, I might add -- they plummeted. People said they're eating less cholesterol. Then that was knocked down. Then they said they were eating less fat, and that was the theory.

Out of these studies that came out of occupied Europe, that was what generated one of the major legs of the theory that fat -- it's a tricky question because you can also argue that doctors in occupied cities in Europe and Scandinavia might not be making the effort to diagnose heart disease and diabetes as they were during the war, or before the war or after. The evidence that something dramatically changed the incidence of disease during the war years is pretty compelling. It could have just been less calories. We're now fairly confident that if you cut back on calories, you'll cut back on disease rates, and not just heart disease but cancer. But the question is: Then what makes you cut back on calories? And now you're back to, you know, Ancel Keys tried to get his conscientious objectors to cut back on calories. So now you're back to what causes hunger. And it takes back into this same hypotheses.

Most researchers now would say that calories are probably the most important factor, calories and weight, so you're still left with: What is it that makes you eat more calories?

What would be your prescription for curbing the obesity epidemic?

There's compelling evidence that low-carbohydrate diets work. Clinical trials suggest they work, [as does] anecdotal evidence for 150 years. People, when they wanted to lose weight, gave up sugar, gave up starch and we all grew up believing this, even into the '70s. Jane Brody, the New York Times health reporter, writes a bestselling book in 1985 where she tells everyone to go out and eat starches to their hearts' content, but first she says we all grew up believing that what causes obesity is bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, sugar.

It's fascinating. For 150 years since Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825 writes The Physiology of Taste and says, "I know what cause obesity. Just talk to fat people. They eat too much starches and sugars." He says this. "I have 500 conversations over the year with stout people, and each one, they're telling me, 'I love the potatoes. I love the rice. I love the bread.'" Since then, it's sort of been institutionalized that carbohydrates -- starches and sugars -- make you fat.

The '70s come around. We decide that fat gives you heart disease. We have to eat low-fat diets, low-fat diets heavy in starches and sugars, and we start getting fatter. ...

You're not talking about a diet with no carbs, just a reduced amount?

The underlying philosophy is this kind of Paleolithic diet theory. It's what we ate during the 2 million years that we were hunter-gatherers on this planet. The fact that we were hunter-gatherers for 2 million years suggests it was an extraordinarily successful evolutionary adaptation. The question is: What did we eat during these 2 million [years] when we left the jungle, the trees, went down into savanna and started surviving on whatever we could hunt or gather? That's the philosophy. The answer is, probably considerable meat, very low glycemic index, hard-to-digest roots and starches, and fruits and berries that look nothing at all like the beautiful Fuji applies you can buy at your local market now. Some carbohydrates, but whatever it was, it wasn't refined. It wasn't sugar. It wasn't flour. It wasn't easy to digest. That's my going theory. If this theory's right, the diet we evolved to eat is probably the correct diet.

Just as [with the] low-fat fad, when manufacturers took fat out and put carbs in, and people ate a lot of low-fat ice cream because they thought it was not fattening, and they got fat, might not the same thing happen if you produce low-carb products?

It's conceivable. The idea that it's what we evolved to eat, we never evolved to eat refined protein either, which is basically what they're giving us. I have no idea what those foods will do in the long run. I mean, I've actually tried quite a few myself, and they don't seem to affect weight in any way. They do seem to keep insulin levels down, if that's what's actually happening. ...

Unlike Walter Willett, who says some fats are good but others are bad, you'd say a quarter house steak would be a perfectly decent meal?

Let's put it this way. When you look at the historical record and the literature, you find plenty of reasons to blame the refined carbohydrates on the chronic diseases that affect us, and it's hard to come to a point where you can finger saturated fat as actually being meaningful. There's this interesting theory, originally pushed by a fellow named Crawford, who was a researcher in Kenya in the '60s. It's this idea that the grazing animals eat a much wider variety of fats and carbohydrates. They have much great sort of tapestry of fats in their body, and they have much more unsaturated fats than saturated fats, and therefore that constitutes a healthy meal. That's a shift in the spectrum of fats we're eating, not the introduction of an entirely new type of food, like refined carbohydrates.

The question is: Can that shift in the spectrum from more unsaturated fats to more saturated fats really be that important, after you've removed this dramatic shift of no refined carbohydrates to refined carbohydrates? I don't know, and Walter doesn't know either. He's just telling you that he believes it's the case. ...

The other theory has to do with activity. We're an increasingly sedentary society.

One of the problems with that theory is that the highest obesity rates in this country are in the poorest members of the population. [Those scientists] have to explain, for instance, why it is that those individuals who are most likely to do manual labor are the ones who are most likely to be obese. Hispanics, for instance, come to America, they get high obesity levels here, and they're not coming here and taking white-collar jobs. You have to be able to explain that before you can say it's obesity.

You have to be able to explain why it is they've never been able to show that if you exercise more, you'll actually lose weight. When you read the research articles from the '70s and '80s and '90s, they're fascinating. They'll always start with a introduction that says exercise and physical activity is crucial to weight loss and weight maintenance. Then they'll move into the main part of the paper, where they'll go through study after study after study, where they acknowledge that these studies fail to show that you could actually lose significant weight by exercising or being more active. Then they'll get to the conclusion, and they'll give you a half a dozen techniques by which you can then make exercise part of an important weight loss or weight maintenance program. It's surreal reading these things. The book ended [with] the advice that you have to exercise, but the actual studies show that doesn't do any good.

They say the people who control their weight the best tend to be more wealthy, better educated. What are they doing right?

First of all, they say that the same people also experience an obesity epidemic. Their absolute levels of obesity are lower than the lower classes, but the amount that obesity increased was the same. Among poor, rich, it didn't matter. They all went up like 7 percent during this 10-year period of time.

Second thing is, carbohydrates are the cheapest calories. So the poorer you are, the greater the amount of carbohydrates in the diet. You go back and you read the obesity textbooks and the obesity monographs in the '60s and '70s, and people have to explain why there's so much obesity among poor people, and they invariably say, "Well, that's because they eat so much fattening starches." You had this concept once again of fattening starches. ...

What do you hope to achieve, writing your book? You're making a case that there's a lot of bad science, food ideology. Are the vested interests too powerful to change?

It's interesting. In my wildest fantasies, people are sort of liberated from this belief that they have to reduce the fat in their diet, and they try it. If they're overweight and they want to lose weight, they try going back to the old-fashioned way of giving up sugars and starches and seeing what happens. In writing the book, I want to explain what to me is a fascinating episode in science sort of gone awry, and in the same time write about some fascinating science that's simply been ignored, some beautiful, elegant studies that people have paid no attention to, and maybe show some people not just how body weight regulation works in the human body, why we gain weight, why we lose it, and what to do, but also explain how science works and how it doesn't work, and when it is successful and when it fails, and what's good science and what's bad science. That's what I've been writing about in my whole career.

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posted april 8, 2004

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