Atkins Reviews: “Good Calories Bad Calories”

Four years ago, a blockbuster article on the cover of the New York Times Magazine asked the question, “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?”. The epynonomous “big fat lie” was the belief that “fat” in any form was evil and the root of all disease. Secondarily to that notion was the idea that following a low-fat diet would prevent all manner of illnesses and conditions, from heart disease to obesity. The author, three time winner of the Science In Society Journalism award Gary Taubes, suggested that low-fat diets weren’t all they were cracked up to be, and that pioneers- such as Robert Atkins- were onto something when they questioned the wisdom of low-fat.

The concepts presented in that article were so revolutionary that they earned Taubes a much-publicized book deal. Now, four years later, the book has arrived. And it was very much worth the wait.

Some critics have already called “Good Calories Bad Calories” the most important nutrition book of the past 50 years. They may be right. In almost 500 pages of closely reasoned, impeccably researched material, Taubes details how the “low-fat” philosophy gained traction in the 60’s, largely on the strength of seriously flawed research by Ancel Keys. Keys surveyed 21 countries looking for correlations between diet and heart disease, selected seven that supported his thesis that cholesterol and heart disease were cause and effect, and then tirelessly campaigned for his position to reduce cholesterol by reducing fat. The resulting tale is part sociology, part politics, part medicine, part detective story, all of it absolutely fascinating.

Taubes painstakingly and carefully explains some basics of research that will make any reader a more knowledgeable and astute consumer of information– namely the difference between correlation and cause. Correlation is when two things happen together (the rooster crows, the sun come up). But correlation is not cause (the rooster doesn’t cause the sun to rise). Yet in much nutritional and dietary research, they are treated as the same thing. High fat diets are indeed often found in societies where heart disease is high. But so is smoking, eating processed foods, low vegetable intake, smog, stress and exposure to chemicals. And– most important to Taubes brilliantly detailed arguments- so is sugar.

The story of how fat came to be blamed for the ills of western society is more sociology and politics than it is good medicine. Actually, sugar consumption accounts for the “data” just as well- but the sugar hypothesis did not have the same support and political lobby as the “fat hypothesis”. Yet sugars- and foods that convert quickly into sugar- are prime culprits for the many diseases that have insulin and insulin resistance at their core. The brilliance of Taubes book is that he explains that those diseases are far more numerous than we might suspect.

Alzheimer’s, for example. High levels of insulin actually divert energy from the same pathways that would normally be clearing out the plaques and tangles that are so central to Alzheimer’s. Taubes also explains the insulin connection to cancer. And of course to diabetes, obesity and heart disease. A pretty damning indictment, overall, and a pretty compelling case for eating low on the glycemic scale.

We can’t help ourselves from feeling somewhat vindicated. Here’s a serious book, with serious, detailed, meticulously documented research, that supports what we at Atkins have been saying in one form or another for decades. Fat is not the enemy. But a diet high in sugar, processed carbohydrates, and trans-fats most certainly is. This book deserves a wide audience, probably wider than it will actually get, since it’s a long and tough read. But if you take the time to get through it- time which the material richly deserves- you may never think about your diet, and about food, in quite the same way.

And that would be a very good thing indeed.

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