Taubes on the Hall/NuSI Results

In a recent interview on Jimmy Moore’s Livin La Vida Low-Carb Podcast #1223, Gary Taubes talks about his (in)famous metabolic ward study with Kevin Hall, the state of his non-profit foundation NuSI, and it’s future outlook.

It’s an interesting look into Gary Taubes’ mind, as he’s fairly unguarded in this discussion.  For whatever reason, from his perspective:

  • “To me, the nutrition obesity research community is effectively a noise generating machine.” (As opposed to generating “signal”, i.e., meaningful results.)  [21:35]
  • “I would say virtually everything [went wrong with the Hall study].” [23:30]
  • “They let a $4.5M study be run by someone who […] had done maybe one clinical research experiment in his life.  So, I admire Kevin, and I think he’s an impressive guy.  But from my perspective he didn’t have the experience that we were looking for.  And it wasn’t they way we had hoped it’d turn out.” [23:45]
  • “In this field when researchers publish that contrary to the belief system of the authorities, the authorities tend to ignore it.  So, that’s why you [Jimmy Moore] and I can say things like we believe, things absolutely for certain, and everyone we know believes them, and yet it’s considered quackery by the mainstream community, which doesn’t see the evidence we see.” [24:20]
  • He doesn’t remember being involved in the design of the study’s diets.  [25:20]
  • 8 oz of sugary beverages every-other-day in the high-carb, 20% sugar diet was enough of a reduction to fix the Standard American Diet (SAD), so it was too healthy as the control diet.  [26:45]
  • Because energy balance wasn’t achieved in the run-in diet (as per study design), the experiment was a failure, and the results can’t be interpreted as planned.  [29:45]
  • There was a lot of fighting and disfunction between the investigators and NuSI, where Taubes believed he was more of the theorist, and that the investigators were more of the experimentalists/empiricists.  [15:20]

Gary Taubes doesn’t drive me crazy anymore, as I now understand his perspective, so what he said doesn’t bother me.  (I know he can’t see any evidence opposing his carb-insulin hypothesis and other low-carb beliefs.)  However, he should be careful to not just throw around blame at everyone and excuses for everything, otherwise Occam’s Razor may suggest who’s more likely to be right.  If it was obvious and simply that carbs and insulin, not calories, drove weight gain, it’d have been seen a long time ago.  No tilting at windmills required.

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Bad Science 2: The Irony

badScienceI bought Gary Taubes’ Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion back in 1990 or so.  I didn’t get around to reading it until this year, well over 25 years later.  I bought the hardcover when I was about 25 years old, and just wasn’t sufficiently cynical yet to enjoy it.  This year, I knew what it offered, and whet my chops and dug into it.  I couldn’t put it down until I read most of it a few days later.  Lots of lulz on Pons and Fleischmann, but particularly Stanley Pons.  Taubes painted him as somewhat inept, and totally out of his electrochemistry league trying to claim a breakthrough in nuclear physics.   Desperately trying to defend the impossible (significant excess heat from a simple electrochemical cell), Pons squirms to avoid the press, skeptics, and peers seeking to replicate his “results”.  Its pure schadenfreude at it’s finest.

I remember the Pons and Fleischmann premature announcement hitting the news.  I was in grad school, and discussed it with friends.  We were very skeptical of the claims, and after a day, knew it was a total joke.  And the world remembers it that way too.  Pons and Fleischmann are now synonyms for bad science, and cold fusion is the poster child for pathological science (fixed-idea cranks forever trying to “prove” their pet beliefs).

Fast-forward 30 years, and the tables have turned.  Taubes switched from reporting on science to inserting himself into what he calls one of the weakest sciences, nutrition.  He formed a non-profit (NuSI), to drive his self-proclaimed “Manhattan Project of Obesity” featuring metabolic ward studies aimed at determining once-and-for-all if it’s the carbs or the calories that make us fat.

I never understood how he could say with a straight face that “carbs literally make you fat”, or “what if everything you’ve been told about nutrition was wrong?”, or when he suggests that eating unlimited amounts of fat (in a ketogenic state) wouldn’t cause weight gain.  His talks usually involve an hour of dancing around the 1st Law of Thermodynamics.  He then points out a few small populations that he says got obese during famines.  He says that all the experiments showing that calories drive weight changes, not macronutrient composition, were done wrong.  And just about every sentence he utters makes you want to gouge your eyes out.  Especially the one about Occam’s Razor supporting his position.

But what drives people even crazier is trying to figure out why he’s doing this.  You might immediately think he’s doing it for the money, which has indeed been very rewarding for him.  But then you think no, no one would subject themselves to such ridicule for so loudly touting a simplistic idea thats been dismissed a long time ago.  In fact, he’s kept a very low profile all these years, avoiding his critics in any format (live, interview, social media, etc.), with the one-time exception of a disastrous debate with Alan Aragon.  Taubes himself says he understands why people would consider him a quack.

But can he really believe his own “Alternative Hypothesis” of obesity?  I guess you can discount all the existing evidence,  once you get it in your head that “everyone’s wrong”.  And what could make “everyone” be wrong, seeing as how science is self-correcting, and who’d miss the chance to scoop everyone with the correct solution?  A conspiracy perhaps, as members parrot the party line (“dogma”).  And why a conspiracy?  Well, maybe complacency, or group-think, or professional coercion (see “Yudkin vs. Keys”).  And who put this idea into Taubes’ mind?  Dr. Robert Atkins and his New Diet Revolution.  And why would he believe it?  Because it fit with Taubes’ own dietary biases and experiences.  So why could Taubes break the conspiracy?  Because he’s an outsider.  And wouldn’t it be great if I was right, and proved everybody wrong?

That actually makes some sense.  People will firmly retrench in their convictions when they feel surrounded by the enemy.  Then good luck trying to tell them they might be wrong.  There’s times when we’re convinced we’re right, and that everyone else is wrong.  It’s human nature, part of an independent mind, which occasionally pays off.  We trust our intuition.  And sometimes we get very stubborn.

But wouldn’t a normal person stop and think, “Can I really go against the consensus belief, and claim that all of science has it wrong, and I have it right?  On the national stage?”  Well, you need a catchy premise to pitch a book, and that kind of idea sells, so you go for it.  After all, you can’t go around promoting a book as, “well, maybe carbohydrates cause weight gain because of insulin, but maybe not”.  No producer would book you on their show, and no one would listen if they did.

So then how did it all escalate to forming your own non-profit foundation and raising hundreds of millions to actually scientifically test your hypothesis with the leading experts in the field?  Who knows.  It might have started in conversations with like-minded authors and researchers.  I guess you convince yourselves that its a good idea.  You can fund the studies you always wanted to see, and pay yourself to do it.  And the scientific community will learn something in the end, right?

But here we are, and the first results from the NuSI Energy Balance Consortium metabolic studies are out and things are looking bad for Taubes’ carbohydrate-insulin theory of obesity.  The results confirm prior studies, and what people expect, given our very evolved metabolism that can efficiently extract and store almost all the energy from our dietary fat and carbohydrate.  Just think “Twinkie Diet”, and why it works.  To a very good first-order, it’s the total calories that count, not the macro-nutrient composition of the diet.

And it looks like Taubes won’t even accept the results of his own studies.  Does that make him dishonest, or just a crank?  There are plenty of celebrity cranks (Jenny McCarthy, e.g.).  Is it the ego that won’t let them admit mistake?  That makes some sense.  They had to have a pretty big ego to first promote such an unlikely and criticized theory.  Turning back would look pretty bad.  Or they might just be convinced they’re right.  There’s enough murkiness in the details to give them eternal hope.

People have speculated former NuSI President Peter Attia quietly left his post late last year because he saw the writing on the wall.  That’s understandable, as his reputation wasn’t entirely invested into the “Alternative Hypothesis” as Taubes is.

So who will write Bad Science 2?  I doubt anyone will, because the original Bad Science probably didn’t sell very well.  As another irony, what it mostly did for Taubes was to give him writing awards and scientific credibility to write best-selling diet books.  And as Dr. Michael Eades himself says, a successful book is all about the marketability of the author, not the content of the book itself.

So what will happen to Gary Taubes?  Even if all the NuSI studies come out to totally discredit the carbohydrate-insulin theory of obesity, he’s not going to suffer personally.  He’s been heavily criticized by some, and fawningly idolized by others for the last 15+ years.  He looks just fine, maybe a little bit older.  Plus, low-carbs diets will never die, so he’ll always have a friendly audience.  What have you seen of him over the last 15 years to make you think he’ll change his mind?  Taubes will not be following Stanley Pons in exile to France.

Sure there’s people out there who think he’s acted in bad faith the whole way through this 15 year affair.  I think it’s really hard to outright lie for that long, convincingly, in front of audiences over and over.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was speaking from some type of conviction.  But I’m sure he was well aware of the money the gig was producing.  And I don’t have any problems with that, because it was all funded willingly by people who wanted to believe what Taubes was saying, and will continue to believe, no matter what his own studies reveal.

Gary Taubes Proves a Calorie is a Calorie

Well, the first long-awaited results of the NuSI metabolic ward studies comparing high-carb vs. ketogenic diets were publicly released today.   Nutrition nerds around the world hung on to every word between interviewer Dr. Yoni Freedhoff and principal investigator Dr. Kevin Hall live via Periscope from an ICO 2016 poster session.

Take note.  This is not some “bro-science” nutrition video, but a walk-thru of actual pre-publication data from the first NuSI Energy Balance Consortium paper.  This was to be Gary Taubes’ RCT-to-end-all-RCTs, nobody-has-ever-measured-it-properly-before, let’s determine once-and-for-all if a “calorie is a calorie” or if “carbs make you fat” study.

This highly controlled laboratory study will help determine whether it’s the total amount of calories you eat or the proportion of fat and carbohydrate in the diet that most importantly drives body weight gain.

The study was seriously expensive, funded in part by the NIH and by $40M NuSI donors Laura and John Arnold. It was designed to measure as accurately as possible the total energy in minus the total energy out of 17 overweight-to-obese subjects, and to measure the body composition changes (DEXA-scan) resulting from about a 300 calorie deficit under a high carb/sugar diet, and then under a ketogenic diet.

The excellent interview tells you everything you need to know.  You’ll see that the subjects lost fat quicker on the 25% sugar high-carb diet than on the 80% fat / 15% protein / 5% carb ketogenic diet (while likely insulin-resistant).  RQ charts show the subjects quickly went to fat oxidation (“fat adaptation”), and C-peptide shows a quick 50% insulin drop in ketosis.  Interestingly, subjects lost lean mass in ketosis, but not under the high-carb diet.  Dr. Hall found no metabolic advantage for the ketogenic diet, and concludes that results falsify Taubes’ carbohydrate-insulin theory of obesity (the “Alternative Hypothesis”).

Well, this is awkward.  The whole point of the creating the NuSI non-profit was to validate the carb-insulin theory of obesity, and prove that a calorie is not a calorie.  These were to be the definitive metabolic ward studies to end the low-carb vs. high-carb debate.  Well, ironically, it’s first study might just have done that.  Just kidding!  This is just another study any true believer will simply ignore.  The tweets will go on.

I’m On The Potato Diet!

I have to admit that I’ve become addicted to watching vegan YouTube’rs like High Carb Hannah and her Life Inside A Box daily vlog.  I don’t know if I’m ahead of the curve, or if YouTube is so 2015.  All I know is that it’s a pretty suitable substitute for a real life, and that you can find lots of people that will reinforce your exact world view, in fun-to-watch daily doses.  It’s all-day-long mental candy on Apple TV.

At this point I’m over my obsession of trying to figure out the low-carb mindset, and specifically, how Gary Taubes can say with a straight face that “Carbs literally make you fat.”  I figure people just get obsessed with their mono-mania, and become for all intent and purposes, cranks.  Of course, I’m excused from the latter category, because I’m aware of my mono-mania.

Speaking of mono-mania, did I tell you I’m on the Potato Diet?  First off, diets that are perfectly described with one word + “diet” are the best.  They’re ridiculous and restrictive, and are probably even effective for a few days.  So, yes, the Potato Diet is meant to be comical, but hypothetically intriguing. It’s actually long-term healthy, appetizing, and effective.  It generally works because of it’s lowered palatability and reward (terms specific to the science of overeating) relative to other diets.  Potatoes are nutritionally complete (check cronometer if you don’t believe me).  And it’s a low fat diet (minimal added oils and fats, if any), which can be supplemented with non-starchy veggies.

I otherwise won’t go into the history of the Potato Diet.  It’s surprisingly short, as it’s never enjoyed any fad following.  (Which is totally strange, since there’s libraries of books for every other possible magical diet.)  But that might change, as High Carb Hannah currently has 3k+ Facebook members trying it out right now.  I decided to try it, mostly because it’s silly, and also because I believe in the food-reward model, and was pretty sure I’d finally lose “the last 5 kg” on this diet.  So far, I’m getting faster results than I expected.  I’d been stuck at 80 kg for over a year, eating high-carb, low-fat whole plant based foods that I cooked myself.  I’ve been super healthy and active, cycling 200+ km/week.  But I should weigh 75 kg or less.

I’m documenting my entire Potato Diet experience on my YouTube channel.  On those vlogs, I ramble on about the value of daily weigh-ins and accountability.  I’m eating a lot of roasted potatoes, baked potato fries, hash browns, and Thai potato curries.  I’m eating a bit of fruit, and maybe 10% of my calories from non-potato sources.  It’s still only Day 11 as I write this, but I hope to get down to my goal weight of 75 kg, and to keep it there by closely monitoring and posting my weight in the follow-up.

Gary Taubes vs. Alan Aragon EPIC Debate

OMG, it finally really happened. Gary Taubes actually agreed to a debate over his “Alternative Hypothesis” of obesity (he blames carbs, not calories). It was long anticipated (scheduled last year), and it finally happened at the EPIC Fitness Summit 2015 last weekend in the UK.

To some obsessed diet nerds, this debate was the Holy Grail we’ve waited our whole lives for. The its-black-and-white, carbs-literally-make-you-fat, I’m-never-wrong Gary Taubes was finally to address his critics (or at least one of them), in person, in a responsive manner.

Usually, the only times we see Gary Taubes is either in some friendly (i.e., “low-carb”) environment, or bullying mild, reasonable people with his boorish behaviour. No one gets an opposing word in edgewise, or he stonewalls against any reasonable questions. And then some crazed low-carb (i.e., overweight) fan comes on to say that Gary Taubes’ books changed their life.

So that’s all you get on the internet. A bunch of old Gary Taubes videos of his “Why We Get Fat” talk, that make you want to scream. Or worse, him and some other fixed-idea nuts like Andreas “The Diet Doctor” Eenfeldt, or Dr. Robert “Fructose is Poison” Lustig enabling their fans’ low-carb hysterics.

And half the idiots believe him. After all, he spent 10 years researching the science, and writing a 600+ page magnum opus, and he’s won the biggest awards in science journalism, and he writes for the New York Times and the BMJ. And what if eating fat doesn’t make you fat? See, that bacon is good for you. It’s all you should eat. Don’t eat any carbs. Carbs literally make you fat.

And it never ends. (Well, maybe after this debate, it might finally stop.) Gary Taubes drove all this low-carb, keto, paleo craziness by making people fear insulin. His description of a normal metabolic process becomes a fat storage horror story.

Thankfully, the crowd of professional trainers and coaches at the EPIC Summit weren’t as gullible as the general public. They provided the perfect audience for Taubes’ “Carbs vs. Calories” debate with Alan Aragon. Personally, I thought Gary Taubes would pull his usual antics, and stonewall against any informed discussion. From Ben Carpenter’s description of the exchange, it sounded like he tried a bit of that, but the informed crowd saw right through it.

I haven’t seen any of the debate video, which should eventually become public. For now, we have Ben Carpenter’s excellent review of the exchange, which he clearly credits Alan Aragon as winning. Thank g*d. Please no more pathological science. Oh, I forgot, there’s still years of NuSI research to waste everyone’s time on.

Alan Aragon posted about the whole experience on the bodybuilding.com forums:

It wasn’t even an actual debate. It was Gary hypothesizing without supporting research, then me presenting a metric shit-ton of research supporting my position, followed by Gary flippantly dismissing and denying said shit-ton of research. Gary should have approached the debate very differently. The overwhelming consensus was that he got his ass handed to him. I personally was VERY disappointed in Gary’s lack of decorum. He consistently ran way over his time slots, and interrupted me several times during my opening statement, which was very time-sensitive. It was very insulting to the audience, moderator, and of course me. To top things off, he admitted to me that even if NuSI research refuted his position, he likely wouldn’t change his current opinions. So, in essence, he’s not swayed by evidence. Bottom line is that he made a bad impression on everyone.

Gary Taubes: “Carbs Literally Make You Fat”

Gary Taubes is so obsessed that “carbs make us fat”, that he thinks we could (should) eat unlimited fat, as long as we don’t eat any carbs. Who the ^#%$ wants to do that? Sure, I like bacon and eggs, but I’d rather eat sensibly than follow some tortuous ketogenic diet that doesn’t work (see below).

I prefer to eat low-fat (< 10% of calories), knowing that I can eat unlimited carbs, exercise moderately, and not risk gaining fat. This is because the body can't readily turn carbs into fat (de novo lipogensis is slow). However, any excess dietary fat will be quickly stored as body fat.

Gary Taubes takes the same understanding of the body’s mechanisms (that we preferentially burn dietary carbs and store excess dietary fat), but reaches a different conclusion. He reasons that if you don’t eat any carbs, then you can’t store any fat. WTF?! How do you make that conclusion? This logical error is called the fallacy of the inverse (If A, then B. Therefore, if not A, then not B. Not!) Here, A = “overeating carbs AND fat”, and B = “we become obese”. So “overeating fat BUT eating no carbs” is not A, therefore not B, and we don’t become obese. Not!

Some people realise this can’t really be true, and aren’t surprised when they hear about people (like Jimmy Moore) gaining weight on a ketogenic diet (< 30g/day carbs). That's exactly what a caller to Sean Croxton's Underground Wellness podcast asked (could you over-eat fat, without any carbs, and not gain weight?). Here’s Gary Taubes’ response (starts at 4:00):

… but I do not believe you can get fatter [no matter how much fat you eat, when you eat no carbs], and for most people, probably some huge proportion, 80% – 90%, if you’re not eating carbs, your’re going to lose weight, you’re not going to gain it.

So to me, its the carbohydrates that literally make you fat. You will store the fat that you eat. See, what happens when you eat the carbs and your insulin levels go up, you store the fat, the dietary fat, while you burn the carbs. And if your insulin levels stay up, you never let that dietary fat that you stored out of your fat tissue. So the carbs are still the problem, even though the fat is being stored first.

So he understands the well-known “fat-sparing” effect of eating carbs. Carbs are preferentially burned while the fat is stored. So most reasonable people eat low fat to minimize its storage. (Our bodies were made to store fat. It’s a great survival feature.) But Gary Taubes thinks we can trick the body into not storing excess dietary fat, by not eating any carbs. Good luck with that.

Then he goes on:

And because of that, we’ve been told, “Well, since we’re storing the fat and burning the carbs, if you don’t eat the fat, or if we eat less of it, we’ll store less of it.” But the carbs are controlling how the fat tissue is holding on to the fat, and whether it’s releasing it to be burned later.

So the carbs are basically what’s regulating the insulin and the insulin is regulating the fat and the dietary fat is only a problem if you’re eating a high carb diet.

He’s saying that low-fat diets don’t work, because carbs never let the fat out of the adipose tissue. But, there are plenty of times where the body burns fat, like in between meals, during moderate exercise, while you’re sleeping, etc. Sure, if you constantly keep eating, you won’t access your fat stores, but in most normal people, adipose tissue is metabolically active. Excess fat goes in when eaten, and comes out as needed. (Hey, what would happen if you didn’t eat any excess dietary fat?)

Argh. You know, if you like bacon and eggs, then eat them. If you want to eat ketogenic, then good for you. And if you want to believe that carbs make you fat, no matter what the science says, then hopefully the low-carb approach works for you. But if you go around arguing that there’s a metabolic advantage to eating no carbs, please try listening to reason occasionally.

If There’s No Food Reward, Then Why Do I Eat The Whole Box Of Cookies?

Learning about The Pleasure Trap, aka Food Reward, taught me why a whole foods diet prevents us from over-eating. I never even thought the concept could be controversial. Obesity isn’t even your fault! Hyper-palatable, ultra-refined products are so good, you’d be crazy not to prefer them to traditional food. Once hooked, you’re normal to reject a salad, vegetables, or even fruit as unappetizing. (But, once you break the Pleasure Trap of fast food, you again enjoy the real tastes of whole foods.)

So what’s the controversy over Food Reward? Who could even doubt that it’s the high-availability (24 hr/day, everywhere, cheap, super-sized) of these highly processed addictive foods that makes us fat? Oh, right, Gary Taubes. Apparently, he couldn’t stomach the idea of someone with a real hypothesis which elegantly addresses the obesity epidemic, and that (indirectly) invalidates his own fixed-idea. So what should Taubes do? Hijack the Q&A follow-up to Dr. Stephan Guyenet’s Food Reward talk at AHS11 to personally attack him, of course.

TG

I saw the “incident” unfold a few years after it happened, while I was watching Guyenet’s talk on YouTube. It was a great talk, then he opened up the Q&A. Next I hear a familiar droning voice that I (WTF?!) recognized as Taubes. (He jumped the Q&A line to make his outburst.) He goes on about his apocryphal, tiny populations that got obese eating no calories while doing manual labor, and accused Guyenet of ignoring them in his work. Awkwardness ensues.

This incident exposes something of a natural rift between the Paleo and the Low-Carb cliques at these types of conferences. They’re allies in their love for fat, especially saturated fat, and they both demonize wheat and most starches. However, there are some very fit Paleo eaters, and they find it necessary to fuel their workouts with “tubers” like sweet potatoes (never white potatoes, even though both are agricultural products). But since real Low-Carb’ers do ketosis, this theological rift is going to cause some problems. As it turns out, the Paleo side with Guyenet over the issue, and the Low-Carb’ers align with Taubes. One commenter noted that the Paleos resent the Low-Carb’ers as the “fatties” at these conferences, and associate Food Reward with personal responsibility. The Low-Carb’ers naturally go with the “insulin made me fat” story (since Gary Taubes confirms that exercise won’t help them lose weight).

Anyways, look it up (Google: taubes guyenet ahs11). There’s a pretty good conciliatory post that attempts to bridge the two camps (but is more Paleo-oriented towards personal responsibility, and “calories count”).

PS: I always wonder if Dr. Doug Lisle’s Pleasure Trap video would help the Low-Carb’ers. He explains the real reasons why obesity isn’t a personal short-coming. It’s natural in this food environment. And you don’t need extreme measures like cutting out all carbs to break the Pleasure Trap.