More Heresy on Obesity

Obesity — its causes and consequences — is a frequent topic on this blog (and the podcast too). In the podcast, Eric Oliver argued that “the causal relationship between weight and maladies like heart disease, cancer, and even diabetes has not been firmly established.” That certainly strikes some as heresy. In a recent EconTalk podcast, noted heretic Gary Taubes lays out a well-argued position:  

Taubes argues that for decades, doctors, the medical establishment, and government agencies encouraged Americans to reduce fat in their diet and increase carbohydrates in order to reduce heart disease. Taubes argues that the evidence for the connection between fat in the diet and heart disease was weak yet the consensus in favor of low-fat diets remained strong. Casual evidence (such as low heart disease rates among populations with little fat in their diet) ignores the possibilities that other factors such as low sugar consumption may explain the relationship.

Anyone for the paleo diet? 

Cor Aquilonis

I'm on a low-carb paleo right now, and just started strictly a couple weeks ago. Sure, I lost a little weight, but I really enjoy feeling full between meals and getting full, restful sleep. I plan to stick with it for the foreseeable future.

I like life better without the sugar and grains.

John B

The basic diet of most of the peoples of the world includes carbs, like grains, rice etc.

How do you feed everyone without them?

Cor Aquilonis

1) I don't know.
2a) Not my job.
2b) While I'm sympathetic to the plight of the undernourished of the world, I neither have the resources nor the education nor the power to make any meaningful impact on their lives. I recognize this fact and accept it.
3) You'll notice every sentence I used in the above post had the subject of "I." You'll notice none of them had the subject "you" or "they." That would be because I was talking about myself, not you or them.

Conclusion: Brush up on your reading skills. I didn't propose the paleo diet as the solution to all the world's dietary ills. I just said that it agrees with me.


It is very important to know that fat cannot be directly absorbed to the body unlike sugar, sugar therefore has a much faster absorption in the human body than anything else and is therefore more harmful to your metabolic system than anything else. Basic grade level 10 biology (in canada anyways). Eat more fatty food, eat little sugar.


Taubes speaks the truth, I'm living proof. Try low-carb/high fat for a month, you'll see the difference too. Fat does not make a person fat, fat does not cause high cholesteral; carbs do.

Mike B

I think the important figure is total calories. Most of the effects from ANY diet is that people control what they are cramming into their maw. If you want to really shed the pounds you can either increase your physical activity or decrease the number of calories you eat. Both are uncomfortable which is why people are packing away the pounds. The only difference between modern times and ancient times is that before food was hard to come by so we had no choice except to diet.

If you want to get picky about it, yes certain types of have various affects on the body. Carbs make you fat and certain types of fat clogs your arteries. However if you're only eating 1500 cal a day you won't be eating enough of either to make a difference.


A great topic. Of course the real question is why governments continue to go down a low fat route, including taxing fatty foods, given the lack of evidence. An evidence based approach would rather tax sugar and sweeteners (especially sweeteners!), and wheat.
Could the vested interests of the farming community, food producers/processors and cholesterol-reducing drug companies and their lobbying powers have a little something to do with it?

Ultimately the lesson is not to trust anything anyone tells you until you know who their paymaster is.

Iljitsch van Beijnum

Yeah, that's what we need, for the current richest 1 billion to eat even more meat, and of course only the type produced in the most natural resource wasting way, and then for the other 6 to catch up to us.

Anyone who thinks they can lose weight by eating more of some high energy food (fat, carbohydrates, meat, whatever) is in need of a thermodynamics refresher course.

Cor Aquilonis

Ummm. I'm pretty sure the thermodynamics you are referring to occur in a closed system. The human body isn't a closed system. Of course, I'm not a physicist, but I also doubt you are.


No, the thermodynamics doesn't require a closed system. It's simply that if you take in more energy, in the form of food calories, than you expend, then that energy has to go somewhere. We know from observation that much of it is stored in the body, as fat.

And BTW, I do have a physics degree.

Cor Aquilonis

Congratulations on your physics degree, I'll have to take your word for that.

Color me skeptical that the Laws of Thermodynamics map so perfectly to the human biological system that Calories In Must Equal Calories Out And Much of The Difference Shall Be Fat. While I don't doubt that the overall system follows the Laws of Thermodynamics, I doubt that it applies a simplistically as I frequently hear it applied. I suspect that there's more going on then that, but then, I don't have a pile of weighty scientific evidence for you in my back pocket.

Let's just say I have to see more compelling evidence supporting your thesis before I move beyond being a dietary agnositc who has found low-carb paleo useful for her own diet.

Neil (SM)

@Cor Aquilonis: Perhaps the calories-in-calories-out idea describes a perfect system in which every ounce of food one eats is metabolized and creates a fixed amount of calories. The reality is much more complex, where every person has a unique metabolism, and some foods are metabolized differently than others. And also it seems for many people fats are not absorbed nearly as well as carbs.

@Iljitsch van Beijnum: the article is certainly not claiming high-carb will make one lose weight. What seems more important to the discussion is the claim that weight may very well not be connected to health.

John S.

Prepare for a cascade of replies all the people who are eating less, feeling healthier, sleeping better and even having better sex on a diet that excludes (or includes) component X. I don't doubt their sincerity, but don't they realize that anecdotal evidence is worthless? Alternatively, if they want me to put faith in their testimonial, then they should explain to me why I should ignore the testimonials of other equally sincere individuals who achieve the same results on other diets. Patients of Dr. Ornish, for example.

Cor Aquilonis

Why, yes, I realize anecdotal data isn't proof of anything. So, please don't assume I'm ignorant of the (low) value of sharing my directly relevant experience on a comment thread. I'm not trying to convince you of anything, nor am I asking for your faith. I'm just sharing my experience.


Dr. Lustig provides a causal relationship between sugar (more specifically fructose) in his lecture "Sugar: The Bitter Truth". Well worth watching -


Here's a good listing of clinical trials that show an edge for low-carb diets:

Brian Utterback

While Gary Taubes complaints about the "establishment" wisdom has a lot of validity, his own attempts at producing a narrative that can be understood likewise falls short. See at the "Science Based Medicine" website for more details.


Bottom line, if you want to lose weight you've got to cut calories (or burn more calories) there is no other way. The best diets are those that reduce calories while making sure that the body still receives sufficient levels of calories, vitamins and minerals.

The only attractive feature of a low fat, low sugar diet is that it fools your body in thinking that its not hungry, body is tricked into thinking because the sugar levels do reach a certain trigger level that its not hungry.

That's it! Bottom line the best diet is on that you can maintain (no hunger) and where the calories are restricted. Everything else is complete BS, the laws of thermodynamic cannot be suspended by eating only one kind of food, less food is the magic solution (and sticking to the diet too)


Taubes is wrong about a lot, and you'll see his rants replicated, such as the poster who states that fat cannot be directly absorbed by the body. This is patently false. Why do people think this? Becuase Taubes' books claim that insulin spikes are needed to store fat - totally ignoring other factors which allow fat to be absorbed, such as ASP

Fat, protein, and carbs can all be stored.

As for low-carb "success" - anytime you restrict yourself from an entire macronutrient, sure you can lose weight. Keep in mind part of your weight loss is simply muscle glycogen loss, not fat.