Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Nutrition Debate #55: The Beleaguered Gary Taubes

I’ve just reread Gary Taubes’s “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat,” first published March 31, 2001 in Science and available in PDF format on any search engine. I recommend it to anyone interested in taking a fresh look at this subject through a clear prism. It is a brilliant exposition on a subject that has been distorted beyond recognition for more than 50 years.
I was motivated to read it again in search for a way to understand why and how so many intelligent people who should be informed about such things (including a friend who has been a Type I diabetic for over 60 years) “believe absolutely” that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are “bad” for our health and should be avoided.  I’m not trying to change what she believes. She’s certainly an expert in her disease (T1DM) and a survivor of it. I just want to understand why.
Gary Taubes doesn’t need me to defend him. He “studied applied physics at Harvard and aerospace engineering at Stanford (MS, 1978,”) and then got “a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in 1981.” “He has won the Science in Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers three times,” according to his website. After “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat,” he became famous (and controversial) with his July 7, 2002 New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” A polar-opposite rebuttal from The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a powerful vegan lobby group in Washington, DC, was published in their November 2002 newsletter.
Taubes went on in 2007, after 5 years of research and writing, to publish “Good Calories – Bad Calories” (“The Diet Delusion” in the UK, 2008), a seminal text for “the initiated.” In an “Afterwords” in the paperback edition, Taubes admits he had less impact on the medical establishment, particularly clinicians, than he would have liked. A more approachable text, “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It,” came out in 2010. Since then, he has been back on the cover of The New York Times Magazine with “Is Sugar Toxic” (April 13, 2011). Clearly Taubes’s books and articles all deal with controversy in medicine and nutrition.
Many physicians and researchers openly attribute Taubes for inspiring them in their career direction. He certainly has inspired me. He may even be the inspiration for the title of this blog, The Nutrition Debate. The debate needs to be continually renewed. We need to be constantly reminded at all levels, from simple nutrition “groupies” like me, who bundle ideas of others to put it out there for the world to consider. If the light level behind the mirror of conventional thinking is raised, perhaps the world will update their thinking with the “alternate hypothesis” that Taubes describes in “Good Calories – Bad Calories.” Perhaps, the silver back of the mirror will dissolve and become transparent. Following is an excerpt from Taubes’s 8,000 word essay in the 2001 Science magazine article “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat.”
“The original simple story in the 1950s was that high cholesterol levels increase heart disease risk. The seminal Framingham Heart Study, for instance, which revealed the association between cholesterol and heart disease, originally measured only total serum cholesterol. But cholesterol shuttles through the blood in an array of packages. Low-density lipoprotein particles (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol) deliver fat and cholesterol from the liver to tissues that need it, including the arterial cells, where it can lead to atherosclerotic plaques. High-density lipoproteins (HDLs, the “good” cholesterol) return cholesterol to the liver. The higher the HDL, the lower the heart disease risk. Then there are triglycerides, which contain fatty acids, and very low density lipoproteins (VLDLs), which transport triglycerides.
“All of these particles have some effect on heart disease risk, while the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in the diet have varying effects on all these particles. The 1950s story was that saturated fats increase total cholesterol, polyunsaturated fats decrease it, and monounsaturated fats are neutral. By the late 1970s – when researchers accepted the benefits of HDL – they realized that monounsaturated fats are not neutral. Rather, they raise HDL, at least compared to carbohydrates, and lower LDL. This makes them an ideal nutrient as far as cholesterol goes. Furthermore, saturated fats cannot be quite so evil because, while they elevate LDL, which is bad, they also elevate HDL, which is good. And some saturated fats – stearic acid, in particular, the fat in chocolate – are at worst neutral. Stearic acid raises HDL levels but does little or nothing to LDL. And then, there are trans fatty acids, which raise LDL, just like saturated fat, but also lower HDL. Today, none of this is controversial, although it has yet to be reflected in any Food Guide Pyramid.”
Taubes is taking a few hits today in the Paleo world because of one of his ten “certain conclusions” from “Good Calories – Bad Calories:” that “insulin is the principal regulator of fat metabolism.” Maybe “a bridge too far,” but nobody in the Paleo World would dispute his first conclusion: “Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.” But, take note Loren Cordain and Robb Wolf, et. al.: Taubes was touting stearic acid while you guys were still in short pants (figuratively speaking, of course).                                               
© Dan Brown 6/3/12

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