I’ve just read Gary Taubes’s “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat,” published in Science (2001). It’s an early look into a subject that’s since come a long way. I believe it was a foundational piece that was the impetus for his later work.
I read it looking for a way to understand why a friend who has been a Type I diabetic for over 70 years “believes absolutely” that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are bad for our health and should be avoided. I’m not trying to change her beliefs. She’s a survivor and an expert on how to manage her disease. I just want to understand why.
Taubes doesn’t need me to defend him either. He “studied applied physics at Harvard and aerospace engineering at Stanford (MS, 1978,”) and then “took his 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.” After “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat,” he came to the public’s attention with his blockbuster July 7, 2002 New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” It was the “2nd coming” of the low carb era.
After 5 years of research and writing Taubes went on in 2007 to publish his magnum opus, “Good Calories – Bad Calories” (“The Diet Delusion” in the UK). In an “Afterwords” in the paperback edition, Taubes admits that this epic tome had less impact on the medical establishment than he would have liked. A more accessible book, “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It,” came out in 2010. In 2011 he was back on the cover of The New York Times Magazine with “Is Sugar Toxic,” and in 2016, he published, “The Case Against Sugar,” another NYT best seller.
Many physicians and researchers have attributed to Taubes the inspiration for their career direction. He certainly has inspired me. He’s responsible, indirectly I suppose, for the name of this blog, “The Nutrition Debate.” As a “nutrition groupie,” I bundle my own experience with ideas I’ve had and those of experts I read daily 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 come to see the “alternate hypothesis” that Taubes describes in “Good Calories – Bad Calories.” Perhaps, the silver lining of the mirror will dissolve and be transparent. The following is excerpted from Taubes’s 2001 essay.
“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 (“bad” cholesterol) deliver fat and cholesterol from the liver to tissues that need it, including arterial cells, where it can lead to atherosclerotic plaques. High-density lipoproteins (“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. 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 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.”
Well, the Food Pyramid is gone, only to be replaced by “My Plate,” arguably a worse representation of a healthy eating pattern. But the modern movement that Gary Taubes spawned has gained enormous momentum. Today, it is a legacy to the work begun by Gary Taubes and his seminal piece, “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat?”