Gary Taubes on Why We Get (Transcript)

Gary Taubes is the author of many best selling books, including Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. Following lecture is based on the latter. Here is the full transcript of the talk….



I want to thank you for having me and Carol for setting this up. And let me just give you a little bit of background before I start. And you know why a journalist is here, talking about weight and why a journalist has anything to say about this.

And as Michael explained, my obsession over the years has been controversial science, good science and bad science, how easy it is to get the wrong answer in science, and how hard it is to do it right. And after I had finished this book on the scientific fiasco called Fusion, some of my friends in the physics community said to me, if you’re really interested in bad science, you should look at some other stuff and public health, that’s really terrible.

And so in the early ‘90s I moved into public health and I meandered around the field until the late ‘90s, I was writing about nutrition issues. I did a series of exposes for the journal Science in which I spent a year on an entire – twice I spent the year on an entire article first about the idea that salt causes high blood pressure. And then about dietary fat and heart disease and that led me to do a what was a relatively famous cover story for the New York Times Magazine called What If Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat, or What If It’s Been A Big Fat Lie, and I got a large book advance from that.

And one of the things with a large book advance it gives you a lot of time to do the research. I spent four year — five years on the book, the advance lasted four.

When I talked to doctors and researchers about this, I say imagine if you took one of your reasonably smart post dos, who had a reasonably good understanding of science, and said look, we have this obesity epidemic, we have this diabetes epidemic. We think we understand this but the fact that obesity and diabetes have gone wild during our lifetime suggests that maybe we don’t. Could you just go back to the literature and see if we miss something, see if maybe there’s some other explanation that we just blamed on because we thought we understood and one of the common pitfalls in science is as soon as you think you understand something, you ignore all other possible hypotheses.

So that’s in effect what I did, and unfortunately I stumbled upon what I thought were some obvious mistakes it had been made over the past 60 years. And now as a journalist, I am in the position of trying to convince the medical research community and the scientists and the educators that they have to rethink what they’ve been doing. So that’s what I’m going to do tonight with you.

The gist of it is – well, let me – so I wrote this book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. Five years of my life, it’s densely annotated. And after came out I got a lot of emails and letters from people saying that this book changed my life. Now would you please write one that my husband could read, or my father could read, or my children would read? I got letters from patients saying, would you write one that my doctors could read, and I got letters from doctors saying, would you write one that my patients could read. So and see how we’re…

So I wrote Why We Get Fat, which is kind of the airplane weaning version of Good Calories, Bad Calories. Instead of providing the history and the perspective and the background, it’s more of an argument and it’s based on this lecture. And I’m going to argue that what I say is true.

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Obesity Epidemic

So as we know there’s an obesity epidemic out there. Obesity levels have increased dramatically. This is the epidemic here so and we know that just – as Mike said living in Santa Cruz County, you’ve got obesity and the obesity epidemic. It goes along with the diabetes epidemics. So diagnosis of type 2 diabetes have tripled since 1980 in the United States.

So the conventional wisdom, and I am just going to give you this in background. Obesity is associated with the whole cluster of metabolic diseases. And what we mean by associated means the fatter you’re the, the more obese you are, the greater your risk of getting these diseases. So they include type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer, asthma, sleep apnea, neuro-degeneration and Alzheimer’s disease is one of them.

And actually just yesterday there was a report that came in the journal Pediatrics said, autism is associated with obesity, in maternal obesity and maternal type 2 diabetes. And the conventional wisdom is that as you get fatter, something about being fat, then increases maybe the inflammatory molecules that are released by your fat tissue, increases the risk of these diseases.

The subtext of what I’m going to argue is that whatever makes us fat also causes all these diseases. So it’s not whatever makes us fat causes heart disease, causes type 2 diabetes, causes cancer, causes Alzheimer’s and it’s kind of a radical position. But I want you to take it seriously. It leads, as I explain to you, why we get fat or hopefully sort of expand your beliefs about why we — open your mind a little bit about why we might get fat.

Why do we get fat

So boom, why do we get fat? Simple question. And the answer is pretty obvious also, as the NIH puts, obesity occurs when a person consumes more calories from food than he or she burns, okay. It’s conventional wisdom – energy in is greater than energy out. Okay, we overeat. Simple enough.

This is the energy balance hypothesis of obesity. That’s how it’s known. We take in, it’s calories in, calories out, whenever you hear somebody say that a calorie is a calories, is a calorie. This is what they’re arguing, and any food will make you fat if you take in more but then you’re expending.

So I just want to ask a question – how many of you believe this is true? Just so I get a feel for – okay, 13 people.

I am going to argue that this is one hypothesis of obesity and there are alternatives. And that obvious as it seems, what we want to do is look at the alternatives and see because this is science. Maybe the alternatives explain the observations better than our energy-in, energy-out hypothesis. So again this is kind of how it’s perceived today in the popular press.

Energy-in greater than energy-out

And one of the things you want to do as a science is we want to explain, not just obesity but the obesity epidemic. So science is about observing things and then figuring out what the causes are, and our explanation for the obesity epidemic is increased prosperity. This is a phrase that the NYU nutritionist Marion Nestle used in a Science article 10 years ago when Marion is still arguing, so the idea is we get richer and as we get richer food is more available. We have to exercise less, basically the food and entertainment industries conspire not consciously but subconsciously to feed us too much and give us too many opportunities to be sedentary watching TV, watching video games, or kids are playing video games or are on the iPads everyday. They’re not outside running.

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Kelly Brownell, a Yale psychologist used the phrase the toxic environment to describe this, and toxic environment is an environment that promotes sedentary behavior and overeating. And by doing so makes calories in, more than calories out, as Kelly put it your cheese curls and french fries, drive-in restaurants are more part of environment now than trees, grass and clouds. Your children sit at home and watch television, they play video games as parents are afraid to let them walk or bike to school anymore. So we drive them to school. So there’s all these opportunities to eat too much and expend too little and that’s the toxic environment that we live in today.

And the question we could ask as scientists is pretty simple. We have our hypothesis – increased prosperity leads to overeating. Energy in greater than energy out. And the result is the obesity and the obesity epidemic.

And what we want to do is say, does this hypothesis make sense? Does it explain the observations? Because that’s again what we want our hypothesis – we want it to explain things that we see and it certainly seems to explain what we see today.

But there are some less obvious observations out there, and this is what I did in the course of my research, as I was able to go back in time and looked for examples for populations that had high levels of obesity. But none of the toxic environment that we see today around us.

Pima Indians- History of Obesity

And the first is on the Pima Indians – Native American tribe that live in, on a reservation today in Arizona, south of Phoenix. And the Pima were happened to be among the most affluent Native American tribes through the middle of the 19th century. So they were hunters and gatherers. They hunted in the nearby mountains. They fished in the Gila river. They farmed, they were an agrarian population as well. So they raised wheat and beans. They raised pigs and cattle.

And in late 1840s when army battalion started traveling through the Pima territory, they noted that the Pima were sprightly and in fine health. And they had this great abundance of food, warehouses full of foods so much so that after gold was discovered here in California in 1849, and from the 1850s to 1880s, 20,000 to 60,000 49ers went west on the Santa Fe Trail that lives in the Pima territory. And the US government asked the Pima to feed them which they did.

So in 1846, they were very prosperous tribe and they were described the sprightly and fine health by several observers. This drawing was actually made in 1851.


And then what happens is Anglo Americans and Mexican Americans are moving into the Pima territory in Arizona and they over hunt the local mountains and they divert the Gila river water to irrigate their own streams. And by the 1870s, the Pima are starving. And they go through 20 to 30 years of famine.

And by 1902, a Harvard anthropologist named Frank Russell comes to live with the Pima, and he describes the conditions on the reservation as poor beyond our imagination. They’re trying to make a go at farming and barely doing it. And Russell takes this picture of this Pima Indian that he calls fat Louisa. And he says there is a degree of obesity on the tribe, particularly in the older people completely at odds with the popular image even back then of the Native American lean handsome Native American and popularized thought.

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