Gary Taubes on Why We Get Fat (Transcript)

So this is how this was perceived in the 1970s before this idea that obesity was a disorder of over nutrition, of over-consumption of foods set in like ice on a pond. And I am going to have to read it meaning over a little. It’s difficult to explain the high frequency of obesity seen in a relatively impecunious society such as exists in the West Indies. Actually let me interrupt for a second.

This is Rob Richards. Rob Richards was a British-trained diabetes specialist who moved to Jamaica in the early 1960s and started a diabesity clinic at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. And Richards pointed out when he made this statement, he observed the two-thirds of the adult women in Jamaica were obese. So when he says it’s difficult when the high frequency of obesity seen in a relatively impecunious society such as exists in the West Indies when compared to the standard of living enjoyed in the more developed countries, and asking the same question, do we expect the rich countries to have obesity problems, right, not the poor countries.

Malnutrition and sub-nutrition are common disorders in the first two years of life in these areas and account for almost 25% of all missions to pediatric wards in Jamaica. Sub-nutrition continues in early childhood to the early teens – sub-nutrition, the kids aren’t getting enough food.

Obesity begins to manifest itself in the female population from the 25th year of life, and reaches enormous proportions from 30 onward.

Okay, that was how this question was asked circa 1973-74. Now we can look at the same issue, the same observation 2005 after this belief that obesity is just a disease of sort of overconsumption sets in.

This is Benjamin Caballero. He runs the laboratory for human nutrition at Johns Hopkins University, which is a pretty good school. This is from an article in the New England Journal of Medicine called Obesity and malnutrition in nutrition paradox. 2005, this is — a few years ago I was visiting a primary care clinic in the slums of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the waiting room was full of mothers with thin stunted young children exhibiting the typical signs of chronic undernutrition. Their parents sadly would survive few who visit poor urban areas in the developing world.

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What might come as a surprise and many the mothers holding those undernourished infants for themselves overweight. Then he says the coexistence of underweight and overweight poses a challenge to public health programs and the aim of programs to reduce undernutrition which is make more food available, is in conflict with those for obesity prevention which is make less food available. And that could pose the challenge to public health programs in perennial in bold print in italics because as coexistence of underweight and overweight in the same populations in the same family doesn’t pose a challenge to public health programs, it poses a challenge to your paradigm.

Okay, if you believe that the mothers got obese because they took in more calories than they expended, they took in superfluous calories that they didn’t need so that they could get fat, in a brutal way of saying that they snuck outside to eat Snickers bars. While their children are starving, then you believe these mothers were eating calories they didn’t need that they could keep from their children to keep their children from starving to death.

Okay. So we have a paradigm of maternal behavior that says mothers will starve themselves to death before they’ll see their children starved. Okay, how many of you are mothers in here? Probably a lot of. How many of you would let your children starve so you could eat a Snickers bar? Okay, that’s what we’re talking about.

So our maternal behavior paradigm says mother starves so children can live. And our obesity paradigm says the mothers are getting fat because you’re eating calories they don’t need. We have to throw out one of the two of them and what makes his observations so interesting is in physics, the field I grew up in, physicists, scientists spend their whole lives waiting for what they call anomalous observations. An anomalous observation is something that your theory can’t explain because if you find something your theory can’t explain, you could then improve your theory or come up with a new theory that, that can explain which then makes progress.

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In physics, for instance, they’ve spent billions of dollars building one atom smasher outside of Geneva in this laboratory called CERN so that they could create one reliable observation that their theory can explain.

In obesity and nutrition research, we’ve been sitting on one for arguably 80 to 100 years, and we don’t pay attention. All we care about is that it doesn’t kind of make sense if we want to solve the public health programs, and one of the issues I come back to over and over again in my book is that obesity nutrition researchers and the public health authorities have been so convinced they know the answer. This energy balance thing, this calories in, calories out that they’ve been blinded even to sort of glaringly obvious anomalies that their theories can explain.

So let’s look at some other inconvenient observations here. For starters, if eating more causes us to get fat eating too much, we should be able to eat less and lose the weight. And it’s not that you know – you can argue, okay, once somebody’s 50 or 100 pounds overweight, eating less doesn’t work but you don’t – you’re not born 50 or 100 pounds overweight, or at least most people are, they get overweight in little bits and pieces, one day you notice you’re 10 pounds heavier than you want to be and your pants don’t fit right or you look — you turning to your husband and saying do I look fat in this outfit? Your husband is trying to lie to you desperately.

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