Former UC Berkeley lecturer challenges conventional diets

Leading science journalist launches campaign against American nutritional guidelines citing faulty science

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Gary Taubes’ office is strewn with books on nutrition. “The Paleo Diet.” Atkins. “The Politics of Food.” He’s read them all.

Taubes is the author of two books on health, a former lecturer at UC Berkeley and a leading science journalist whose 2002 New York Times Magazine article on what he calls “the myth of the low-fat diet” became the talk of the nutrition community.

His controversial views have led him to be hailed as one of the nation’s most progressive thinkers on diet and nutrition — and also one of the most radical.

Now Taubes, who ended his tenure as a lecturer in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health in August, has launched a new initiative to compel scientists and health officials to re-examine the nutrition guidelines that have shaped American dinners for generations.

Rather than the low-fat diet plans championed by many celebrities and fitness experts, Taubes maintains that obesity is not a matter of how much one eats but what one eats. For more than 10 years, Taubes has argued that complex carbs — not fat — are fundamentally to blame for America’s obesity crisis and that anyone who tells you otherwise is practicing faulty science.

Specifically, he argues that an individual’s accumulation of fat is mostly a result of the body’s production of the hormone insulin.

“Insulin levels are mostly determined by … the quantity and quality of the carbs we consume,” Taubes said. “If you want to get the fat out and burn it for fuel, the first thing you have to do is lower insulin levels, and you do that by removing these carbohydrates from the diet.”

Thus, for Taubes, it is not simply a matter of calories in versus calories out that is to blame for the nation’s obesity crisis but which calories are going into the body in the first place.

What began as a decade-long obsession with health has since grown into a full-fledged career. Taubes lectured on various health misconceptions at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health during the 2011-12 school year and is currently working on his third book, on controversies surrounding sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

What he calls his “insurgency” for revised nutrition guidelines and greater public awareness has led him to his newest project, the nonprofit Nutrition Science Initiative, which was launched in September. NuSI aims to fund studies that examine the fundamental causes of obesity rather than just the best ways to lose weight, as much of research on nutrition has focused on. Taubes hopes the initiative will spur the scientific community to re-examine some long-held beliefs on health that predate modern research methods and findings.

“There may be other nonprofits that share our mission, but they are trying to accomplish that by reiterating the same mantra,” said Peter Attia, co-founder of the initiative. “Those are noble desires, but our point is that if any of that stuff works, why hasn’t it worked for 40 years?”

Ronald Krauss, a senior scientist in the Life Sciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in an email that while he agrees that current American nutritional guidelines need to be updated, he is not quite convinced about the premise of Taubes’ and Attia’s argument.

“As I understand (Taubes’) views, they include the notion that not all calories are equal when it comes to body weight regulation, and that carbohydrates, by triggering insulin release, promote a greater increase in body fat than fat or protein,” Krauss said in the email. “My feeling is that the factors leading to development and maintenance of obesity are highly complex, and cannot be reduced to this single mechanism.”

Taubes and Attia are looking to fund studies by researchers like Krauss who are critical of their claims.

“We want skeptics,” Taubes said. “Whatever they find will be seen as credible.”

NuSI is looking for scientists “who agree with the highest premise that the scientific evidence underpinning our dietary recommendations need to be revisited,” Attia said.

“NuSI stands unique in this position,” he added. “We’re the only ones saying that we need to go back to the drawing board — you need to understand how gravity works before you can build a bridge.”

Sara Grossman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected].