Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mindless weight-loss advice, courtesy US government

Below is a post I made on the lowcarbfriends.com forum this morning. Here's a link to that thhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifread, where you'll find responses to my post:


I wrote in response to the following USA Today article which someone had posted there.


Brian Wansink, one of the nation's top experts on eating behaviors and the author of Mindless Eating:Why We Eat More Than We Think, hopes that in his new federal job he can take a stab at reversing the obesity epidemic.

Wansink, who last week was named executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, wants to encourage people to "bump up their activity level." And he would like to work with registered dietitians and schoolteachers to help them teach others to use the government's nutrition tools, including the Food Pyramid (www.mypyramid.gov).

He'll also be forming an advisory committee to create the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These would be a science-based update of the 2005 federal guidelines, which are considered the gold standard of nutrition advice.

Wansink says it took about 30 years for obesity to get where it is today, and "it's going to take some time to reverse it."

He is taking a leave of absence from his job as director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab.

During the past 20 years, Wansink has conducted more than 200 studies of environmental factors that push Americans, sometimes unconsciously, to overeat. He believes that people are constantly "trapped" by their surroundings into consuming 100 to 200 calories more than they need or want.

He says Americans can trim a couple of hundred calories a day and lose 10 to 20 pounds a year by doing things such as avoiding open food dishes at the office, using smaller serving bowls and spoons, and leaving serving dishes on the stove instead of on the table.

His research includes the McSubway Project, a series of studies that examine the habits of fast-food customers. Much of the research compares foods at McDonald's and Subway, which advertises that it has more healthful options.

Wansink found that there's a "health halo" around a lot of the foods at restaurants such as Subway in which customers feel virtuous about their choice of meals. So, his research shows, they overeat in side dishes and grossly underestimate the number of calories they consume.

Thanks for the post.

Wansink is obviously well meaning. Too bad his ideas are totally off-base. What we've been doing for the past 30 years is:

  • Cut down our intake of dietary fat
  • Increase our intake of carbs
  • Include the liver-pummeling, belly-fattening high-fructose corn syrup that's now listed on practically every food product on the shelf.

The myth that shaving 100-200 calories a day from our diets will translate to fat loss over the course of time is exactly that: a myth. It's never been documented or demonstrated. On the contrary, what science shows is the the body simply adjusts to maintain its state.

The activity myth is also just that. People today are less active than they were 100 years ago, but more active than 30 years ago, when it was considered eccentric, rather than virtuous, to go for a daily run or belong to a gym. Is Wansink unaware of the studies in which obese individuals trained and completed marathons without losing pounds? For those individuals, his advice to "bump up their activity level" is clearly off-target.

The target Wansink misses is carbohydrate, whether simple or complex. That's what drives fat accumulation. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Michael Eades, it's a "one-way street" -- the pathway from sugar and starch into the fat cells via insulin. HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is even worse. It's doesn't cause insulin production, but goes straight to the liver, from which it is stored as fat, mainly in the tissues surrounding the organs.

The Food Pyramid concept on which Wansink pins his hopes for America's slimming was introduced about 30 years ago -- just around the time that the obesity epidemic began. The rate of overweight had been more or less stable for decades before that. Before "lowfat" was declared the universal dietary standard for everyone age 2 and over. Back when the common wisdom held that pasta, bread and lollipops are fattening.

Wansink wants to reverse a 30-year trend, but he wants to do it by intensifying the very approach that 30 years of experimentation have proven wrong.

How many more bodies and lives must be sacrificed to obesity and chronic diseases before authorities look at what the science shows, and call an end to this devastating experiment in public health?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Unearned praise

Here's a comment I made in response to a post on New York Times blog "Well."

A tale of automatic, unearned praise:

When my son was about a year old, I enrolled him in an 8-week swimming class for babies 0-2 held at a local elementary school and sponsored through the public school system.

We went to the first class together, but weren’t able to attend the second week.

A few days before the date of the third week’s session, we received a letter from the school system notifying us that the pool had closed for renovation and would not be operational again for several months. (No refund was available, but that’s not the point of the story.)

Two months later, my son received a gilt-edged certificate in the mail praising him for completing the 8-week swimming program.

— Posted by VesnaVK

The original post/article was by Tara Parker-Pope and titled "Are Kids Getting Too Much Praise?" The URL and article text follows below. The premise of the article intrigued me, but I thought the article itself was put together in a slipshod way. Many of the readers' comments nicely expose various logical gaps.

The examples of good praise vs. bad, for example, I think are all examples of bad praise -- they don't get specific enough with their specificity. More useful than "You did great on your math test," for example, might be, "I notice that you can see how little parts fit into a big pattern," or "Practicing all those addition problems over and over really paid off when you took your math test."

I also like the idea that I got from -- I think it was the book "Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline," which is a horribly uncatchy title, although it makes sense when you parse it. That author suggests asking a child what they think of a particular accomplishment or creation, rather than automatically jumping in with a compliment. This is especially true, I think, when the topic at hand is something the child might have some uncertainty about. Tuning in to see what sort of emotional guidance the child needs is, I think, better than assuming that cheerleading is always the answer.

For instance, "How do you feel about that math test?" might be a useful conversation opener. Even if the grade was perfect, the answer might be, "I wish I'd studied harder," or "It was too easy -- it didn't feel like I even did anything." Imposing a positive statement like "You did great on that math test!" at the outset might shut out the possibility of real conversation.

Then there's the comparison made between the Korean vs. American kids. The study that the NYT and Scholastic articles describe didn't measure how much praise the children were given. It measured how good the children thought their math skills were, and how good their math skills actually were.

Even if it turned out there was a difference in praise given the two groups, the difference in achievement could result from any number of other factors. So might the difference in how the children describe their skill levels.

Some readers commented that the Korean culture values humility while ours encourages statements of self-confidence. In any case, the fact that few Korean students say they excel at math tells us little.

Here's that NYTimes article:

An excess of praise may be doing kids more harm than good.

A cover story in this month’s Scholastic Instructor magazine asks whether kids today are “overpraised.'’ The concern is that by focusing on self-esteem and confidence building, parents and teachers may be giving real goals and achievement short shrift. The article cites a recent study in which eighth graders in Korea and the United States were asked whether they were good at math. Among the American students, 39 percent said they were excellent at math, compared to just 6 percent of the Korean eighth graders. But the reality was somewhat different. The Korean kids scored far better in math than the over-confident American students.

The notion that you can praise a kid too much is heresy to parents and teachers who have long believed that building self-esteem should be the cornerstone of education. If kids believe in themselves, the thinking goes, achievement will naturally follow. But confidence doesn’t always produce better students. Scholastic cites a 2006 report on education from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center that found that countries in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem for students lag behind cultures where self-esteem isn’t a major focus.

The problem with this “rah-rah mentality,'’ as the magazine describes it, is that it can take away the sense of satisfaction that comes from genuine achievement. “Self-esteem is based on real accomplishments,” Robert Brooks, faculty psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told the magazine. “It’s all about letting kids shine in a realistic way.”

The downside of too much praise is that kids may start to focus on the reward rather than what they are learning. Worse, failure can be devastating and confusing for a student whose confidence is based on an inflated ego, rather than his or her actual abilities, the magazine notes. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise our kids or that teachers shouldn’t try to engender self-confidence. But self-esteem should be the result of good grades and achievement, not false accomplishments.

Last month, Cognitive Daily reported that parents and teachers should be specific rather than general when they dispense praise. An example of general praise is telling a child, “You’re smart.'’ Specific praise would be to say, “You did a good job reading,'’ or “You did great on your math test.'’ Kids who receive general praise about their abilities are more likely to exhibit “helpless” behavior when they encounter problems with learning, compared with kids who receive specific praise about their achievement on a task. The reason: a child who knows she’s a smart girl feels defeated if she has trouble reading a sentence. But a child who has been told she is a good reader is more likely to have confidence in that specific ability and work a little harder to tackle a more difficult book.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007

Hard to believe it's our fourth Thanksgiving with Ulysses, and our third time having it at home as a family of three.

This year we were joined by our friend Michelle who lives in Altadena, California, one of the three dear, lasting friendships I was lucky enough to form while I lived out that way. She was at her mother's place, where she's living now, sort of in between situations, and she visited us via Skype! That is, we had a video window open on the MacBook, so she could see and hear us and we could see and hear her.

To make it even more strangely appropriate, she was fasting today. I didn't ask why, but I figure it has something to do with her recently becoming a Buddhist. She had been planning to volunteer at a charity Thanksgiving dinner today, and had even gone earlier in the day and been sent home until later, but her transportation fell through at the last minute. Our gain -- we kept connected right through our Thanksgiving meal and beyond. Considering that she wasn't planning to eat a bite anyway, it was just as well that all we could do was hold all the yummy stuff in front of the iSight camera for her to ogle.

Here's the menu:

  • Roast turkey (no stuffing -- trying to cut a few carbs)
  • Gravy
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Molasses-apricot candied sweet potatoes
  • Sourdough biscuits
  • Green beans
  • Chilean Merlot

I must say, it was the most delicious Thanksgiving meal I can ever remember eating. We must be getting really good at cooking!

I baked a pumpkin pie, too, using canned pumpkin and the exact recipe from the Libby's label. That's a novelty for me -- usually I buy a pie pumpkin from the farmers' market and take it from there! But it didn't come out of the oven until around 7:30. Those things aren't good until they've cooled completely, which takes at least a few hours. So we'll have that tomorrow. I'm going in for a regular day of work -- I took Wednesday off instead of Friday to help smooth out the holiday drop in personnel -- so that means I'll be waiting until dinnertime to sample the pie!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Driving games

Simpsons Road Rage. Project Gotham Racing. Choro-Q. ATV Off-Track. Ulysses loves driving games. Not teaching games for kids. Real games.

Tonight when I came home from work, he kept asking for the green car. Usually, "Green car, green car!" means he wants to go for a ride. Usually it's accompanied by, "Ride! Outside! Socks! Shoes! Hat! Shirt! Pants! Come on, Mama!" (Usually he's dressed in a diaper, and that's it.) And him running around assembling what he needs to get going.

But tonight, he dragged me into the bedroom, where the Xbox is, and picked up the controller pad. "Green car! Green car!" I rifled through discs until he showed me the right one: Project Gotham Racing. We booted it up, and he picked out a green car -- a Cooper Mini -- to drive.

Soon he was speeding through the streets of virtual London in his green Cooper Mini.

(Every once in a while, he'd get lost in the menus between games. He'd dash out to the kitchen and fetch me back, saying, "Run, Mama! Run!")

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Gibanica, Guzvara: a flaky, savory cheese pie

This is a classic dish among Serbians. Gibanitsa (pronounced GEE-ba-nee-tsa), or guzvara (GUZH-va-ra), as near as I can figure, belongs to a class of savory cheese-and-sheet-pastry dishes known as pita. Others include burek, zavijaca, uvijena pita zeljanica and just pita.

It's made with pastry leaves, stuffed with a creamy, savory, feta-based filling and baked into a golden-brown, flaky pie. Like other custard-based dishes, it's best served at room temperature, and is tastier the day after making. I don't know what it is about baked egg-and-dairy things -- quiche, cheesecake, pumpkin pie -- but they are oddly tasteless when you pull them from the oven. Its got to be something about the protein coils of the egg and milk being tightly wound in the heat, and then relaxing so that the flavor can be released on the tongue, or something like that. If anyone knows, I would love to find out.

For the pastry dough, filo is used in America. That's the paper-thin dough used in baklava. These days, it's not hard to find in the freezer section of supermarkets, as well as European ethnic groceries. But some say a thicker-leaved product called "kore" should be used. The dish is originally more rustic than the delicate sheets of filo make it.

The name "guzvara" is a form of a verb meaning "to crumple together something that's drenched." This refers to the practice of dunking the dough sheets into the filling, and placing them, soggy and loosely crumpled, into the pan, The pan is first lined with flat sheets of pastry. The creation is covered with flat sheets cut to fit the pan. The overhang from the bottom sheets is folded over the top. Then it's baked. Traditionally, it's round in shape and served upside-down.

Years ago, I found a gibanica recipe on the Internet and made it several times. This year, I was distressed to discover that I'd never printed out or saved a copy, and it took me hours to find it again. (Thanks, Donald for suggesting dejanews.com) Here it is. A man named Vojin Janjic in Chattanooga, Tenn., posted it on soc.culture.yugoslavia in 1996! Is the Internet amazing, or what? Vojin's post includes a lot of background detail that's missing in the other recipes I found on the Net. The recipe itself also has cool features that the others lacked.

No other recipe that I found made any mention of the dunking and squashing. All were layered dishes, like baklava. I suspect that "gibanica" can be either layered or else dunked and stuffed, and that "guzvara" is the variation that's specifically dunked and stuffed.

Many used a combination of regular and low-fat cottage cheese (the latter of which is, of course, a fabricated, additive-filled abomination). What's up with that? Some didn't even use feta, or the flavorful Serbian "white cheese" that authentically belongs in the dish. Well then, why even bother?

Another difference in this recipe: sparkling mineral water. I'm not sure what that's for. Since mineral-laden water is base, and leavening agents work by pitting acid against base to form explosively foamy chemical reactions, I speculate it's for puffing up the giba. (Buttermilk + baking soda works like this. Baking powder does, too: it's a combo of acid and base powders that react in the presence of water or heat. (Double-acting baking powder has two combos: a liquid activated and one heat activated.)) But what's the acid? Maybe the tangy feta.

Vojin has you separate the eggs and beat the whites stiff. You fold it into the cheese-egg mix for added puff. Easy enough. He says you can substitute baking powder, but he doesn't recommend it.

For all this attention to leavening, the giba is not especially airy. It's dense and moist. Maybe the idea is that without these steps, it would be leaden. As is, it's just right.

What follows is based on Vojin's post. Some of his instructions were incomplete or admitted guesses. I've written here the specifics that I've found to work, and some clarifications of method. The words below are my own. (Don't you hate when people copy and paste into their Web pages with no attribution?)

3/4 package filo (phyllo) dough
[11/15/2009: This post originally specified a full, one-pound package. But in 2008 I discovered that with less dough you get a prettier, puffier, much cheesier pie. And with 25% less starchy carbs!]

2 cups (2/3 pound) feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup sour cream
1 cup ricotta
3 tablespoons of sparkling mineral water
2 eggs, separated

olive oil for greasing pan

First, prep the baking pan. A clear, deep, round casserole is ideal.

Generously grease the pan with olive oil. Gently press a sheet of filo into the dish, letting the rest hang over the edges. Repeat with another sheet, placed crossways from the first. Repeat for a total of four sheets. Use scissors to trim the overhang all around to a length of about 2".

Take a stack of four filo leaves. Use scissors to trim them into a circle that just fits inside the top of the casserole dish. This will become a lid a little later on. (You do it now so that you don't run short of filo at the end.) Put it aside.

Stir together yolks, feta, sour cream and ricotta. If mixture is stiff, thin with a little milk. Stir in mineral water.

Beat egg whites stiff. Gently fold into cheese mixture.

Dunk a sheet of filo into the mixture. Gently crumple it and place it into the pastry shell you've created. Repeat until all the filling is used. You'll want to keep one hand clean for picking up the filo sheets, or have a friend pass you the sheets.

Place the filo "lid" on top. Fold the overhanging rim of filo over top. Cover with foil.

Bake at 400F. Bottom should appear crunchy and golden brown (this is why a clear dish is handy). The top should also be browned. You can remove the foil to help along the top browning. Don't worry about overcooking, as long as nothing's burning.

After it's cooled a bit, turn upside-down onto a platter. Serve when completely cooled. Also great chilled.

Enjoy! Or, as the Serbs say, "Prijatno!" (PREE-jat-no)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Slava 2007

Slava! I described this Serbian family holiday in this post from last year.


This year we ended up moving the celebration to the Saturday after Nov. 14, and our friend Gigi (formerly called Michelle in these pages) came and feasted with us. This time I started cooking when I got up at 7 am, so by the time I went to pick her up at 6:30, everything was ready. I was actually able to sit and enjoy a meal with a guest, instead of cooking through the courses. What a concept.

On-the-vine were, mercifully, on sale. Sliced, with olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

I made my family kolach as described in the recipe I published in Isthmus several years ago. For the first time ever, I dared to made a change: 2 cups whole wheat flour and 5 cups AP, instead of 8 AP. It turned out quite different: more fluffy and grainy, a lighter, less densely cake-like texture. Very nice. Slava and Christmas use bread, but the Slava kolach is undecorated. This recipe makes two crockpot-liner-filling loaves.


I made the same fantastic djuvec as last year (recipe and explanation in the link above), with one variation. Instead of 4 pounds country-style ribs, I used 2.25 pounds pork belly and nearly 3 pounds country-style ribs. I asked Gigi what she thought of this djuvec versus last year's. She said she liked this year's better; that it seemed "meatier." No wonder! At five pounds instead of four, that's a 25% increase in the amount of pork in the pot!

On Wednesday, I had purchased over four pounds of pork belly at the Angkor Thom Market, the Cambodian grocery where I like to buy less mainstream cuts of meat. Pork belly sounds awful to the delicate ears of most modern Americans who for some reason don't mind eating meat products that really are revolting, like anything containing "mechanically separated chicken." It's the part of the hog that's used to make bacon, and it's a slow-cooking, full-flavored cut that keeps good body even after it's cooked tender. That last feature makes it forgiving in dishes like this one; it won't disintegrate into the pot. I think. I haven't used it much, so I was eager to try.

What I didn't realize was that it's sold with the tough, thick skin still on. That amounted to nearly half of it by weight! So I ran out to Pierce's (closer) for more pork. No pork belly there, of course. Hence the country-style rib.

Anyway, the extra meat helped improve the ratio of starchy carbs (from the rice) in the dish. I toyed briefly with the idea of leaving the rice out entirely, but then it wouldn't be djuvec anymore; just oven-cooked stew.

The most miraculous thing about this dish, to me, is how you don't need to add a drop of water to cook the rice. All those vegetables have enough locked up in their cell walls. It all expresses while cooking, and the rice is ready to absorb and transform, using the flavored veg liquid to soften and puff. It's a beautiful, complementary alchemy.

A baked pastry casserole filled with a savory feta blend and served at room temperature. I'll give a fuller description and a recipe in a separate post.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Too cute: Noodle word

Ulysses wanted me to make him macaroni and cheese tonight. I gave him the choice of any of the shapes that we had on hand. We like to make stovetop mac 'n' cheese from scratch, which is almost as easy and exactly as fast as the boxed, surprisingly enough -- just a simple white sauce of flour and butter whisked together over a medium flame while the water comes to a boil, and a bunch of parmesan or other cheese stirred in and left to melt, flame off, while the pasta cooks.

He picked Annie's natural in the purple box, which we also like to have on hand. We stir in cottage cheese for extra nutrition, and we use whole milk or cream and butter for the same reason, and to tip the starch balance down a little. After all, the more fat in the dish, the less pasta the appetite will require.

Oh yes, the word. All the while, U was calling them "doodles."

I'm helping him

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What happened to all the "low-carb products"?

Here's a post I made today on lowcarbfriends.com forum. Some one posted the following question:

A couple years ago almost all the stores in my area had low carb sections, now none of them do and restaurants use to have low carb menu's. Now it is extremely difficult to find low carb products anywhere. I just can't figure out what happened.

Welcome, [member name]! That's an excellent question. What happened? Here's my theory.

Low-carb living is not compatible with the economy of highly refined, processed-foods that the Big Food (General Mills, Hershey, etc.) companies are based on.

By their very nature, foods high in sugar and starch allow a high profit margin. In fact, the more advertising and marketing dollars a food gets, the cheaper the actual food substance for the producer. That's a pretty reliable rule of thumb.

Fat is more expensive than sugar and starch. It costs more to produce, ship, etc. Protein is the most expensive of the three macronutrients. Don't believe it? Compare the cost of the cheapest sack of sugar, the cheapest sack of flour, the cheapest jug of oil and the cheapest carton of protein powder.

Big food is based on adding "value" -- or, at least, appeal -- to cheap ingredients. Slicing and frying potatos, baking flour, stirring sugar into colored water and so forth. it's possible to add fat to starch- and sugar-based foods and still keep them cheap and yummy.

But, subtract carbs from the equation, and cheap processed food is no longer possible. All that's left is protein and fat. Low-carb products are of necessity more expensive than high-carb products. They HAVE to be. The reason: low-carb INGREDIENTS are more expensive than carbs.

Companies that were in it for a quick buck couldn't make it. Others are still plugging away in their niche market, providing an ever-expanding variety of specialty products. Check out netrition.com, the partner-providers of this site, and you'll see what I mean.

I think that most low-carbers learn quickly that low-carbing means learning to prepare and enjoy more whole foods than most carb-bound Americans do. The spectrum of processed products is just too narrow and expensive to rely on the same way that carb products allows.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

"I want to eat it"

Finally, today Ulysses used a complete sentence of some sophistication.

The following sentences are all grammatically complete: "Go!" ; "Come back." ; "It hurts." ; "No." ; "Thank you" ; "No, thank you." ; "But, why?" They even express abstract concepts. They've been in his repertoire for a good while now. All except "But, why?" I heard him use that that for the first time yesterday, and plenty of times! Leave it to Ulysses to skip "Why?" and move right on to the more direct challenge posed by "But, why?"

When he expresses more complex propositions, some of the customary words are left out, viz. "What doing?" -- which more recently became, "What you doing?" And which, by the way, yesterday became supplemented with, "Why you do that?" -- presumably part of the same impulse leading to "But, why?"

Today. Ulysses came to me asking for an apple. "Apple, apple!" he said. I fetched one from the refrigerator that Donald had cored per a previous request (then stored when U decided he didn't want one after all). Before I cut it in half, I grabbed the corer and started scraping out the brownness, so that it would be lovely and crispy. Also, I didn't want U to see the brown -- once he saw it, he might be turned off to eating apple for the rest of the day. He definitely wouldn't want to eat that apple. "Apple, apple," U said while I operated, jumping with anticipation.

Then I picked up a paring knife to trim off the wilty collar of peel at each opening. Seeing this, U's body language collapsed into exasperation. This was just too much fussing around.

"I want to eat it!" he declared, pointedly.

"Okay," I said. "It's nearly ready."

"I want to eat it," he repeated. Every word in place. Perfect syntax. A real, full sentence. The kind that speaks volumes, to boot.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Atkins site interviews Gary Taubes

The official Atkins web site just published this interview with Gary Taubes, author of the mind-blowing new book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. Here's the URL to the interview on their site: http://www.atkins.com/newsletter-archive/november-2007-newsletter

They've removed a lot of terrific information from their site over the past few years, essentially dumbing it down. Apparently it's an effort to be more "safe" and "accessible" -- that's just my observation and interpretation. But it's why I'm quoting the interview here. There's no telling how long anything good will stay anywhere on the Web, really.

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet: An Interview with Gary Taubes

Author and science journalist Gary Taubes has written a new book called Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease (Knopf, September 2007). The book demonstrates how, when it comes to dietary recommendations, public health data has subjected to twin misinterpretations: a deeply ingrained belief that dietary fat and cholesterol are the root causes of coronary heart disease and an equally damaging failure to recognize the negative health consequences of our increased consumption of refined carbohydrates such as sugar, white flour and white rice. The result has been an increased incidence of chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease, cancers and obesity.

After examining the history of how we got to this point, Taubes calls for researchers and clinicians to reexamine the real science, in hopes that we can become healthier. His book is an eye-opening challenge, both for consumers and the medical community, as we all grapple with the question of what constitutes a healthy diet.

"We don’t need another diet book," Taubes said in a recent interview with Atkins. "We need a book that explains to the medical establishment what’s actually going on, what the real science is and what we should believe until compelling evidence tells us otherwise."

Q: How did you get so passionate about the subject of public health and nutrition?

A: I have a scientific background, and I’m curious and a little relentless about it. I like answers to make sense, and I’m also obsessed with this question of good science and bad science and how easy it is to misinterpret data -- to see what you want to see and not what’s really there. This is what I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life reporting. With this book, I just kept following the evidence. I didn’t have an agenda; I just wanted to know what the truth is. And what’s fascinating about this subject is some of it seems so obvious. It’s sort of insane that we got to a point where obesity -- a chronic disorder of fat accumulation -- is treated as a behavioral defect, but that’s what happened.

The real question we should be asking is: What causes obesity? The same way with lung cancer -- you want to know, do cigarettes cause lung cancer? The same way with AIDS -- does the HIV virus cause AIDS? The answer is critical because obesity is associated with an increased risk of all chronic Western diseases – cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. -- so whatever makes us fat makes us sick also.

One theory says that “eating too much” causes obesity. Supposedly if you say that obesity is caused by overeating, you’ve solved the problem. Well, you could always ask the next question: What causes the overeating? But for the last 50 years, no one has bothered to ask this question. This has gone along with the assumption that diets only work by reducing the amount of calories consumed.

Q: So how did science get off track when it came to obesity and these chronic diseases?

A: Prior to World War II, the best nutritionists, the best physiologists and the best clinical, medicine specialists were in Germany and Austria. They never believed that obesity was a disorder of overeating. They said it’s a disorder of excess fat accumulation, and the question is: What regulates fat accumulation? They suspected insulin. But since they couldn’t measure insulin levels in the bloodstream, they couldn’t conclusively, logically get to this place where they could blame insulin for this fat accumulation. Then, this school of research just evaporated beginning in 1933 when the Nazi party took over in Germany and vanishing entirely in 1938 when the Germans invaded Austria.

There’s a 10-year gap in obesity research for the second World War. Then obesity research was recreated in the US following the principles of Louis Newberg, who was at the University of Michigan. Newburg has always been convinced that obesity is caused by what he called a “perverted appetite.” Fat people eat too much. The idea is, supposedly, that if you say that obesity is caused by overeating, you’ve solved the problem. Therefore, the discussion is not about what causes obesity because we ostensibly know that already.

And by the 1950s this meaningless concept called “eating too much” had taken hold. Obesity was considered an eating disorder or a behavioral problem. But everybody knows it doesn’t help trying to tell fat people to eat less – after all, they spend their whole lives trying to eat less. If obesity was just about eating less or exercising more, then none of these people would be fat. That’s always been effectively obvious to physicians who take their obese patients seriously.

Imagine if diabetes was treated by psychologists, instead of clinicians. The world would be crawling with diabetics, or even more diabetics than there are already!

Q: What about competing hypotheses during the period the “eating-too-much” theory took root? What was the most popular? Why didn’t it prevail?

A: At one time, you had two paradigms battling it out. And what we’re trained to think is that the paradigm that wins is the one that’s right, but in fact, paradigms win for a lot of different reasons. And in this case the dominant hypothesis won because the people pushing it were influential and the people studying restricted-carbohydrate diets on obese patients were not. And it’s that simple.

All you have to do is read the medical literature back through the 19th century and into the 20th century, and you notice that the standard treatment for obesity by physicians and hospitals was always to get rid of the carbohydrates -- the fattening potatoes and fattening bread and fattening beer. In the 1960s, the conventional wisdom dating back 130 years was still around. One 1963 British Journal of Nutrition article says, basically, “Every woman knows that carbohydrates make you fat.” At the same time, you have this group of people who started studying carbohydrate-restricted diets. In fact, at every obesity conference between 1952 and 1973, the only discussion of dietary treatments of obesity would be one that focused on the unusual efficacy of dietary carbohydrate restriction.

But during the 1960s, two researchers with very dynamic personalities, Ancel Keys and Jeremiah Stamler, gained influences in the American Heart Association. Suddenly the American Heart Association is pushing a low-fat, low-cholesterol dogma without the tests ever having been done to actually prove that it does anything beneficial.

So then you get this mainstream theory that fat causes heart disease. And it just snowballs from there. I was stunned to find out was that what we believe today was determined mostly by about a half dozen very influential, quote “authorities” unquote, in the 1970s. There were literally six to 10 men who hosted the conferences, wrote the textbooks, went to the proceedings and wrote the NIH reports for funding. And we believe what those people believed.

I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. But these people could not have done more harm or killed the underlying science more effectively had there been some grand conspiracy manipulated by the sugar industry behind the scenes.

Q. How have theories with very little evidence taken such deep root in our culture?

A. Most doctors aren’t taught to think like scientists. They’re not taught to be skeptical.

They’re basically trained in med school to receive the wisdom of their professors and to memorize it and learn how to integrate it to diagnose patients. They’re simply not taught to be skeptical of what they’re told.

They're also like anyone else: Once we’ve convinced ourselves that something is true beyond a shadow of a doubt, the natural tendency is to interpret all the evidence to reconcile it with this thing we now know to be true. So even if the evidence actually refutes our hypothesis, we’ll find a way to see it as a confirmation. Or at least to reject it as somehow meaningless.

Another problem is the do-good agenda. Doctors and public health officials and nutritionists mean really well; they want to save lives. So they get an idea: Fat causes heart disease. And they know they haven’t done the studies to really test this hypothesis, but they also know that people are dying out there, by the tens of thousands -- hundreds of thousands -- a year. And they want to put a stop to it.

So what do they do? They take a leap of faith. They say, “Okay, I’m not sure this is true, but I have sufficient reason to believe it’s true, therefore I’m going to tell everyone that I’m right and that they should eat less fat. And in order to get everyone to eat less fat, I have to act like I’m right 100%, because I can’t say, ‘I think I’m right’ or people won’t follow my advice.” So they have to be conclusive. Then they have to get a consensus, so everyone appears right. And eventually the whole business becomes about building consensus instead of doing science.

So these people want to save lives, which is an honorable pursuit. But what’s forgotten in this process is that they never actually proved their hypothesis. They never actually tested their hypothesis in any rigorous way, so they don’t know if it’s true or not. And then they get into the position where they’ve been telling people for 20, 30 years, “This is true! This is true! This is true!” And there are not that many people in the world who can step back from this position and say, “Oh, excuse me, I made a mistake.” We’re just not wired that way. I’m not, you’re probably not, and they’re certainly not.

Q. Do you think your book will have a positive impact?

A. What I tried to do was write a book that spoke both to the inquisitive lay reader but also to physicians and smart people outside the field of obesity and public health who might put some pressure on the people inside the field to think clearly and do real science. And if that happens, anything could happen. But I don’t think we should ever underestimate the ability of the dogma to defend itself.

I wrote it because I wanted to have an effect. I kept telling my editors, "We don't need another diet book. We need a book that explains to the medical establishment what's actually going on, what the real science is and what we should believe until compelling evidence tells us otherwise."

I do believe that some of this will be integrated into the conventional wisdom, over the course of about 10 years. So we might see subtle differences in discussions about the actual cause of obesity; it might turn a little more toward the discussion of the regulation of fat tissue. But it’ll be done as though, “Oh, we knew this all along.” There will be no point at which the establishment will say, “Oh you know, until Taubes wrote this book or until Atkins came along, we actually didn’t know that.” That’s extremely unlikely to ever happen.

One of my hopes is that people will buy this book and give it to their doctors…and not because I want to sell more books, although I have nothing against that. The point is that there are potential side effects to going on these diets. Switching from running your body on carbohydrates to running on fats is a big change. It doesn’t hurt to have a doctor overseeing that, helping you lose weight, helping you break the carbohydrate addiction. But then you need a doctor who’s open-minded, who’s willing to work with you instead of just a doctor who’s going to say, "You’re going to kill yourself" or " It doesn’t matter. All diets are the same, etc." And so ultimately I guess I wrote the book for physicians, who might in turn help their patients prevent and cure themselves of these chronic diseases – obesity and overweight being one of them.

About Gary Taubes

Gary Taubes, author of Bad Science and Nobel Dreams, is a correspondent for Science magazine. The only print journalist to have won three Science in Society Journalism awards, given by the National Association of Science Writers, he has contributed articles to The Best American Science Writing 2002 and the 2000 and 2003 editions of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. His 2002 New York Times article, "What If It's All Been a Big, Fat Lie?" addressed some of the same questions he explores at greater length in Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease (Knopf, October 2007).