Diet wars turn family feud

Why the Times's Gina Kolata has it out for the Times's Gary Taubes

Gary Taubes is one of the most interesting health writers in the country. He is an exhaustive researcher, an astute critic of experimental methodology, a historian of science and influential polemicist. But he can’t catch a break from Gina Kolata. This is awkward, because they both write for the same paper.

That’s one conclusion to be drawn after a discordant sequence of New York Times articles about a Harvard dietary trial last month. In late June, Taubes reported for the Sunday Opinion page on a comparison of three diets and their effects on how quickly people burn calories. The study found that what you eat—the bad guy here being carbohydrates—very likely has more to do with whether you get fat than how much you eat. Taubes, who has argued this point for years, called the results “remarkable.”

Eight days later, Kolata filed a dismissive Q&A with a retired Rockefeller University dietary researcher who purported to undermine everything he had written. The interview did not mention Taubes by name, but it’s not hard to see that he was the real subject. Flip, overconfident, underreported, for those of you who might wonder what it looks like when the science desk at the Times becomes a mean girl, this was your daily time-waster. If something about the would-be kneecapping seemed familiar, it’s because Kolata tried it once before, following the publication of Taubes seminal 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. Watching the second installment of this hazing, you really want to ask: Will someone please tell the Times that the diet wars are all but over?

This month marked the 10th anniversary of “What If It’s all Been a Big Fat Lie?” a provocative New York Times Magazine piece that changed Taubes’ life and very likely changed yours as well, or at least the comfort with which you regard that low-fat muffin in the coffee shop. In the 8,000-word, July 7, 2002 cover story, Taubes launched a withering critique of the conventional wisdom concerning the causes of obesity. He chronicled a 30-year history of research shortcuts, academic tribalism, and dietary politics behind the argument implicating dietary fat and excess calories in obesity. He argued against saturated fat as a cause of heart disease, blamed the obesity epidemic on low-fat eating, and suggested a return to what was, in fact, an older way of thinking—that carbohydrates are the problem in the American diet.

For daring to suggest that Robert Atkins was right all along—that obesity arises from carbohydrate-induced spikes in the hormone insulin—and by singling out the work of a half dozen researchers to anchor a larger argument many of them did not wholly endorse, Taubes was rewarded with a sustained, near-operatic chorus of censure. Critics piled on from The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Journalism Review. Taubes endured an unreasonable lashing at the hands of Michael Fumento in Reason magazine, and armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of dietary trials, struck back with a 9,400-word defense. Fumento replied to the reply.

Given what has transpired since, the backlash against “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie” is beginning to take on the look of a sad, strange hysteria whose time has mercifully passed. Taubes spent five years producing an exhaustively footnoted, 600-page book called Good Calories, Bad Calories, which was published in 2007. It landed quietly, but has since come to command a kind of totemic status among paleo dieters and pragmatic health professionals, and is widely read in the bariatric, metabolic and diabetes research community.

More importantly, in the past decade, science and dietary culture in general have left low-fat ideology (and, increasingly, calorie counting) in the rear view mirror. The fatwa on dietary cholesterol has more or less evaporated. Saturated fat is still wrongly maligned as a risk factor for heart disease, and a debate still brews over the health of red meat, but few researchers in a position to know better will argue that butter, cream and beef fat have much to do with putting on the pounds, and the growing popularity of diets based on whole foods—Michael Pollan readily goes to bat for butter—are an implicit rebuke of the margarine mentality. The defenders of the low-fat message, the dietary authorities behind our nutritional guidelines, still talk smack about fat and sodium, but have increasingly shifted their ire towards unrefined carbohydrates, a concession to the effects of insulin. Public health interventions are taking aim at Big Gulps, not Ben & Jerry’s. The dietary arena has become a more uncertain place for low-fat missionaries like the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Michael Jacobson, and a less hostile place for people like Gary Taubes.

Then there is The New York Times.

The diet wars may have ended, but to channel Donald Rumsfeld, resilient pockets of “dead-enders” at the paper of record continue to keep things interesting. The clinical trial that Taubes covered in his July 29 op-ed, “What Really Makes Us Fat,” was conducted by Harvard endocrinologists Dr. Cara Ebbeling, and David S. Ludwig. They fed 21 weight-reduced subjects three different diets - a low-fat diet, a diet low in refined carbs, and the Atkins diet. All three groups ate the same total number of calories. So if losing weight were simply a matter of eating fewer calories, as the low-fat crowd says, the three groups should burn calories at the same rate.

To the contrary, “the results of our study challenge the notion that a calorie is a calorie from a metabolic perspective,” the authors wrote in their paper, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). They found that an Atkins diet allowed subjects to burn more calories at rest, giving them the least chance of regaining weight they had lost. They also had the best cholesterol of the bunch. (So much for artery clogging saturated fat.) The diet low in refined carbs came in second. The low fat diet came in last. It “produced changes,” the authors concluded, “that would predict weight regain.”

Taubes should have beaten his chest in triumph and taken some scalps, but restrained himself, unfortunately, noting that Ludwig’s results “are by no means ironclad” and calling for new research. Ten days later, the paper dropped Kolata’s rap from the west coast.

For fans of pique and bad manners, you could do worse than her largely stenographic Q&A with Dr. Jules Hirsch, an emeritus professor and emeritus physician in chief at Rockefeller University. Hirsch waved off the JAMA paper’s findings as an artifact of water-loss in a low-carbohydrate diet. He referred to the paper’s premise as “hocus-pocus.” There was the title: “In Dieting, Magic Isn’t a Substitute for Science.” Hirsch invoked “the law of science,” and ”the inflexible law of physics,” but Ludwig knows a little bit about science too. As the Harvard endocrinologist pointed out in a letter published the following week, the study controlled for the effects of water weight in several different ways. Oops.

It wasn’t Kolata’s first drive-by. She cited Hirsch in a memorably hostile review of Taubes’ book, Good Calories, Bad Calories in October 2007, that dismissed his exhaustive reporting out of hand. (Kolata had her own, competing diet book out at the time, Rethinking Thin, meaning that she probably shouldn’t have gotten the assignment.) From her patronizing lede (“Gary Taubes is a brave and bold science journalist who does not accept conventional wisdom”) to her weirdly personal ending (“I am sorry, I am not convinced”), she knew something was wrong with the book, only she didn’t know what. “[T]he problem with a book like this one,” she wrote, “which goes on and on in great detail about experiments new and old in areas ranging from heart disease to cancer to diabetes, is that it can be hard to know what has been left out.”

Poor Taubes. No one warned him that 600 pages of evidence were never going to be enough. The theory that weight gain boils down “calories-in, calories-out” is the last man standing in the diet wars. The principle anchors the comforting American belief that personal responsibility explains all of our ills. It validates all that wasted time on the treadmill that people like Kolata and others endorse. It keeps us watching shows like The Biggest Loser. It leaves the door open to low-calorie, high-carbohydrate food products that make the economy hum, are portable, do not require we learn to cook, make children stop crying, and taste good. Any efforts at reporting science to the contrary will always have a rough road.

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Paul Scott is a writer who lives in Minnesota. He has written for The New York Times and Men's Health, and is the recipient of a National Magazine Award. Tags: , , , , , ,