He’s written a new book on the subject called, The Case Against Sugar — in which he asserts that diabetes and obesity are so tied to our sugar consumption that we shouldn’t be consuming the sweet stuff at all. Clearly, it’s a pretty radical approach to diet and wellness.
It’s also an idea which many of us would love to shove under the rug and ignore. Because the thing is that SUGAR TASTES AWESOME and BREAD FEELS SATISFYING. We desperately want to believe that if we simply eat less, we’ll be okay. But Taubes doesn’t buy it. He argues that moderation simply doesn’t work, and if we want to get thin and stay thin then we need to replace the sugars and carbohydrates we consume with a high fat diet.
Taubes believes that telling people to eat just a little sugar is like telling people to smoke just a few cigarettes. Yes, there’s probably a moderate amount of cigarette smoking that won’t cause cancer, but why take the risk? It’s too temping! And why start straddling the delicate line between life and death for a smoke or a donut? It may seem extreme but Taubes would argue that we’re facing an extreme epidemic of obesity.
The data supports his radicalism: According to the CDC over 1/3 of American adults are obese. So over a third of all adults in the U.S. are at greater risk for conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. It’s a serious problem, and one that needs a serious solution.
I spoke to Taubes recently about his new book and he presented a fascinating and convincing case for why we should put the bread and candy away for good.
Why sugar? As in, why have you devoted so much time and energy to it?
My career in nutrition writing, (which) extends back about 28 years, has been about investigation of the conventional thinking on obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic disease, and how it relates to diet. Beginning with the series of investigations, I concluded that the conventional thinking that it’s salt and saturated fat and too many calories is based on bad science. Then the question is, if it’s not those three, what’s driving these epidemics of obesity and diabetes that we see worldwide?
I’m proposing that if you want to lose weight and be healthy you have to give up sugars and refined carbohydrates and replace them with fat. In this book, I just decided to sort of focus in on the question of sugar, and whether or not it’s the fundamental cause of these epidemics. In this case, the question is what’s causing these epidemics, which are worldwide and tragic. What I’m saying is that the prime suspect is sugar.
Can you talk a little bit about the research you did in the book and how you came to your conclusions?
Well, all my work tends to take a historical approach to the problems. So I want to see when we first became aware of the whatever it is we’re trying to solve, in this case against these epidemics, and the answer is you can find the beginnings of the epidemics back in the 1860’s and 1870’s in the United States.
Then once you’ve established where it begins that’s a natural place to look for what the culprit might be, and from the first time physicians start recognizing that we have a diabetes epidemic on our hands, they’re suspecting that sugar is the reason because they’re watching sugar consumption increase dramatically as well. So I chart the history of the diseases and of sugar consumption, and how we perceive sugar, and the controversy over whether sugar is indeed the cause of them or whether it’s just a benign source of empty calories, which is the conventional wisdom.
I believe we should be debating whether or not sugar is — and high fructose corn syrup is very similar — uniquely toxic.
And if it is, then you would never say too many cigarettes smoked cause lung cancer, right? Clearly there’s some point at which you’ve smoked too many cigarettes and you’re on your way to lung cancer. We could say cigarettes cause lung cancer. At the moment we only say too much sugar makes you fat, and so you should somehow consume in moderation. But the argument I’m making is that sugar causes obesity, sugar causes diabetes, or at least it surely should be considered to be the cause of them, as such.
That redefines how we have to treat it. It’s not about moderation anymore, because it’s virtually impossible to define moderation.
Now do you practice what you preach? Have you cut sugar and carbs out of your diet?
Yes, I did. When I first experimented it was just about 1999, I was writing this piece on the dietary fat doc for Science. Because I was freelance, I was also working on a piece for Discover on the mathematics of the stock market. I was up at MIT interviewing a professor of finance up there. I told him about the fat story, and he said, “Oh, if you’re writing about fat you’ve got to try the Atkins diet.” He had a collaborator at work whose father lost 200 pounds on the Atkins diet. So I figured I’d try it. I didn’t stay on it the first time, but it was fascinating to see how easily you can lose weight if you do it.
And then I wrote up my first major article, and I went back to it, and I pretty much stuck with it ever since. I know that if I don’t eat carbs I won’t gain weight. It’s that simple. So I could eat as much as I want, and as long as I don’t eat carbohydrates, I personally don’t get fat.
Now, in the diet that you recommend for people, do you recommend being light on fruit and natural sugars?
My issue with the way we discuss diet in America is we … The public health recommendation is basically propose one dietary approach for the entire nation. So the idea is we should all eat fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and nuts, and all be healthy. Healthier. And we probably will be healthier. But for people who are obese and/or diabetic or predisposed to get that way pretty quickly, and we kind of know who we are… for those people eating fruit might not be doing them any favors.
The way I’ve been describing it lately is if the diabetic has to take insulin to cover the apple he or she has just consumed, then maybe the answer is not eat the apple to begin with. That would probably be the healthier way to approach it.
We have this idea that fruits are such a wonderful source of vitamins, and yeah they are, but I don’t think it balances out the fact that they’re high sugar or high carbs. And for those, like I said for a subset of the population which happens to be maybe a third to a half, it’s probably not doing them any favors.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for us to be more aware of sugar? Why has it taken so long for doctors to kind of recognize that sugars are a big part of the problem?
Well, we had two fundamental beliefs in nutrition. So the first one was, that dates back 100 years, that obesity is just an energy balance problem. If you eat too much and exercise too little, you take in more calories than you expend and that’s why you get fat. And if that’s true, then the only way that foods can influence your fat accumulation is through they’re caloric content. And then you get this idea that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, so it doesn’t matter what you eat, if you eat too much of it you get fat, and that’s true of sugar, too. Whenever anyone suggested otherwise the sugar industry would run advertisements reminding people what nutritionists and obesity research believe, which is a calorie is a calorie.
One of the things I’ve had to do is try to get the research community and the public health authorities, and all the doctors and dieticians and nutritionists, who are sure they know the truth to consider the possibility that they’re assumption that obesity is just caused by consuming too many calories, and a calorie is a calorie, it’s just wrong. It’s just naïve and wrong.
The other past thing is in the 1960’s we started to believe that dietary fat caused heart disease. So if dietary fat caused heart disease, and a calorie is a calorie when it comes to obesity, then the problem in our diet is the fat content, not the sugar content.
It was this combination of the belief that saturated fat is the problem in heart disease, and calories are the problem in obesity that just directed attention away from sugar. And we have this sweet tooth as a country. We still do.
You were relating sugar to cigarettes and tobacco products. Do you hope that in the future we’ll have anti-advertising and warning labels like we do with tobacco products?
Well, you know, I’ve got mixed feelings about that. I worry about government intervention and regulation of any kind. So I prefer to start with education and see how far we can go. If the message is correct and people really understand what the stakes are and they get the message that the substance is not benign, it’s not something you can just exercise away, I think we’ll make a lot of progress.
I got an email a couple of weeks ago from a guy who said, “What about the maltose in beer?” Clearly beer is fattening. We have a concept like a beer belly and I could write a book called The Case Against Beer, and beer drinkers probably wouldn’t care. They probably wouldn’t buy it because they know what the stakes are when they drink it.
It’s true that we make it difficult to procure if you’re under 18, so we were never feeding beer to kids. It’s going to be hard to regulate sugar like that. Again, I have issues with well-meaning politicians and government administrators, because you never know what the unintended consequences are for that kind of ideal nation.
I read in the beginning of your research you were really pushing against other scientists. Are you starting to feel like people are kind of coming on board with your thinking?
It depends which people we’re talking about. There’s clearly an older generation that’s just not going to buy this. That are never going to even wrap their heads around the idea that obesity is not an energy balance disorder, no matter how successfully I manage to ridicule it in the media.
The younger generations get it, the doctors are clearly getting it. It’s probably, you know, a few thousand physicians who have converted from the kind of low fat dogma to prescribing low carb, high fat diets or Paleo diets to their patients. In fact I had a doctor in Arizona a few years ago tell me that I made medicine fun for him because for the first time since he graduated from medical school he could actually do something that made his patients healthier and not just covered up their symptoms.
So I think in that sense we’re really making progress.
Why do you think it’s so hard for people to give up sugar? I know that’s just one of the hardest things to give up, carbs and sugar, why do you think that is?
One of the reasons is that it’s everywhere. What makes it easy for me to do it, is that I work at home and we don’t have anything in the house that I particularly want to eat that has sugar in it. When we do, I’m thinking about it. I mean I just came back from a book tour and virtually every other place I went somebody asked me if I wanted sugar in my coffee or there were candy bars left over, from probably Halloween, at the reception area.
So I was a smoker and I couldn’t give up smoking until I moved to Los Angeles where you just never saw other people smoking unless they were in a car. So it was impossible to bum a cigarette. You were sort of protected from your habit. When you’re not eating sugar if you go to someone’s house for dinner and they make dessert, it’s not like if you were giving up smoking or giving up alcohol– everyone helps you, but if you’re giving up sugar they sort of treat it as, “Oh, come on, you can indulge.”
Yeah, “Treat yourself!”
It all makes it that much harder. Sometimes (when I’m talking to) an obese individual, I’m saying you have to convince your family that this is as important to you as if you were giving up alcohol or cigarettes and you need their help, and you need them to go along with you if that’s what it takes.
It sounds like community is the most important.
It’s a lot different than just saying eat in in moderation, you know, exercise. Well, all that sounds great, the problem is, it doesn’t seem to work for most people. Just like I never would have been able to smoke cigarettes in moderation. I had to go cold turkey and stay cold turkey.
You can read more in Gary Taubes’ new book, The Case Against Sugar.