Ep. 16: Gary Taubes Part I: How bad science led to an obesity epidemic
Gary Taubes is an investigative science journalist who has spent the last 40 years covering controversial science. Back in 2002, his New York Times Magazine piece “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” led Taubes to gain recognition as one of the few reporters taking on the challenge of questioning the conventional dietary wisdom. The article turned into a deeper investigation of the medical science establishment, resulting in his best-selling books “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It.” In the first episode of a two-part series, Taubes discusses how questioning “pathological science” has caused him to bump heads with the scientific community. Pathological science is a term used when scientists trick themselves into believing what the want the result of their studies to be, not what the results show.
Emily: About 14 years ago, my boyfriend at the time, who’s now my husband, came to me and said, Em, if you want to cover a really big story that will have a massive impact on people, you’ve got to read this stuff. This guy Gary Taubes is writing in The New York Times magazine. And so I did. Pretty quickly I realized what Bob had realized, which was that this guy was really onto something. He was uncovering stuff and looking back at the history of nutrition, sort of science research dogma and how that has been passed down to the American public in a way that is making us fat and sick. And so we decided we would get some camera equipment and we would go around and try and find the people who were involved in those original decisions and we were able to interview some of the people who were involved in the dietary guidelines, which started as a dietary goals and then now is more known as the Food Pyramid, which is something that you know, really impacts all of us in terms of medical recommendations, in terms of school lunches. We have an episode coming up with Nina Teicolz and she’ll talk a lot about the influence of those dietary guidelines on the health of America. But what Gary did was in the course of working on that documentary, which we didn’t ever do anything with, we have all the footage, so maybe we’ll use that somehow through Empowered Health, but he made me realize not only is there an incredible connection between investigative reporting and science in that we’re sort of both looking for this pursuit of truth or knowledge, and yet we are the most sort of fallable people or beings in that we can trick ourselves into thinking we found something when we haven’t. And that collaboration and working with people who can tell you where you may have gone wrong and accepting that kind of criticism and then refining your story, your book, your experimentation is incredibly important and being able to replicate the story right or being able to replicate the experiment is really important. And what we’ve learned since that happened 14 years ago is that actually a lot of the nutrition research that was done was based on epidemiological studies, which regular listeners will be familiar with is sort of like population based studies, which is a great way of formulating a hypothesis is not conclusive, right? So people will say it’s associations are made, which does not mean that anything causal can be claimed. And then they basically were just prescribed to the American public through all of these guidelines and people are getting sicker and fatter and it doesn’t seem like anything is changing. Back when we interviewed Gary, or when I interviewed him in his apartment in New York with the cats crawling all over him, which was pretty fantastic. I was sure he was about to break open one of the biggest stories of our time. And he had, I think, finalized his manuscript for “Good Calories, Bad Calories” which was his first big book on this topic. He’s now published several and has another one coming out. You know, he some attention, but it has not changed things. Like I would say the pendulum has moved a little, but most people still think low fat is healthy. They still think counting calories is what you need to do. Exercise more, eat less is still sort of the motto of America. And it’s certainly something that we have now outsourced to the rest of the world. I’m thrilled to welcome Gary to this podcast. He and I could talk for days, so we talked for more than two hours. We decided to split this podcast into two episodes and just kind of let it run. He is such a wealth of knowledge and I think what most people don’t understand is that yes, he has become sort of this activist for nutrition, but it’s sort of akin to any other investigative journalist who uncovers a public health crisis and finds and identifies the flaws and the theory and then watches as nothing changes.
Gary Taubes: My name is Gary Taubes. I’m an investigative science journalist, turned author, turned nutrition zealot. Spent the last 40 years of my life studying controversial science, good science and bad science, in the last 20 years focusing on nutrition. And trying to write, what appeared very clearly to me anyway, to be some serious screw ups in the science that’s been done and the conclusions that the authorities came to.
Emily: So I feel like a good place to start is this idea of sort of the connection between journalism and science. And the idea of sort of like critically looking at something and trying to poke holes in, you know, your piece or your experiment or you know, designing kind of like a hypothesis and then going in and doing actual reporting or investigating and figuring out what it is. You have been converted into more of like activists. And I would imagine that makes it hard to go back to the sort of reporting. I mean, it’s not even talking about bias so much like the analogy that I made, like if you looked at the Spotlight team that broke the stories on the Catholic church sex scandal and you basically told those journalists like, okay, great job, but now you can no longer report on sex abuse, on children, on religion. Like that would be insane. So what has happened? You have approached this with great rigor and yet you have been pigeonholed into a beat basically. I mean like this isn’t the only thing you’ve ever covered, but it seems like this is now what you are known for.
Gary Taubes: Yes. And there are a lot of issues that you raise. So on one yeah, science and investigative journalism are very similar in that you are trying to explain phenomena that you’re seeing and come up with knowledge about the universe and nobody has. In that sense, so when I think about the ultimate kind of definition of the scientific process, there was a quote by the philosopher of science, Robert Merton, who said that everybody wants to know what’s really so. Scientists want to know that what they think is so, is really so. So another way to, a line that I’ve quoted in virtually all of my books from the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, is a first principle science is you must not pull yourself and you’re the easiest person of fool. So what time does the trying to do, you’re trying to establish something reliable about the universe or about the human body or about diet and health. And the key word is reliable. So you don’t want to be fooling yourself. You don’t want to be fooling other people. You want to know that what you know is really so. And when you’re an investigative journalist, that’s the same goal. So when I set out to understand this relationship between diet and health, and when Nina did we, yeah, you talked to the people involved, but you don’t necessarily take their word for it because they may be fooling themselves or they may be fooling you, but most likely they’re fooling both of you. So you have to go and do your research. If somebody says, this is true, do I believe it or do I go to the papers to see if it’s true? And if the papers cites earlier papers, do I go into the earlier papers to see if they were cited correctly? So you end up basically having to re-report the entire history of the field and both Nina and I did this. So that we could then understand that what we think is true really is or not. You know, if we’re basing our knowledge on assumptions, one knowledge or those assumptions based on, and is that knowledge correct or not? Then so you end up, you have to understand the whole history of the field, a line I have in my new book where I say, isn’t it almost literally to know what you’re talking about, doesn’t that require that you understand the basis of your beliefs and the basis means when they arose, why they arose, what evidence supported them, what evidence didn’t and how that evidence evolved. Like a lawyer would have to understand, you know, the precedence to a legal argument they’re making. That’s effectively what Nina and I did. The problem is we came to the conclusion, both of us, that the conventional wisdom is not just misguided, but dangerously so. That the research that was done was unacceptably poor, that researchers didn’t even believe, they effectively didn’t believe they could fool themselves. So they got a result they just said, hey look, I got a result. This must be true. It confirms what I believed all along. I’m such a smart guy. Let’s assume it’s true and move on. And you still see the same kind of sort of very dangerous thinking today in the scientific enterprise. So, by concluding that the conventional wisdom is wrong and the authorities who were wrong, we then had the decision, do we just write our books and move on? Or do we, is there an injustice here being perpetrated like the spotlight team, do they expose the Catholic Church and move on? If the Catholic Church continued to do the wrong thing on the sexual abuse issues and insisted that the Spotlight crew had aired, that they had gotten it wrong, that they were in fact doing their job poorly. Then you have a different situation because of the societal forces in the church move towards accepting that what they wrote was correct and because it was in the context of a major American newspaper. So for instance, if either Nina and I or I were to staff members in the New York Times and did our research in the context of the New York Times, we would have had more effective at the time and we would be treated differently.
Emily: But I feel like you guys have both published in the best, you know, outlets out there.
Gary Taubes: Oh we have, but as freelancers. As freelancers, that’s a different, we don’t have, I remember a friend of mine used to refer and say that working for the New York Times was like having a magic suit, a magic jacket. You put it on people suddenly respect you.
Emily: How many New York Times magazine cover stories have you had? Three?
Gary Taubes: Three. But I’m still not a New York Times reporter. Either way, I’ve had opportunities to be a New York Times reporter and turned them down. I’m just saying from what happens to you as a, so for instance, let’s say after writing, “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?“, The cover story in the New York Times that kind of set this off, this infamous cover story. I then got hired by the Times instead of taking a book advance and spending five years writing a book, I then got hired by the Times the editor said, boy, this is fascinating. This guy is good at what he does. Let’s bring them on board and assign him to continue investigating this story. So I could have done what I did for my first book is a series of articles and investigations in New York Times and it would have been in many ways a lot easier because they give their investigative journalists a lot of time and leeway, or at least it appears to be the case that you could spend a year or two years at three years if necessary as long as it takes to make sure you get the story right. And then instead of coming out in the book, which published by Knopf, which is one of the two or three most well-respected publishers out there, it came out as a series of investigations in the New York Times. Even better if I have multiple investigators working with me and we could be the New York Times spotlight team instead of just Gary Taubes. We’d have changed the world. I mean the world would have changed far more quickly than it is currently changing, but that’s not what happened. In order for me to understand this, I had to, it turned out I had to take a historical approach to the literature. So I found myself going further and further back in time to understand, to try and understand this relationship between diet and weight and chronic disease. And what I had no idea when I started this is that prior to World War II there was a alternative hypothesis why we get fat. So since the post World War II years, the idea has just been, look, we eat too much. I mean you could, the medical community, the researchers like to talk about this in complex. Make it seem as complex as they can, but the reality is the basic hypothesis is we take in more calories than we expend and that’s why we get fat. And then in the 1960s on top of this, they said, hey, fat calories are really dense. You know, there’s nine calories to a gram of fat compared to only four to a gram of carbohydrates and proteins. So you’re probably going to be fooled into eating more fat than carbs or protein. And in that way, that makes fat fattening as well. But it’s all about eating too much. Gluttoney and slaw would be the biblical terms. It turns out that prior to World War II, when all the major scientific advances in the world basically came out of Europe, the science was a European invention, medical science in the US was virtually nonexistent until the early 20th century, and even then it was pretty piss poor. If I were to name the leading scientists in any endeavor pre-World War II, they would almost, 95% of them would be Europeans, Germans, Austrian, Danes, Frenchmen, Italians, Englishmen. Mostly Germans and Austrians and a high percentage of Jews and for whatever reason they hone the scientific method, this idea about not being able to fool yourself to a fine edge. And by the 1920s-1930s the German-Austrian clinical investigators and even physicians who ran clinics who also did research, had concluded that obesity had to be a hormonal regulatory defect. That there are all these questions about fat accumulation that you could not answer just by saying people eat too much. So if I want to, for instance, why do men get fat above the waist and women tend to get fat below the waist? You know, men get beer bellies, women it’s the hips and butt. What, clearly hormones are involved, they would ask questions like, you know, boys go through puberty, they lose fat and gain muscle. Girls go through puberty, they gain fat in very specific places. So by the time they come out of puberty, the girls have 50% more fat than the boys. That’s all hormonal phenomena. Sex hormones are involved. So these German-Austrian clinicians had concluded that people don’t get fat because they eat too much. They get fat because there’s some hormonal dysregulation. They couldn’t figure it out. And then World War II comes along, and this is what I realized during my research. And this German and Austrian school evaporates, postwar nobody cares about obesity in Europe. They have serious other problems to deal with. And obesity research is kind of recreated with its score in the US all these young doctors and physicians and psychologists and psychiatrists are convinced obesity is an eating disorder. Fat people just have something, some neurotic problem that makes them eat too much and you get this sort of misguided eating-too-much thinking ever since. Again, when I started my research, I had no idea about this. But it’s sort of like you could imagine a world in which, you know when we talk about cancer and when people study cancer and tumor growth or they’re studying all the mechanisms that drive a tumor cell to grow. They don’t care how much the person eats or exercises. What they’re worried about is what are the mechanisms that tumor suppressor genes and the oncogenes that are dysregulated such that this tumor is being driven by the body to grow and reproduce and metastasize. And the way the Germans and Austrians thought about obesity and fat accumulation was fat cells are driven to take up excess fat in some people but not others. And in some places on the human body but not other places. And if they understood those hormones, and enzymes, and receptors, and all those molecules that drove a fat cell to take up fat, they would understand obesity. And then postwar we just threw all that out.
Emily: So do we throw it out because we were like anti-German? I mean is that the reason?
Gary Taubes: Part of it was that. Part of it was to really understand the science, you had to be able to read the German language. So the lingua franca of science, Pre World War II, was German. If you were a serious scientist in effectively any field, you had to be able to read the German language literature. Post World War II we didn’t like the Germans that much and we didn’t like the Austrians that much and nobody wanted anything to do and in fact, some of these leading researchers like Jean Mayer at Harvard had fought in the war and one of his colleagues said he hated the Germans, killed a few of them.
Emily: In other fields don’t a lot of German scientists come to the United States?
Gary Taubes: Yeah. In physics, we embrace these people. We have bombs to build. I mean there was programs where scientists to bring German and Austrian, particularly Jews, to the US to give them into England and to get them settled. Get them academic positions, rebuild their careers. But then not so much in medicine and public health.
Emily: I mean I feel like America’s pretty good at like appropriating ideas of other places that are good ideas and then just calling them their own. So it’s interesting that we didn’t do that.
Gary Taubes: Well in part, and this would make an interesting book on its own, but the Ivy League universities had protocols in place to keep from being overrun by Jewish students and academics from Europe. In fact, one of the stories– I live on the border of Berkeley in Oakland in California and one of the stories about why the University of California system is so excellent and why Berkeley in particular is so excellent. It’s these Jewish researchers basically just kept moving west. Nobody really wanted them in many fields. And then they got to California and the California universities embraced them and had world class science as a result. You can look at the Manhattan Project physics. It was full of Europeans and European Jews who were basically creating the atomic bomb to stop Hitler or to beat Hitler to an atomic bomb, but in medicine and public health that they just didn’t really want these people. Some of them got established like Hans Krebs, of famous Krebs psych bain of high school biology. But many of them, the leading authority on obesity was a fellow. He fled Austria. He was at the University of Vienna. He’s a very famous scientist, Austrian research medical researchers today still know his name, fellow named Julius Bauer and he flees Austria in ’38 when the Nazis, the Germans invade and he ends up working in Baton Rouge for a year at LSU in Louisiana. And then he drifts out to Los Angeles and he gets a job working for the Hospital of Medical Evangelists, which is a seventh day Adventist hospital would write his papers were just signed, Julius Bauer, Hollywood, California, which I guess is where he lived. And this was a world in which one UC San Francisco researcher, when I asked him about why his work on the insulin wasn’t well-accepted was he said well back in the sixties, seventies, and eighties we used to say out here the Mississippi River ran wide and deep. So basically, this world was dominated by this east coast corridor of researchers. And obesity was a half a dozen white men who were all buddies and literally they were friends. They knew each other, they hired each other, they published each other’s papers and they went from Tufts on the north end down to Penn in Philadelphia. You know and what they said was gospel in the obesity field. And if somebody wasn’t part of that club, they weren’t taken seriously. It’s hard to imagine it was a very small field.
Emily: But what I find so fascinating is that it’s like, it seems to me like there is some sort of turn of events that happens and I associate it with Ancel Keys where it’s like the idea of scientific rigor no longer seems so important. And that I don’t, I just don’t really understand. I mean I don’t, you know, it goes from being pretty critical thinking in other disciplines, right? And then this sort of field of nutrition comes about. There’s a real, like the realization that we need to have, you know, like the Harvard School of Nutrition is born and like with that, why is all sort of scientific rigor thrown out?
Gary Taubes: I’m going to wing this.
Emily: Go for it.
Gary Taubes: So you think about until through the World War II most of nutrition was deficiency diseases and calorimetry measuring energy in and energy out. But basically it was studying deficiency disease. So an animal or human lacks a particular vitamin and mineral, they get a disease like pellagra or beriberi or scurvy and then you replace, you feed them back, the missing vitamin and it goes away. So you could actually do experiments. The scientific method is hypothesis and tests have a hypothesis that you get scurvy with an a relative absence of vitamin C in the diet. If I add back vitamin C or fruits with vitamin C and at the scurvy goes away, I can test the hypothesis by experiment beginning in the 1950s with Ancel Keys and this dietary fat hypothesis cause of heart disease. You get a different type of hypothesis. Now not aimed at a deficiency disease. It’s aimed at a chronic disease that develops over years and decades. So now we’re saying, we get heart disease because of fat in our diet are the saturated fat in our diet, total cholesterol or LDL, the bad cholesterol, and that cholesterol then builds up in the bloodstream and over the course of 10 or 20 years did manifest itself as atherosclerosis and heart disease. But now we can no longer test it. We can’t just add takeaway saturated fat and expect over the course of a year or two or six months, however long you can do a well controlled experiment that you will see a change in heart disease because you’re looking at a process that takes 20 years and may not reverse quickly just because you remove the cause. And just once you’ve got the Atherosclerosis, there’s no reason to think that removing saturated fat is going to make it go away. You suddenly have hypotheses that can’t be tested.
Emily: But you’re also making a huge assumption there, right? Because the assumption is that cholesterol is the driver. Well, you haven’t identified what the root causes.
Gary Taubes: Yeah, but that’s the assumption ideally you would be able to test. In a functioning science you would come up with a series of experiments. The more, the cheaper those experiments are and the more quickly they can be done, the more functional the science. So ideally it might do 50, you know, I talked to physicists about this, where they talk about back in the fifties getting an idea on a Friday night, arguing about it over the weekend and then going into the lab on Monday morning and putting together the apparatus to test it. You know, that’s wonderful science when you can do that. Cause you can do hypothesis and test and then you could replicate the test as many times as possible to know that needed to test correctly and keep probing this question of whether you’re fooling yourself. But if you now have a hypothesis that can’t be tested, you’ve got a problem. And you’ve got a hypothesis that you convince yourself as vitally important, right?
Gary Taubes: It’s, you know, people are dying out there. I used to think of this as a Jurassic Park factor and remember the first Jurassic Park about a half a dozen times, somebody says, people are dying out there. We have to act. But now we have a hypothesis of how to keep them alive that we can’t test. Or if we do test it takes $1 billion in 10 years and we won’t be sure that we get the test right so it’s going to be at least 2 billion in 20 years and maybe more like 3 billion in 30 years. So one way to deal with this is to have been very tentative and said, look, we got this idea that dietary fat causes heart disease and we’re not sure about it and we can’t test it. This is good scientists you could do, part of good science is being tentative with your conclusions cause you know you’ve probably fooling yourself. So you want to give yourself room to be able to back out when somebody else demonstrates that you are fooling yourself. So you give these very tentative pronouncements and you say, we’re going to try and test it but it’s going to take like 30 years. But in the meantime, a few people never want to eat butter and bacon again. I think you’d be going to live longer. And the problem with that is if you give that kind of advice, nobody’s going to follow it. People are gonna say wait, you’re telling us that we should never eat butter or bacon again and we may live a little longer? How much longer can we expect to live? And then they’d run the numbers and say, well, a couple months according to our data, and you’d say, you’re out of your mind and then you don’t get any public health effect, and people continue to die out there. So what happened over the course of 20 years is the research community kind of agreed by Osmosis to lower their standards and to pretend something was true and to ignore all the times they didn’t live up to rigorous science. So they started saying, well, let’s do observations and we observe what we expect to see, maybe we can then conclude that somehow there was a causal fact that we were right all along. Or we’ll do these lousy experiments and if we can find in those experiments what we expect to find, we’ll forget that they were lousy experiments.
Emily: And I feel like there should be some sort of like an awareness at that stage that no matter what you find, you’re not going to be able to conclusively say that that was the right thing that you found. Right?
Gary Taubes: Right but remember, in order to get people to change their behavior, to have the public health effect, that will stop people from dying out there. There’s two vitally important factors. One is, your advice has to be right, and second people have to follow that advice and for the people to follow with, you have to make sure that they know the advice is right. That you make very definitive statements and maybe that you make a team even more important than them than it really is, so they can never know that the advice was right, but they knew that they had to make the advice firm and definitive. I say they knew it because it’s, it’s in their writing. You can see it then the discussions,
Emily: But this is like politics versus science, right? I mean like this is not the same thing. Yeah.
Gary Taubes: They ceased to become, they ceased to function as scientists. They accept something on faith: dietary fat causes heart disease, it raises LDL cholesterol and we should all eat low fat diets. And then they become, and I say this in the epilogue to “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and I never use the word scientist to describe these researchers because I didn’t believe they functioned as scientists once they started into this chronic disease business, rather than realizing that they couldn’t know the truth, they pretended that they could, they convince themselves that they could or that they already did, which is worse. And then they proceeded to try and get us in. What they succeeded at was getting us to change how we eat.
Emily: And so if we’re going to put this in that kind of context, I think it’s probably important to add in the sort of the influence of money and funding research and how that has like sort of furthered these individual or egotistical agendas in a way that maybe wasn’t so much of an issue before.
Gary Taubes: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. And Nina and I have, we’ve had many arguments over this over the years. And to me it’s the scientists failed. The researchers failed to do their job and their job is to establish reliable knowledge and when they should have realized that they can’t do it they should have admitted that and made sure that we then didn’t proceed the fool ourselves and everybody else. So to me it was a failure of the science. On top of that is layered some funding influences and how this research is funded. So if you think about high energy physics, the field I grew up writing about, the physicists decide that there’s, you know, a few questions that are vitally important for them. Or what’s, you know, is there a theory of everything or grand unified theory? Are there particles out there that are not predicted by the well accepted, well tested standard motto and what do we have to do to answer those questions. And the answer is we need an accelerator so powerful that we can’t even afford two of them. We’re going to build it outside of Geneva, Switzerland, everybody’s going to pull their money. It’s going to cause can billion dollars. Then we’re going to build four different experimental detectors on the accelerator so they can make sure if you see it in one experiment, you can replicate it in others it’s going to cost a couple billion dollars a year to run. But this is what we have to do to answer the questions and that’s what they did and we trust their answers. In nutrition and medicine, you’ve got basically the NIH saying, we are going to spread the money as widely as possible. We don’t know what we want to know, so we’re going to look at proposals from thousands of different researchers or we’re going to sift out the proposals we think are the best and we’re going to give them all, you know, $500,000 a year to [?] their research and that’s the maximum. There’s no real mechanism to answer the big questions. You hope that out of all these little questions– on one level, the research establishment is set up in such a way that it generates noise, thousands of little results, none of which can be trusted and never addresses the big questions and never generates a signal. A meaningful answer that can be trusted. When they’ve actually did spend a lot of money to do big studies, half a billion dollars to do what was called the Women’s Health
Gary Taubes: Initiative, thank you. WHI. And they didn’t get the answer they expected, they decided they did the study wrong. And again, that’s a catch, they might’ve done this study wrong. That’s why you have to replicate the experiment. They should have spent another half billion. Let’s go back to the 1960s one of the famous studies and was cited as evidence that eating less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fat was reduce heart disease, at least in men, was done in a VA hospital in outside of Los Angeles. I think it’s the one in Westwood right next to UCLA. And they fed these various veterans at the hospital. They’d come in and they’d get food that were either, you know, use butter and dairy or polyunsaturated margarine. And lo and behold, after a year they had that little less heart disease and the group getting polyunsaturated fats, they also had more cancer.
Emily: This is like the Minnesota study, right?
Gary Taubes: Yeah. Kind of. So in a world they had done that study, gotten a result, and then said people would have argued about the interpretation, the study. Well, how do you know that the reduction in heart disease that you saw wasn’t caused because the foods made with the polyunsaturated fat margarine tastes so bad that these people just stayed last, particularly the food like dessert that they made in the 60s out of this margarine might not have been as good as the food deserts made from butter. So not only might they have eaten less poly less saturated fat, they might’ve been less sugar. This is the kind of discussion that scientists have because you want to make sure that you’re not fooling yourself. So what they’ve done in an ideal world, instead of that experiment taking, you know, a year to prepare and then a year to carry on six months in an ideal world that would have taken a week. And then they’d have argued about this and they said, well, let’s do it differently. Let’s come up with this and we’ll make better desserts and we’ll make sure we’ll test the desserts first and we’ll make sure that people can’t even tell the difference between the different types of desserts. And when we have desserts, you can’t tell the difference. We’ll do the experiment again. And yet it just kept doing and iterating towards something reliable. But you know, we’ve had people arguing about the interpretation: well, but what about this? What about that? And every time somebody said, what about this? They’d have to come up with the new version of the experiment to account for that. So they knew whether or not that really mattered or whether they could ignore it. You couldn’t do that in nutrition. So instead you get this, oh hey, look at the result. Less hard to do. Let’s believe that’s true. And for the rest of eternity we’ll tell people eat low fat diets and replace it with corn oil caused it’s got polyunsaturated fat and It’s not science,
Emily: But there is something about that that is that’s troubling. Right? I mean it’s troubling for a number of reasons, but it’s really troubling by just the idea that somebody is so wedded to their hypothesis that they’re, it’s almost like why bother doing the experiment? Right. You know that I interviewed Mark Hegsted a million years ago and I feel like one of the things that he said to me that was so upsetting, although magical that he said it on camera was the, he was talking about the women’s or the Nurses’ Health Study and he was sort of saying, you know, it was something like that when you get the result that you thought you were going to get, you can trust him, but if you get a result that doesn’t look like what you thought you were going to get, then you have to question your data
Gary Taubes: And that’s exactly, yeah. It’s amazing that he was honest enough to say that, but no, you can trust it. And you go back all the way to Francis Bacon in 1620, the British lawyer who sort of inaugurated the scientific method. His very point then was you can particularly not trust the stuff that you expected to get and you can almost trust the stuff that you didn’t. So it’s exact opposite of the way good scientists thing. And yet this is the kind of thinking that the driven this field and that we’re still fighting against. Today, you see it all the time. Particularly in epidemiology, in particularly epidemiology out of the Harvard School of Public Health. If you get what you expect to get and there’s a worse a version of this, it’s even worse, which is if you don’t get what you expect to get and you don’t publish it cause you assumed you made a mistake.
Emily: Right or in that Minnesota study where they publish it 17 years later and then tell you when you asked that question, right? I mean,
Gary Taubes: Yeah. So the Minnesota study, they use various rehabilitation homes in Minnesota. They feed them the inpatients in these homes, various, either a polyunsaturated fat or saturated fat rich diet. And they look at who gets more heart disease and who lives longer. And lo and behold they get quote unquote the wrong result, which is that the people getting the, what they thought of as a healthy diet had more heart disease and a higher mortality rate than the people getting the unhealthy saturated fat rich American diet that everybody else was eating. And so yeah, they don’t publish it. And when– so 17 years later they did. Ivan France Jr. Who was the principal investigator, published the results of the study the year after he retired from the University of Minnesota. But by that time, this low fat dogma had been inaugurated, this institutionalized various government reports had come out and telling us all to eat low fat. So he felt an obligation to publish this data. And when I asked him, I interviewed him 15 years after that. And I asked him why they didn’t publish originally and he said, because one of the coauthors who was Ancel Keys, he didn’t name Ancel Keys, but he said we didn’t like the way it turned out. So they just didn’t publish it. They assumed that they made, they got the wrong answer. All of the scientific method, all of this critical thinking and skepticism and rigor is, and everything Bacon was saying in 1620 was how to fight that tendency, how to minimize this very human tendency to believe what we want to believe and see what we want to see. The medical nutrition community, and again, part of my feeling is they just, they got of no real mentoring in good science. So one of the lessons you learn when you talk to good scientists and you read the memoirs of good scientists, which I’ve been doing is they, you’re not born a good scientist. I mean there are people are born brilliant, but there are very few people who are born understanding how easy it is to fool yourself.
Emily: Well, and I think this idea of like the cognitive dissidence is sort of what you’re alluding to and I think that is fascinating in the sense of like, this feels very fraudulent, right? Like it feels like somebody has a doubly blind clinical trial and it shows something different than what they thought that is worth sharing with people, especially if it’s going against what everybody’s being told to eat on a regular basis. Right. And so to bury that for 17 years, but you know, Malcolm Gladwell did a really interesting podcast on that too. I don’t know if you heard that he talked to the guy’s son who like found the records of whatever. And I mean that was like an emotional episode, which was sort of interesting.
Gary Taubes: That was Ivan France the third.
Emily: But you know, he talked about how like he thought his dad really believed that. Like that’s what they were all fed. And so that for me is another layer of this because if it was fraudulent, right, then he would be saying to his family like, don’t eat that shit. Right? Like stay away from it.
Gary Taubes: It’s not fraud, it’s not fraud. It’s back in the– the term, the correct term I prefer is pathological science and pathological science, a term coined by a Nobel laureate in chemistry named Irving Langmuir, and it’s a definition of what he called the science of things that aren’t so. And so the thing with pathological science, it’s not fraud. Nobody’s trying to deceive you because they know the truth. They’re trying to deceive you because they’ve already fooled themselves. They have a lack of understanding about how hard it is to get the right answer and how easy it is to get the wrong one. And so they’re not following the strict scientific methods that are required to minimize the possibility that you’ll fool yourself not to get rid of it cause you can never get rid of it. Just to minimize it. So people like Ivan France Jr– the fact is these experiments are really hard to do and they really easy to misinterpret. That’s why you have to replicate part of the scientific method is this independent replication. So it is quite possible that you screwed up the experiment. So what you should do is just do it again.
Emily: Well, and so then you add in a character like Ancel Keys and like will you talk a little bit about how influential he was in sort of creating this dogma.
Gary Taubes: He’s was, it’s funny, that phrase used to define Keys when I was doing my reporting was he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. That’s usually a kind way of saying he was, I don’t know what kind of words can I use on your podcast?
Emily: Whatever you want.
Gary Taubes: He was an asshole and he was convinced he was smarter than everyone else. So this is the problem. Really smart people. Remember anyone can be born brilliant. That the hard problem is being born a good scientist. That the fatal flaw of really smart people is they tend to think– there’s so often, they’re the smartest person in the room. They tend to think they always are. The rest of us are used to being confronted with the inadequacies of our intellects. They’re not. So Keys was the kind of the guy who convinced himself and he knew the right answer and then methodically, unconsciously rejected any study that disagreed with him and any researcher that disagreed with him. Although occasionally along the way he would realize that he had been pushing the wrong answer and then he would embrace the right answer and kind of act like he had always been right. By the 1960s he started pushing this hypothesis around 1952, ’53. by the 1960s he had started this hugely influential Seven Country Study that was ongoing in Europe and he had convinced the American researchers to do these experiments like this Los Angeles VA hospital study, all to test this hypothesis. And what happened was the existence of the hypothesis was perceived by this community as evidence that it was right. Again, exactly the wrong way to think if you’re a good scientist, but just the existence of the studies and you could see it when people would write about it. Even the journalists would talk about the hypothesis hasn’t been proven yet and whenever I see that word yet I’d think but may never be proven and may be wrong. So it hasn’t been proven wrong yet either. The most likely, the most likely– the odds are always good that your hypothesis is wrong or is in the infinite number of wrong hypotheses for every right one. So anyway, because of Keys and his motivation, and then the Seven Country Study, which Keys interpreted to support his beliefs on, there were multiple ways it could be interpreted. It wasn’t an experiment in any sense in one way or the other. It can only generate a further hypothesis, but because of Keys and his refusal to accept criticism of his thinking as valid and the strength of his personality, he convinced us that dietary fat was a problem. The research was the ambiguous. Keys force of character more than anything that drove this hypothesis and then the sort of societal acceptance set in. But the other thing that I found more interesting which really wasn’t Keys at all were the obesity stories. But the 1960s we should’ve had a pretty firm awareness that the carbohydrate content of the diet effectively regulates how fat you get. Okay? So the more carbs easier they are to digest, the more sugar, the higher your insulin levels, the more calories you store as fat. But the problem was we were pushing dietary fat as the cause of heart disease. That was Keys’ work. And if fat caused heart disease, you couldn’t tell people to eat less fat and less carbohydrates because you were replacing the fat with carbohydrates. So an indirect consequence of the dietary fat hypothesis was a refusal to accept the data implicating carbohydrates and fat accumulation and obesity. And as a result, the conventional wisdom on why we get fat went from by the early 1960s it was still, you know, carbohydrates make you fat. And one of my favorite lines from a first sentence of a British Journal of Nutrition article in 1963 written by one of the leading British dieticians was every woman knows that carbohydrates are fattening, which is what every woman used to know. And then because of Keys and the dietary fat heart disease hypothesis, by the 1980s carbs had been transformed into heart healthy diet foods and people like Jane Brody, the personal health reporter for the New York Times is writing her good food book bestseller in 1985 is living the high carb life and she’s pushing pasta as a diet food. And then I wanted to say, Jane, go to Italy, look at the older woman, tell me if you think pasta was good for their weight. And in fact even Ancel Keys had pointed out that all the older women in Naples where he lived were fat. I’m going to get in trouble for this. So I don’t mean this to be sexist.
Emily: But I also think that that sort of gets into this idea of metabolic derangement right or that like over time, this idea of like, oh no, my kids can eat tons of sugar. They don’t get fat. And it’s like, well over time you’re damaging your system. The under regulatory system is the definition or the defining force in your health, not what you’re eating today or how many calories you’re taking in, but the content of them. Can you talk a little bit about that and like the role that we have placed sugar or the sort of altar of love and affection and celebration. You have that great chapter in “The Case Against Sugar” about like sugar kind of in the context of any other drug where it’s like having this effect and we’re using it for these moments in life.
Gary Taubes: It’s funny cause that was a thought experiment that I once had where I was thinking there’s just no way I could ever use this in my book because it would just play the hand immediately. Like I want this book to be a dispassionate discussion of the evidence against sugar and I can say this. And then I wrote this out and had the person in the field who I think is the best scientist and who’s always willing to tell me when he thinks I’m full of crap. I had him read it and he said, Oh man, you got to use this in the book.
Emily: Wait, can you say who that was?
Gary Taubes: Mark Friedman, who is one of the few really good scientists in this field in part because he wasn’t in nutrition or obesity research. So wasn’t infected by that culture. But anyway, the idea is just imagine, imagine you have a, um, a drug that mothers can give to their infants. It’s a pain killer to begin with, but also makes them high. For instance is a rush. It’s like a drug to adults. And so you can, whenever your kids are unhappy, you can give this them this drug and it will cheer them up and make them smile. And if they hurt themselves, you can give them this drug and it’ll kill the pain. And how long would it take before you started using this drug to sort of reward achievements or to demonstrate love. So it’s like, I love my child. I want to prove to my child that I love them. I want to give them this drug. So we’re gonna go out or I’m taking my child shopping with me and it’s a boring experience. But if I drug him or her, they will be perfectly happy and I can, you know, do my rounds at the mall or you know, and then it’s going to be, whenever there was a celebration and we get the family together, maybe this is a drug we should give them to keep the kids happy, to make them glad to be stuck with their aunts and uncles. When I dropped my little Janie off at grandma’s, what can grandma give Janie to make Janie want to be there? Well they give them this drug and how, you know, this drug would pretty quickly become sort of a symbol for love. The currency of love, the currency of celebration. And every, how long would it be before every major national holiday or even created holidays have the use of this drug as candy. And you can just imagine how all you would need is something that made your child happy and we don’t think of it as a drug. It’s a food. That was the thing with sugar is that it was both a food and the drug. It was unique in this sense. Or seems to be a drug. It certainly has psychoactive properties. Like we know it’s a pain killer at the very least.
Emily: But you know what’s interesting. I was actually talking to a friend of mine at a kid’s birthday party recently about how everybody serves cake at the very end of the party. And it’s because the kids are all super happy and then they’re all crying. It’s like time to go home. And it’s like nobody takes that out of context to say like, is there something in the cake that’s making the kids cry instead? We all focus on the positive of like cake time. Everybody come get your cake on.
Gary Taubes: Yeah. Yeah. And I do the same thing. I remember the first time we led my youngest have Halloween candy. He was three and we let them have like four pieces of candy after Halloween and that night. And he ran around the house for like 20 minutes screaming with joy. And then I said, it’s time, time to go to bed. And he threw himself down on the stairs and started crying hysterically. And I turn to my wife to deal with, if we had given him cocaine, I don’t believe his behavior would have been any more extreme or bizarre. It was absolutely fascinating. And yet we just write this off cause we’ve been so in inculcated with this stuff. This just is the way it is.
Emily: The cultural aspect of it is like such a big one too because like when we had our son, we kept him off of sugar for the first year. Like pretty absolutely. He had berries. But I think that was pretty much it. And at his first birthday we had one grandparent, who will go nameless, who like sort of insisted that he should have cake. And we were like, no, the cake is for everybody else. He’s never had sugar. Like he doesn’t need it. He doesn’t care. He’s one, he’s not noticing that he’s missing anything. And she was apoplectic that we were depriving the birthday boy of a piece of cake. And I thought this is so, like, this is so much about you, right? Like this has nothing to do with the child’s needs.
Gary Taubes: It is. And imagine if you were, if you grew up in a world where everybody was a drug addict and you knew what joy it brought them, short term joy, and there might be long term problems but in the short term this drug tasted like just made you happy. How could you possibly keep your children from that or your grandchildren or your great niece or whatever it is. And it’s just and maybe it is harmless. I don’t think so, but maybe it is, you know, if it is, and Jesus, you know, this isn’t just about living as long as we can. It’s supposed to be about living well too.
Emily: So you were going to say something about coke and pepsi too. I feel like the introduction of soda is–
Gary Taubes: Oh, they get to advertise themselves. I mean, you’re looking at the pause that refreshes. It’s not just about quenching thirst, it’s about making you feel good. It’s a rush. It’s a exhilarating experience. Drinking in an ice cold coke.
Emily: Well, it’s patriotic too, right? I mean, I feel like there was a lot of work done around.
Gary Taubes: Yeah. I mean, it became, well at one point. It’s probably still true. Coca-Cola was the second most recognized word in the world after “okay.” And I say that without any understanding whatsoever of how they calculate that. But let’s assume that somebody out there figured that out with, you know, knew what they were doing. The, yeah, and the coke people, you read the histories of Coca-Cola, which I did do in my research. I mean, these people just believed in their product. They didn’t think, like, I don’t know what the cigarette people believed. I’ve tried to read those books and they’re so relentlessly negative that it’s almost hard to believe that they were as bad as they’re portrayed. But clearly the coke people just say their product was joy and that’s what they were selling. And it’s a great mixture. Sugar, caffeine,
Emily: Well and it started as a medicinal thing too. I mean, that’s interesting.
Gary Taubes: Yes and also with cocaine and then the coke hence the Coca-Cola and the coke was taken out in the early 20th century when the FDA took offense. But, yeah, it was a medicinal thing. It was, the guy who founded it had civil war wounds that were chronic pain and this was a way of reducing the chronic pain. Tying back up to the dietary fat story. Ancel Keys– so back in the 60s, there was a competing hypothesis– Keys was saying dietary fat causes heart disease because it raises LDL cholesterol or cholesterol and you should measure this one number of cholesterol. And if that’s high, we know people are eating too much fat. Everything we believe today in the medical community sort of springs from that nugget of thought. That’s the root of that tree. There was a competing hypothesis which is that heart disease is a metabolic derangement. Dozens, everything’s wrong in the human body. It’s not just LDL cholesterol is elevated, there are a measure virtually anything and it’s abnormal numbers and people with heart disease and whatever’s happening is very closely related to obesity and very closely related to type two diabetes, very closely related to hypertension. And all these disorders sort of co-exist in people and populations. So if you’re overweight, if you’re fat and you’re more likely to be type two diabetic and more likely to have atherosclerosis, you’re more likely to have hypertension. And so it’s this metabolic disruption that happens to be caused primarily by sugar, because we can add sugar to any diet. We then– clinical trials, you know, experiments are done in the 60s demonstrating that virtually all of these facets of this metabolic disruption could be caused either in animals or college students subjects by feeding them sugar. And the guy who was pushing the sugar hypothesis a brilliant British nutritionist named John Yudkin and Keys didn’t like each other because Yudkin had criticized Keys and Keys didn’t tolerate fools gladly or anyone who criticized. So Keys went after Yudkin and basically wrote a long screed explaining why he was a quack. And why this theory shouldn’t be taken seriously. And then the sugar industry, which was being attacked because of Yudkin’s sugar theory, put together a paper, 120 page journal supplement with about seven or eight different articles in it explaining why sugar didn’t cause heart disease and didn’t cause obesity. And everyone in it was part of the sort of anti-fat movement. All the authors believe fat was the problem, not sugar. And several of the authors worked with Keys at the University of Minnesota. And so by the mid to late seventies a fat hypothesis with being accepted. And the sugar hypothesis was being considered quackery. So the worst you can say about sugar is it’s empty calories and you shouldn’t need too much of it. And anyone who said anything else was considered a quack. And again, this was largely Key’s work because he didn’t– you know the problem was the fat in our diet, by this thinking, not the sugar. So from the eighties to the early two thousands, virtually no studies were done on sugar. And certainly not these like half billion dollar studies, like the Women’s Health Initiative. I like to joke that if today, if you tried to get a women’s health initiative done with sugar, you couldn’t get it funded because the answer would be obvious. The NIH would say, let me get this straight. You want us to spend a half billion dollars taking 50,000 women and getting 25,000 of them to give up sugar because you think they’ll be healthier if they do? Well, of course I’ll be healthier. We’re not going to spend that money.
I feel like that’s probably a good place to pause and we’re going to pick it up again next week. We’re going to talk to Gary a lot more about how we’ve gotten this wrong, but also we’re going to ask him a little bit about the Nutrition Science Initiative project that he co-founded to try and do the kinds of experimentation that he thought would be the right kind of experimentation to figure this out and, and what went wrong. Come back next week for the rest of this interview with Gary Taubes. And as always, thanks for listening. Please share on social share with your friends. We’re really trying to get as much of this good information out to people as we can. Thanks very much. I’m Emily Kumler and that was Empowered Health. Thanks for joining us. Don’t forget to check out our website at empoweredhealthshow.com. For all the show notes, links to everything that was mentioned in the episode as well as a chance to sign up for our newsletter and get some extra fun tidbits. See you next week