Good Calories Bad Calories 

Title: Good Calories Bad Calories

Author: Gary Taubes

Publisher: Anchor Books/Random House

Publication date: 2007, 2008

Pages: 609

Special features: Some photos

Price: 34.95

ISBN:  978-1-60358-622-1



Good Calories Bad Calories covers the recent history of and competition between two scientific hypotheses or offered to explain the relationship between nutrition and human diseases, including particularly obesity and cardiovascular disease. 

These two hypotheses constitute two quite different paradigms of inquiry.

The commonly accepted paradigm asserts that eating animal fat and cholesterol makes us fat and sick. In Good Calories Bad Calories Taubes calls this the fat-cholesterol hypothesis, and others call the lipid hypothesis, but I will call it the thermodynamic paradigm (following Ray Audette’s lead in Neanderthin), because ultimately it arose from a purely mechanistic view of human biology and a reductionist view of nutrients. According to this paradigm, the body is a simple machine which needs a certain amount of energy to function, and all macronutrients can be reduced to energy measured as calories.  This machine needs a certain amount of energy, and ‘energy is energy,’ or ‘a calorie is a calorie.’ Protein, fat, and carbohydrate are all reducible to energy, therefore interchangeable as fuel sources for this machine. 

Advocates of this hypothesis often cite the fact that different contemporary human groups survive and even reproduce on widely different diets, either based on animal protein and fat, or based on plants i.e. carbohydrates, as proof that we can digest and obtain equal nourishment and health from any sort of food we can swallow. However, this is fallacious. The fact that we can put cooked carbohydrates – that is, highly processed plant matter–  in our mouths, obtain some nourishment from them and thereby ward off starvation and obvious malnutrition for some time does not prove that we are organically adapted to eating plant matter as our principal food. Indeed, the fact that unlike any other natural herbivore we have to highly process the plants in order to obtain from them adequate nutrition goes to prove that we are not adapted to eating the plants, but have chosen instead to adapt the plants to us.  

Get Neanderthin!

Nevertheless, according to the thermodynamic paradigm, whether the machine’s store of energy – its gas tank, the adipose tissue – remains stable, increases or decreases depends entirely on the energy balance between input and output.  If energy input is equal to energy output, body weight remains stable; if input exceeds output, body weight increases; if output exceeds input, body weight decreases. 

In this model, the body is just a machine like an automobile, so energy input – food intake, similar to filling the fuel tank of your automobile –  is completely controlled by conscious choice; just as your automobile does not itself decide to put fuel in the tank, your body has no role in whether you choose or do not choose to consume food. Similarly, just as an automobile does not start up and move by itself, but only if occupied by a conscious agent, the body does not start up and move unless the conscious mind decides to move it. Thus, energy output is largely controlled by conscious choice; you engage in physical activity only as a deliberate choice of the conscious mind, not as an expression or consequence of any biological condition. 

If you think along these lines, you will choose fuels for the machine by comparing the fuels. Since all reduce ultimately to energy (calories), it will be most logical to ask, which is most economical? And, which is in greatest supply so that we can fuel the largest population of machines?

Opposed to this paradigm, we have in Good Calories Bad Calories what Taubes, focusing on the alternative fuel, calls the carbohydrate hypothesis. For this review, I will call it the biologic paradigm, because this paradigm differs from the other in its basic conception of the body as a complex organism which has a mind (intelligence) of its own, which can’t be conceived as a simple machine. This organism evolved in and is adapted to a specific habitat in which some types of food were available and others were not. In other words, this organism is specifically adapted to a specific diet, composed of specific types of foods. 

The organism has evolved to maintain an internal equilibrium – homeostasis –through biochemical and hormonal responses to changes in the external or internal environment. Food intake alters the internal environment, and without any interference from or even the knowledge of the conscious mind, the body responds intelligently to this alteration by releasing hormones that restore equilibrium and homeostasis. The hormones respond differently to protein, fat, and carbohydrate, so you can’t consider these fuels equivalent in any sense.

According to this paradigm, whether this organism’s store of energy in adipose tissue remains stable, increases or decreases depends significantly, largely or entirely on what kind of hormonal and metabolic environment it produces in response to food consumed and other stimuli (such as physical activities). 

In this biologic model, hunger and food intake are largely determined by one’s biologic condition, not by conscious choice alone.  For example: 

  • If the net result of various stimuli, but principally influx of macronutrients, is an internal environment dominated by hormones that favor adipose tissue anabolism  – principally insulin –, both hunger and fat depots will increase. 
  • If the net result of various stimuli is an internal environment that favors muscle tissue anabolism, both hunger and lean mass, but not fat mass, will increase.  
  • If the net result of various stimuli is an internal environment that favors utilization of glucose as a fuel, appetite for sugars and fat stores will increase (because glucose is being used instead of fat for fuel). 
  • If the net result of various stimuli is an internal environment that favors catabolism of adipose tissue, both hunger and fat mass will decrease. 

According to this model, someone may attempt to consciously over-ride biological drives created by internal conditions through force of will, but this will generally be very difficult if not impossible, and certainly unsustainable for any great length of time. like trying to consciously control breathing or heart rate.

This paradigm rests on a theory of evolved biological adapation to specific conditions, including a specific diet. According to this paradigm, the body will experience disorders when it is made to cope with environmental conditions – including dietary compositions – to which it is not adapted. One can’t correct metabolic disorders by simplistic balancing of fuel or materials economy without regard for species-specific requirements. Rather, to establish health, which consists of homeostasis and equilibrium with the habitat, one must return the organism to its native habitat and diet. 

Western scientists have favored the reductionistic, mechanical model of Nature – the machine paradigm – for centuries. Biologists adopted this model from physics, even though it is obvious that the body is not a machine like an automobile. Machines do not have goal-directed – teleological – responses to environmental stimuli. Organisms have teleological responses to stimuli; their responses have the goal of self-maintaining structure, function and internal conditions in the face of an ever-changing native habitat. 

Good Calories Bad Calories & The Myth of Science

Scientists have convinced themselves and the general public that scientists are hard-headed truth seekers guided entirely by reason and evidence, that they follow the ‘scientific method’ which is superior to all other methods of acquiring knowledge, and that science produces results superior to any other method of inquiry. In his landmark books Against Method and Science In a Free Society, and more briefly in his essay “‘Science.’ The Myth and its Role in Society,” philosopher Paul Feyerband has shown that history of science does not support these ideas. Science is not a special methodology superior to all others. It is a body of competing ideas and schools, and:

“Revolutions lead to quarrels between opposing schools. The one school wants to abandon the orthodox program, the other school wants to retain it. The standards recommended by the methodology of research programs permit either move, as we have seen. Hence, the fight between opposing schools is a power struggle, pure and simple.”

Feyerabend has argued and provided sufficient evidence that the history of science shows that the ‘scientists’ use any method that will enable them to win their power struggles.  They will ignore evidence that does not suit them and make up evidence that does. According to Feyerabend, Einstein, for example, said:

“The external conditions which are set for [the scientist] by the facts of experience do not permit him to let himself be too much restricted, in the construction of his conceptual world, by the adherence to an epistemological system. He, therefore, must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist…”

In his works Feyeraband demonstrates that “the only universal rule that can safely be said to be in agreement with the moves a scientist must make to advance his subject is anything goes.”

In Good Calories Bad Calories, Taubes amply illustrates how true this has been in the  ‘science’ of diet and health. Non-scientific ideologies and commitments, politics and economics influence scientists and their science, and so far as scientists are concerned, they will do anything in their struggle for power in the scientific community and over the the minds of others. Here are some examples from Good Calories Bad Calories that amply illustrate how these factors contribute to ‘science.’

For example, the idea that people ‘should’ reduced animal product consumption to prevent heart disease gained a kind of moral authority and reinforcement from Francis Moore Lappé’s assertion in Diet For A Small Planet that people consuming animal products in industrialized nations were depriving people in developing nations of adequate nutrition by diverting grains from human consumption to livestock consumption. Her idea that raising livestock in the U.S. and Europe causes people to starve in Africa was and is without foundation, but it activated altruism in many people, and combining her ideas with the claim that eating animal fat and cholesterol caused heart disease led many in her heyday, including myself, to try to reduce animal product consumption. It seemed like one could help oneself and others with just a dietary alteration; why not try it? It became a moral imperative to reduce animal product consumption, so ‘scientists’ and non-scientists alike were motivated to believe and ‘prove’ that eating meat and fat had harmful physiological effects which should help convince people to eat less or none, to help the starving millions. 

Following Lappé's lead, vegetarian advocates have urged people to stop eating meat to not only ‘feed the hungry’ but also ‘save the planet.’ An ostensibly moral question got mixed into the quest for knowledge of optimum human nutrition, thereby biasing many thinkers against animal products and hence inclined to find them nutritionally unacceptable because of their alleged economic, environmental and moral unacceptability. But this is bad practice. The nutritional requirements and adaptations of the human are not functions the number of hungry people in the world, the alleged condition of the environment, or the alleged moral status of non-human animals. 

These considerations have no bearing on the question of whether the human is an obligate carnivore, well-adapted to eating meat and fat, or an herbivore, poorly adapted to eating meat and fat. In fact, this question can be answered without making reference to any epidemiological data. We can simply ask whether our digestive system can process and extract adequate nutrition from raw whole plant foods provided by Nature – that is, not modified by human agriculture or cooking. In other words, in the wild, can a human live on (obtain adequate nutrition from) a raw plant based diet, like any other naturally herbivorous or frugivorous animal? The answer of course is: No. We are, in fact, carnivores by Nature. 

In Good Calories Bad Calories we learn that a renowned ‘scientist’ may reject a good idea because he hates the ethnic group of the individual who has the idea: For example, Germans and Austrians did a lot of research providing evidence for the carbohydrate/biologic paradigm prior to World War II. After WWII, so-called scientists ignored research supporting the hormonal hypothesis for obesity because it had been done by Germans and Austrians.

In Good Calories Bad Calories Taubes reports (p. 364) that when someone asked Ted Van Itallie, a student of Jean Mayer, a Jewish advocate of the lipid/thermodynamic hypothesis, why Mayer paid little attention to the prewar German literature on obesity, he said, “Mayer hated the Germans. He shot a few of them in World War II.” There is nothing rational or scientific in Mayer’s attitude. He was not following a scientific method, or respecting evidence. He rejected the evidence because of his hatred for Germans. This ‘scientist’ decided that since in his view, Germans were ‘evil Nazis’ he was just going to ignore Germans' contributions to nutrition and physiology knowledge.

Another ‘scientist,’ Ancel Keys, started and advanced his hypothesis that diets high in saturated fats cause heart disease on an essentially doctored data set. Keys argued that “no other variable in the mode of life besides the fat calories in the diet is known which shows anything like such a consistent relationship to the mortality rate from coronary or degnerative heart disease.”  However, in Good Calories Bad Calories Taubes (p. 18) documents that

“Many researchers wouldn’t buy it. Jacob Yerushalmy, who ran the biostatistics department at the University of California, Berkeley, and Herman Hilleboe, the New York State commissioner of health, co-authored a critique of Keys’s hypothesis, noting that Keys had chosen only six conutrties for his comparison though data were available for twenty-two countries. When all twenty-two were included in the analysis, the apparent link between fat and heart disease vanished. Keys had noted associations between heart-disease death rates and fat intake, Yerushalmy and Hilleboe pointed out, but they were just that. Associations do not imply cause and effect or represent (as Stephen Jay Gould later put it) and “magic method for the unambiguous identification of cause.”

In addition, on p. 16 of Good Calories Bad Calories  Taubes notes that "Keys's abilities as a scientist are arguable––he was more often wrong than right––but his force of will was indomitable." Keys was adept at self-promotion and vitriolic attacks on anyone who pointed to evidence that disputed his claims. His hypothesis gained wide acceptance not because it best fit the available body of evidence, but because he had the ability to dominate all discussions and convince everyone to dismiss evidence that refuted his positions.

The campaign against animal-based diets based on the diet-heart hypothesis rested originally on the idea that a “great epidemic” of heart disease emerged in the 1920s and grew to become the nation’s number one killer. Jean Mayer claimed the epidemic was a “drastic development––paralleled only by the arrival of bubonic plague in fourteenth-century Europe, syphilis from the New World at the end of the fifteenth century and pulmonary tuberculosis a the beginning of the nineteenth century.” However, in Good Calories Bad Calories Taubes shows that this “epidemic vanishes upon closer inspection.” The apparent increase in heart disease deaths was a mirage created by the coincidence of changes in definitions of heart disease, reduced rates of death from infectious diseases, and fashions in diagnosis of cause of death. 

The financial interests of the vegetable oil and pharmaceutical industries heavily influenced the ‘science’ of diet-heart. The idea that people should replace butter, tallow and lard with polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils, margarine, and shortening would not have had any traction without the industries promoting these new products which did not exist 

Similarly, in Good Calories Bad Calories Taubes shows that physicians focused on elevated total blood cholesterol as a supposed risk factor for heart disease simply because it was something they could both measure and modify with lipid-lowering drugs, including polyunsaturated fats. I would add, cholesterol testing was and still is a boon to chemistry labs. If no one had any concern about their blood lipid chemistry, the people who have investments or employment in such labs would be out of a substantial portion of their incomes. Its in their economic interests to continue to believe in and promote the lipid hypothesis. 

I could go on, but this review is already too long. Good Calories Bad Calories is not only an excellent review of the weakness the lipid/thermodynamic hypothesis and the strength of the carbohydrate/biologic hypothesis, it is also an excellent text for students of the history and philosophy of science. I do not know whether or not Taubes intended this, but Good Calories Bad Calories also demonstrates that Feyerabend is correct, scientists do not adhere to some superior, highly reliable, even magic ‘scientific method’ to reveal truth, but are riddled with personality quirks, bias, and conflicts of interest that make them extremely prone to error, and probably no more likely to discover truth than non-scientists.

If you have an interest in the science of nutrition and health and the evidence supporting the carbohydrate/biologic hypothesis of diet and health, or an interest in the history and philosophy of science, I highly recommend reading Good Calories Bad Calories