Gary Taubes has been uncovering the truth about America's obesity epidemic for 15 years—but what does he eat to stay lean?
For decades, America has tried to fight its obesity epidemic through promoting low-calorie, low-fat diets and exercise as the keys to a lean body. But it hasn't worked; we're still getting fatter. However, over the past few years, some scientists and journalists have come forward to introduce an alternative theory: We don't get fat because we eat fat, we get fat because we eat sugar. The thinking goes cut out the sugar, including things like flour and starchy vegetables, and you won't get fat.
No one has been more vocal in this field than Gary Taubes, a journalists and author who first gained national attention in 2002 with an article for New York Times Magazine titled "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" Taubes has written three books on this subject, most recently The Case Against Sugar, which released in November of 2016. In the book he hones in on not just on how deadly sugar is to the human body (he frames it as a poison), but also how it seemingly got away unscathed throughout the exercise boom of the 1970s and the low-fat craze of the 1980s and '90s. He's not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but Taubes makes a compelling argument that the government, for decades, has disseminated factually unproven methods of weight loss while scientists willingly ignored the actual root causes of obesity.
Even though Gary Taubes is heralded by his fans as a crusader against Big Sugar, the truth is, the way he personally eats isn't that different from any 60-year-old father of two. (For the record, at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he looks pretty darn good for a 60-year-old, period.) And that includes the occasional frozen taquito.
GQ: Based on studies you've read, is there any evidence that exercise makes a person healthier overall?
Gary Taubes: It depends on why a person is doing it. If the goal is to get exceedingly fit, and they're fit to begin with, I don't doubt it will help. If their goal is to get lean, and they are obese, I could see it be counterproductive as it just might make them hungrier, and thus crave carbohydrates. It wouldn't be a longterm route to fixing metabolic problems they have or hormonal problems, but it might be a short-team solution to getting healthier.
I find it easy to believe that physical activity in general improves health. But we think that the reason we get fat is because we take in excess calories. We think that if we increase our calorie expenditure and reduce our intake, we will get leaner. And there's precious little evidence to support that.
Tell me your thoughts on the idea that resistance training is better than just cardio because you're building muscle, which burns more calories than fat does.
There are two problems with that. The first is that if you lose five pounds of fat and replace it with five pounds of muscle, you're burning only about 20 calories more. That's a bite of food. So even if obesity were about caloric imbalance, you'd be getting minimal benefit. And you'd also be ignoring that with all that extra exercise, you'd probably be hungrier.
What ideas have been the biggest detriment to Western society in terms of our perception of how to lose weight?
On a scale of 1-10 [in terms of how bad their ideas were], I give Ancel Keys' ideas an 8 and I give Jean Mayer a 6. In the 1950s, there were two issues nutritionists were trying to figure out. The first was what causes heart disease, and the other was what causes obesity. Mayer knew that obese people didn't really eat more than lean people, so he decided it must be because they're too physically inactive. More than any other nutritionist—and he was the most influential of that area—he pushed the idea that if you exercise more you'll lose weight. His advice ironically went along with the obesity epidemic of the 1960s. If he had understood obesity, we'd live in a much different world.
Now, they both believed that a low-carb, high-fat diet would kill you. Mayer actually said in the New York Times that prescribing a diet like this was the equivalent of mass murder. But Keys came up with the idea that dietary fat causes heart disease. Despite all the research that failed to confirm this idea, the idea still spread through the research community just by the virtue of the fact they were testing it. Then the media and the journalists bought into it because the experts kind of believed it, and then the American Heart Association bought into it. So by the 1980s we all believed it even though it's never been proven.
What kind of damage has this thinking done to us as a society?
It costs an enormous amount of money. That's why I do what I do. But now it's as though the the nutritionists have thrown up their hands because they don't think preventing obesity is possible. The director general of the World Health Organization last October described the obesity epidemic as a slow-motion disaster, and predicted that they would fail to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
Do you think a big problem with sugar is that it's so addicting? That people can't simply "kick the habit?"
I think Charles Mann said it best, who authored two amazing books called 1491 and 1493. He said that scientists argue amongst themselves whether or not sugar is addictive, but the truth is people definitely act like it is. And it's true. Children clearly act like it. But even though it does trigger a dopamine response in the brain like nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, for most, when those things are out of sight they're relatively out of mind. The difference is sugar is never out of sight.
Well when people start a low-carb diet, they complain of being tired, headaches, etc. Those seem like withdrawal symptoms from the lack of sugar, no?
Well your body is switching fuel sources from carbohydrates to fat, which gets burned much slower. What you're describing used to be called "The Akins Flu." But there has been considerable evidence that if you get enough potassium, sodium, and magnesium through supplements, you can prevent it from happening. So that's why bone broth has become such a fixture in the low-carb, paleo, ketogenic diet communities.
Is the "French paradox" bullshit? Do French people actually eat a high-fat, bread-filled diet and remain skinny?
Historically, the French seem to lag about 100 years behind us in sugar consumption. We seem to use about twice as much sugar as the French. When I lived in Paris in the '80s, I saw that for the most part women of a certain age did not eat bread. Also French white bread has a lower sugar content than in America. It has about 2 percent sugar, where white bread in the U.S. can be 10 or 12 percent. So it's really not a paradox if you look at sugar consumption, only when you look at fat consumption.
With your new book, are you arguing that sugar is worse than other carbohydrates or all they all bad?
The idea is that sugar, when it gets metabolized in the liver, it causes you to secrete insulin. Over time it causes your body to secrete more insulin than is necessary, and creates a condition called insulin resistance. Once you are metabolically disturbed, and you're secreting more insulin and are gaining fat and eventually becoming diabetic, the question is what do you have to do to solve that problem. For most people, just removing the sugar is just not enough. You need to remove all of the carbs.
So if you're already in great shape, eating brown rice isn't going to make you fat.
I mean clearly some people can tolerate the sugar and carbohydrates. We see them every day and they're lean and athletic and live to be 100. There are also people who can smoke two packs of cigarettes and live to be 100. But if I was going to point out the one thing anyone could do to improve their diet, it would be get rid of the sugar. And the second would be to get rid of the refined grains.
"I've convinced myself now that bacon and butter are health foods. If I'm right or wrong, I'm going down with them."
On that note, do you cook most of your own meals?
First I'll say I used to live in New York, and when I did I used to eat out almost every meal. Sugars, grains, and starchy vegetables make you fat, so I just didn't eat them. I even ate breakfast out at this wonderful diner across the street. I'd order eggs and bacon and get tomato slices instead of toast, and I wondered if it was going to kill me. For lunch I'd get a roast chicken or a hamburger without the bun, and for dinner sort of the same thing, or a salad. I ended up eating more green vegetables than ever actually. If I was out at dinner and the waiter brought bread I'd ask them to take it away because if it's there I knew I'd end up eating it. But now, I hear we have a pretty good food culture here [where I live in Oakland], but I just don't eat out much.
What do you cook now?
Breakfast usually is bacon and eggs. I've convinced myself now that bacon and butter are health foods. If I'm right or wrong, I'm going down with them. But if I have a heart attack tomorrow, we won't know if the bacon and butter kept me alive for ten years longer or if it killed me because there are so many other factors. Other than that I eat this wonderful salmon salad sometimes that I get from the local fish market, that I eat on a piece of pumpernickel toast.
So you do eat carbs?
Yeah, but the bread is very low [Glycemic Index] G.I.
Do you know how many carbs are in a piece of that pumpernickel bread?
I do not. I know that I can maintain a healthy weight eating it. If I start to gain weight, I'll start to look at my diet and see what the culprit might be. But I was clearly gaining weight when I was eating a low-fat diet, which consisted of sugar-rich foods like fruit smoothies. I also have young kids, so they have a lot of carbohydrates around the house—like those Trader Joe's taquitos. I had those for dinner last night because my youngest son had basketball practice and there wasn't time to cook. There's a tendency to just say, well, "how much harm could they do?" The answer is probably not a whole lot.
How do you feel about butter in coffee?
I recently gave that up. Addictions make me nervous, and I was going to sleep the night before looking forward to the morning coffee. So I gave up caffeine entirely before writing [The Case Against Sugar], just as an experiment. When I was younger I would give up coffee for a while every few years, and it was delightful to be able to wake up and be alert. This time it didn't happen, so I ended up going back to it just to write the book, though now I've given it up again.
Okay, what's lunch?
Usually some tuna fish salad and maybe a few nuts or something. That fish market really makes great salads, and I'm a person who would be happy eating the same thing every day.
Usually some meat and vegetables, like steak and broccoli. I'm really not a good cook, but I do like a ribeye. They are pricey, though. I clearly have to learn to cook better, because I do love good food. I'm happy eating this way, but clearly my kids should have better food than when I'm cooking. They're kind about it, but they deserve better.
Do you eat snacks?
If I'm eating snacks, it's usually some raw almonds. I also have started eating 100 percent chocolate, which has an acquired taste. Things below 90 percent now actually tend to be too sweet for me now. Even the ones sweetened with sugar alcohols just leave a taste in my mouth that seems to last for hours.
Are sugar alcohols better for you than regular sugar?
Probably, but that's the best we can say right now. There needs to be more research done. But I assume people can eat Atkins bars [with sugar alcohols] and still lose weight. Now I think some of those things might be what Michael Pollen calls "food like substances," but I do think there are food-like substances that won't make people fat.