Gary Taubes is one of the most interesting health writers in the country. He is an exhaustive researcher, an astute critic of experimental methodology, a historian of science and influential polemicist. But he can’t catch a break from Gina Kolata. This is awkward, because they both write for the same paper.
That’s one conclusion to be drawn after a discordant sequence of New York Times articles about a Harvard dietary trial last month. In late June, Taubes reported for the Sunday Opinion page on a comparison of three diets and their effects on how quickly people burn calories. The study found that what you eat—the bad guy here being carbohydrates—very likely has more to do with whether you get fat than how much you eat. Taubes, who has argued this point for years, called the results “remarkable.”
Eight days later, Kolata filed a dismissive Q&A with a retired Rockefeller University dietary researcher who purported to undermine everything he had written. The interview did not mention Taubes by name, but it’s not hard to see that he was the real subject. Flip, overconfident, underreported, for those of you who might wonder what it looks like when the science desk at the Times becomes a mean girl, this was your daily time-waster. If something about the would-be kneecapping seemed familiar, it’s because Kolata tried it once before, following the publication of Taubes seminal 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. Watching the second installment of this hazing, you really want to ask: Will someone please tell the Times that the diet wars are all but over?
This month marked the 10th anniversary of “What If It’s all Been a Big Fat Lie?” a provocative New York Times Magazine piece that changed Taubes’ life and very likely changed yours as well, or at least the comfort with which you regard that low-fat muffin in the coffee shop. In the 8,000-word, July 7, 2002 cover story, Taubes launched a withering critique of the conventional wisdom concerning the causes of obesity. He chronicled a 30-year history of research shortcuts, academic tribalism, and dietary politics behind the argument implicating dietary fat and excess calories in obesity. He argued against saturated fat as a cause of heart disease, blamed the obesity epidemic on low-fat eating, and suggested a return to what was, in fact, an older way of thinking—that carbohydrates are the problem in the American diet.
For daring to suggest that Robert Atkins was right all along—that obesity arises from carbohydrate-induced spikes in the hormone insulin—and by singling out the work of a half dozen researchers to anchor a larger argument many of them did not wholly endorse, Taubes was rewarded with a sustained, near-operatic chorus of censure. Critics piled on from The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Journalism Review. Taubes endured an unreasonable lashing at the hands of Michael Fumento in Reason magazine, and armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of dietary trials, struck back with a 9,400-word defense. Fumento replied to the reply.
Given what has transpired since, the backlash against “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie” is beginning to take on the look of a sad, strange hysteria whose time has mercifully passed. Taubes spent five years producing an exhaustively footnoted, 600-page book called Good Calories, Bad Calories, which was published in 2007. It landed quietly, but has since come to command a kind of totemic status among paleo dieters and pragmatic health professionals, and is widely read in the bariatric, metabolic and diabetes research community.
More importantly, in the past decade, science and dietary culture in general have left low-fat ideology (and, increasingly, calorie counting) in the rear view mirror. The fatwa on dietary cholesterol has more or less evaporated. Saturated fat is still wrongly maligned as a risk factor for heart disease, and a debate still brews over the health of red meat, but few researchers in a position to know better will argue that butter, cream and beef fat have much to do with putting on the pounds, and the growing popularity of diets based on whole foods—Michael Pollan readily goes to bat for butter—are an implicit rebuke of the margarine mentality. The defenders of the low-fat message, the dietary authorities behind our nutritional guidelines, still talk smack about fat and sodium, but have increasingly shifted their ire towards unrefined carbohydrates, a concession to the effects of insulin. Public health interventions are taking aim at Big Gulps, not Ben & Jerry’s. The dietary arena has become a more uncertain place for low-fat missionaries like the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Michael Jacobson, and a less hostile place for people like Gary Taubes.
Then there is The New York Times.