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.
The diet wars may have ended, but to channel Donald Rumsfeld, resilient pockets of “dead-enders” at the paper of record continue to keep things interesting. The clinical trial that Taubes covered in his July 29 op-ed, “What Really Makes Us Fat,” was conducted by Harvard endocrinologists Dr. Cara Ebbeling, and David S. Ludwig. They fed 21 weight-reduced subjects three different diets - a low-fat diet, a diet low in refined carbs, and the Atkins diet. All three groups ate the same total number of calories. So if losing weight were simply a matter of eating fewer calories, as the low-fat crowd says, the three groups should burn calories at the same rate.
To the contrary, “the results of our study challenge the notion that a calorie is a calorie from a metabolic perspective,” the authors wrote in their paper, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). They found that an Atkins diet allowed subjects to burn more calories at rest, giving them the least chance of regaining weight they had lost. They also had the best cholesterol of the bunch. (So much for artery clogging saturated fat.) The diet low in refined carbs came in second. The low fat diet came in last. It “produced changes,” the authors concluded, “that would predict weight regain.”
Taubes should have beaten his chest in triumph and taken some scalps, but restrained himself, unfortunately, noting that Ludwig’s results “are by no means ironclad” and calling for new research. Ten days later, the paper dropped Kolata’s rap from the west coast.
For fans of pique and bad manners, you could do worse than her largely stenographic Q&A with Dr. Jules Hirsch, an emeritus professor and emeritus physician in chief at Rockefeller University. Hirsch waved off the JAMA paper’s findings as an artifact of water-loss in a low-carbohydrate diet. He referred to the paper’s premise as “hocus-pocus.” There was the title: “In Dieting, Magic Isn’t a Substitute for Science.” Hirsch invoked “the law of science,” and ”the inflexible law of physics,” but Ludwig knows a little bit about science too. As the Harvard endocrinologist pointed out in a letter published the following week, the study controlled for the effects of water weight in several different ways. Oops.