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.
It wasn’t Kolata’s first drive-by. She cited Hirsch in a memorably hostile review of Taubes’ book, Good Calories, Bad Calories in October 2007, that dismissed his exhaustive reporting out of hand. (Kolata had her own, competing diet book out at the time, Rethinking Thin, meaning that she probably shouldn’t have gotten the assignment.) From her patronizing lede (“Gary Taubes is a brave and bold science journalist who does not accept conventional wisdom”) to her weirdly personal ending (“I am sorry, I am not convinced”), she knew something was wrong with the book, only she didn’t know what. “[T]he problem with a book like this one,” she wrote, “which goes on and on in great detail about experiments new and old in areas ranging from heart disease to cancer to diabetes, is that it can be hard to know what has been left out.”
Poor Taubes. No one warned him that 600 pages of evidence were never going to be enough. The theory that weight gain boils down “calories-in, calories-out” is the last man standing in the diet wars. The principle anchors the comforting American belief that personal responsibility explains all of our ills. It validates all that wasted time on the treadmill that people like Kolata and others endorse. It keeps us watching shows like The Biggest Loser. It leaves the door open to low-calorie, high-carbohydrate food products that make the economy hum, are portable, do not require we learn to cook, make children stop crying, and taste good. Any efforts at reporting science to the contrary will always have a rough road.