Monday, September 5, 2011

Why Taubes has Groupies

In a tweet today (Labor Day, September 5, 2012), Paul Jaminet commented:

I don't think this is hero worship at all. I think it is a visceral, positive response to his message, reinforced by successful weight loss. Let me explain.

DISCLAIMER: I have matured in my low carb way of eating and thinking. I have given up on several of Taubes' ideas, because they didn't jive with my experience. I believe calories count, that exercise matters, that there are safe carbs, and I am following the Perfect Health Diet version of low carb eating now. I believe that we have confused an obesity cure (cutting carbs) with an obesity cause (carbs are fattening). Just because cutting carbs can cure obesity does not mean that carbs cause obesity (thank you, Chris Kresser, for expressing this idea). I eat about 100 grams of carbohydrates per day, mostly from whole milk yogurt or safe starches such as rice and potatoes. I have also lost almost 60 pounds thanks to the low carb way of eating, and Gary Taubes introduced me to it, for which I am very grateful. Even though I no longer believe some of what he wrote, he had a powerful influence on my life, for the better.

Okay, now the explanation. I don't know if Paul Jaminet or Emily Deans or Beth Mazur have ever been obese or not, though I suspect they have not. Taubes' message rings true if you have struggled, unsuccessfully, with weight for a long time. I have struggled through thick and, sometimes, thin, for most of my life. I have been about 100 pounds overweight, lost that on Weight Watchers, regained it (very embarrassing), and despaired about ever being able to achieve a normal weight. I was about to give up, when a post on linked to Why We Get Fat. I downloaded the book from, but didn't immediately get around to listening to it, until the 12th and 13th of February, 2011.

Taubes gave an explanation for obesity that didn't focus on me being a slothful glutton. He provided a rational that led me to believe my metabolism was broken, and that I had been lied to by the low fat, high carb establishment, including Weight Watchers. I clearly remember listening to this explanation with my jaw slack. It was something completely different than anything I had ever heard, and it put the blame on insulin rather than on my weak will and base desires. No wonder Weight Watchers failed! According to Taubes, I was starving at a cellular level! On Valentine's day, I started eating low carb and I lost 11 pounds in the first two weeks. Success! I had personal evidence that what Taubes said worked, and I was firm in the belief that I had been fat for reasons other than my weak will and abnormal appetite. Further, the low carb diet slayed my hunger demons and made it possible for me to go about the day, without obsessing on food, just as Taubes said. He had great credibility with me, and I bought and devoured Good Calories, Bad Calories and had several epiphanies reading that. Such as the whole Ancel Keys story on the demonization of saturated fat. I was hooked.

Only later did I realize that some of his ideas were not scientifically grounded, that he was a theorist, not an empiricist. I discovered alternative voices, such as Kurt Harris, Paul Jaminet, and Jenny Ruhl, all of whom viewed low carbing differently than Taubes. I have gradually changed my view of some of Taubes' ideas, but it took a long time for the halo effect to wear off. It still hasn't worn off completely, and I am grateful Taubes exposed the whole "fat is bad" line of reasoning and that he introduced me to the low carb way of eating.

To an obese person, Taubes' message resonates powerfully, even viscerally. When you experiment on what he said, you get immediate, substantial results. No wonder so many people think so highly of him.

Right or wrong, that is why he has a lot of followers and that is why he is such a big name in the low carb community.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. One comment. You write: "Taubes' message rings true if you have struggled, unsuccessfully, with weight for a long time" but also acknowledge that upon closer examination, you realize that: "some of his ideas were not scientifically grounded."

    Yeah, well me too. I totally get why he's a name, and as someone whose lost 100 lbs more than once over the decades I've been overweight, I completely understand why his message resonates with the obese.

    But his theories re carbs & insulin, as you note, are problematic and that's why I find his current posturing (for example, at AHS, which I attended) to be bordering on offensive.

    That said, if John Yudkin had been half as ornery as Taubes, Ancel Keys might not have gotten away with setting the whole lowfat public health disaster in motion.

  2. BTW, here's my much longer commentary on Taubes:

  3. Hi Beth. I agree his current posturing is offensive and his behavior at AHS was certainly bad form.

    I really liked your review of WWGF, by the way, and agree with what you said. I am not a nutritionist (my Ph.D. is in marketing) and don't always follow all of the logic in some posts in the low carb blogosphere (though I can spot poorly executed research quickly). I changed the name of my blog from inner-carnivore to low carb wisdom when some of the things Taubes said just didn't add up for me. Some of the same people who influenced you (e.g., Kurt Harris, Paul Jaminet) also influenced me and made me change the way I think about things.

    That said, some of Taubes' ideas have become so ingrained in my psyche, that I have to consciously decide to go against them. If I didn't think about what I ate, I would probably only consume 20 grams of carbs per day (mostly contained in eggs, cheese, and leafy green vegetables). It is still a constant act of will to ADD potatoes, rice, yogurt, etc., to my daily menu. I am hoping this will change in the future.

  4. Thanks Newell,I think you have summed up my thoughts on this subject exactly.

    I think of Taubes as an early physicist, of course many of the theories are false but they spur things onward. I honestly think many of us would not have discovered ancestral health approaches to diet without Taubes, and for that I personally owe him a debt. I changed my entire career from IT to clinical research because of the inspiration from his book.

    As many others, once I started reading the literature for myself, things ceased to add up so neatly and my outlook became far more nuanced.

    As regards personality, I could not care less. If that's what mattered to me well then Dr. Oz seems like a hell of a nice guy, but it doesn't make me likely to follow his advice.

    I feel a bit of spirited debate always results in everyone who hears it becoming a little wiser. I just resent how personal this has become. It's all a little high-school drama for me.

    Thanks again for your well articulated post.

  5. SamAbroad: The analogy of Taubes as an early physicist is a good one. I agree that it is too bad this has become so personal.

  6. Great post! I've had a very similar experience and over a very similar timeframe having gone paleo in march this year. For me Taubes was a gateway to taking diet and health seriously. I was nevet significantly overweight but it had crept to a point where I could no longer fool myself that my diet was more or less healthy and that I just needef a week or two of disciplined exercise to get back in shape. Truth be told Mark Sisson and Robb Wolf had a far greater impact on the implementation of my lifestyle but without reading Taubes I never would have been able to engage with these authors. Science aside he has a real gift for cutting through cynicism. I recommend him to people that are relatively healthy but could benefit from paleo such as my parents because I know they'd never sit down and read a diet book.

  7. For me, the quest was about getting back my health and feeling of well being. I was worried about insulin resistence, not losing weight (though I was 10 lbs overweight). Jenny Ruhl was the first person to help me understand that everything I thought I knew about diet and health were wrong. Her site lead me to Protein Power and that was my guidebook for figuring out how to maintain a healthier approach to eating and what it would do for me. GCBC came a bit later and took is something I will always appreciate, particular the section on cholesterol. I consider it an important mythbuster, but never got too caught up in the thinking on obesity.

    Another book that I feel is essential is 'Life without Bread', by Lutz. Peter at Hyperlipid led me there. I think Lutz and Eades were pioneers, though I love the evolved thinking that PHD brings to us.

  8. @Nick: I have read all the books you talk about, plus many more, but for me, Taubes was the first one, the gateway to low carb/paleo. Without him, I would probably be failing at Weight Watchers yet again.

    @brokebroke: thanks for the kind words. My first stab at paleo has been the Perfect Health Diet, and many would not count that as Paleo, since it advocates safe starches. I am a regular reader of Mark Sisson's site, however.

  9. Found you through a link at Jaminet's site. I'll be back.