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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Good Calories Bad Calories - Bad Science




If you thought I only blogged books I like, here's the exception. Good Calories Bad Calories is NOT a well written book. Its selectively researched, poorly organized, badly written and not much fun to read. So why bother? Some of the ideas are too important to ignore. Others too important to NOT be challenged.

If weight gain isn't America's number one health problem, it's headed there in a hurry. And it looks like there is no way to stop it. But we might slow it down if we get the right information.

So, ARE some calories better than others? Is this the magic answer? I doubt it. Gary Taubes raises some good questions, but answers few.

Section one starts with an interesting history, but is quickly followed by a mishmash of claims, studies and counter-claims - all without a clear focus. It's almost as if Taubes knew what he wanted to say, but got so carried away with Google sludge, he forgot to tell US what it was.

Other than building an unwieldy foundation of references, the most powerful ideas in this first section are his descriptions of how "science" is driven by preconception, fashion, funding and politics. This IS an important lesson, but in no way validates his premise. Or even its converse. He just explains how distorted things can get. And Why. Which is a very good point. Then he
proceeds to become his own best example.

His description of the specialist, and how they have trouble thinking outside their cubical, is useful. This is common in the engineering world and certainly a factor in medicine, biology and
nutrition.

Taubes describes selection bias nicely; then shows us how to use it. He talks about how bad science can be driven by fashion then does the very same thing in writing this book. Here's an
example...

He presents lipophilia as if it's still a valid hypothesis using the "fat-skin" graft to support the idea. Either he's being disingenuous, or he actually doesn't realize we don't increase the
NUMBER of fat cells as we gain weight - each existing cell simple scales up proportionally. This has been well extablished from observing the effects of liposuction and through other methods as well. Patients take on strange shapes if they lose or gain significant weight after the surgery.

Another recent study has verified, "The number of fat cells in a human's body, whether lean or obese, is established during the teenage years. Changes in fat mass in adulthood can be attributed mainly to changes in fat cell volume, not an increase in the actual number of fat cells."

Other research on the topic shows the body keeps the same number of fat cells for any individual, but obese people have about twice the number of fat cells as fit examples. This would indicate there IS a reason some people gain weight more easily than others, but Taubes doesn't dig into this important data. It doesn't fit with his metabolic disease theory. Instead he goes all the way back to lipophilia to make his point. This does not serve the millions honestly trying to deal with obesity.

Speaking of bad science, way too often Taubes quotes various researcher's stated conclusions from the distant past, when those people had far less information than would be available today. Would they have the same opinion? Were they valid opinions even at the time? Who knows. It doesn't matter. Opinions are only useful to guide speculative science and help define a hypothesis.

Fortunately, the book does get a little better. Once he starts explaining how all of this background matters in his quest for a cure of the disease of civilization, the pieces begin to fit together. In section two he raises (and explains) some very good points in the science of metabolism. His presentations on cholesterol, sugar and all of his "western" diseases is more readable but still a challenge. But it's hard to find conviction - almost as if he's trying too hard and presenting TOO MUCH data. Plus, once you find a few holes, he's hard to trust.

To make it worse, this is not a fun read. It's work. Taubes often slams ideas together in no meaningful order, then fails to present any conclusion. But IF you can drag yourself through it, there ARE some important ideas presented.

Taubes challening the idea that weight gain or loss is proportional to calories consumed and exercise performed is useful to think about. But he goes for a total disconnect which is naive. There IS a relationship. It's just not linear.

He also challenges many other ideas without disproving any of them. In "Paradoxes" he mostly muddies the water by challenging the definition of "overeating" as unscientific, but doesn't offer a better definition.

He then goes on to mix up and present physical, psychological and biological factors as a paradox. It's just muddled thinking, nothing more. He picks the most aberrant studies to discredit entire concepts. He does a "thought experiment" where a fat and a thin man each normally eating 3000 calories a day cut their intake in half to 1500 calories. When their weight doesn't fall proportional to their size or calorie deficit, he uses it to challenge the law of conservation of energy as invalid for humans. Again, bad science.

This classic over-simplification of a model is used to confuse the issue. What if 3000 calories was far MORE than either needed to maintain their weight? What if 1500 wasn't much less? I think it's clear that people vary widely as to the effects of cutting back. But that DOESN'T mean we can ignore how much we eat as long as it isn't carbs.

Taubes too easily dismisses exercise as a significant factor in weight loss by selecting his presentation. There are SO many poorly done "studies", you can select for almost anything. Which is another valuable point he didn't intend to make. But he does. He argues that the increase in carb consumption closely tracks our increase in weight, so it must be the cause. But our weight increase as a society also correlates with calories consumed, lack of exercise, number of fast food locations, miles driven and about a hundred other obvious factors. Here's just one recent example...

The Link Between Local Food Environments and Obesity and Diabetes.

His main point is, carbs are toxic because of the way they are metabolized - metabolic syndrome. But I'm not convinced.

I do agree that it's unlikely that all calories are created equal. They clearly have a different metabolic path to human storage or use as energy. But that in itself doesn't make some calories good, and some bad. The final answer will probably be more complex and in shades of gray.

The fattening of America IS a major problem, but mis-information won't help us solve it. And this book taken seriously would just make things worse.

Don't bother buying it.

For best of blog and other useful links...

Sudden.net

8 comments:

  1. You wrote, "Speaking of bad science, way too often Taubes quotes various researcher's stated conclusions from the distant past, when those people had far less information than would be available today. Would they have the same opinion? Were they valid opinions even at the time? Who knows? It doesn't matter."

    I feel you're being a bit flippant here. I've studied nutrition for more than 30 years. Researchers may not have had the tools to study metabolic pathways 100 years ago but they didn't need them to determine what constitutes a "proper" diet. They observed that high carbohydrate intake caused some people to gain weight while others were unaffected. This is due to variations in biochemical and physiological makeup of individuals. Carb-sensitive individuals benefited from carb restriction. That was an observed fact, not an opinion. For carb-sensitive individuals, carbohydrates are, indeed, "bad" calories.

    Your statement that "Opinions are ONLY useful to guide speculative science and help define a hypothesis" needs some clarification. I would point out that all we have is facts and opinions. A fact is always true. An opinion is an attempt to explain how the real world works so that we can make sense of what is observed.

    The validity of an opinion does not change with time, only our perception of its validity. New data either invalidates or affirms what we think we know. For example, consensus of opinion affirms that saturated fat is a health hazard. Yet data generated through research in both the distant and recent past and everywhere in between does not affirm this opinion. Why, than. is it so widely accepted? I believe it is because academic training conditions students to believe whatever is taught and most never recover from the experience.

    For more on this visit my blog at http://nutritionscienceanalyst.blogspot.com/

    David Brown
    1925 Belmar Dr
    Kalispell, MT 59901
    Ph/406-257-5123
    Nutrition Education Project

    ReplyDelete
  2. You wrote, "Speaking of bad science, way too often Taubes quotes various researcher's stated conclusions from the distant past, when those people had far less information than would be available today. Would they have the same opinion? Were they valid opinions even at the time? Who knows? It doesn't matter."

    I feel you're being a bit flippant here. I've studied nutrition for more than 30 years. Researchers may not have had the tools to study metabolic pathways 100 years ago but they didn't need them to determine what constitutes a "proper" diet. They observed that high carbohydrate intake caused some people to gain weight while others were unaffected. This is due to variations in biochemical and physiological makeup of individuals. Carb-sensitive individuals benefited from carb restriction. That was an observed fact, not an opinion. For carb-sensitive individuals, carbohydrates are, indeed, "bad" calories.

    Your statement that "Opinions are ONLY useful to guide speculative science and help define a hypothesis" needs some clarification. I would point out that all we have is facts and opinions. A fact is always true. An opinion is an attempt to explain how the real world works so that we can make sense of what is observed.

    The validity of an opinion does not change with time, only our perception of its validity. New data either invalidates or affirms what we think we know. For example, consensus of opinion affirms that saturated fat is a health hazard. Yet data generated through research in both the distant and recent past and everywhere in between does not affirm this opinion. Why, than. is it so widely accepted? I believe it is because academic training conditions students to believe whatever is taught and most never recover from the experience.

    For more on this visit my blog at http://nutritionscienceanalyst.blogspot.com/

    David Brown
    1925 Belmar Dr
    Kalispell, MT 59901
    Ph/406-257-5123
    Nutrition Education Project

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm going to have to fundamentally disagree with you, weight gain in America (or anyother country for that matter) is not a problem. If people choose to be fat then so be it, its not our responsibility to make them lose weight if it was important to them, they wouldn't be fat in the first place. If you follow the issue to its logical solution, then there are really only a few ways it can end and none of them really make a clear cut "best answer" in my opinion for example:

    1. Everyone gets fat and we find a way around it and it doesn't matter at all.

    2. The majority of the population finally takes the responsibility to lose weight.

    3. Some new epidemic comes along and most likely the thin people survive because they are healthy or the thin people die because fat people built up some sort of resistance and fat people inherit the earth.

    4. The "obesity epidemic" isn't a big deal at all since few nations besides America have the lifestyle to create it anyway and the world moves on.

    5. There is a war between fat and thin and the winners decide the future.

    In other words, it doesn't really matter because obesity is not an epidemic it is people choosing to live a poor lifestyle. The only way to "fix" it is to be like japan and make a national weight requirement otherwise you just have to except that some or most people are likely to become fat but there will be a splinter cell that won't. Seriously though how do you do it without making tons of different foods illegal? Making things illeagal seems to be the only way government knows how to repair things.

    ReplyDelete
  4. > I feel you're being a bit flippant here.

    Nope. I'm serious.

    > they didn't need them to determine what
    > constitutes a "proper" diet.

    Really? And which "proper" diet would that be? The government's? Primal? Organic? In a party of 20 people, you'll get 30 answers to that one. Try it.

    Western society is now so wealthy, we have the luxury of eating in a million weird ways. The biggest problem is how MUCH we eat - proper or not.

    > They observed that high carbohydrate intake

    Which is exactly the problem in this book. Casual "observation" is worse than useless. It's BAD science.

    Good science comes from controlled double-blind studies or complete data from VERY large populations.

    > This is due to variations in biochemical and physiological

    I agree we're different from one another and different calories probably DO have differing affects and effects, but working those differences just distracts us from the REAL problem - 3800 calories per day for the AVERAGE American.

    > A fact is always true.

    Nope. Just some more probably than others. Even math is not perfect. And facts DO change with over time. Be careful of such rigid thinking.

    "THIS is the only absolute".

    > consensus of opinion affirms that saturated fat is a health hazard.

    We agree. That doesn't make it true.

    > Why, than. is it so widely accepted?

    Fashion.

    Which is one of the few important ideas in this book.

    JMHO

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Rod

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anony,

    You confuse food with politics.

    Virtually, no one CHOOSES to be fat. But if they did, they should be free to express it. So we agree on the politics.

    Now as to that choice thing.

    Unfortunately, humans are not very logical. Spock (the one from StarTrek) was right. We are primal beings and our logic and choice is largely an illusion. How else can you explain all the illogical "choices" people make?

    The truth is, most of our behavior (yours included) does not rise to the level of deliberation. We form habits which are largely driven by primal motive in our environment. The environment is a big part of the problem. There's too much food in our cage.

    The key to choice then is to find tools that allow us to express any higher conviction we may have. That's what diets and discipline are all about. That's why this topic is so important.

    Rod

    ReplyDelete
  6. Rod,

    You said, "Good science comes from controlled double-blind studies or complete data from VERY large populations."

    The problem with this kind of "good science" is that it cannot produce the sort of knowledge the individual needs to make wise food choices. I suggest you read Biochemical Individuality by Roger J, Williams. OK, so it was written more than 30 years ago. The thing is, truth does not change over time, only our perception of what is true. And I have to insist that a fact is always true. From Wikipedia: "Fact is also synonymous with truth or reality, as distinguishable from conclusions or opinions."

    You said, "Casual observation is worse than useless. It's BAD science."

    Are you assuming that all the old experimental research and clinical experience I've been reading about these past 30 years consists of "casual" observation? You assume too much. Try reading "Food for Nought" by Ross Hume Hall, PhD and "Nutrition Against Disease" by Roger J. Williams, PhD. These two biochemists employ a lot more than casual observation. I get the impression you're not familiar with the nutritional scientific literature of the past.

    Dave

    ReplyDelete
  7. > The problem with this kind of
    > "good science" is that it cannot
    > produce the sort of knowledge
    > the individual needs to make
    > wise food choices.

    Then the food choices being made are not really wise. Less than good science will produce random, or worse, bad results.

    > I suggest you read Biochemical
    > Individuality

    I accept that humans can vary greatly, but before we customize, we first have to understand the general case.

    > The thing is, truth does not
    > change over time

    Really? Ever heard of Einstein and what he did to the "truth" of physics? The same thing happens thousands of times a day in small specialized ways. To hold truths to be absolute is naive.

    > And I have to insist that a
    > fact is always true.

    I leave this for others at which to marvel.

    > From Wikipedia: "Fact is also
    > synonymous with truth

    Which is also relative and changing.

    > I get the impression you're not
    > familiar with the nutritional
    > scientific literature

    True. But that doesn't change the "fact" that small clinical samples are little better than anecdotal evidence, which has a VERY poor record as far as science is concerned.

    Better go read some more of that history. Just don't bother with Good Calories Bad Calories.

    ReplyDelete
  8. If you're looking for a good book on weight loss and right eating that is based in good science, I can highly recommend Pamela McDonald's The APO E Gene Diet. McDonald has created a true integrative approach to eating that is based on an individual's genetic makeup rather than a one-size-fits-all diet theory.

    ReplyDelete