How to Make Sense of the Science of Obesity, Diabetes and Diet
The Diet Delusion reviews the research into obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases of the modern world - the results make uncomfortable reading.
The Diet Delusion sets out to review the published research in the field of nutrition and weight management and explores the perceived wisdom of why there is an obesity and diabetes epidemic in much of the developed world, especially in the USA.
It is not a book for the person simply seeking dieting advice - it has no easy answers. It is highly critical of the simplification of guidance by health professionals which then becomes dogma and defies the complete picture by ignoring evidence.
Readable, Sceptical and Well-Argued
It is a readable book and although Gary Taube is not a scientist, he is a journalist with science training; his scientific analysis seems more robust than that of many of the leading “experts” in the field. The Diet Delusion is as well-researched and scholarly as many papers on the subject but is much more readable and accessible to the intelligent lay reader. That said those readers who have a scientific background or interest will find it easier to follow but they may well be angered by the lack of scientific rigour in much of the research that supposedly underpins public health advice on diet.
The Fat –Cholesterol Hypothesis
The book first addresses the hypothesis that it is the high-fat diet in the modern world that has led to the rise in heart disease, obesity and diabetes. It covers the research in this respect at great length and highlights the failings and weaknesses of the case that controlling cholesterol (or other measures of fat in the blood) through a low-fat diet is the sole answer to heart-disease.
As becomes a repeating theme throughout the book is that eminent researchers accept a hypothesis and then build a reputation and career on the back of it without ever properly testing their assumption. Any evidence that contradicts their belief is ignored, denigrated, or even used selectively to support their case.
As Taube makes clear throughout The Diet Delusion the scientific method requires that any hypothesis should be rigorously tested and evidence sought to prove the hypothesis invalid. Unfortunately the research into diet, nutrition and chronic diseases of the modern world has often not been designed in that way. When it has the results have often been dismissed.
The Carbohydrate Hypothesis
The Diet Delusion moves on to explore the work around low and high carbohydrate diets and quickly demonstrates that the metabolic processes of fat retention and weight gain are driven by carbohydrate, especially simple, refined carbohydrates. The availability of these foods aligns historically with the onset of problems of obesity, heart-disease, diabetes and cancer.
The contention is that such foods unbalance the body’s own control mechanisms and thereby cause the chronic conditions that are associated with modern diets. The mechanisms are described in detail and make good sense.
Gary Taubes makes the point that the poor state of nutritional and related science is not helped by the narrow specialisms of the researchers in these fields. As a consequence researchers do not have a view across all aspects of diseases, biochemistry, nutrition and other relevant specialist research and so latch on to the approach that fits with their specialism.
The author shows that there has been evidence for a century or more that low-carbohydrate diets are more effective for weight control than the currently favoured high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets. Indeed such diets are even effective with higher calorie intakes and there is considerable empirical evidence to support their efficacy.
Obesity, Diabetes and Insulin’s Role in Management of Weight
It would seem that high-carbohydrate diets lead to excess insulin production which inhibits the burning of fat as fuel and creates increased fat retention and weight gain.
Indeed Dr Atkins’ diet is vindicated by this work and of course he had considerable evidence for its success from his own practice. Unfortunately he was not a member of the “club” and was ridiculed and his professional integrity challenged – a constant refrain in The Diet Delusion.
The low-fat, high--carbohydrate diets, even when calorie-restricted, cause weight to be gained and cause hunger which makes them difficult for long-term use. That is not the case with the low-carbohydrate diets which are intrinsically more satisfying. The Diet Delusion also explains why the psychological causes of obesity are largely unfounded and only serve to be unwarranted slurs of laziness and over-eating on the over-weight.
Public Health and Dubious Science
The Diet Delusion is not yet another guide to dieting but rather a damning indictment of the “professionals” and public health organisations who advise on nutrition, diet and health. This book should be read by anyone involved in giving such advice from slimming clubs to public health officials and politicians.
It is said that public health advice should "probably" be beneficial. In this area it would seem that dubious science, poor research and professional and political blindness may actually have given advice and treatment that may be harmful.
As Taubes says in The Epilogue to The Diet Delusion: “The result is an enormous enterprise ... dedicated in practice to convincing everyone involved, and the lay public, most of all, that the answers are already known and always have been – an enterprise , in other words, that purports to be a science and yet functions like a religion.”
The Diet Delusion should turn out to be seminal book that ranks with Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed as an exposé of an industry. The Diet Delusion should leave the reader angry at how the public has been constantly misled and even mistreated.
The Diet Delusion (ISBN: 978-0-09-192428-7) by Gary Taubes is published in paperback by Vermilion at £12.99.
In Taking the Medicine Druin Burch sets out a similar case against medicine more generally, especially with regard to the use of drug based treatments.
First appeared on Suite101