Sunday, May 29, 2011

On Scientific Knowledge, Weight Loss, and Being Very Wrong

I have been wrong, very wrong, about diet and nutrition for my whole life. I hate being wrong.

As a critical thinker and trained research scientist with a Ph.D. in biology I feel that I should have done better. My only defense is that when one is an expert in a field, one tends to trust the opinions of experts in other fields.

I know I have the tools and ability to become an expert at many things, but it takes some serious motivation. If I was diagnosed with cancer, I would devour the literature and trust no one until I mastered it. But for everyday matters like nutrition I have always just done what I was told.

I have been blogging on and off about my weight loss efforts (roller coaster) since 2007 (read the whole mess in reverse chronological order here if you want), but the roller coaster actually started much earlier. The short version goes like this: 300-220, 270-213, 280-220, 285-225, 270-219 (current). As you can see I am really very good at losing weight, but pathetic at keeping it off.

So what is different about this time? Why do I finally think I have found the answer? Easy: I am not on a diet this time. Oh, it started out as a diet (Slow Carb from The Four Hour Body), but it has morphed into a simple and hopefully permanent lifestyle change.

The change is this: no grains and no sugar and no starchy vegetables. Or more prosaically no bird food or hippopotamus food (hippopotami eat sugar cane).

OK, that's a little over-simplified, but the whole thing really is just to minimize insulin production - eat few enough carbs (especially fructose! - no fructose that doesn't come from whole fruit!) so that you are losing or not gaining weight and stop worrying about fat intake, especially saturated fat. Other than that, eat anything in any quantity, especially meat and vegetables. But beware things that can cause insulin spikes even if they are non-caloric like artificial sweeteners.

I weigh less than I have in ages. I have more energy than I have had in ages. My teeth feel cleaner. I am less irritable and more positive. I am never hungry. I don't have to measure or record what I eat. I get to eat lots of things I love (bacon, eggs, cheese, steak, broccoli, kale, collard greens). I do miss a few things (bread, beer, sweets), but there is no formula for weight loss that doesn't require some changes/sacrifice - I should know, I've done enough of them.

So do I have my own brilliance to thank for this? Alas, no. I must give full credit to Gary Taubes who devoured the literature for me and laid out the arguments in a clear logical fashion. I can't overstate this - my entire view of nutrition, science, and even human history has been altered in the last few months as I digested these ideas and then proved them out on my own body.

A huge fraction of the conventional nutritional wisdom is wrong. Demonstrably wrong. Scientifically wrong. Gary certainly isn't the first person to espouse reducing carbs (neither was Atkins), but he lays out the history and arguments extremely well. From a scientific perspective we don't even really know that carbs are the problem (the telling experiments have not been done), but I now believe that the carbohydrate hypothesis is highly compelling and most likely true (with a fructose hypothesis as a close second - but that's another post).

Gary Taubes is a an excellent science writer who frequently writes for Science magazine, often on the topic of bad science. He has written two books and some articles on the carbohydrate hypothesis. You can see him speak here. if you are going to read just one book, it should be Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It. His other book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, is excellent, but be warned that it is dense with literature references and the like - it is very complete - doctors and scientists will likely want to read this one.

These books and the seminar are all top notch stuff. Two thumbs up. Go watch. Go read. Why We Get Fat is also available on, so you can listen too.

These are not diet books, so don't expect that. You'll have to go elsewhere for low carb diet advice (or make up your own as I did - the principles are easy).

I do not believe that a thinking person can read Why We Get Fat without changing their diet, so be warned about that as well. If you'd rather live with your head buried in the sand, stay far away.

The really scary thing is that if the carbohydrate hypothesis is correct, we are royally screwed. Only a tiny fraction of the planet can afford to eat properly and our entire global food production system is set up almost exactly wrong to address it. But that too will have to be another post.