What I Learned From Gary Taubes

If you’ve been reading PP for awhile, you probably know that Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat was my gateway to adopting the Paleo/Primal lifestyle. (See here for more on my intellectual journey.)

And then the first annual Ancestral Health Symposium happened in August 2011, and the big news to come out of that gathering was the kerfuffle between Taubes and Stephan Guyenet (see here for more on that). The two have been trading blog barbs ever since. This incident also brought out some vocal Taubes critics who are upset that he vilifies the entire category of carbohydrates. From what I can tell, and correct me if I’m wrong, this criticism seems to stem from the fact that many hunter-gatherer groups around the world have survived, if not thrived, on a diet higher in carbs. The Kitavans are often the example given to support that idea. Their diet is around 60% carbohydrates mostly from root vegetables like sweet potatoes and fruit like guava. Also, some seem to take issue with Taubes’s theory that insulin is the main driver of body fat. He admits that his stance is a hypothesis. He also admits that it’s a hypothesis he is fairly certain is true, but, in his words: “We can never say anything for certain in science until it has survived rigorous tests, particularly when we’re challenging accepted beliefs.”

I’m not versed enough in the science and research to parse the differences between Taubes’s insulin theory and Guyenet’s food reward theory. But I feel like a lot of baby gets thrown out with the bathwater when people dismiss Taubes wholesale. I learned many valuable things from his work that get lost in the shuffle.

  • Exercise won’t save you. This was such an important lesson for me. I was running, swimming, yogaing, hiking, biking, you-name-it-ing. Anywhere from 3-5 times a week for an hour or more. And yet I would still add a pound a year. It got to the point where it just wasn’t fun anymore. I remember, sometime in early January this year, thinking to myself that I had to step it up. It was time to get serious, buckle down, be strict. And then I cried. How could I possibly do more than I was doing? About 10 days later, we went Primal and the rest is history. So is the weight, my worries, and lots of wasted time on the treadmill. I get misty-eyed when friends talk about their frustration with their weight and how much exercise they do for such little pay-off, because that was me not that long ago. It’s hard to explain to them how simple it is and that their efforts just. Won’t. Work. Once your body has hit that brick wall, there’s nothing else to do but change your life.
  • It’s not your fault. Or my fault. Or his and her faults. Let’s all take a big deep breath and forgive ourselves for falling victim to a dominant paradigm and a bizarre cultural moment in our human history. Folks, the fact that we can eat a small, crunchy square of genetically-modified wheat any time, anywhere we please is an extreme aberration. It’s downright weird. Someone decided that said square was a good idea. Probably someone who stands to profit. But our guts, thighs, joints, skin, brains, and well-being disagree. Sadly, as we all know, the rest of the world hasn’t yet heard the word. If you poll your relatives, probably a good 95% will admit they think you’ve lost your marbles, and the other 5% are being nice because they love you. I’m not going to mince words—this world is loud and full of shit. You owe it no favors. Let’s all congratulate ourselves for saving ourselves.
  • Fat is not the devil. This may end up being Taubes’s claim to fame, and it’s not a bad one. I can’t measure the relief I feel at not having to worry about the fat on my ribeye or feel guilty about the saturated fat content in coconut oil. Veggies bathed in pastured butter are a thing of delectable beauty. I will take reveling in fats over stuffing myself with pancakes and pasta any day.
  • Also, exercise makes you hungry. How did we forget this? We even have a cliché for it: “Working up an appetite.” Now I try to remember to eat some good healthy fatty something-or-other after a workout, else face the wrath of my rumbly tummy.

And I think there are two valuable things to be learned from Taubes vs. Guyenet 2011:

  1. Science involves vigorous debate. The incident that occurred at AHS 2011 is not unusual. I read somewhere that the main problem was that AHS allowed academics to mix with laypeople, whereas when you have a conference catering to one or the other, the expectations are similar because everyone knows the rules. Ultimately, debate and disagreement are good things that drive progress. If there was nothing new to learn in the Paleosphere, I doubt many of us would remain interested in it for much longer.
  2. It pays to be humble. We should all remember that we don’t have all the answers, that we know far less than we don’t know. Knowledge about the human body is constantly in flux, for better or for worse. Maybe everyone is right, and maybe nobody is. How we decide who to listen to and why are highly personal decisions informed by the 4.26 trillion experiences and choices we’ve made, plus the interplay of our genetic foundation and brain wiring. That being said, I don’t believe there are “many ways to be healthy.” I believe that everyone has reasons for choosing their path, but I don’t believe that they all lead to optimal health. It’s admittedly hard to be humble about that.

I’m not one who seeks gurus. I’ve avoided them, in all their forms, most of my life. But I hold Gary Taubes in high esteem for pointing the way and enduring a lot of abuse to do so (re: his Dr. Oz appearances). Nothing he said made me think I shouldn’t eat sweet potatoes, but everything he did say made perfect, practical sense without losing me in dry statistics or foo-foo magical potions. So even if his insulin theory is flawed somehow, I can forgive him. He knows the message is too important to let it get bogged down in rhetoric. And thank goodness.

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16 Responses to “What I Learned From Gary Taubes”

  1. Hi Karen,

    Really enjoy your blog and just wanted to say hi. I started Paleo about 3 weeks ago and loving it. Now that I am far enough into it I am doing research to really understand it, as well as, come up with interesting recipes. The later part is how I stumbled onto your blog a few days ago for the Curried Cauliflower Sausage Soup. Just ordered some great meat from U.S. Wellness and will be making it soon. Looks delicious.

    Quick question for you, well more of a request. Can you elaborate on the exercise part in the 1st bullet above? I’ve been talking with friends about my new Paleo lifestyle who are big into exercise (3-4 times a week hour plus running on treadmill, etc. which I have never enjoyed). Once eating the right way on Paleo, what do you do for exercise? From what I am reading it is good to do a little bit each day but more about quick heart rate boosts / short workouts and less about running for an hour plus. Can you give some details on types of workouts, how long, how often, etc. or point me to a great online resource you recommend that answers this part of it? As a side note, I really enjoy cycling and do that about 2x/week so not giving that up.

    Just sent this link to a few friends who are considering Paleo and would love if you could address that as its the one question that keeps on coming up. Thanks for all that you do!

    • Hi Jay! Thanks for stopping by.

      There are many fabulous resources out there for exercise that is in line with your new lifestyle. The Primal Blueprint (be sure to check out marksdailyapple.com if you haven’t already), Al Kavadlo at alkavadlo.com, wildmovement.com, movnat.com, thefitnessexplorer.com.

      Yes, the general idea is to not continue the habit of chronic cardio. Some people continue because they enjoy it (and probably because they have a certain type of genetic wiring). But for many of us, we’d been told that running 5 miles a day was the only way to rid ourselves of body fat, and that’s simply not true and is quite damaging, both physically and psychically.

      Some heavy lifting, some sprints, long walks/hiking. This is the gist of it. Many people find and fall in love with CrossFit. I do playground workouts for functional fitness (pull-ups, push-ups, etc.), I have a couple of posts on that in the archives. I occasionally run for 3-4 miles on trail, but no more than that and not very frequently. I love yoga. It’s basically lots of bodyweight exercise in motion.

      I think once you make the dietary switch, your body will tell you what it wants and needs. Long stretches of cardio just aren’t comfortable or fun to me anymore, so why bother? I’m so grateful to have had my life given back to me.

      If you have a chance, let me know what your thoughts are. What do you plan on changing and how? And welcome to the good life. :)

  2. Super post! Thanks. I don’t know if Taubes is right, but he’s certainly right for me, and I have no qualms about recommending him to anyone. We only have one life, and my biggest regret is that I wasn’t aware of primal/paleo allot sooner.

    Regards,
    David

    • Couldn’t have said it better, thanks David.

      When the controversy first came out, I felt like, “Why does it matter what the mechanism is as long as it works?” For my purposes, it just doesn’t matter why, just that it did the trick. BUT. I know a few people who aren’t losing much weight with this way of eating, and their issues are more complex, so ultimately it is important to look for answers. So I see both sides.

      I know that Chris Kresser’s concern is that he has seen people who go too low carb for too long and develop some issues. But for me, that wasn’t the message I got from Taubes. His advice didn’t make me vilify carbohydrates as a class of nutrients, just all the processed, refined stuff.

      The other thing I think helps save Taubes is that he seems uncomfortable prescribing any specific way to go about applying these principles. I haven’t seen him publicly declare an allegiance to any particular dietary regimen or philosophy. It sounds like he follows a Paleo-ish template, but I’ve never heard him call it Paleo. He’s not trying to be a diet guru and sell you supplements or anything. I think he’s genuinely interested in the truth.

    • I definitely agree – if only I had known sooner. It would have changed my life to know how to eat well as a teen, but I had to wait what seemed like a long time to learn.

  3. Great post! This is what I took away from Why We Get Fat also. Like you said to David I really love that Gary is not out there trying to sell something or get you to follow a certain way of eating. He’s out there sharing what he’s finding. What I’m learning through my journey to health and fitness is that there is not one way to do it, but it seems that there are some basic things that if followed it will work for most people. These basic things seem to be what Gary has discovered and is reporting about.

    Also thanks for the kick in the butt. I’m going to continuing my Whole30.

  4. Taubes was my gateway into Paleo as well. It has been an interesting year to say the least. My knowledge and understanding has grown and changed tremendously. I still prescribe, as I know many of us do to the n=1 type model to test some of this stuff out. In my mind I always hear Robb Wolf’s voice saying. “See how you look, feel, and perform” and that has kind of be been my mantra as I have worked my way through this thing. I really appreciate your thoughtful post and sign me up as someone who has learned a lot of successfull ideas from Taubes.

  5. Team Taubes all the way!!! I am currently reading his book, “Why We Get Fat”, and can’t believe it’s taken me this long to find the truth. My family is a long line of hard working, do it yourself, NOT LAZY, very fat people. Why? Sugar/carbs. It’s as simple as that. Obviously, our carbohydrate metabolism is BROKEN! Discovering the Paleo/Primal lifestyle earlier this year has been an amazing turnaround in me and my husband’s personal health and we will never go back to the SAD.

    • Yay, Patti!

      I totally know what you mean about your family. Once I understood that part of things, I got so angry at the whole system for telling us it was our fault: food companies, doctors, diet/fitness gurus.

      I quibble with one thing you said. Our carb metabolism ain’t broken. Our food system is. :)

  6. I’ll second that!

  7. amen! Great post Karen! I am so glad you have time to do these, because I enjoy reading them.
    xoxo

  8. YOU SAID:
    “Folks, the fact that we can eat a small, crunchy square of genetically-modified wheat any time, anywhere we please is an extreme aberration. It’s downright weird.”

    Oh, but we don’t need to avoid all that junk from BigFood, because BigPharma labs have an endless supply of magic chemicals to hide the symptoms of bad eating.

    And when the drugs damage our bodies, they have more drugs for that.

    And when those drugs destroy our livers and kidneys, there are always dialysis machines and organ transplants.

    It’s downright unpatriotic to eat right, because then all the drug and surgery and medical device industries would collapse.

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