What makes people fat? Is red meat unhealthy? Will a diet low in saturated fat reduce your risk for heart diseases? It’s fair to say that most of us have grown accustomed to the conventional wisdom that is often used to answer these questions, i.e., being lazy makes people fat, red meat is unhealthy, and, of course, a diet low in saturated fat is better for you than one high in saturated fat. Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, asks us to consider one more question though: have any of these claims been verified through rigorous science or are they merely the pet views of certain individuals?
When it comes to health and diet, everything you think you know may in fact be wrong. In the book, Taubes rigorously analyzes the mounds of scientific literature on the subject and he claims the following: “I had no idea that I would find the quality of research on nutrition, obesity, and chronic disease to be so inadequate; that so much conventional wisdom would be founded on so little substantial evidence; and that, once it was, the researchers and the public-health authorities who funded the research would no longer see any reason to challenge this conventional wisdom and so test its validity.”
After reading this book, there is no doubt in my mind that the dietary advice we’ve been given for the last three decades by the federal government has been based on shaky science and that is has been harmful to our collective health. I think it would be fair to say that those who demonized saturated fat owe us an apology. Taubes convincingly shows that much of what is believed about nutrition and health is based on political agendas coupled with only the flimsiest of “science”.
Taubes reminds readers that the human body is complex and it’s very tempting to oversimplify it, especially in field of science. When studying complex systems, it’s also very easy to confuse cause and effect. Taubes demonstrates this point by asking the following question: do we overeat because we are fat or are we fat because we overeat? It’s important to note that the answer to this question is not trivial; the causality is quite different in each case. In case you’re wondering, he believes that former answer is correct.
So what, then, constitutes a healthy diet? Like Taubes, I trust Mother Nature much more than I do the federal government or nutritionists. Most humans have been eating saturated fat and meat for a long time. I am, however, weary of any dietary zealots who claim to know with certainty that their way of eating is superior. In my opinion, people have evolved different levels of tolerance for different things. Processed foods, however, are very new in the evolutionary picture, so I think you can’t go wrong with the advice to focus on eating real food, even if it’s mostly meat.