SCIENCE WRITER GARY Taubes has a knack for subverting conventional wisdom. Sixteen years ago, he published a groundbreaking feature article in The New York Times Magazine arguing that decades' worth of government-approved nutritional advice was flat-out wrong, ideologically motivated, and contributing to rising rates of obesity and diabetes. Traditional dieting guidance attacking fatty foods and praising carbohydrates, he wrote, was based on "a big fat lie."
Back then, Taubes was excoriated. (Reason published pieces both attacking and defending him.) But today his thesis is gaining ground among health and nutrition researchers. His work has been highlighted everywhere from The New York Times to Time magazine. Protein-rich regimens have taken off after millions of Americans found that stocking their pantries with supposedly "heart-healthy" snacks such as granola bars and fruit juice failed to improve wellness.
Taubes' latest book on the subject is The Case Against Sugar (Knopf), which describes the sweet stuff as a toxic substance akin to cigarettes that can and does kill. "Something's triggering the epidemic everywhere, and it's probably the same thing everywhere," he says. The ingredient "at the scene of the crime"--one that's stealthily packed into even our diet foods, and one we've been consuming in ever-increasing doses over time, he argues--is sugar.
In January, Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Taubes in his kitchen in Oakland, California, to talk about food, science, and the politics of both.
Reason: Your book is framed as a kind of prosecutorial case, meant to convict sugar as the chief cause of many of our society's health problems: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, other chronic illnesses. Can you lay out the opening argument?
Gary Taubes: It's meant to indict, but I'm not sure I could get a conviction.
We have obesity and diabetes epidemics everywhere. Worldwide, they manifest whenever a population shifts from whatever their traditional diet is to a Westernized urban diet, and so you could think of the Western diet and lifestyle as the vector that carries obesity and diabetes into these populations.
Describe the "Western diet." Is it processed foods?
Pizza Rolls, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, Coca-Cola--
So the things we live for are the things that are killing us?
Something in our diet and lifestyle causes obesity and diabetes. Conventional wisdom is it's basically caloric overload. We eat too much and we're sedentary. Too many foods are available. They're packaged in a way that makes them irresistible. They have too much salt, fat, sugar. There's a whole host of theories around that idea, but ultimately it comes down to [the fact that] we take in more calories than we expend, and that causes obesity. Obesity increases your risk of Type 2 diabetes. Both those increase your risk of heart disease, cerebral vascular disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer's, you name it--every major chronic disease.
We see these chronic diseases appearing in populations when they make this nutritional shift, so the question is what is causing it? The argument I make in this book is that sugar has always been the prime suspect.
You say it's always been a prime suspect, but at least in the past 40 or 50 years, we've been told, "Don't worry about sugar. Worry about fat, worry about meat."
That's key to the story, and that's how I entered into it as an investigative journalist. We had this belief system that began as a hypothesis in the 1950s and started to be tested in the 1960s, which is that dietary fat causes heart disease. So by the 1980s, a "healthy" diet was being defined as a low-fat, low-salt diet.
And this explains SnackWell's fat-free cookies and things like that.
A whole genre of food. One of the things that happened in the '80s, when we embraced this low-fat healthy diet synchronicity, is the government, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], started telling industry to produce low-fat foods. So the iconic example is yogurt, a high-fat food by definition. You remove some of the fat and now you have this insipid, watered-down, tasteless thing. To make it taste good, you put back fruit and sugar, and now you've got a "heart-healthy diet food."
Did the shift from a more balanced diet to a low-fat, high-sugar diet achieve the goals that were predicted for it?
You could look at heart disease mortality, and it's come down. The nutrition community says, "Look, people aren't dying from heart disease as much. Therefore, our advice is right." And then people like me say, "Yeah, but we're not interested in mortality, 'cause we're also selling billions of dollars in statins every year and billions of dollars in blood pressure drugs. We're doing hundreds of thousands of heart surgeries a...