Previously: Mainstream Nutrition Science on Obesity, Atkins Redux
Here's where I start talking about the thing that initially drove me to write this post series: Taubes' repeated misrepresentation of the views of the mainstream nutrition authorities he attacks. I'll start by going back to Taubes' 2002 article. Immediately after the discussion of Atkins, it contains another set of claims that stood out to me as a huge red flag:
Thirty years later, America has become weirdly polarized on the subject of weight. On the one hand, we've been told with almost religious certainty by everyone from the surgeon general on down, and we have come to believe with almost religious certainty, that obesity is caused by the excessive consumption of fat, and that if we eat less fat we will lose weight and live longer. On the other, we have the ever-resilient message of Atkins and decades' worth of best-selling diet books, including ''The Zone,'' ''Sugar Busters'' and ''Protein Power'' to name a few. All push some variation of what scientists would call the alternative hypothesis: it's not the fat that makes us fat, but the carbohydrates, and if we eat less carbohydrates we will lose weight and live longer.
The perversity of this alternative hypothesis is that it identifies the cause of obesity as precisely those refined carbohydrates at the base of the famous Food Guide Pyramid -- the pasta, rice and bread -- that we are told should be the staple of our healthy low-fat diet, and then on the sugar or corn syrup in the soft drinks, fruit juices and sports drinks that we have taken to consuming in quantity if for no other reason than that they are fat free and so appear intrinsically healthy. While the low-fat-is-good-health dogma represents reality as we have come to know it, and the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research trying to prove its worth, the low-carbohydrate message has been relegated to the realm of unscientific fantasy.
I'll start with the obvious: We thought sugary soft drinks were intrinsically healthy? To quote an old joke, who do you mean we, kemosabe? Given widespread scientific illiteracy, I wouldn't be surprised if some people have believed that low-fat is a sufficient condition for being healthy, but if so, they didn't get this idea from mainstream nutrition science.
Taubes makes it sound the mainstream view and the view Atkins pushed are mirror images of each other: on the one hand, "everyone from the surgeon general on down" told us "if we eat less fat we will lose weight and live longer." On the other hand, Atkins et al. told us "if we eat less carbohydrates we will lose weight and live longer."
This rhetoric ignores a crucial distinction: as I showed in my previous post, Atkins really did claim eating less carbs was a sufficient condition for weight loss, and that no amount of fat could possibly make us fat. Mainstream nutrition experts, on the other hand, did argue low fat diets were better for us, all else being equal. But they never, so far as I've been able to find, claimed a low-fat diet was a sufficient condition for losing weight, or that no amount of sugar could possibly make make us fat.
Taubes seems unaware of this—or else he chooses to hide it from his readers. In Good Calories, Bad Calories (p. 342), for example, he attempts to rebut the suggestion that low-carb diets are really low-calorie diets in disguise that this idea "seems to contradict the underlying principle of low-fat diets for weight control and the notion that we get obese because we overeat on the dense calories of fat in our diets." This response would only make sense if mainstream nutrition scientists were saying eating less fat is the be-all, end-all of weight loss.
In these initial paragraphs, Taubes only cites one source for what mainstream nutrition experts were supposedly telling us: the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. This is an unfortunate choice, because as anyone who's actually seen the chart knows, sweets get put right up at the top with fats and oils under the "use sparingly" category. At this point in the article, I wonder how anyone reading it could avoid suspecting something was. (The same goes for the references to the Food Pyramid in Taubes' books on nutrition, both of which quote the "use sparingly" recommendation in regard to fats and oils, while carefully omitting the fact that it said the same thing about sweets.)
But then again, the Food Pyramid was first published the year I entered kindergarten, so I'm at exactly the right age to have had it drilled into my head hard in school. And maybe mainstream nutrition messaging was much crazier in the 70's and 80's. So what about the other sources Taubes cites as supposedly showing mainstream nutritionists giving giving us terrible advice about fat vs. sugar?
Farther down in the article, Taubes talks about how the debate over the 1977 Senate committee report "Dietary Goals for the United States" supposedly tried to settle the debate over what Taubes calls the "low-fat-is-good-health dogma" with politics rather than science. Yet a quick look at the report reveals it's statements to the effect that fat is dangerous and we should eat less of it are consistently paired with parallel statements about sugar, including a recommendation to cut our sugar intake by 40 percent. Instead, the report recommends, we should be eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Okay, what about the sources Taubes cites in his books? Three important ones are summarized in the chapter on sugar in Good Calories, Bad Calories:
In 1986, the FDA exonerated sugar of any nutritional crimes on the basis that "no conclusive evidence demonstrates a hazard." The two-hundred-page report constituted a review of hundreds of articles on the health aspects of sugar, many of which reported that sugar had a range of potentially adverse metabolic effects related to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. The FDA interpreted the evidence as inconclusive. Health reporters, the sugar industry, and public-health authorities therefore perceived the FDA report as absolving sugar of having any deleterious effects on our health.
The identical message was passed along in the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health and the 1989 National Academy of Sciences Diet and Health report.
Let's start with the FDA report. If you read the executive summary (which I obtained thanks to a generous individual on r/scholar), a couple things stand out. They continually emphasize that they were interested in whether sugar was harmful at current levels (i.e. in 1986, more than 25 years ago), and whether sugar had a unique role in the cause of obesity. There's nothing to suggest that increasing our sugar consumption (which we in fact did, along with increasing our intake of calories in general) would be harmless.
The 1988 Surgeon General's report is even less impressive as an example of supposed official sanction for sugar consumption. The summary of recommendations (p. 3) recommends that people "Reduce consumption of fat (especially saturated fat) and cholesterol," but recommends replacing high-fat foods not with just any carbohydrates, but with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. It also recommends, on the subject of weight control, that people "limit consumption of foods relatively high in calories, fats, and sugars, and to minimize alcohol consumption." Similarly, the 1989 National Academy of Sciences Diet and Health report (p. 18) explicitly recommends replacing fat with whole grains rather than food and drinks containing added sugars.
One other example bears mentioning. In Why We Get Fat, Taubes claims:
[Low-fat] logic may have reached the pinnacle of absurdity in 1995 (at least I hope it did), when the American Heart Association published a pamphlet suggesting that we can eat virtually anything with impunity—even candy and sugar—as long as it's low in fat: "To control the amount and kind of fat, saturated fatty acids and dietary cholesterol you eat," the AHA counseled, "choose snacks from other food groups such as... low-fat cookies, low-fat crackers... unsalted pretzels, hard candy, gum drops, sugar, syrup, honey, jam, jelly, marmalade (as spreads)." (p. 162)
The pamphlet Taubes is referring to can be found here. The two halves of the above "quote" ("To control the amount and kind of fat, saturated fatty acids and dietary cholesterol you eat" and the second part that begins "chose snacks from other food groups...") are separated by a dozen pages of boringly mainstream advice which closely resembles that of the Food Guide Pyramid: no more than 6 ounces of lean meat per day; 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day; 2 or more servings of dairy; and 6 or more servings of bread, cereals, pasta, and starchy vegetables.
The part that Taubes ridicules about low-fat cookies and so on comes from a section on snacks that doesn't come with a recommended number of daily servings. I suppose if you read the AHA pamphlet knowing nothing else about nutrition, you could take that as a sign that the listed snacks are wonderfully healthy and you should eat as much of them as you like. But anyone familiar with the standard nutrition advice of the time would understand that the intended meaning is "if you snack, choose the low-fat options"—not that you should necessarily be snacking much at all. That may or may not have been good advice, but it's not nearly so absurd as Taubes makes it out to be.
It's possible there's room here to criticize not the underlying science, but the science communication; not what the official reports and said, but how well that information was conveyed to the general public, few of whom are likely to have read the original reports carefully. If a significant number of people really did believe eating less fat was all they needed to do to lose weight and that Coca-Cola is "intrinsically healthy" (as Taubes claims "we" believed), we'd have an example of a serious failure of science communication.
Any such criticisms of science communication side of things would need to be tempered with recognition that science communication is really freaking hard. If you haven't seen the amount of hand-wringing that's gone on in the science and skepticism blogosphere over how to do science communication better, trust me: scientists have thought a lot about this stuff, and it's not obvious what the solutions are. Yet if bad science communication were really, say, a major contributing factor in the obesity epidemic, it would underline the need for scientists to do their absolute best in communicating with the general public.
But a failure of science communication isn't how Taubes frames his attack on mainstream nutrition authorities, nor is it the message most people seem to take away from reading his work. Taubes' irresponsible rhetoric doesn't help the problem of bad science communication—it adds to it.
Next: What Causes Obesity?
Taubes' concern as I remember it was that mainstream nutrition was trying to get people to eat less fat at the same time they were trying to get people to eat less meat (ie protein). Since people generally eat a constant number of calories a day and since calories come from fat, protein, or carbohydrates, effectively mainstream nutrition was telling people to eat more carbohydrates. This was accurately reflected in the food pyramid where carbohydrates form the base and are most strongly encouraged, and in guidelines that say diets should be 55–75% carbohydrate.
Your statements here sound pretty damning, but in the gestalt impression I remember from his book, I don't remember Taubes pushing a claim that the government/mainstream was pro-sugar so much as a claim that the government/mainstream was pro-carbohydrate. This is both much more plausible, and totally sufficient to form a foil to Taubes' carbohydrates-are-bad theory. The sugar angle seems like kind of a distraction here.
Here I think you genuinely disagree with Taubes, who believes that people have a caloric set point of sorts and that they are never going to actually decrease the calories they take in, especially if they're not really trying to do so and just pursuing a separate goal like "cut down on fat".
So, an old article this series is reminding me of is Beware of Stephen J. Gould. The claim there is that Gould misrepresents the state of the field, so that he can present himself as the hero triumphantly saving the day with his bold new theory, and that none of the experts in the field take him seriously. I don't think that's true of Taubes; I think the "field" is too broad to make narrow claims about consensus, and I get the impression that the best people in nutrition take Taubes seriously, even if they disagree.
I think that Taubes is right that the man in the street gets nutrition wrong, and I suspect further than many professionals who give nutritional advice (such as doctors) do no better than the man in the street. I suspect that Taubes's theory of obesity is incorrect, relying heavily on sources like this (which I've linked before) and this (which I've also linked before). But it's not clear to me that either of those represent the expert consensus in nutrition, and the overarching meta-point of "trust the expert consensus" seems suspect to me still, since the man in the street is unlikely to be good at estimating the expert consensus.
This post, like the others in this series, seems much more appropriate for the Discussion section.
Huh? These seem clearly like "Main" posts, going by the wiki's definition. These posts are extensively cited, and not just posting a link or offering an opportunity for brainstorming:
I worry the definition of what counts as suitable for "Main" has gotten ratcheted up over time so that now hardly anything counts as suitable for Main. Which is probably why hardly anyone posts there anymore. See this discussion, especially Yvain's comment and John Maxwell's commen... (read more)
Whenever a non-meta post stays under 5, I always feel free to move it to Discussion, especially if an upvoted comment has also suggested it. I don't always, but often do.
This is applying a standard that would have gotten much of Eliezer's original sequences kicked over to discussion had the distinction existed at the time.
In fact, if you read the old comments on those posts, you can find examples of people questioning whether they fit the subject matter of Overcoming Bias.
Is this series any less fit for LessWrong than a series on quantum physics? Or scientific self-help (which Luke has done)?
There's also the fact that main motivation for this post series was to help address the question of how far we can trust mainstream scientific consensus. Indeed, in large part it's a response to a claim made by Eliezer in "The Correct Contrarian Cluster."
I agree with you that LW is sometimes too harsh, and that encouraging good content should be emphasized, and discouraging bad content perhaps de-emphasized. But I agree with katydee that this particular sequence seems inappropriate to all be in main. As written, the series seems to be about nutrition, with one (possibly two) rationality points as subtext. I get that impression primarily because each post is about a fairly short nutrition point- of the two meat posts so far, one has been about Atkins, and another about sugar.
If, instead of an n-post series arguing against Taubes on the object-level of nutrition, you had written one (potentially long!) post on those rationality points, I would be happy.
The primary rationality point seems to be "don't choose a side in a controversy after only listening to one side." This seems like very good advice, and Taubes seems like a good example: I haven't read him directly, but I get the impression that both what he's arguing against is wrong and Taubes's proposed replacement is also probably wrong. If I were writing this post, I would write it with the halo/horns eff... (read more)
I, too, thought that these posts were rather short and that it would have been better as one post. But they've generated 100 comments per post. People like talking about nutrition. Splitting it into multiple may have better organized the discussion. Or maybe it created lots of duplication. Actually, since I think the discussion has been unproductive, actions that impeded it, like stuffing it all into one post, might have been better for everyone.
"Voting with your feet" means "exercising your exit) right" — leaving a (business or political) situation that you believe has ceased to be to your advantage.
A bit of history, though Taubes may not have mentioned it: When Atkins was new, there was public concern that so much protein would cause kidney damage. This doesn't seem to have been well-founded, though a friend mentioned that people on high-protein diets seemed to be more prone to kidney stones.
Here is a link to Taubes discussing "Why We Get Fat" on the EconTalk Podcast.
Here is link to Taubes discussing "Good Calories, Bad Calories" on the EconTalk Podcast.
But don't fruits, especially that liquid candy also known as fruit juice contain lots of sugar?
That not a claim that Taubes makes in the paragraph that you cite. His claim is less strong.
Plenty of people in the real world do believe that Bionade is healthy. Bionade is a soft drink. Taubes doesn't claim that all soft drinks are considered healthy.
Taubes is critical of the government for failing to say or do more about sugar. You seem to take issue with the fact that he doesn't give mainstream nutrition authorities props when they don't screw something up. Yes, I suppose the FDA could have encouraged people to consume more high fructose corn syrup and good on the government for not doing that. Taubes is a polemicist. He's taking a side in a debate. He is not a rationalist-- and he is using arguments as soldiers. He's also constrained by popular science book length limit.
I'm sure the direct content ... (read more)
Except he doesn't even acknowledge what they did say about sugar, and portrays their recommendations as a mirror image of the Atkins diet.
No. I'm taking issue with his misrepresentations of what they were saying.
Agreed. So why are you defending him?
Because in "The Correct Contrarian Cluster," Eliezer claims "Dietary scientists ignoring their own experimental evidence have killed millions and condemned hundreds of millions more to obesity with high-fructose corn syrup", and cites Taubes' 2002 article as his source.
Sorry, I should have said that earlier. I was worried about embarrassing Eliezer, but that was probably a mistake, insofa... (read more)
I don't see outright misrepresentations. I see a focus on what Taubes thinks they did wrong.
Because everyone fails Less Wrong's standards for argument and discussion. Everyone here could spend 24 hours a day pointing out dark epistemology in the writings of public intellectuals and we would always have more work to do. If you're going to target a particular person it doesn't seem worthwhile unless the central content of the persons's work is wrong or dishonest-- especially with the context of a broader debate. Call it the Rationalist's Fallacy, in a world where everyone selectively emphasizes some facts to support their position someone selectively emphasizing facts that support their position provides little to no evidence about whether they are right or wrong, whether they are honest or dishonest or whether their work is net beneficial for the world.... (read more)
Let me put it this way: if I found distortions as bad as Taubes' in an article or book I'd previously been citing or recommending to people, I'd stop citing and recommending it.
I think the point is that the mainstream nutrition is just as against refined sugar as it is fats (they are in the same area in the pyramid). Taubes actually agrees with mainstream nutrition on this, but misleads his reader into thinking the opposite. Taubes and mainstream nutrition largely AGREE, but Taubes paints himself as a contrarian. To be fair to Taubes, I think its largely a ploy to sell books (everyone wants the secret information, not the standard), and if people find it useful to absorb that message, more power to them.
As an anecdote, when I was school aged in the 80s, my public school's nurse successfully got sugar-added drinks (pop,etc) removed from the school, although the cafeteria continued to serve some very fat-heavy entrees (cheap, processed burgers and what not). I was actually saddened to learn a few years after I finished, under pressure from their vendors, the school put the vending machines and soda fountain back in the cafeteria.
All my life, the sugar message has been much more central then the "fat" message (this may be unique to me, as my parents considered pop to basically be bottled poison). Walking through the grocery store, I can find as many "low-sugar" and "sugar- free" items as I can find "low-fat" and "fat-free."
It is orthogonal to your topic (Taubes and Obesity) but I think the more interesting case is the one linking saturated fat to heart disease.
There's a recent book called Death By Food Pyramid I found very interesting that discussed the evolution of dietary guidelines in the US and the reliabilty of the studies they were based on that I would like to see discussed here as well.
This all [i.e. Taubes' convoluted strawmans] seem rather stupid. The way I understand the mainstream, is that human body is normally very good at absorbing calories from what we eat, and in presence of an excess, storing said excess for future use (trading decreased risk of dying in a famine for increased risk of heart disease in the later years of life). Irrespective of whenever the excess is in form of fats or in form of carbohydrates.
Thus in absence of any other pathology, if you estimate a lower risk of famine, and estimate a longer expected lifespan t... (read more)
While that is widely claimed, it is false. Think about it for a minute: do you really think that a decade of such deprivation would kill a light person? The problem is not all the complications of metabolism that people bring up in these posts, but the very basic fact that energy consumption is roughly proportional to body mass. Under that model, a caloric deficit will not lead to linear weight loss nor a surplus to linear weight gain. Instead, the new caloric intake is enough to support a new weight and the difference between the current and new weight decays exponentially. Here is a recent model, with some testing; one of the authors is quoted claiming that a 100 Cal/day deficit will lead to a total loss of 10lb, after about 3 years.
There seems to be an anti-pattern for certain kinds of problems that involve one's habits, lifestyle, or emotions. The anti-pattern is that many people who do not experience the problem claim that the problem is easily solvable; whereas many people who do experience the problem claim that it is not easily solved.
People who have previously experienced the problem may fall into either category; whether they do seems to have something to do with how much continuity (or compassion?) they feel between their current self and their problem-having past self; or whether they have retained awareness of the specific transitions involved in solving the problem. (Kinda like some of the difficulties moridinamael recently pointed out regarding programming tutorials. Just because you've achieved X does not automatically make you a good guide for others who want to achieve X.)
This seems related to one of the things that folks who use the word "privilege" mean by it sometimes. We can probably come up with some less politically charged word for this specific anti-pattern, though.
This is a random link that shows the the extent of study that has gone into the question of hunter-gatherers, a study of the diets of 229 hunter-gatherer societies, none of which had the "diseases of civilization" which basically means obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
Relevant to the current discussion, there were several hunter-gatherer societies without obesity that have nonetheless consumed a large percentage of their calories from carbohydrates. An often noted example is the !Kung who got 67% of their calories from plants, and 50% of that from a single source (the mongongo nut) which is plentiful year-round, and yet they are still not obese (this is in a subtropical climate).