SETH: I was impressed with the discussion in your book and lecture about obesity coexisting with poverty in all these different cultures and the implications of that. I’d never seen that before.GARY TAUBES: I have this feeling, and I guess that all writers (or all neurotic writers) have to some extent, that my work is being ignored. It’s my Rodney Dangerfield complex. Now that I’ve written the book, I occasionally get emails from friends saying that they had some discussion with some obesity researcher, and they said, “Are you going to read Taubes’s book?” and their response was “Well, we know what Taubes thinks, so why should I bother reading the book?” What’s more, the Atkins craze has come and gone, so these people believe it’s old news. Why should they pay attention to the book or what I might have learned in reporting it? In fact, I got more reviews for my cold fusion book than I have for Good Calories, Bad Calories. And The cold fusion book came out three years after the fact. There was also this sense that my article started an Atkins craze, and then Atkins Nutritionals declared bankruptcy, and somehow it all went away, and it’s just the same old diet crap that nobody wants to hear about. Nobody is going to stay on the Atkins diet so who cares? Let’s move on. The lecture you heard is an attempt to combat that attitude: I argue that the existence of these obese, impoverished populations living on high carbohydrate diets are counter-examples to the conventional wisdom. As I said in my talk, if you have an obese mother and a malnourished child living in the same family, and this is a common phenomenon, that should be perceived as a refutation of the calories in/calories out hypothesis. In any sort of healthy scientific endeavor, that’s the kind of paradox you look for. Physicists have recently spent a few billion dollars building an accelerator that will, they hope, produce some kind of phenomenon that they can’t explain by their current theory. If they get that, it’s front page news and they now have some observation that they can use to improve their theory. These obesity researchers, they have malnutrition and obesity coexisting in the same impoverished population, and they don’t see it as a challenge to their hypothesis. How do I get the word out that there are important issues here that have to be discussed? That’s what that lecture is intended to do. When [the New York Times reporter] Gina Kolata reviewed my book in the New York Times Book Review, she swept right over these issues. She went right to the thing that bugged her — why don’t people stay on these low-carb diets? — and ignored all the evidence that refutes the conventional wisdom about why we get fat. All she cared about in the end was why don’t people stay on these diets if they work.
SETH: As if that’s your fault! I thought that was a very unusual way to review a book.
GARY TAUBES: Well, she had written her own obesity book that came out five months earlier, and she blamed obesity, in effect, on genes, without bothering to acknowledge that the genes interact with the environment; we have an obesity epidemic; we have obesity associating with poverty, for instance, so there’s obviously some lifestyle factor.
SETH: And obesity’s gone way up in the recent past; it can’t be genes.
GARY TAUBES: I felt her review was her way of saying “Look, this is why none of the stuff he discussed was in my book.” One point I make over and over again is that obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, so you have to look at the hormonal regulation of fat tissue. If you’re discussing growth disorders — gigantism or dwarfism — you look at the hormonal regulation of growth. So why not do the same in obesity. Gina didn’t, because nobody she interviewed brought it up. Then she turned her review of my book into an excuse for why she didn’t mention any of these things. Anyway, that’s life in the publishing industry. If you think about it too much, you just get angry.