Have you ever tried to lose weight by eating less and exercising more? Or by consuming less fat? How did that work for you? I was always frustrated in the past when my exercise and diet did not help me lose weight, or when that weight loss was excruciatingly slow, despite the fact that according to the eat less exercise more adage I should have been losing like crazy.
Why is this so? Why can two people eat the very same diet and exercise the same amount but one is fat and one is lean? Why, when US Department of Agriculture statistics show that Americans are eating lower fat diets than ever before, is obesity an epidemic and heart disease on the rise? In Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It Gary Taubes examines the gamut of nutritional research and finds some interesting things in the actual science.
As it turns out, weight loss is NOT strictly about calories in and calories out. It has more to do with your hormones and what your body does with insulin. In the book, Taubes examines and debunks several popular ideas about diet and exercise (like “America is fat because it is prosperous” and “Eating a low fat diet lowers your risk of heart disease” and “You should eat 6-11 servings of carbohydrates per day”). It’s hard to argue with his findings since he backs each assertion up so soundly with research studies, but if you’re still skeptical and/or of you’re a physician who likes to read medical studies and footnotes about them, Taubes also wrote an even more detailed book on the same subject called Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health.
The root of the problem, Taubes asserts, is modern overconsumption of refined sugars and flours, a problem made infinitely worse when you add in the vast amount of processed foods made from synthetic sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. This wreaks all kinds of havoc on your body’s ability to process insulin and, to make a very long story short, the sugar and white flour are making you fat and prepping you for all sorts of dread diseases even if you aren’t fat. As far as diet goes, Taubes says the research shows that the best thing you can do is base your diet on vegetables and meat, with eggs, cheese, and some oils and nuts. If your body can handle it, eat some complex carbohydrates too, but a lot of people won’t lose weight if they do. Unlike the Atkins Diet, the framework Taubes suggests includes lots of “good carbs” in the form of vegetables, and unlike the South Beach diet Taubes says you don’t have to stick to only low fat meats and cheese.
I think the book does a great job of answering objections I’ve had about lower carb eating plans, such as what to do about fruit (Taubes points out that fruit is only in season at certain points of the year, and you should eat it then, not year round, and eat it in moderation) and why some people get fat on carbs and some don’t (the answer is similar to why some people get lung cancer from smoking and some don’t).
I’m particularly concerned about this issue because I have polycystic ovary syndrome, which is closely tied to how the body regulates insulin and blood sugar. Over the past several years while I was pregnant and/or breastfeeding, I didn’t have to worry about my weight for the first time since I was in 4th grade. I think my hormones were regulated in my favor, for which I am grateful. However, now that Sarah recently weaned, I’m afraid the PCOS symptoms will come rushing back and I do not want to spend the rest of my life on metformin (a diabetes drug also used to treat PCOS) or having to do two hours of cardio per day just to stay in the upper range of healthy weight for my height.
As I was researching insulin and PCOS, I also read The South Beach Diet. This book came about because the author, a cardiologist, noticed that the low fat diet everyone suggests for heart disease patients actually doesn’t prevent heart disease. He conferred with colleagues who noticed the same thing, and then, since he works in a research hospital, he started doing his own research and came to most of the same conclusions Taubes reached in the book above. Dr. Agatson started putting his patients on a lower carb diet (eliminating sugar and all white flours, eating only vegetables and lean protein) and got amazing results. Not only did his patients’ risk factors decrease, they also lost copious amounts of weight without hunger or tremendous effort. The patients started giving the diet to their overweight friends and family members and it worked for them too, so the doctor wrote it up in this book.
Unlike Why We Get Fat, The South Beach Diet spends much more time setting up an eating plan, suggesting what you should eat and not eat, and offering menu ideas and recipes. My parents have done this diet and I think they were able to stick to it better than the Atkins Diet because the recipes in South Beach are more like what you might actually want to eat every day.
I think these books are really interesting even from a purely public health perspective. I found Why We Get Fat particularly compelling because it satisfied my need to know WHY each conclusion was reached, although that may be too detailed for some. If you’re interested in health or weight loss or heart disease or cancer prevention and similar topics, I’d highly recommend Why We Get Fat for purposes of information and explanation, and The South Beach Diet for practical application and diet plans.
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