Serious Reads: Why We Get Fat, by Gary Taubes

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

No one needs to read another diet book. That's why journalist and author Gary Taubes didn't write one. What he presents in Why We Get Fat, and What to do About It is more of a scientific, analytical approach to food consumption and fat accumulation. He takes on dieting myths, he challenges the general understanding of obesity; and yes, he does make some eating recommendations. All in all, he's produced a compelling challenge to the dieting status quo that, like all rebellious texts, is both liberating and a bit unsettling.

Taubes takes 200 or so pages to say essentially this: carbohydrates make us fat. The way to lose weight, he claims, is to greatly restrict carbs—especially refined carbs such as breads, pasta, and cereals—and to make proteins, fats, and leafy vegetables a huge percentage of our diets.

Where does this idea come from? To spare many complex and fascinating physiological details (really, read the book), essentially Taubes focuses on the effects of insulin on fat regulation systems in the body. Insulin is secreted most heavily when we eat carbs, and that insulin causes food energy to be stored as fat in our cells. The insulin also suppresses the enzymes in the cells that break down cellular fat for fuel at a later point, thus causing long-term fat buildup.

Taubes spends about half the book disproving commonly accepted and practiced dieting methods, and the other half discussing how the physiology of the body supports his carbs-cause-fat thesis. He tears apart the calories in/calories out theory, which states that the way to lose weight is simply to burn more than you take in. He cites many reputable studies that demonstrated that subjects who increased exercise were less likely to lose weight, even if their diets were adjusted. And he also discusses the problems with low calorie consumption, arguing that body chemistry is not something we can simply think ourselves free from.

Though he does lay out a fairly restrictive diet plan, Taubes also does a nice job of explaining how everyone's body will react differently to different diets. For some, reducing carb intake only slightly each day could result in weight loss. For others, their genetic disposition may be such that complete carb elimination would be necessary for even a little weight loss—and the results may not be spectacular. He advises readers to experiment, to take time to learn what their body craves and how best to fuel themselves.

There are always exceptions to any sweeping statements about the relationship between diet and weight. We all have stories of a friend who lost 30 pounds simply by cutting out dessert twice a week, or someone who can seemingly eat whatever they want without gaining a pound. What is most significant about Taubes' book is not that it will be any truer, necessarily, than any other dieting prescriptions. Rather, he synthesizes scientific data that has been ignored or brushed aside by most doctors and by the USDA.

Taubes convincingly refutes much of the paradigm that we've used to understand obesity in the last 20 years. By getting rid of the idea that losing weight is simply a mind game, Taubes lifts much of the blame from the individual who suffers from being overweight, and instead discusses how we can work with our body to become healthier rather than attack its natural hormonal cycles. I absolutely recommend this book to anyone looking to lose weight—but also to anyone who shares the inkling that weight loss is more complicated than just eating less and exercising more.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.