Save the Pastrami!

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Gary Taubes on the Case Agains... Jim Epstein on Bitcoin, the Bl...

sugar.jpg What's the first thing you think of when you imagine a birthday, wedding, or anniversary celebration? When your kid has a great game or brings home a great report card, what do you reward him with? (We bet it's not a kale-cicle.) If you're like me, your answer centers on...SUGAR. And according to this week's EconTalk guest, author Gary Taubes, that's dangerous. Taubes calls sugar's role in creating insulin resistance a "pandemic" that threatens to overwhelm health care systems worldwide.

Does this sound hyperbolic, or does the claim hit close to home? Can Taubes convince you of the merits of a different sort of diet, one that's high in fat and low in sugar? (As one twitter follower hilariously tweeted this week, "Taubes may have stolen our sugar, but at least he left the pastrami.")

As always, we'd like to hear more from you. Leave your thoughts in the Comments, or use the prompts below to start your own conversations offline. No matter how you respond, please keep being lovely!

1. In his effort to debunk the "empty calories" claim about sugar, Taubes notes that research has shown that slimmer people tend to consume more sugar than heavier people. How is this example illustrative of his larger critique of scientific research?

2. A good bit of the conversation deals with Taubes's standing as an "outsider" in the science community. Who does Taubes see as his allies in his "case?" His enemies? Why? Can a "bootleggers and Baptists" argument be made here?

3. What is the likelihood of the Western world making the sort of "nutrition transition" Taubes would like to see? What are the greatest obstacles to such a transition, and why? What could be done to help ensure such a transition?

4. Taubes is critical of the influence of psychologists in obesity research, but at the same time it's clear that he's advocating behavioral change. To what extent is this a contradiction? What influence will this week's episode have on your own behavior?

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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Daniel Barkalow writes:

As a slim person who consumes a lot of sugar, I feel especially qualified to answer number 1. I specifically avoid high-fat snacks, because they tend to hurt my appetite, causing me to have trouble eating enough sugar to avoid losing weight. I suspect that most thin people have higher energy output when idle for some non-dietary reason, and that they eat more sugar to keep the intake up. Possibly the conclusion of "thin people eat more sugar" shouldn't be: "if they ate like other people, they'd be fatter" but "if they ate like other people, they'd starve to death". Of course, it's easy and natural to avoid foods which make you starve, so high-energy-demand people don't need to be told to eat sugar and avoid fat.

kem johnson writes:

I loved the book. Taubes writes compelling prose, I also tend to eat a lowish carb, moderate protein, high fat diet (20-20-60 ish). It works for me, an athletic, active sixty five year old, keep my weight, muscle and bone density. By active, I ski, climb cycle and farm. No doubt it is somewhat individual, but after one learns to use fat as fuel (say skip breakfast and keep 15 hours or so between one';s two daily meals), one is quite untethered by hunger. Quality aerobic exercise and strenuous resistance work just might make me a healthy and happy nonagenarian.

Jim writes:

He threw in offhanded comments about avoiding avocados and peanuts, and said it like ALL fats are the same. You should have quickly called him out and said that the scientific consensus continues to be that saturated fat is bad, and other types of fat are good (avocados, nuts, and fish are good). No, butter and pastrami are not health foods, nor will they ever be. However, the libertarian/paleo hivemind seems to embrace this one idea, and I don't understand why...

As a side note, Gary T. is part of a trend of people who make these compelling cases through books, blogs, and podcasts, even tho they're wrong. There are all kinds of popular internet celebrities these days who write on diet, climate change, GMOs, etc and are completely wrong, and have nothing to add to the conversion except confusion. These people aren't part of the daily research and he didn't go to school for this stuff.

When someone starts talking on technical topics, I'm highly skeptical unless they are part of a research team actively working in the field. People these days seem to embrace this idea that all opinions are valid, which isn't true. His work is full of mistakes and errors, and I wish you'd have called these out specifically, rather than not pushing him at all.

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