Justification by Fat Alone

Let me say it again: "Being fat is a metabolic--not a moral--state.  It has nothing to do with how much you exercise or how many calories you eat."

"Yes, yes," you say.  "But so what?  It sounds to me like you've simply discovered the Atkins diet.  Do we really need to hear yet again about the evils of carbs?"  Subtext (as I hear it): "Isn't this just another gimmick like all of the other diets for sale?"

Possibly, but I don't think so.*  Indeed, I am convinced not.  Because Gary Taubes (whose Good Calories, Bad Calories has been my mealtime reading for the past week or so, much to the chagrin of my family, to whom I keep quoting it) is not about diets; he is about the actual metabolism of fat.  And about how the science behind our understanding of that metabolism has been skewed for pretty much the whole of my lifetime against fat as anything other than a moral state.

How many times have you heard the dictum that to lose weight "all" you need to do is eat less and exercise more?  Have you tried it?  Did it work?  Guess what, you're not alone.  It never works.  It cannot work.  Our bodies simply do not work that way.

And yet, it is what almost everyone in our culture believes--even the scientists (Taubes refuses to call the culturally-dominant nutritional experimenters "scientists" because he says that they haven't been following proper scientific protocol, so convinced are they by their hypotheses before they even start).  The scientists who tell us that we get fat because we're lazy ("sedentary," "couch potatoes") and eat too much ("keep a record of how much you'll eat and you'll see that you've been kidding yourself; you're really a pig").

Well, they're wrong.  Wrong about calories, wrong about exercise, wrong about what foods we should and shouldn't eat.  More important, however, they are wrong to make us feel guilty about the effects that food has on us and to blame us for not having enough willpower to stay on the semi-starvation (a.k.a. "reduced calorie") diets that they have been insisting will enable us to slim down when every properly controlled study of such diets has shown that they fail.  And not just fail because subjects gain the weight back; fail because not everyone in fact loses any weight on them.  (It's all in Taubes--all 640 pages of it.)

Do I sound maybe just a little bit angry?  Just a little bit, you say?  I am furious.  Furious that I have spent decades--nearly the whole of my life--hating myself for being weak because I could not make the fat go away.  Hating myself because I could not stop myself from eating and eating and eating when I felt unhappy or stressed or rejected.  Hating myself for the glazed cinnamon rolls and the glazed fruit pies and the whipped cream-topped ice cream upon which I gluttonously stuffed myself when I was 16.  Hating myself for not exercising enough (whatever "enough" might mean when I was swimming or walking or bicycling or fencing or doing yoga for hours and hours and hours a week, sometimes a day).  Hating myself for not being able to stick to a (reduced calorie) diet for more than a few days at a go (except for one period of six months in high school when I managed to keep on Scarsdale and lose twenty or so pounds, which, naturally, almost immediately came back).

And now I find out that it wouldn't have worked anyway because the science it was based on was wrong?  I'm sorry if it is a bit boring to hear, but I will say it again:  "Being fat is not a moral state."  It is not a sign that you are slothful or gluttonous, nor will punishing yourself by "keeping to your diet" make it go away.  It will only make you crabby and depressed and obsessive about food because that is what people get when they are starving; not thinner (at least, not without truly starving, and some people stay fat even when they are), just unhappy.  Because it was never your fault in the first place, at least not in the terms in which we have been taught to chastise ourselves for the past twenty, thirty, forty years. 

Whew.  Another Lutheran moment.  You mean I don't need to spend my life counting calories, weighing my food, weighing myself, worrying about every morsel that passes my lips?!  You mean I don't need to worry about exercising enough to get rid of the fat because there is no such thing as "enough" exercise to counteract appetite and metabolism?!  You mean I just need to eat more fat and fewer carbs and the extra fat will go away?!  You're kidding, right?  I've been torturing myself for decades when I didn't need to?!  And would have been healthier all along if someone had told me about insulin and the way that it is stimulated by sugars and starch?!

It's easy not eating certain foods if you know that they are bad for you; what's hard is being told that the reason you want to eat so much of them is that you are weak, not that they work on you more or less like a drug and that's why you find it so hard to withdraw from them.  Shoot, I've been avoiding meat for twenty-five years just because I thought it was bad for me (it isn't--that is a large part of the "science" that Taubes shows has been wrong); I can certainly avoid a few carbs now that I appreciate their metabolic effect (raised glucose, higher risk of diabetes, arterial sclerosis, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and, oh, yes, excess fat).  But only because I understand that it is not about the calories; not about forcing yourself to go hungry in the belief that that is what will make you thin and then finding that hunger always wins and you eat "too much," meaning, as much as your body needs.

So I hope you will pardon me if I sound a bit evangelical.  No more calories, a.k.a. sins, to count?**  That sounds like good news to me!

*Although I should say that I had never considered Atkins because I was put off by all the marketing and still am.  No natural diet needs packaging.
**And no, I am not going to start counting carbs, the other reason I worry about the Atkins program.  It is easy enough to categorize the main culprits (bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, sugar, beer) without doing a witch hunt for them everywhere.


  1. After you've read Taubes you might find this review by G. A. Bray, and the subsequent exchange between Taubes and Bray, interesting; Bray recommends Taubes's book but notes some of its shortcomings:

    Bray's review: Obesity Reviews (2008) 9, 251–263, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2008.00476.x

    Taubes's response: Obesity Reviews (2008) 10, 96–98, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2008.00510.x

    Bray's response to Taubes: Obesity Reviews (2008) 10, 99–102,doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2008.00526.x



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