Why We Get Fat

Americans are overweight because we eat too much and don’t exercise. Right? A new book says: Guess again.

In Why We Get Fat, award-winning science writer Gary Taubes challenges the conventional wisdom about what makes us fat. He looks back at decades of weight-loss studies and concludes that the real culprit is not lack of exercise, too much fast food or too little willpower. Rather, it’s the quantity and quality of the carbohydrates in our diets–as well as how our bodies respond to them.

His argument is fascinating, and compelling enough to land his work on the cover of The New York Times magazine this year. It’s especially relevant if you’ve struggled–and failed–to keep weight off.

Here, he discusses Why We Get Fat, and what it means to FOFs.

  • What’s the top-line philosophy of your book?
    • The idea that we get heart disease from the fat in our diet is misconceived and based on bad science. The idea that we get fat because we eat too much and are too sedentary is misconceived and based on bad science. And the culprit in both of those cases is most likely the quantity and the quality of the carbohydrates in our diet.
  • You talk a lot about the science behind this concept in your book. Can you explain in layman’s terms how carbohydrates make us fat?
    • When you eat carbs, it raises your body’s insulin levels. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat accumulation. If you raise insulin levels, you store fat. If you want to get rid of the fat in your tissues, you lower insulin levels. That’s not controversial–it’s endocrinology 101.
  • So what happens when you eat a high-carb diet?
    • The more carbs you eat–especially refined carbs such as sugar and high-fructose corn syrup–the more insulin your body produces. That insulin makes you store calories as fat instead of allowing you to burn them as fuel. So not only do you gain weight–i.e. get fatter–but you’re hungrier because of it. People who eat a low-fat, high-carb diet tend to get hungry every two hours. Over time, you can develop insulin resistance. That means your body has to secrete even more insulin in order to regulate your blood sugar. You have more insulin in your blood, so you body craves carbs even more.
  • Why are people getting fatter now? Are we eating more carbs than we used to?
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      In the 1970s and 1980s, a low-fat, high-carb trend took hold. Federal dietary guidelines began touting carbohydrates as heart-healthy diet foods. The American Heart Association told Americans to cut their fat intake. At the same time, the market was flooded with low-fat, high-carb “diet” foods–low fat yogurt, health food bars, and sugary drinks filled with healthy sounding ingredients like ginko biloba and ginseng.

  • This sounds like Atkins–cut out everything but meat and cheese? Don’t we know that diet isn’t healthy either?
    • It is a lot like what Atkins said. He read a lot of the same scientific literature I did, only 40 years earlier. But that misses the point. My book is about what makes us fat. The point is, carbohydrates are literally fattening. What you do with that information is a different issue.
  • In the book, you talk about certain cultures that eat a high fat, high protein diet.
    • The Masai people of Africa eat the highest fat diet in the world–mostly animal fat and protein. But they’re incredibly lean, fit and healthy. The Inuit people–in the Arctic–ate a 100-percent animal protein diet–mostly fish, caribou and walrus. No fruits and vegetables. And they were incredibly healthy, with low heart disease, virtually no cancer or diabetes, and incredible physical stamina. Explorers who lived with Inuit a century ago described them running beside their dog sleds for 20 miles–effortlessly.
  • Are some people more prone to have problems with carbs than others?
    • Yes. There are a million nutrition and health experts out there who think, ‘if everyone just did what I did, they’d be thin, too.’ The truth is, our bodies are different in the way they metabolize carbs. For some people, it puts them in a mode to store fat–these are the people who are predisposed to obesity. We all know who we are. Growing up, my brother was three inches taller than me and 30 pounds lighter. He’s naturally lean. My body wants to store fat and his doesn’t. The point I’m making is that if thin women and overweight women all grew up in a world without carbs, they’d all be relatively lean.
  • So what would happen if your brother ate a high-carb diet?
    • He wouldn’t get fat, but he might get heart disease or a fatty liver or insulin resistance. Even if you’re not someone who stores fat, carbs effect your body.
  • Many women over fifty find that after menopause, they suddenly begin to put on weight. Do you attribute this to carbs as well?
    • Actually, loss of estrogen–which happens during menopause–has the same biological effect as increasing carbohydrates. In the 1970s, there was study where they removed the ovaries from rats–the same thing as removing estrogen. The rats ate voraciously and got fat. But they got fat even if they weren’t allowed to eat any more than they did when they still had their ovaries.
  • So what’s the solution? How should we eat?
    • We’re all different. But the basic message of my book is that not all carbs are bad, but that the refined ones, the easily digestible ones like potatoes and sugars are the problem, and any diet without those things will be healthier. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are almost assuredly the worst. White flour would be next. Any refined grains aren’t good–potatoes, pasta, bagels. You can still eat green leafy vegetables and other low-glycemic index carbs such as minimally processed grains and legumes, because those aren’t fattening. They don’t have the bad effects on insulin and blood sugar.
  • What if you’re already obese or insulin resistant. Should you take more extreme measures?
    • If you cut out carbs, your body will start burning fat. And if you’re obese, you have a lot of fat to burn, so the less carbs you eat, the better. The logic of cutting out all carbs–like the Atkins diet–is that this is like an addiction. If you don’t want to get lung cancer, you don’t cut down to 10 cigarettes a day–you quit. Cut them all out, get rid of the cravings. Once you get to the weight you feel good at, you can test out some of the carb-rich foods you still miss. If you miss apples, for instance, have an apple every day. See if you gain some weight. See what your body can tolerate.
Author
Gary Taubes
Science WriterGary Taubes is an American science writer. He is the author of four books including Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007), and Why We Get Fat (2010). He has won the Science in Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers three times. He is currently at work on a book about sugar and high-fructose corn syrup with help from a grant from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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15 Responses to “Why We Get Fat”

  1. PattiWinker says:

    You know, if we would just listen to our body, it would tell us what we need to know, right?!

    My daughter and I have both tried numerous diets (South Beach being one) and we’ve lost weight. But, once we start reintroducing carbs, the weight comes right back.

    We both have such strong cravings for pasta and potatoes that it’s disturbing. However, if allowed to eat as much protein and low-glycemic carbs that we want, the cravings disappear. Does that say something about mind over body?

    Thank you so much for this informative article. I’ll be sure to pass it along.

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  2. linaperl says:

    Hi Becky –
    Your comment made my day! I worked on this story and I’m glad to hear that it’s helped you think about your diet in a new way. Good luck with everything. All best, Lina (FOF Editor)

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  3. Sue Tucker says:

    Chillsy….Did you read this book? It seems to me that everything you are saying is almost the opposite of what the book says…but I won’t argue with you. I just know this book worked for me and it isn’t just about losing weight…it’s about what the starches and sugars do to our health!! So, my advice is this:Read the book….then decide.

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  4. Sue Tucker says:

    It was hard to give them up, and I did go through a brief carb withdrawal phase, but truly, after a few days, I didn’t miss them at all. It’s not simple to do, but once you start feeling so much better and your BGs stay low…you’ll have the motivation you need to keep it up! And this time of year there are so many good, fresh things to eat!

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  5. Sue Tucker says:

    I read this book a month ago. Since then, I have lost 15 pounds and am still losing. I knew that carbs were bad for me, for more than just weight reasons…I’m a type I diabetic, but the science was wonderful. To really understand the WHY of it all was positively liberating!! And I am reducing my insulin in take as well, which is a huge plus for me!! THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  6. Becky Beer says:

    This is very enlightening,Iv’e been a border-line diabetic for 26 years,I keep gaining weight,I’m over 50,and all I have ever heard is cut the fat,eat grains,fruit, and pasta and you lose weight. I have not. I do think I’m addicted to carbs now,and I’m not clear on how to give them up”cold turkey”,without more support from my family.

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  7. Sweetie Girl says:

    I would think a registered dietician would have all the information since it has been in effect for two years. No, potatoes are not refined carbohydrates but they do the same thing quickly converting to glucose ( sugar) and of course, we know what that does to our insulin levels. The average American eats 117 pounds of potatoes a year and this is just one of the reasons so many are so unhealthy. Having lost 75 pounds in the last year on a low carb diet recommended by my physician has proven to me the benefits of a low carb lifestyle. To eat so well, never have cravings or being hungry is worth giving up potatoes and refined carbs. I choose to be slim and healthy.

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  8. wpgrahamster says:

    I do have a problem with someone who says potatoes are a grain as well. In addition, I am in agreement that balance is the key. It seems you can “prove” anything with a “scientific study” these days. I have a friend who has cut all carbs out of her diet and is losing weight. I have a friend who has cut out refined sugars and she is losing weight. I have another friend who has scaled back and is aiming for a good variety of non-processed foods and she is losing weight. Of the three, the last is happiest because she is not feeling deprived and is probably getting all the required vitamins and minerals she needs from her diet.

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  9. chillshy says:

    If one is trying to lose weight than exercise is most important part as well. At least 30 minutes of physical activities 4x a week minimally. I always suggest 30 minutes to start out and the second week to 40 minutes three times a week. walk a mile twice a day am and pm. …..for beginners and add the 40 mins of additional activities with the miles and two miles walks. I am aggressive…those who are not agressive and not into doing this seriously can take the easy way out by make it less complicated or do not participate.

    For Example:
    Week One
    Plan A Slower Pace
    1/2 mile am
    30 minutes activities
    1/2 mile pm

    Plan B Average
    1 mile AM
    30 mins
    1 mile PM

    Plan C Aggressive
    1 Mile AM
    40 Mins.
    1 Mile PM
    Menu:
    Omit the Five Whites – Sugar, Flour, bread, rice, potato
    Just try it for two weeks.
    Substitute with brown rice, sweet potato, wheat flour, gluten free products (if you are diagnosis with a gluten allergies or gluten diseases.), corn flour, rice flour, yams, etc.
    Lots of Veggies, salad and Fruit.

    Make up the 2 hours snacks….I am not giving a list because that is your job.

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  10. chillshy says:

    I respectfully believe not all diets will work for everyone. I feel a diet must be curtail for an individual not for the textbook individual. I do believe lots of veggies, salads and assortments of food combinations for meals must not lead to boredom and termination of diet. If the dish does not look appealing than who wants to eat it? not me, I will opt for a fudge bar.

    Confused, Just go with it…if you cannot find a suitable diet for you. You can make up the diet with a nutritionist, fitness trainer, physician, or yourself. Just put down a menu and look at it a day or two later and make the corrections then. You can show it to the above practitioner if you wish.

    The key is to eat every 2 hours and have three main meals. Sounds a lot of food and it is not…The two hours food consist of nuts, half to quarter of a Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwhich, or yogurt, celery sticks and peanutbutter, something on that note…small…to feed the metabolism…to keep it going. This concept will increase the metabolism, which will increase fat burning that will decrease sizes in the waiste and pounds. But remember muscles weights more than fat.

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  11. Sandy051 says:

    After cutting out these particular foods, what’s left? Boy this getting old thing is ruff. I’m in the beginning stages of menopause and its sometimes scary. My mind is so young and I still feel, mentally, in my 20s. Where can I access a menu, that would be helpful. Thanks.

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  12. adgal says:

    This is exactly the approach I took last year (basically the “Primal” way of eating) and it still makes sense. I cut out all grains, which also meant processed foods, and most sugars – I admit to still having some really good quality dark chocolate. Not only did I gain a few pounds, I’ve now tested pre-diabetic for the first time ever! Of course, the first thing out of my dr’s mouth was “cut out grains.” I am beating my head against the wall. What else is going on here???

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  13. cobrateacher says:

    There are so many products and weight-loss plans on the market, it’s beyond confusing! How can we know what would work for us?
    I did a low glycemic diet for about a year and, while I lost weight, when I hit a plateau, I was never able to lose another ounce. That’s been true for just about every diet plan out there!

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  14. floggingwally says:

    My husband (58 years old) and I (almost 55) gave up all refined sugars, flour (white and whole wheat) and all foods with preservatives and are focused on lean protein (only grass fed animals) and mostly organic veggies and fruits and sprouted grain breads. We eat those crazy potatoes as they are a pure food – and are not refined. We do drink wine and beer. My husband has lost 35 lbs. since Feb. and I have lost only 7 (which is about what I wanted to lose), and my cholesterol has dropped significantly. My skin looks great as does my hair! We are training for our third half marathon and we feel great!
    There are many recipes using nuts and dried fruits and coconut that can be made into desserts, for those with a sweet tooth.
    This life style change has worked for us –

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  15. fastnet says:

    I may not be as smart as a science writer, but as a Registered Dietitian, I do know that a potato is not a refined grain. I also take issue with the concept of completely eliminating carbohydrates from the diet to mitigate obesity. Review the caveats re: the Atkins diet & questions that remain about Atkins’ own health at the time of his death.

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