The debate between Gary Taubes and Stephan Guyenet may be one of the most important scientific debates of the decade. Here’s why.
Gary Taubes is arguably the most influential nutrition writer of our generation, alongside Michael Pollan. He shifted the discussion about obesity by providing a seemingly unassailable framework for what was at the time called the Atkins diet.
Taubes—whose brother is an endowed chair of Mathematics at Harvard and who himself has degrees from Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia—is a science journalist who had previously written about pseudoscience in physics and wrote meticulous critiques of nutrition science for Science magazine. And he changed the conversation about nutrition through what might be called a critical archaeology and reinterpretation of the history of obesity and health research, starting with pre-World War 2 German metabolic science and ending at the end of the 20th century.
The Atkins diet was then on the decline until Gary released his bombshell of a book Good Calories Bad Calories in 2008, which, despite being a 640-page book about science with more than 60 pages of references, topped bestseller lists and has never stopped selling.
Indeed, Gary’s book through its beautifully and masterfully crafted narrative, single-handedly spawned a whole industry of low-carbohydrate books, many of which repeat his book’s main points as if ancient wisdom passed down from some great sage. Echoes of Gary Taubes’s major narratives are everywhere in low-carb and almost everywhere in popular nutrition. (For an entertaining discussion of Gary’s… influence, see this article by Seth Yoder.)
Gary’s model of obesity goes something like this: carbohydrate intake causes an increase in insulin. This increase in insulin causes fat to be trapped inside fat cells and energy substrate to be unavailable for use by the body, resulting in internal starvation. To compensate, appetite increases, energy intake increases, and obesity results.
The obesity epidemic in turn was caused by Americans following the dietary guidelines, which mandated eating less fat. As a result, Americans decreased fat intake, which had to be replaced by carbohydrate. When carbohydrate replaced fat, this caused an increase in appetite according to the above mechanism and thus increased energy intake and thus caused the obesity epidemic.
The focus on energy balance by the establishment has been mostly the result of incompetence. The prejudice against fat in the diet has been mostly the result of ambition. Ancel Keys, one of the founders of nutritional epidemiology, set a precedent based on bad science that now cannot be broken.
Ancel Keys’s dominance in nutrition science is the result of World War 2. German scholars, especially German-Jewish scholars, understood that hormones caused obesity, but there was prejudice against these scientists in American society after WW2 ended. Their research was lost in the aftermath and replaced by that of scientific incompetents in America, an unsophisticated crowd who did not understand much about the scientific method and made everything out to be about calorie balance and just eating too much.
In telling this story, Gary’s demonstrates incredibly storytelling abilities, his command of facts awe-inspiring, and his logical penetration like that of a surgeon with a scalpel. There’s only one problem:
Most obesity researchers think he is dead wrong.
Meet Stephan Guyenet. Stephan came onto the scene in the late 00s and became known for his meticulous, science-minded, evidence-based articles. He eventually published his book on obesity The Hungry Brain in 2017, ten years after Taubes published Good Calories Bad Calories. Stephan, who did his undergraduate in biochemistry at the University of Virginia, his PhD at the University of Washington, and a postdoctoral fellowship under Michael Schwartz, a pathbreaking obesity scientist, presents a different theory of obesity than Taubes.
In fact, Stephan disputes Gary Taubes’s model in almost every detail; Stephan has been in what might be called low-grade conflict with Gary, a nutritional cold war punctuated by small-scale conflict since 2012, when Gary confronted Stephan’s understanding obesity during a fateful presentation at that year’s Ancestral Health Symposium, a yearly Paleo conference that took place at UCLA and which at that time was the epicenter of everything happening in the online nutrition community.
In it, Gary Taubes went after Stephan in a way that was and is rarely seen at the AHS or in discussions of nutrition science, period. Taubes singled Stephan out because Stephan’s theory of obesity was completely different from Taubes’s, and Taubes’s view is exclusive and singular.
When the exchange between Stephan and Gary finally reached a crescendo, Taubes ended by advising Stephan not to cherrypick the evidence, to which Stephan responded coolly, “Thanks for the advice.”
This part of the debate can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hzoFgwFeMQ
Stephan’s full presentation can be found here: https://youtu.be/2XhdP-9FQHE?t=2281
To Stephan, obesity is caused by the omnipresence of calorie-rich, delicious foods high in both carbohydrates and fat. The brain, rather than the body, regulates body fat, and differences in body fatness between people in Western countries is largely due to differences in brains (with most obesity genetics discovered to this point being brain-related). Stephan’s understanding of obesity is the synthesis of the scientific community’s current understanding. This is in contrast to Gary Taubes’s understanding, which is often at odds with the scientific community’s. Stephan, along with a handful of other bloggers, has long battled with virtually every aspect of Gary Taubes’s and his followers’ ideas about obesity. Stephan and others contend that Taubes and his followers cherrypick their evidence and distort what the field has to offer.
What draw Gary often has in raw storytelling ability and an impressive reference list spanning over a hundred years, Stephan frequently matches in a dense and careful marshaling of evidence of his own. Correspondingly, Stephan and others have slowly converted many originally in the Taubes camp to what might be called the “scientific consensus view”. Stephan, like Taubes, now has a large following of his own, including many prominent figures in the scientific community.
Before moving on, it is important to clarify that Stephan is not defending so-called CICO, i.e. calories in-calories out. Stephan wrote about this here. Here is an excerpt:
That’s the Stephan versus Gary background.
So how did Rogan happen? And why?
2019. Keto is the hottest diet around, followed by everyone from liberal Silicon Valley CEOs, finance bros, and enterprising academics to diabetics, weight loss hopefuls, soccer moms and MAGA types. In other words, apparently everyone.
This is of course in stark contrast to the low-fat diets popular in the 1970s and 80s, which were supplanted by low-carb and keto in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. Gary Taubes’s role in this revolution is second only to Atkins himself, and, in its own way, even more important.
Meanwhile, Joe Rogan, a huge keto proponent, runs the most widely listened-to podcast in the world, with almost 200 million downloads per month and likely more than ten billion total downloads. And Joe has interviewed virtually everyone who is important in the low-carb and keto space, some several times each.
This has resulted in a highly skewed representation of what the current science says about nutrition on the most popular podcast in the world. To quantify this, I analyzed this using sophisticated data-mining tools here.
Then, one fateful day… I challenged Rogan on this point. And that story was told here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PzOpePYdWxc
To make the story short, Joe loves keto. Great. And keto and low-carb are really interesting and potentially important health strategies. But a lot of people that Joe has had on his show have, in my view and in the view of many other people, given a biased and distorted view of the role of carbohydrates in the diet. Given the enormity and importance of Joe’s show, things should and could be more balanced.
In response to this criticism and after seriously seeing the analysis that I constructed, Joe decided to try to correct that.
Joe first offered to have me on to debate Gary Taubes.
For obvious reasons, I thought that Stephan Guyenet would be more appropriate. versus Gary Taubes was finalized.Phew.(For those who are interested, I am OK with going on Joe’s podcast if he wants to have me after I finish my PhD.)I think this is one of the most important health debates ever for the following reason:
Obesity is a serious problem worldwide, and contentions about the science are a source of policy paralysis. The reason that we cannot solve the obesity crisis is, in part, because we have a consensus crisis. We cannot agree about what causes obesity.
The low-carbohydrate diet is the most popular contenders for an explanatory framework of what causes obesity. My belief is that it is wrong, and that Stephan’s view is mostly or entirely right.
Having a public conversation about who is actually right is important in order to start moving to firm conclusions among the majority of the population about what has caused the obesity pandemic. This will in turn allow for policymakers to start making real decisions. So my belief is that public discussions like these are not just important scientifically but are the critical first steps to improving the health of, ultimately, billions of people, present and future.
Since this debate is with Gary Taubes himself and Stephan Guyenet, his most important critic—that is why I called this one of the most important scientific debates of the decade: they are both representatives of two of the major dominant strains of thought on obesity. This debate has the potential to be of historical importance.
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