Gary Taubes is a Blowhard

Imagine if you will that you make a living by selling an idea. You are a merchant in the marketplace of ideas, and you sell an idea that we will call Idea X. You sell books that promote Idea X, you give lectures across the country extolling the virtues and benefits of Idea X, etc. Turns out that Idea X is somewhat controversial but quite lucrative. You tried selling other stories and ideas in the past, but none have been nearly as profitable to you as Idea X. Espousing this idea has afforded you the ability to provide your spouse and children a comfortable living in these tough economic times. Imagine also that a scientific study was recently conducted by prominent researchers and the results are published in a prestigious scientific journal. As it happens the results of the study are pretty devastating to Idea X and contradict some of its main points. In the following days the study results are much-discussed in various media outlets, and some people begin to doubt the idea that you’re selling. The study results have left the more loyal adopters of your idea confused as to what to believe, and they beg you to respond to the study.

What do you do?

There are probably a few different choices you could make in this case.

  1. You could ignore the study and hope this bad news blows over soon. Then after the media gets bored of discussing the study results and moves on, you can try to resume preaching your idea to the people still adhering to your idea. As time goes on you can try to re-convert those who left Idea X.
  2. You could follow where the evidence leads and come out and say “I don’t want to mislead anybody. It looks like Idea X is not supported by the evidence. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.” Then you face the very tough challenge of trying to find another idea that is both as profitable as your last idea with the caveat that it is also evidence-based and grounded in reality. If you don’t find another profitable idea then you’ll have to move your family out of your nice neighborhood and into a lousier one while you work unappealing jobs to put food on the table.
  3. You could denounce the study and the scientists who conducted it. You could try and poke holes in the evidence and muster your greatest argument for why no one should believe the results. It may not be intellectually honest, but the truth must be an unfortunate casualty when you and your family’s quality of life is at stake.

Gary Taubes has chosen #3, except he takes it even further and denounces not only the specific study and the researchers that conducted it, but the field of epidemiology as a whole. This is actually pretty shrewd since most epidemiological evidence is against him anyway. Taubes’s Idea X in this analogy is the assertion that, contrary to popular belief, foodstuffs like red meat, saturated fat, and cholesterol are actually healthy and pose no threat of disease while just about any and all carbohydrates are unhealthy.

Mr. Taubes recently wrote a blog post responding to a recent study titled Red Meat Consumption and Mortality published in Archives of Internal Medicine. The study concludes “red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, CVD, and cancer mortality.”1 If I had to summarize Mr. Taubes entire blog post it would be something like: Epidemiology is a pseudoscience. Well, not all epidemiological research, just any research suggesting that eating red meat for every meal might not be healthy. Any scientist or nutrition researcher claiming that is practicing a junk science. Those that come to other conclusions are the real scientists, the good scientists. Also, I will never accept any scientific claim unless there are randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials to back it up. Except for the claim that smoking causes lung cancer. I will accept that one without RCTs.

Let’s Break it Down

To start things off Taubes does not refute any specific thing in the actual paper. He leaves that job to someone else.

Zoe Harcombe has done a wonderful job dissecting the paper at her site.

Taubes prefers instead to respond to the paper’s general tone and the tone of some of the researchers involved with the paper, notably Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Meir Stampfer.

Who is this Zoe Harcombe and why should I trust her judgment? The biography on her webpage does not tell me much about her credentials other than she is a

[Q]ualified nutritionist with a Diploma in Diet & Nutrition and a Diploma in Clinical Weight Management, but she is first and foremost an obesity researcher.

A “qualified nutritionist”? What does that even mean? Who “qualified” her and gave her “Diplomas”? Were these actual universities or did she just pay 30 bucks (or pounds perhaps, since she’s from the UK) for some shady online certification that means nothing? We are not told, and I suspect for good reason.

She is also an obesity researcher, huh? A quick Google Scholar search of her name came up with no publications. Is she actually a researcher or does she just call herself one? I suspect the latter. I love how Taubes apparently thinks she is some sort of authority on the matter but the Harvard School of Public Health is full of incompetent boobs.

Here is one of her “key problems with this study”

1) This study can at best suggest an observed relationship, or association. To make allegations about causation and risk is ignorant and erroneous.

Nowhere in the study did the authors claim to have a causal relationship. It is always stated as an association. Harcombe misrepresents the results.

Eventually her “key problems” devolve into irrelevant and unverifiable ad hominem

[O]ne of the authors (if not more) is known to be vegetarian and speaks at vegetarian conferences

It is like the author is a communist or something!  As if being a vegetarian would have any bearing on the results of the study. Are vegetarians not supposed to conduct nutrition research now, only omnivores? What about Jews or Muslims? If they do research involving meat should their results not be published? What’s more is this claim isn’t even verified. She has a citation but it takes me to this page that tells me nothing. I also went to the page with the 2013 speakers but none of them authored the study in question.

Okay, back to Taubes now.

The problem with observational studies like those run by Willett and his colleagues is that they do none of this [testing hypotheses]. That’s why it’s so frustrating. The hard part of science is left out and they skip straight to the endpoint, insisting that their interpretation of the association is the correct one and we should all change our diets accordingly.

You mean like how you do, Taubes, with your books and lectures? Except that you are not a scientist and have no medical training or research experience like Willett et al. I don’t want to engage too much in tu quoque, but pointing out hypocrisy is so much fun. Let me get in one more jab, and then I’ll move on.

I’m no expert in Taubesian hermeneutics, but I think he meant to say The problem with observational studies like those run by Willett and his colleagues is that they are so devastating to my position that everyone should eat truckloads of meat. Okay now I’ll get to the substance of his point.

Mr. Taubes seems to be accusing Willett et al. of laziness despite the fact that they churn out hundreds of studies that take decades to complete and are peer-reviewed and published in top-tier journals.2 The reason for this is because, according to Mr. Taubes, epidemiology is not a true science, and if Willett and his colleagues really wanted to study certain dietary aspects and their link to colon cancer mortality or cardiovascular disease mortality they have to conduct randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical trials (I will abbreviate as RCTs). Anything less is not “good science.”

I’m not about to give you a lecture on what epidemiology is and why it is important. It may be a good subject for a future post, but for now I will say that it is a useful field when studying large populations, incidence and prevalence of disease, or when RCTs would be unethical or impossible.

Here is a visual reference to help understand the hierarchy of evidence a little better. At the top of the triangle you have the most rock-solid evidence that we have on a given subject and the bottom is the least valuable evidence.

As you can see, the cohort studies in question are not quite as good as RCTs, but they are as close as you can get. They are not meant to replace RCTs in evidence-based medicine, but they can be a good proxy when conducting a RCT would be impossible. Here’s another visual that explains each method.

Mr. Taubes asserts that the experts are wrong and red meat does not lead to any kind of mortality. He asserts this with barely any evidence and zero RCTs to back up his assertion, yet if anyone would disagree he demands they provide RCTs because Taubes will not accept cohort studies. Conveniently for him the RCTs he demands will  almost certainly never take place. Let me explain.

Mr. Taubes seems to think that RCTs examining specific dietary constituents and their roles in disease mortality are low-hanging fruit. I’d like to see Taubes design one for, say, red meat and colon cancer. It would be worth a read just to see how he deals with the problem of blinding alone. Furthermore, what would be a good placebo? I get that one group would be assigned red meat every meal, but how do you get the control group to eat placebo meat without the subjects really knowing if they are in the meat-eating group? Surely people can tell the difference between a tofu steak and a genuine ribeye. Plus cancer is not something that you get only a few weeks into a feeding study. It takes decades to arise, so it would mean that a RCT would also have to take as much time. There are many more difficult study design issues Mr. Taubes would need to tackle before he could begin.

This is all assuming of course that the study would be funded (it almost certainly wouldn’t because it would be the single most costly RCT in history) and that it would pass IRB approval (it wouldn’t because the study itself would be unethical considering there is a fair amount of evidence that red meat does in fact lead to colon cancer3, Red Meat Consumption and Mortality notwithstanding).


Throw it Against the Wall and See if it Sticks

If you don’t buy into his Epidemiology Sucks theory Taubes also hurls some other arguments against the study hoping at least one of them will stick. One is that the increase in mortality from red meat eaters is only an increase of 0.2 so it’s basically nothing and you should just forget about it. Of course another way to present that increase is 20%. An increase of only 0.2 seems like such a small number compared to 20%, doesn’t it? What if I told you that drinking Generic Beverage That You Sort Of Enjoy everyday increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer by twenty percent? My guess is you would cut down on Generic Beverage That You Sort Of Enjoy, even if you enjoyed it.

Another argument Taubes uses is admitting the following:

[T]he people who avoided red meat and processed meats were the ones who fundamentally cared about their health

If I may paraphrase: Okay, sure, vegetarians are healthier than meat-eaters. But is it because of the meat? I say it’s because vegetarians are just generally healthier than meat-eaters. They are more health-conscious and they smoke less. It has nothing to do with meat! It’s simply the “healthy cohort effect”!

Are you sitting down? I hope so because I’m about to rock your world: I agree with Taubes here. This is a legitimate concern with epidemiological studies. If you are not careful with your study design and statistical analysis these kinds of things can bias your results. However, there are many ways you can adjust for things like this, and I think it goes without saying that if you have a poor study design or no adjustments then you don’t get published in the top tier journals in which Willett and Stampfer get published. Furthermore, sampling biases like the healthy cohort effect are stronger in smaller cohorts of 10 or 20, but when you increase sample size to 100 or 1,000 the effect becomes negligible. In the case of Red Meat Consumption and Mortality the authors use cohorts of 37,698 men and 83,644 women, so if they did their due diligence with the statistical analysis (and I’m not about to check their math, that’s what the peer-review process is for) if the effect is even present it should be so weak as to be nonexistent.

As it stands the authors of the paper in question did in fact adjust for smoking status as well as a host of other lifestyle factors.4

Watch now as Taubes removes any possible hope you might have about his scientific literacy.

So do an experiment to see which is right. How do we do it? Well you can do it with an N of 1. Switch your diet, see what happens.

The ol’ do-it-yourself randomized controlled trial. The very pinnacle of oncological research. Have you switched to a high-beef, low-carb diet? Check. Have you died from colon cancer and/or cardiovascular disease? No? Well then the experts were wrong! Help yourself to some more mutton. Take note future lawyers: this is special pleading at its finest.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Although completely irrelevant to a discussion of Red Meat Consumption and Mortality Taubes does cite one randomized trial (not placebo-controlled) that kind of shows some benefits in a low-carb Atkins diet over other somewhat popular diets such as Zone or Ornish. It is totally a red herring, but let’s touch on it anyway. The study takes premenopausal women that are either overweight or obese and assigns them to one of several diets. They all receive instructions on how to follow their assigned diets and are followed-up on after one year. Turns out the Atkins people lost more weight than the other people. They also had a slightly more favorable lipid profile (i.e. higher HDL levels lower triglyceride levels) but elevated LDL levels compared to the other diets.5

A few things to note:

  • I think it is hilarious that earlier in his post Taubes criticizes the Red Meat Consumption and Mortality study because he claims “they use questionnaires that are notoriously fallible” to collect dietary information.6 Meanwhile he praises this “A to Z” study for its design without mentioning that the authors use telephone-administered dietary recalls, which are not bad per se but chosen mainly for their efficiency rather than robustness.
  • One could make an argument that simply giving people some instruction on the diets in the beginning and then coming back in a year to measure outcomes is not the best study design. For example, many nutrition labs in the Fred Hutch (including mine) will actually provide all of the meals to be eaten during the study free of charge. This accomplishes a couple things: 1) It increases compliance with the diet7 and 2) It allows the researchers to strictly control the calories, vitamins, fat content, etc. I don’t think the above study was a poor design, but there are stronger (albeit more costly and time-consuming) feeding designs one could use when studying diet.
  • I was not surprised that the Atkins group lost more weight. There are actually good and interesting reasons for why low-carb diets are very effective in that area, but I won’t get into that now. What did surprise me at first was that the Atkins group had lower triglyceride levels. But then I remembered that weight loss in general will produce that effect, especially if subjects are overweight at baseline. If the other diets produced as much weight loss as Atkins I would expect a similar reduction of triglycerides.8
  • This study uses exclusively disease-free, non-diabetic, non-pregnant or lactating (etc…9) overweight and obese premenopausal women, so to extrapolate these results and suggest that the general population would be healthier if they adopted this diet is certainly dubious.
  • This is a diet study that examines carbohydrates and weight loss and lipid profiles after 12 months. The Red Meat Consumption and Mortality study in question deals with red meat and cancer, CVD, and other mortalities after 28 years. The former does not and cannot refute the latter. They are almost unrelated. You can eat meat three times a day and have the bulk of your calories come from carbohydrates. You can be a vegan that eats a ton of fat and protein but very few carbs. They are not mutually exclusive.

Stunning Hypocrisy

Now you may be thinking that this is a guy who simply demands the highest levels of evidence. Sure Taubes may miss out on a ton of great knowledge obtained from epi studies but the man takes a hard line on evidence. He will only accept findings from human randomized controlled trials and you can’t fault him for that.

Except that he doesn’t.

If you take a look at some of Taubes’s other posts you will see he makes other controversial claims that run contrary to mainstream science.10 In other posts he conveniently uses epi studies to bolster his narrative while impugning the RCTs that run contrary to his point.

Some examples of this are his posts on sodium. He cherry-picks cohort studies and case-control studies as evidence that the sodium-hypertension link is one big hoax. He even cites ecological and cross-sectional studies which are among the least substantial types of studies not just in epidemiology but in all of science (they would be blue or green-ish on the above pyramid), and he misrepresents their results to claim that sodium does not cause hypertension. Cross-sectional and ecological studies literally cannot show causation; they are not designed to do so.

Meanwhile, Taubes tries to downplay one of the strongest and most-lauded RCTs on the subject (The DASH trials) saying that blood pressure change was only “modestly lower.” If you call nearly a ten-point decrease in blood pressure by only manipulating sodium intake11 “modest” then sure. I suppose I can’t argue with such vague wording.*  He also says that while the researchers measured blood pressure, they failed to measure other things such as lifespan. Big deal, right? Let’s just forget about that stupid study that completely contradicts me. He says basically the same thing about the Cochrane reviews that do not support his position on the subject. Sure the reviews state that cutting back on salt will lower blood pressure, but it doesn’t prove that cutting back will make you live longer so who cares, amiright? By the way, Cochrane reviews are at the very tip of the aforementioned evidence pyramid.

At least he doesn’t sink to the level of anecdotal evidence and personal testimony to prove a point. I take that back; he does:

All I knew was that I had played high school football in suburban Maryland, sweating profusely through double sessions in the swamplike 90-degree days of August. Without salt pills, I couldn’t make it through a two-hour practice; I couldn’t walk across the parking lot afterward without cramping.

You know what? Of all the evidence on the subject that story of Taubes in high school is the smoking gun we have all been waiting for, so I take it all back. You were right all along Taubes. Go collect your Nobel Prize. You have earned it, my friend.


In Conclusion

Mr. Taubes takes the position that red meat does not contribute to cancer or CVD mortality.  He took this position without any evidence from RCTs since, as he said, they have never been done.12 Moreover, he claims that any epidemiological evidence against his position is meaningless because the epidemiology field itself is meaningless.13 The only evidence Mr. Taubes is willing to accept are those of RCTs which are nearly impossible when it comes to things like diet and cancer mortality. So Mr. Taubes has set things up to where he cannot be proven wrong even if he is wrong.

You know what? I can do that, too! I contend that parachutes are not beneficial and life-saving when it comes to falling out of the sky. Prove me wrong. Oh and you can’t point to instances where groups of people have jumped out of an airplane and the parachute has slowed their velocity toward earth allowing a safe landing while those who had a malfunctioning parachute or no parachute at all suffered major trauma or death. Those would have to be either cohort or case-control studies and therefore meaningless. There have been zero RCTs studying the effect of parachutes and gravitational challenge.14 The basis for parachute use is purely observational, and its apparent efficacy could potentially be explained by a “healthy cohort” effect. My contention stands!

If Mr. Taubes had any intellectual consistency he would have to agree with that point. At best he would have to remain neutral on parachutes, since there are no RCTs to prove they do anything.

Some Additional Nit-Picky Stuff

Nutritionists and public health authorities have gone off the rails in their advice about what constitutes a healthy diet.

Wow, that’s painting with a pretty broad brush now isn’t it? It’s like saying “Government bureaucrats are wrong.” Much like government bureaucrats there are quite a few “nutritionists and public health authorities” in the world and they hold a variety of positions on a variety of topics. You mind picking one, telling me what it is, and why it is wrong? Or do you just want to construct a straw man that grossly misrepresents what a few people may or may not be saying so you can more easily refute it?

Are you talking about the advice of dietitians? What specific piece of advice do you object to? Do you have a problem with the following statement that I took off the AND website: “A well-balanced diet filled with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, low-fat dairy and lean protein is important for health and wellness.” Is that advice “off the rails”? Here’s a statement I copy-pasted from “Limit the amount of foods and beverages with added sugars your kids eat and drink.” Is this bad advice? If so, why?

I first wrote about the pseudoscience of epidemiology in Science back in 1995, “Epidemiology Faces It’s Limits”[sic]… my Science article has since been cited by over 400 articles in the peer-reviewed medical literature…

Over 400 citations? Wow! Congratulations Mr. Taubes. You should be proud of yourself. Although I’m confused as to why you put that bit of self-aggrandizement in your post. Is it to imply that because your article has so many citations your thesis (Epidemiology is a bogus science) is correct? If citations = truth then I’m afraid that Willett (the villain in your narrative) is right and you are wrong. Why? Because Willett has actually published far more papers than you have, many of which have well over 1500 citations each. Furthermore, Willett’s papers are actual peer-reviewed scientific studies as opposed to simply lay commentary.

One last (petty) thing.

I’m writing this post with a little more haste than is my wont.

What are you doing Taubes? How about you quit pretending to be an 18th century British aristocrat and start acting like a 21st century American, you pretentious windbag. You are not Christopher Hitchens. Knock it off.

Way down at the bottom of the blog post Taubes admits a correction to an earlier version of the post. Evidently he instructed Dr. Willett to go read a chapter in a textbook titled Modern Epidemiology and learn how the “best epidemiologists” conduct real research. As it turns out Dr. Willett actually wrote the chapter in question. I won’t add any commentary here. Just let that bit of delicious schadenfreude wash over you like a warm bath.

*EDIT: This sentence originally said “more than ten-point decrease.” As it was pointed out to me by a commenter the more than 10 point decrease in blood pressure was between a low-sodium DASH diet compared to a typical high sodium diet. The data where ONLY sodium is manipulated resulted in decreases of 6-7 points.

  1. Pan A, PhD, Sun Q, MD, ScD, Bernstein AM, MD, ScD, et al. (2012) Red Meat Consumption and Mortality Results from 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med. 172(7):555-563.
  2. The number of studies published by Willett is currently at 1279 according to Pub Med
  3. WCRF/AICR (2007) Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global perspective. Second Expert Report. London, UK: World Cancer Research Fund; 280-288
  4. From the article: “The results were adjusted for age (continuous); body mass index (calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared) category (<23.0, 23.0-24.9, 25.0-29.9, 30.0-34.9, or ≥35); alcohol consumption (0, 0.1-4.9, 5.0-29.9, ≥30.0 g/d in men; 0, 0.1-4.9, 5.0-14.9, or ≥15.0 g/d in women); physical activity level (<3.0, 3.0-8.9, 9.0-17.9, 18.0-26.9, or ≥27.0 hours of metabolic equivalent tasks per week); smoking status (never, past, or current [1-14, 15-24, or ≥25 cigarettes per day]); race (white or nonwhite); menopausal status and hormone use in women (premenopausal, postmenopausal never users, postmenopausal past users, or postmenopausal current users); family history of diabetes mellitus, myocardial infarction, or cancer; history of diabetes mellitus, hypertension, or hypercholesterolemia; and intakes of total energy, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, all in quintiles.)”
  5. Gardner CD, Kiazand A, Alhassan S, et al. (2007) Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women the A to Z Weight Loss Study: a Randomized Trial. JAMA. 297(9):969-977.
  6. By the way the food frequency questionnaires used in Red Meat Consumption and Mortality as well as many other studies certainly have their limitations. No one disputes that. But they have been repeatedly verified for validity and reproducibility in many other studies, especially when looking at overall dietary patterns.
  7. something that the authors of this study were concerned with by stating: “limitations included the lack of a valid and comparable assessment of individual adherence to the 4 different diets”
  8. In fact the authors mentioned exactly that: “[T]he trajectories of weight change between 6 and 12 months suggest that longer follow-up would likely have resulted in progressively diminished group differences.”
  9. “Women were excluded if they self-reported hypertension (except for those whose blood pressure was stable using antihypertension medications); type 1 or 2 diabetes mellitus; heart, renal, or liver disease; cancer or active neoplasms; hyperthyroidism unless treated and under control; any medication use known to affect weight/energy expenditure; alcohol intake of at least 3 drinks/d; or pregnancy, lactation, no menstrual period in the previous 12 months, or plans to become pregnant within the next year”
  10. Omigosh! I did not see that coming (/sarcasm)
  11. Sacks FM, Svetkey LP, Vollmer WM, et al. (2001) Effects on blood pressure of reduced dietary sodium and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. N Engl J Med. 344:3-10.
  12. and in this author’s estimation won’t be done in our lifetimes, if at all
  13. unless we’re talking about smoking, of course
  14. Smith GC, Pell JP. (2003) Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ. 20;327(7429):1459-61.

57 thoughts on “Gary Taubes is a Blowhard

  1. Wow, did you even read Taubes’ post? I have to wonder. For someone who proclaims to purport the “science of nutrition” your overly cynical diatribe is thin on science, heavy on personal anger and envy.

    You open your argument by claiming that Taubes is corrupt enough to protect a supposedly financial windfall he is apparently collecting from his research. You really think he has made a lot of money off these ideas? Where’s your evidence of that? From what I can tell, journalists of his type aren’t exactly killing it.

    Nowhere in your post do you specifically address the SCIENCE that Taubes uses in his argument. Instead, you summarize his thesis incorrectly with sweeping, lazy summarizations such as claiming that Taubes says that red meat does not contribute to cancer. Where did he say that? He’s saying experiments are needed, not these inconclusive studies that draw mere associations.

    Of course that would require intelligence and nuance, something obviously lacking in your post whose first words are “Gary Taubes is a Blowhard.”

    I guess the “science of nutrition” is really a sneering contempt …. just like this post indicates.

  2. “You really think he has made a lot of money off these ideas? Where’s your evidence of that? From what I can tell, journalists of his type aren’t exactly killing it.”

    Good Calories, Bad Calories was a New York Times bestseller, but I suppose there’s no money in being a bestselling author, right? His new book Why We Get Fat also seems to be selling quite well on Amazon right now, despite the fact that it has been out for a while.

    “Nowhere in your post do you specifically address the SCIENCE that Taubes uses in his argument.”

    Correct me if I am wrong, but the only science Taubes cites in his article is the Standford A to Z study which I did respond to.

    “Instead, you summarize his thesis incorrectly with sweeping, lazy summarizations such as claiming that Taubes says that red meat does not contribute to cancer. Where did he say that?”

    You have a point here. I don’t think Taubes ever explicitly states that red meat does not contribute to cancer in his blog post. This is why that statement is not in quotes. However, when you are responding to a study titled Red Meat Consumption and Mortality that concludes “red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, CVD, and cancer mortality,” and you make the following statements:

    “[T]he folks from Harvard got it wrong. Not most times, but every time. No exception. Their batting average circa 2007, at least, was .000. Now it’s these very same Harvard researchers — Walter Willett and his colleagues — who have authored this new article claiming that red meat and processed meat consumption is deadly…”

    Praises Harcombe’s analysis of the paper who says the study is not only wrong but “this is ‘science’ at its worst.”

    “[W]hen we compare people who ate a lot of meat and processed meat in this period to those who were effectively vegetarians, we’re comparing people who are inherently incomparable.… When the Harvard people insist they can ‘correct’ for this… they’re fooling themselves. And we know they’re fooling themselves because the experimental trials keep confirming that.”

    “This is why the best epidemiologists … think this nutritional epidemiology business is a pseudoscience at best.”

    “[T]he Harvard people don’t see the need to look for alternative explanations of the data … which means they don’t actually see the need to do real science.”

    “How else can they explain why their associations are the opposite of what the experimental trials conclude? And if they don’t explain this away somehow, they might have to acknowledge that they’ve been doing pseudoscience for their entire careers. And maybe they’re right, but I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on it.”

    I don’t think it is unfair of me to summarize the position as I did. Did you get the impression that he agreed with the study?

  3. Seth, first of all, as someone who has worked in the publishing industry, I can tell you that the term “best-seller” is a slippery one indeed. It’s not very meaningful, and given the relatively small royalties paid to writers it’s foolish to assume how much they’re making.

    Sure, guys like James Patterson, John Grisham and J.K. Rowling clean up, but authors like Gary Taubes who are writing for what is essentially a niche market, represent quite a different story.

    But forget all that . . . Even if he HAS made a lot of money from that book, you have built your entire case around the assumption that Gary Taubes is not sold on his own research, that he’s peddling snake oil and that he’ll say whatever he has to in order to make a living.

    Wow, talk about cynical. Would you say the same thing about all the scientists who say global warming is real? They have a vested interest, too, you know, with all the grant money they get from studying. And yet most of us take as credible the conclusions drawn from the world’s scientists about that issue.

    Your blog is supposed to be making its points on SCIENCE. Instead, you ASSUME that Taubes is essentially a charlatan who is spinning out garbage in order to feed his family. That’s just silly if you can’t back it up with anything more than reflexively cynical conjecture.

    Most importantly, it sounds as if you agree that it was hasty to say that Taubes was claiming that red meat did not cause cancer. (Because he did nothing of the kind.)

    But then you go on to quote many passages in his essay before saying:

    “I don’t think it is unfair of me to summarize the position as I did. Did you get the impression that he agreed with the study?”

    Every single point you quoted said nothing about the conclusion of the study itself (whether red meat causes cancer), only HOW the study arrived at its conclusions.

    Taubes disagreed with HOW the study was done, not the conclusions of the study itself. That’s obvious.

    His entire point is that the only way to answer this red meat question properly is to do it with legitimate science — meaning EXPERIMENTS not mere “studies” that show “associations.”

    I’m sure you understand that correlation is not causation. Good thing we don’t build bridges and put people on planes using the pseudo-science of correlation!

    I have no idea or not whether he thinks red meat causes cancer, and neither do you. What I DO know is that he’d like it to be proven one way or another with real science, not this junk science that leads to recommendations being reversed every few years.

  4. Now we are getting to the heart of the matter, Bill.

    Let me see if I can draw an analogy here. Vitamin D is a strange and complex molecule. We all know that vitamin D plays an important role in the regulation of bone health, right? But what about other diseases? What about something like cancer? As it turns out there have been many, many animal studies that examine the in vivo effects of vitamin D on many different cancer types. Nearly all of these studies show either tumor suppression, reduction in tumor volume, decreased incidence of tumor formation, etc. There is also a fair amount of epidemiological studies suggesting similar outcomes. The strongest evidence is in favor of colon, breast, and prostate cancer prevention, but good arguments can be made for other cancers such as retinoblastoma, adenocarcinoma, leukemia, etc. Furthermore, there have been cell culture and tissue studies done to elucidate the plausible mechanisms of why this is. For example, we know vitamin D plays a role in decreasing proliferation, inducing apoptosis, promoting cell differentiation, decreasing angiogenesis, and activating detoxifying enzymes. (I can cite all of these studies if you don’t believe me.)

    However, to date no large-scale randomized clinical trial of vitamin D has been completed with cancer as the primary prespecified outcome. Why is this so? I try to make the argument (and maybe I didn’t do a great job of it – I’m not a writer by trade) that RCTs of this nature are almost effectively impossible.

    Still, do you think it is prudent to say that there is no evidence that vitamin D has any role in cancer prevention? This is my problem with Taubes. There are good reasons to think that red meat is implicated in cancer mortality: not just epidemiological, but experimental as well. (You should check out my third citation. You can download all 537 pages for free and examine the evidence yourself. It was published in 2007 so it won’t have all the latest data but it still has quite a bit.) But instead of being objective and saying something like “Okay, there aren’t many RCTs on the subject but the preponderance of evidence suggests that eating red meat and processed meat can lead to cancer,” Taubes instead impugns the researchers and denounces an entire field of science. He essentially tells his fans not to believe their lies unless and until the RCTs are completed. This just is not sound advice (see my parachute analogy).

    I also pointed out that Taubes conveniently cites several epidemiology studies to make the case that the salt-blood pressure link is a myth, while downplaying the meta-analyses, systematic reviews, and RCTs that support the salt-blood pressure link. This information is not especially relevant to his Science, Pseudoscience, Nutritional Epidemiology, and Meat post, but I thought it was interesting. It also led me to conclude that Taubes is either misinformed or misinforming. To put it in a less PC manner: stupid or liar… and I don’t think Taubes is stupid.

    • I actually agree with you here, pretty much. It’s a good and fair point. The comparison with Vitamin D is a good one. I certainly take Vitamin D (or get out in the sun for 15-20 minutes per day), based on everything I’ve read. It doesn’t mean I’m totally convinced it’s the end-all, be-all, but based on what I’ve read it certainly appears compelling. That’s good enough for me. We have to go on what we have, after all.

      We all take in the information and make the best decisions we can. Just because the case against meat hasn’t been locked down in a scientific way doesn’t mean it might not be smart to take certain measures.

      I think any reasonable person would be able to conclude that (a) the science implicating meat as a direct cause of cancer is weak, given everything that Taubes says, but that (b) when you factor in everything that could be true given ALL the data we’ve seen over the years, it certainly makes sense to moderate your consumption of red meat.

      I don’t find that contradictory at all. It’s just a mistake to say that the case has been proven, because it hasn’t.

      Also, one crucial thing every study (that I know of) has missed is this: The studies never separate out organic, grass-fed beef from the conventionally processed meats. It’s quite possible that any possible carcinogenic effect from meat is from the different way in which meat is grown and processed, compared to what our ancestors ate.

      • “The studies never separate out organic, grass-fed beef from the conventionally processed meats.”

        This is a great point. One of my fellow students has mentioned this to me a few times. We actually did a podcast on this very topic, but we could not come to any definite conclusion because of the dearth of studies on the subject.

        I also would disagree with your (a) point, but my point in this blog post was not to build a case against red meat but rather to point out what I think is flawed reasoning by Taubes.

        I am glad we were able to find some common ground in such a heated topic. I will leave you with the last word if you’d like it.

  5. The only last word I need, Seth, is to thank you for this blog. Despite my critique (which started out overly harsh on my part), I have to hand it to you for creating something truly valuable and useful.

    Seriously, I wish all blogs I ran across were this thoughtful and comprehensive.

    Also, in case you never heard of him, the other guy you might want to check out is a guy named Brian Peskin. If you think Taubes is controversial, wait’ll you see this guy! But his science is extremely rigorous and I think he’s worth exploring.

    Thanks again.

    • I have a HUGE problem with this:
      > So do an experiment to see which is right. How do we do it? Well you can do it with an N of 1. Switch your diet, see what happens.

      If you have a terrible outcome cognitive dissonance will push you incredibly forcibly to defend Taubes. After all, why did you try something so dumb – you’re not stupid are you?

  6. Taubes is indeed a blowhard and is simply unfamiliar with the bulk of the relevant scientific literature. And he does a discredit to those who don’t think that red meat is necessarily harmful, he just hasn’t done enough research.

    What I would have done was offer areas where the study could have been better. Right now there are numerous studies on red meat and colon cancer that make an attempt to control for cooking technique and temperature and in most the association is reduced or eliminated entirely. High heat cooking forms mutagens. Low heat, not so much, and there are many dietary ingredients that can neutralize them like green tea and green vegetables. So right there the whole debate got a lot more complicated, and this study didn’t make an attempt to control for that very important issue. Neither have the “experts” who just swear that red meat causes cancer.

    There is also the issue of heme iron. It has been shown to be mutagenic. But there are many animal experiments where they add things to the diet that we should be getting anyway and it prevents heme from being damaging to colonocyte DNA. Calcium to bind it and remove it from the body without oxidizing anything. Vitamin e to do the same, fiber to produce butryrate to product cells. And in those experiments it all kind of renders the heme issue moot. It’s not really about the heme, it’s about the lack of the nutrients that protect the body from an oxidant.

    The problem he has, in my view, is that he can’t possibly reconcile the associations having anything to do with meat with his worldview. He thinks that carbs kill you. Carbs + You = Dead fat you. Could grilling your steaks harshly cause anything? There isn’t even a single molecule of carbohydrate in that! He can’t talk about heme because his diet is low in antioxidants and fiber. Although I doubt he has read anything about it. Same goes for Tom Naughton. I remember his post on one meta-analysis on red meat and colon cancer and his conclusion was of course, sure there may be some associations, but there are also some where it wasn’t associated! Eat all the meat you want, meat doesn’t cause cancer! And I was sitting there wondering about the carcinogen formation and the heme iron, and nobody had any of it.

    The low carb and paleo world are downright hostile towards me when I suggest that there might be some things that they want to do differently. I even posted a whole bunch of references explaining the issue on one forum and everyone just said “nah I don’t buy it, gimme some crispy steak!”

    Of course they could have controlled for more things. Is meat intake correlated with trans fat intake? What about frying oils? And he did have a good point about illicit drug use. Maybe there are grown ladies and aren’t big drug users. But maybe some of them used to be and red meat is correlated with early life drug use that left a lasting impact. Or prescription drug abuse, since they’re nurses. So clearly this study doesn’t have the kind of power to say anything definitive on the matter. And indeed you’re right, they never claimed it was absolute proof. Except for Dean Ornish who peer reviewed it but he’s kind of out in left field and not a serious scientist.

    What really got me about that study is that the lowest mortality was in the third quintile of red meat intake after the age adjustment only. And then it become associated after the multivariate analysis. But I would have tacked on about half a dozen more things to control for. Maybe more although sleep quality and psychosocial stress are kind of hard to control for.

    • You make great points. It is always difficult to strictly control for dietary factors even in RCTs. And even if you somehow manage to do so, most RCTs involving humans are only a few weeks long.

      Animal studies on the other hand are great for measuring in vivo effects of something because you can tightly control their food and environment from birth to death. This can lead to some really great data. Of course the drawback is that you can’t definitively say that results on mice or rabbits are analogous to the results you might get from people. But if you have cell studies, animal studies, and epidemiological studies all in agreement on something you are probably approaching the truth.

  7. Sorry but Taubes is right on this one, even though he’s intellectually dishonest. Health conscious people tend to believe that eating red meat is bad, so the people left to eat the red meat are the less health conscious ones. So its not that red meat kills, its that people who eat red meat tend to live unhealthy lifestyles.

    • Grinchman, I’m curious why you say Taubes is intellectually dishonest. What do you mean by that specifically?

    • This could very well be true. It could be that some observational studies suffer from this selection bias that they just can’t shake. However, that would not explain away the fact that nitrites are used to preserve meat, which go on to form nitrosamines and nitrosamides in the presence of animo acids. These compounds are known to be carcinogenic. Also cooking and/or charring meats forms heterocyclic amines which are carcinogenic. In addition, there is another compound formed from cooking meat called 2-amino-3-methyl-3H-imidazo quinoline (or simply IQ) that is not particularly harmful on its own, but is metabolized by anaerobic bacteria in the gut to form hydroxy-IQ which is a direct-acting mutagen. Of course you can get around this particular problem by eating raw meat, but then you open yourself up to a host of other problems with microorganisms.

      But my ultimate point here is not that “Red meat is bad and here’s why…” but more like “Taubes is not being objective and honest and here’s why…”

      • You could also probably get around it by eating something with the right kind of antioxidant activity

        I have looked at many of the purported mechanisms by which meat could contribute to disease and it always looks like there is an antidote of some sort. Namely calcium and antioxidants, also lower cooking temperatures. Like for heme, there is a potential danger, but a potential solution

        This paper;4/2/177#ref-64 has a nice picture of the relationships

        Bile acids from fatty acid digestion can damage cells by producing ROS, but it can be inhibited by calcium and antioxidants.

        More important confounding factors are endogenous defenses and anti-inflammatory signaling. People with good defenses are going to be less susceptible to carcinogens, and if meat is usually correlated with junk food diets it could create a synergy…of doom. But it’s hard to say what the real risk to an individual is, and it depends on the individual. Like you said on my other post a while ago, if we have a mechanism, and we have a bunch of correlations, and even animal experiments and hopefully controlled trials, it all comes together nicely and we have reason to believe something, but what about the individual who is in excellent health and only has a minor risk even without the precautions? Glutathione production partially inhibits the carcinogenic effect of HCAs in rats for example

        Some might want to characterize meat as bad and protective nutrients as good, but it’s kind of a moot point. For those who want some sort of evolutionary narrative about humanity to guide food choices maybe I could characterize the healthy human as a meal eater. Meat goes with vegetables, people have compulsions to eat vegetable with meat (at least some do…), a chimpanzee will eat leaves along with monkey meat. But then maybe there was just more to gain by man becoming a hunter and a cooker than not having a bit of damage to his gut and it was a digression away from a healthier diet for a better chance of avoiding starvation. Or there was no selection pressure, because the diet always contained a lot of plants and there was no selection pressure to adapt to heme or certain carcinogens completely. And then we went from hunting and gathering to eating at fast food restaurants and we’re maladapted to that for optimal health. Then again I suppose a major fallacy of the paleo view on things is that we don’t always evolve towards optimal long term health. Or if we do we don’t always evolve fast enough between dietary changes. Or some things are just impossible to adapt to completely.

        My policy at the moment is that I eat a moderate amount red meat with greens containing a lot of calcium, spices, and fruits. If it truly does turn out to be that meat poses a big health risk I’ll eat less of it, but it also has unique nutritional properties like being the best dietary source of creatine, carnosine and beta alanine, taurine, carnitine, and some others. And the evidence from epidemiology isn’t so compelling all of the time. Not cherry-picking here, just trying to make a point that in Japan red meat isn’t associated with cardiovascular disease (although 100g per day is a far cry from what Taubes or paleo advocates eat…) and low heat cooking techniques are inversely associated with colorectal cancer in Australia (primarily grass-feed in Australia which has CLA, which has been shown to be preventative of colorectal cancer) there could be confounding factors at play, and there also could be a lot of context to the issue and whatever Japanese and Australian meat eaters are doing prevents this.

        But what do you tell the public to do with a situation like that? Supposing that eating spices and vegetables with meat in the context of a good diet and lifestyle makes it 100% healthy, does public policy become to share all of that information? I’m taking my chances with eating some properly cooked grass-fed beef and taking precautions when I think it’s appropriate but it’s another matter to get most people to be consistent with it. Tough call. I’d still like to see more attempts to falsify the notion that a particular food kills me in all cases. Not from Gary Taubes! But from the scientific community. I guess there are people who wrote the papers on calcium and heme but how much of a voice do they have? There’s also this one which is pretty good

        Anyway, I like this blog, it’s a place for real discussion 🙂

  8. Grass-fed meat does not protect against vascular disease. Kuczynski reported in 1925 that the nomadic Kirghiz plainsmen who subsisted on a diet consisting of organic meat and milk from grass-fed livestock had a high incidence of obesity, premature extensive atherosclerosis, contracted kidney, apoplexy and arcus senilis, whereas their urbanized kin who consumed a more varied diet did not have such severe vascular disease.

  9. The Mongols provide another natural experiment in diets dominated by meat and milk from exclusively grass-fed animals.

    50-70% of Mongols are overweight or obese, 30% of deaths are due to vascular diseases (leading cause), and 21% are due to cancer. Chronic diseases account for 66% of deaths in Mongolia in 2002.

  10. Pingback: Good Calories, Bad Calories: A Critical Review « The Science of Nutrition
  11. Yikes, dude!

    How about this simple analogy:

    Red plus Blue equals Purple.

    Let’s say Red is fat, Blue is carbohydrate, and Purple is body fat.

    You want to blame Red, uniquely, for Purple.


    All of us that have lost weight, have better cholesterol readings (not that that is significant either out of context), and just FEEL so much better, choose to differ with your lop-sided account.

    Perhaps if you went on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat and protein diet you would think more clearly … at least more accurately.

  12. I did not claim in this post that [dietary] fat is uniquely to blame for body fat. I didn’t even claim that in any other post. I don’t even think I implied it.

    If I am in error, please disabuse me of my ignorance.

    Note: If you want to be taken seriously please use evidence instead of colors, anecdotes, and insults.

  13. I’m glad somebody is saying this. The Taubesian herd mentality is tiring, and many of his acolytes are just as bad as him, as you can see even from the comments here. I think they should get an award for logical fallacies and denial, and good thing very few scientists take them seriously.

  14. It’s laughable that meat & vegi causes anything but optimal health and goes against evolution. More likely the man made inventions from the dawn of agriculture cause all the chronic disease.

    Zoom out and get perspective.

  15. Nice post! Truly. Especially about Harcombe. “Nutritionist,” unlike “Dietitian” (at least in the States) is not a legally protected word. I am just a personal trainer, but technically I can be a nutritionist.

  16. Pingback: Re-structuring The Paleo Diet: Why Starch Makes Sense | Maria Mae Stevens
  17. Pingback: Restructuring The Paleo Diet: Why Starch Makes Sense | Maria Mae Stevens
  18. Whomever wrote this diatribe against Taubes is a moron. Sounds like a big fat white blustering Republican that just can’t stand how smart Taubes actually is.
    I have studied this for almost 30 yrs. I am not published, yet but will be when I finish my book.
    I was crushed when his came out, but alas he is too brilliant so most people yourself included just don’t get it. I have been an athlete since I was ten. I have always had insulin resistance. Everything they told me and my family about Nutrtional was a crock of shit..I grew up when they were selling the lies on the evils of fat.
    I have been a personal trainer for decades, ran cross country college track and was a bodybuilder.
    I can qualify everything I say.
    I hope to work under Taubes or Lustwig and I want to bring the whole personal training system down.
    My textbook in the class I am taking is selling lies because it knows Americans are too stupid to read the studies.
    Taubes is right.
    I on my own read Walter Willetts studies and all the evidence was not done controlled , with placebos and they are all correlational, none is causational.
    If you weren’t talking out your ass, you would know that.

    • I’ve quit calling carb insulin a theory. It’s an assertion. If you don’t accept it like the sun in the sky, gravity and Biff’s sports almanac YOU’RE A COMPLETE MORON. Not even ketosis can fix you. A lobotomy is the only thing left.

  19. Pingback: Book Review: Why we get fat and what to do about it by Gary Taubes | Planning With Kids
  20. So there was an 11-drop in BP in the DASH study that was achieved ONLY through sodium manipulation, eh? For someone who touts his scientific acumen, you don’t seem to have bothered to read the study, Ace. The 11-point difference was between a “standard American diet” with high sodium and a DASH diet (far less processed food, more vegetables, far less sugar, etc.) that was also low in sodium. If you interpret that as meaning the 11-point difference was caused ONLY by sodium manipulation, it’s time to go back to school … or at least read the study before waving it around as proof that Gary Taubes doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  21. Sorry, you claimed a 10-point drop by ONLY manipulating sodium, not 11 points. I’ve read the full text, but even the abstract ought to make your error clear to you. Read it several times and see if you can grasp the math:

    “Reducing the sodium intake from the high to the intermediate level reduced the systolic blood pressure by 2.1 mm Hg (P<0.001) during the control diet and by 1.3 mm Hg (P=0.03) during the DASH diet. Reducing the sodium intake from the intermediate to the low level caused additional reductions of 4.6 mm Hg during the control diet (P<0.001) and 1.7 mm Hg during the DASH diet (P<0.01). "

    During the DASH diet, going from high to intermediate sodium caused a drop of 1.3 mm. On the same diet (i.e., not comparing control diet to DASH diet, as the researchers did in order to produce something that almost looked like an impressive outcome), reducing sodium from intermediate to low caused a drop of an additional 1.7 mm. 1.3 + 1.7 = 3 … otherwise known as "a few points." So on a diet not full of sugar and other crap, a drastic reduction in sodium intake produced a 3-point drop among subjects already diagnosed with hypertension. Wowzers. Let's hide the salt shaker immediately.

    The science of nutrition … like the title says.

    • While I appreciate your attempt at making me look like an idiot by being a prick, much like the real Gary I noticed that you like excising bits of information that don’t fit your narrative. What happened to those with hypertension on the low-sodium diet? I’ll quote from the part of the abstract that you intentionally left out: “As compared with the control diet with a high sodium level, the DASH diet with a low sodium level led to a mean systolic blood pressure that was 7.1 mm Hg lower in participants without hypertension, and 11.5 mm Hg lower in participants with hypertension.”

      I suppose people with hypertension don’t really matter, though. I mean it’s not like the diet was designed to prevent and treat hypertension or anything.

      • I don’t know what turns HFLC users into insufferable precisionists, but I think reading GCBC four times has a lot to do with it. Brain fog reduces the mind to a play-doh state where GCBC becomes the Bible and GT becomes Jesus.

      • And I’m not kidding. I’ve had GCBC quoted to me chapter and verse just the way a streetcorner evangelist quotes the Bible, with full prooftexting.

  22. And once again, you apparently can’t grasp basic logic or basic math or both. The researchers put a group of people on a control diet they said mimics the standard American diet — i.e., full of sugar and other crap. They took those people from a very high sodium intake to a very low sodium intake on the control full-of-crap diet and tracked BP. Then they put the same group of people on the DASH diet, which is nothing like the standard American diet, and again took them from a high sodium intake to a very low sodium intake. The 11.5 mm drop wasn’t the result of ONLY manipulating sodium. That was the comparison between the full-of-crap diet with a high sodium intake and the DASH diet with a low sodium intake. Two completely different diets, one full of sugar and other crap, the other based on whole foods and plenty of vegetables. So the big drop wasn’t due ONLY to manipulating sodium. Read the part of the study you just quoted to me, Ace:

    “As compared with the control diet with a high sodium level, the DASH diet with a low sodium level …”

    Are you unable to grasp the difference between a control diet and a DASH diet? That sentence you think I intentionally left out because it doesn’t support my narrative does, in fact, support my narrative, dumbass. It’s right there in plain English: the researchers are comparing two completely different diets when they cite the 11.5 mm drop in BP. The biggest difference in BP was clearly caused by changing from a full-of-crap diet to a whole-foods diet, not by going from high sodium to low sodium. The difference in BP WITHIN EACH DIET didn’t vary much as the subjects went from high to low sodium. Within the DASH diet, going from high sodium to very low sodium produced a BP drop of a measly three points. That’s crystal clear if you actually read the data. But you, Mr. Science, claimed this study showed better than a 10-point drop in BP as a result of ONLY manipulating sodium. Here are your exact words:

    “If you call more than a ten-point decrease in blood pressure by only manipulating sodium intake “modest” then sure …”

    Am I misinterpreting the phrase “by only manipulating sodium intake”?

    And of course if Nina Teicholz made that kind of error, you’d be all over it as proof that her book isn’t scientifically sound. But if someone points out your own errors, now he’s a prick — but of course, you’re not a prick or anything for calling Gary Taubes a blowhard while waving around a study you either didn’t read or didn’t comprehend.

    You’re a hypocrite and, by your own definition, a prick.

  23. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and some animal products are foods that are highly
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  25. Seth,

    I debated even writing this – the discussion has already been had and is several years old, and there’s hardly any point in adding to the noise. Still though, I read “Gary Taubes is a Blowhard” more than a week ago now, and I cannot shake my frustration. Perhaps this will help.

    I found your post while looking for a thoughtful critical review of Good Calories, Bad Calories. I really enjoyed the book, but was interested to hear folks on the opposite side – Taubes’ arguments were very convincing, but I figured there had to be some good points about omissions or misinterpretations on his part.

    I did find some worthwhile reviews, and then I also ran into your post.

    There are clearly a lot of issues with this combative post, not the least of which is the fact that you ultimately seem to agree with one of Taubes’ main contentions with the study, which begs the question, “Does the man not have a valid argument?”. But these issues have been addressed or alluded to in the discussion that’s already been had here, so I’d like to make a quick point:

    The viewpoint that Taubes represents – that of the the carbohydrate-hypothesis / low-carbohydrate diet proponents – is an embattled one. It’s gaining traction of late, but the added attention has only made it more contentious. In my view, and the view of a lot of folks more intelligent than myself, there’s a lot of reasonable science that supports the hypothesis – enough at least that it shouldn’t be ridiculed the way that it often has been. Meanwhile, so much of what has been handed down as fact from national and international nutrition organizations is clearly based only on studies like this one, epidemiological studies that suggest associations, but which don’t show a causal relationship. In this context, can you blame Taubes for feeling upset? Not for the reasons you describe – not to defend Idea X (which, by the way Seth – how can the same exact argument not be made about any idea-peddling nutrition organization or writer, yourself included?) because he is invested financially and reputationally in the idea. The reason he’s frustrated is because he feels strongly about these types of studies being used to make public health recommendations, which is exactly what happens. “Look – there’s a new study that shows that Red Meat causes Cancer!” We know how these things get simplified by mass media, and we know what people take away – ‘I shouldn’t be eating red meat’. Taubes and his reputation and wealth aside, there are plenty reasons to believe that such an idea is wrong, and that this study (and the other epidemiological studies) are just not enough to say it’s right.

    In the end, I think you do make some good points about Taubes’ response to this study. But my issue is not with what you’ve said about his response, so much as the way that you’ve said it: by couching the discussion in a personal attack. And then also, that I think you were so eager to make the personal attack, that you missed the real reason for Taubes’ defensiveness.

    Maybe Gary Taubes is a blowhard. What kind of a guy is the one who write this type of a blog post?

    • I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I wrote this post kind of hastily years ago. It’s clearly dripping with emotion, but I still stand by what I wrote. Since this post I have written a more thorough critique of Taubes’s book Good Calories, Bad Calories. It is still incomplete, but I am far more proud of that work than this. Just FYI.

    • It is a blog post and it is his blog. If you didn’t like his tone you could “changed the channel”. More importantly, unlike Mr Taubes, is nutrition information will not cause people to drop dead prematurely.

    • If you are looking for the definitive critique, read Ancel and Margaret Keys Eat Well and Stay Well. Keys was, and still is, kryptonite for HFLC proponents, and they shamelessly ridicule him in any way they can. A lot of it is because of this piece, written 10 years before Atkins Diet Revolution:

      “Severe epileptics were once treated with a high fat “ketogenic” diet so as to overwhelm them with fat in their diet (80 per cent of calories) to the point where the fat could only be incompletely “burned” in the body and the “smoke” of this incomplete combustion, the “ketone bodies”, would accumulate in the blood. This is a heroic measure, only justifiable as a last resort in uncontrollable epilepsy. Fortunately, this is practically never used today. The basic physiological unsoundness of the “ketogenic” diet is well recognized. New drugs are available that do a great deal more for the epileptic patient.”

      Ancel didn’t realize that ketosis dieting was also effective for rapid weight loss to treat obesity, but Atkins et al never let up on him. As time went on the attacks have gotten sillier and nastier. The HFLC proponents went too far with their fatty-meat-is-healthy crusade though. Ancel’s rebuttals to this are based on observation, both personal and at a national level. Here’s a sample, where he talks about the training table for the Minnesota Golden Gophers ca 1940:

      “The team player’s diet is apt to be built on the same philosophy as the old Chinese idea – if you want to be big and strong you eat the muscles of big and strong animals – plus the notions of nutritionists who believe that whatever grows baby rat meat faster is better. So they are stuffed on the biggest (and most expensive, therefore fattest) steaks to be found, they guzzle gallons of milk, and nowadays may be plied with vitamin pills as well.

      This is an indoctrination into adult dietary foolishness. When the rowing blues leave the university and no longer are forced to keep in training they soon turn into heavy business men; not much later the atheromata are in full bloom in their arteries.”

      It’s a shame that Gary Taubes cannot include such obvious wisdom in his books. But that would have required being a working nutrition researcher at the University of Minnesota. Keys fought a battle against the fatty-meat-is-healthy nonsense he first encountered in the early 1940’s, and 20 years later created the Mediterranean Diet as the healthiest response.

  26. I’ve been reading a lot of Ancel Keys lately. Mostly because the good Dr. Eades called him an old drooler and posted a picture of him at age 100 after he’d had a stroke. I did a rare thing and actually bought Ancel and Margaret Keys book Eat Well and Stay Well. Thank you Dr. Eades, Dr. Atkins and Gary Taubes for all your Ancel Keys ad hominem attacks. You have led me to Keys strategy for a long healthy life, and it is most definitely NOT from HFLC dieting.

    Creating a monstrous pile of cherry-picked data (Diet Revolution, Protein Power and Good Calories Bad Calories, eg) is not going to convince me that the godfather of all this – Dr. Atkins – did not have CVD problems and a weak heart when he died at age 72. Ancel Keys predicted this to be the effect of eating mass quantities of fatty red meat, and Dr. Atkins is in fact the poster child for what WILL happen to you if you do. A pile of books by his acolytes will not bring him back to live a longer healthier life. Ancel Keys may have gone out with a drool, but he was still lecturing and traveling in his 90’s.

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