Book: Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health

Do you want to lose weight or understand the causes of obesity? Are you interested in knowing which calories are good and which are bad? Do you want to know why the mainstream thinking on nutrition may be causing more obesity and other illnesses? Are dietary fat and cholesterol really causing obesity, heart disease, and other problems? What is the contradictory evidence, and why is it omitted? You might be surprised by the history, politics, personalities, and science (or lack-thereof) behind the current nutritional recommendations and by the possibility that the current “wisdom” on nutrition is wrong. This book is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life, and I couldn’t put it down.

I highly recommend Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (Vintage), a well-written book, to help understand an alternative hypothesis of how certain types of foods cause Western diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, etc. Author Gary Taubes, a correspondent for Science magazine who is the only print journalist to have won three Science in Society Journalism awards, spent five years doing research for the book, and the research surprised even him. He writes, “the ongoing epidemic of obesity in America and elsewhere is not, as we are constantly told, due simply to a collective lack of will power and a failure to exercise. Rather it occurred … because the public health authorities told us unwittingly, but with the best of intentions, to eat precisely those foods that would make us fat, and we did.”

Since I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan in April 2009, I’ve been refining my diet as I’ve learned more about food, nutrition, and disease. With Michael Pollan’s book, I made sweeping changes, throwing out the worst of the processed foods I was eating (like Yoplait yogurt and store brand cottage cheese), and replaced those products with healthier versions, like Dannon low-fat vanilla yogurt and Daisy brand cottage cheese, without the high-fructose corn syrup and nasty food additives. As I read more about food, I stopped buying almost all processed foods, including my favorites, and made my own from scratch.

However, there were questions that I had had since I started doing my research, like how can the French eat high-fat foods and not have a high incidence of heart disease? How can the Inuit eat an all-meat diet with high amounts of fat and maintain their health? Why do studies on hunter-gatherer populations show that they eat much less carbohydrates than we do, and yet they are free of Western diseases? How can certain populations eat mostly a shrimp diet, which is high in dietary cholesterol, and yet not have heart disease? How did people come to recommend a 60% carb, 20% protein, and 20% fat diet (which I know is wrong for me)?

In fact, I was doing more research when I came upon a link to this book, which sounded like information that I was looking for to help cut through the confusing and sometimes overwhelming information on diet and nutrition. I really resonated with what the author was saying, and the book answered a great many of the questions about nutrition that I had (all of the ones above and many more).

The author begins the book with a prologue, “A Brief History of Banting,” which I found to be fascinating. Little did I realize that low-carb diets were, according to Taubes, the main method used to lose a lot of weight and treat diabetes for 140 years, starting in 1825 in France. He gives plenty of information about the French research.

He goes on to explain the aim of the book, which is to take a critical look at the question: What constitutes a healthy diet? To do so, he critically examines the research that led to the prevailing wisdom of nutrition and health and presents information that is not usually voiced publicly for reasons that he details via history and politics. Taubes writes, “Why this skepticism [that dietary fat and cholesterol cause heart disease] is rarely made public is a major theme of this book. In fact, skeptics have often been attacked or ignored, as if disloyal at time of war. Skepticism, however, cannot be removed from the scientific process. Science does not function without it.”

After the prologue, Taubes breaks the book into three parts: The Fat-Cholesterol Hypothesis, The Carbohydrate Hypothesis, and Obesity and the Regulation of Weight. Each part is broken into multiple chapters, providing fascinating history, maddening politics, and scientific research. At times, he shows why the research is flawed, or at least the conclusions drawn from the research are flawed. From my own readings of scientific experiments on nutrition, I had already come to the conclusion that most of the sweeping generalizations drawn from the experiments I reviewed were flawed, so I really resonated with the author’s thoughts in this area.

From his research on native populations to modern society, Taubs makes a great case that refined carbs and low-fat diets are a bane to our civilization. He goes on to explain the biological mechanisms in more layman’s terms for certain diseases. For example, he shows how insulin, which is present in great quantities after eating refined carbs, causes the body to store food as fat and may also promote other diseases, like Alzheimer’s. Also, he shows a link between a low-fat diet and cancer.

While I highly recommend this book, it isn’t for everyone. It is quite dense, and it’s not a diet book, although after Taubes did all the research, he actually did change his own diet and makes some recommendations of what to eat or not eat.

However, if you are looking for an understanding of why the current nutritional “wisdom” is wrong or looking for information that can help you lose weight, read this life-changing book. This is one of those books that I want to keep on my shelf for further reference.

Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.


  1. says

    Lance, as Taubes, himself, says, this is a controversial subject. For some time to come, you will not see consensus on this subject, if ever.

    The article you referenced has some major flaws. (I’ve done a lot of research on nutrition since April 2009.) More and more research is now confirming that the ideas Taubes presented are, indeed, correct. (His whole premise was just asking for more research to be done in these areas.) The person who wrote your referenced article took many of Taubes’s statements out of context and didn’t understand what Taubes was saying about the laws of thermodynamics.

    Taubes is saying that the type of calories one consumes (carbs, fat, protein) is important. Our bodies can live without carbs, contrary to what many claim, because our metabolisms can synthesize glucose from fat and proteins. However, Taubes is not saying that we should live without carbs; he is saying that the carbs we eat are very important to weight control and that they should carry a low glycemic load. (This is another place where that referenced article was misleading. By the way, the book is not a diet book, which the article made a big deal about. Taubes just suggested that he changed his diet – and listed some things – after doing the 5 years of research it took to write the book.)

    For 150 years until the 1960s, the low-carb diet was the one used to treat obesity and diabetes.

    It is true that many people can eat unlimited calories, as long as those calories are high-quality, nutritionally dense, and low-glycemic. However, short women typically have to watch the calories, too.

    My daughter, who gained about 15 pounds at college, came home and started eating the way my husband and I do – a Paleo diet – and without exercising, lost all the excess weight. She is now known as “the bottomless pit” because she cut out grains, legumes, and dairy and piles and her plate high with the other stuff, especially meat, without gaining weight.

    Poor quality carbs make us want to eat more of them because our bodies are crying out for the proper nutrients. Proteins and fats contribute more to the satiety feeling than carbs do.

    The reason carbs are problematic, especially the poor quality ones, are that carbs break down to glucose, which requires insulin to transport the glucose into the cell. If you eat a carb-heavy meal, insulin will be dominant. Insulin is a master hormone, which controls many things in your body. Fat storage is just one example. When insulin is dominant, the body will store fat. To release fat, the hormone glucagon must be dominant.

    Taubes doesn’t dispute the laws of thermodynamics, which the article suggests he does. Instead, Taubes is saying that there is a lot more going on that people are not taking into account. Also, he is saying that most people assume the first law (below) goes one way when discussing calories; however, it doesn’t.

    Here is the equation:
    Change in energy stores = Energy intake – Energy expenditure

    There is, as Taubes points out, no arrow of causality in the equation. He says, “It is equally possible, without violating this fundamental truth, for a change in energy stores, the left side of the above equation, to be the driving force in cause and effect; some regulatory phenomenon could drive us to gain weight, which would in turn cause a positive energy balance – and thus overeating and/or sedentary behavior.”

    As for exercise, Taubes is saying that typically when people exercise, it makes them more hungry, so they want to consume more calories. This makes sense. Restricting calories is a difficult thing for most people to do for the rest of their lives, if they want to maintain an appropriate weight. It really doesn’t work.

    I can tell you for a fact that my husband, who was running for three years was stuck on a weight plateau, even though he was running a lot. As soon as we changed brands of Yogurt and cottage cheese, eliminating those with hidden corn (including high-fructose corn syrup) for more natural yogurt and cottage cheese, he lost some weight. This proves Taubes’s point about the calories and exercise.

    Then, as we switched over to a Paleo diet, he lost the rest of the weight. We eat lots of meat, veggies, and a little fruit. No processed foods or very few. We do, for example, eat apple cider vinegar.

    The Paleo diet is what we evolved to eat. Here’s a great five-part series of videos on a news report and study.

    Normally, I can eat a lot without gaining weight, too, as long as I stick to Paleo foods. However, I actually have additional metabolism problems, so I’ve been on a thyroid hormone, until recently when I ran out. I need to go back to a doctor to get another prescription.

    As for the studies, I have a scientific background and have read hundreds of studies. Most are quite flawed. One of the studies the article referenced was the Mediterranean vs. carb-restricted. This is just the abstract. This means nothing without the details of how the study was conducted. I have questions about what exactly the people ate. I’m going to suggest that the carb-restricted diet may have included more processed meats, for example. Also, this study collected dietary records, which typically are very faulty. One can’t make sweeping generalizations from this type of study. Instead, one can only use the data from this to then come up with a hypothesis to test in actual experiments, not studies.