Recent reviews of new diet books

Published 1.10.2017
January is the season for savvy diet book hawkers to jump into the market— or at least provide copies to news outlets to read and review. I devoted an entire piece to my reaction of The Atlantic's review of Gary Taubes new book, The Case Against Sugar.
The Atlantic's review is the best I've come across to date, but of course, there have been others. In this piece, I'm going to list my reaction to other reviews of Taubes's book, but I will also note the reactions to several other new diet books on the market or soon to hit the market. Please note: I have not read any of these books, and am unlikely to do so. I'm not really a fan of diet books, most have the same tired formula, which is boring. Beyond that, since I, myself, don't follow any particular diet and don't want to do so ever again, there has to be a truly compelling reason for me to pick up the book.

The Taubes book though seems to be less of a diet book and more of a screed against sugar. The thing is, if you've listened to or read anything Taubes has written in recent years, then you have the broad outline of what he's going to say. To the extent that I've heard Taubes "debate" his beliefs, he has a position to flog, and contrary evidence (and there's a LOT of it at this point, both contra is "alternative" theory for obesity AND his newer position that sugar is a toxin) is simply dismissed or ignored. Taubes, at this point, isn't a journalist, he's a lobbyist. I routinely refer to Nina Teicholz as a journalist/lobbyist because of her past advocacy for the meat industry. Taubes has earned the same badge.

In addition, every single argument outlined in the reviews I've seen can be found discussed and analyzed on multiple (for the most part free) internet sites. Now having buried the lede definitively, here are the reviews, starting with those of Taubes first.

The Economist reviews The Case Against Sugar. Every review notes that this is not a balanced book, rather Taubes has a point of view that he is selling.

The author sets out to prove that because of its unique metabolic, physiological and hormonal effects, sugar is the new tobacco. It is detrimental to health, yet also defended by powerful lobbies.

The new piece of info is the chart showing sugar intake for various countries. Chile is the highest. Netherlands, Hungary, Belgium, Israel, Germany are all higher than the US.

The reviewer makes the point that sugar is in a lot of products, especially ultra-processed products, but that doesn’t change the fact that absent a hypercaloric state (the fancy way to say eating too much— that is, eating more than you expand.) sugar ingestion is not a problem. And of course, Yudkin is discussed, which leads to Ancel Keys being smeared. However,

Because research specific to sugar’s deleterious effects is wanting, the science, Mr Taubes concedes, is not definitive.

This is officially the theme of the Taubes reviews— in the end, after so long and so many words, Taubes can't close the sale. He doesn't prove his point, and even has to admit that eating too much — too many calories— is the real problem. I preferred The Atlantic's review, but this is the review that leaves the reader wondering why anyone would slog through the book in the first place.

The New York Times (NYT) also reviewed Taubes's book. Taubes worked for the NYT some time in the past, and the paper clearly chooses to treat his assertions with kid gloves for the most part, either that or the NYT reviewer is just not as knowledgeable as the The Atlantic's. Can you eat too much sugar? Sure. But most of the time that sugar is packaged with fat and salt. Did people really not know that high fructose corn syrup was also sugar? This is not my recollection, but that's worth every penny you paid to read it.

Taubes seems to have learned from his past mistakes, as the reviewer notes that he actually suggests that sugar might not be the big baddie. Ironically in trying to point to a simple answer, Taubes overcomplicates it. Can you get fat if you don’t eat sugar? You sure as hell can. Can you get fat eating sugar? Yep. What’s the constant between those two extremes? TOO. MANY. CALORIES.

Enough about Taubes

The NYT also reviewed other food and diet books. One is called The Cheese Trapand seems to be a vegan attempt to frighten people out of eating cheese— cheese generally being the last thing that people give up as the transition to veganism. There is no decent vegan cheese— the Chao brand that vegans on Youtube like to tout is nothing like cheese— at least if you still eat real cheese. And it doesn’t melt like cheese, which isn't to say it doesn't melt— it does, just not like cheese. From the review:

While cheese may be, as the legendary editor Clifton Fadiman called it, “milk’s leap toward immortality,” here it is death on a plate. Barnard, the founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, is an animal-rights activist and proponent of a vegan diet who has courted controversy before, and I’m in no position to judge the veracity of all his claims. But he cites studies that associate cheese with everything from America’s expanding waistline to migraines and joint pain. The problem is not just the high fat content. Cheese proteins contain casomorphins, chemical compounds that attach to the same opiate receptors in the brain as heroin or morphine.

All you need to know is that Neil Barnard is associated with the book and give it a pass.

Stephan Guyenet's The Hungry Brainis also reviewed in the same article. Obesity, Guyenet, believes begins in the brain.

The neurobiologist Stephan J. Guyenet argues that we need to understand our brain circuitry in order to stop ourselves from overeating, and he chronicles years of research on the role of the hormonal regulators of appetite and the way they work on certain neural pathways in our brains. For example, the hormone leptin codes for satiety, and if you have no leptin in your body you can’t stop eating. So why did a drug to provide people with leptin never make it to market? It turns out (probably) that while low leptin levels create a starvation response that promotes weight gain, high levels of leptin don’t promote weight loss. So much for that magic pill.

Inflammation plays a role, but it’s not understood. Guyenet thinks the brain can be “tricked” into wanting less to eat by eating a limited, bland food diet. Spicing and variety invite the brain to eat more. It’s the “food reward” theory of obesity. It’s the reason that eating only potatoes works for weight loss, because after awhile you just can’t eat any more plain potatoes. Add fat, salt and sugar on the other hand… and, well, try and stop eating them.

Basically, we eat more food if it tastes great, so making plain bland food means we eat less. I don’t want to live that way to be honest— Joel Fuhrman might prefer bland food (as he's said in past interviews) for the same reason, though his diet plan doesn't preclude spices.

The last review I'm going to note also appeared in the NYT for The Secret Life of Fat.In this case, the reviewer thinks “fat-shaming” permeates the book… it’s a DIET book FFS. The book goes through what’s known about fat. Including:

There’s also a good side of fat. It secretes adiponectin, which removes glucose, fat molecules, and toxic lipids from the bloodstream. Adiponectin helps explain why it’s possible to be fat and healthy. Doctors label it the “obesity paradox.” But it’s only a paradox if you accept the conventional wisdom that it’s the excess weight itself that is a health risk — rather than the bad habits, poverty and stressful lives that often accompany the excess weight.

Excess weight can be a health risk. Maybe not 50 extra pounds, but eventually it becomes a health risk. The body compensates until it cannot.

But while learning about the myriad ways fat manipulates our bodies in order “to preserve itself” might lead to the conclusion that we should all just adopt good health habits no matter what we weigh, Tara has a different bottom line. Even after everything she finds out about the resiliency of fat, she comes away with the firm conviction that obesity is all about willpower — and that weight loss is the ultimate goal.

The book’s author diets in exactly the wrong way in my opinion, cutting intake to an unsustainable 1000 calories per day. She falls into the Paleo foolishness, plus she starts intermittent fasting, which is just stupid, especially for women. I’m certain she lost her weight faster than I did, but will she keep it off? Neither I nor the reviewer think that she will.

However, the reviewer's slams on the book stem from the fact that she wanted to read a HAES* book, and that’s not what this is.

*Health At Every Size

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