a bag of crispy french fries, fast food

For decades we believed the experts when they repeated the mantra: “calories in-calories out.” The standard advice has always been to eat less and exercise more if you wanted to lose weight. By counting calories carefully, you should have no trouble shedding pounds.

But what if the experts were wrong? That is what science writer Gary Taubes claims in his book, Why We Get Fat. He argues that not all calories are created equal. He maintains that easily digested, highly refined carbohydrates like sugar, bread and pasta pack on the pounds.

A new study supervised by Harvard researchers offers support for this position (New England Journal of Medicine, June 23, 2011). The investigators followed more than 120,000 health professionals (doctors, nurses, veterinarians and dentists) for almost two decades. During that time the volunteers were questioned about their dietary habits, activities, lifestyle and weight.

The research showed that certain foods were strongly linked to weight gain. Potatoes, and in particular French fries, were the biggest culprits. People who often ate them were the most likely to gain weight–an average of three to four pounds over a four-year period. Potato chips also contributed more than their share to weight gain, along with sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juice, processed meats and red meat, refined grains, sweet snacks and desserts.

Foods associated with weight loss included yogurt, nuts and vegetables. Whole grains and whole fruits (not juice) also seemed to be better for weight loss. The starring role for nuts, even peanut butter, was a surprise for many experts who often counsel people to avoid this high-fat food.

Fat, especially saturated fat found in butter, cheese and other animal products, has been dietary enemy number one for years. Research that challenges the dictum of saturated fat being responsible for obesity and heart disease is frequently ignored.

One large Danish study followed more than 50,000 men and women for 12 years (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 2010). Careful records of their diet and health were analyzed. Saturated fat intake was not associated with a higher risk of heart attacks. A diet high in refined carbohydrates (sugar, bread, pizza, rolls, cold cereals and white rice), however, was linked to cardiovascular complications.

When it comes to diet, people have a hard time giving up old dogma and accepting new evidence. After we interviewed Gary Taubes on the radio, listeners battled with one another on our website: “I am 63 years old and had a triple bypass surgery two years ago after a heart attack. I want to avoid a repeat, so I am following a very low-fat vegan diet. I’ve lost 40 pounds and my cholesterol is 77. Taubes’ advocacy of a high-fat diet is so misleading!”

Another listener responded: “One size does not fit all. At 54 I had a triple bypass and I am now on a high-fat low-carb diet. My numbers are fabulous and my doctor says to keep it up.”

To learn more about why we get fat, you can download our free one-hour radio interview with Taubes (#823) at www.peoplespharmacy.com.

Get The Graedons' Favorite Home Remedies Health Guide for FREE

Join our daily email newsletter with breaking health news, prescription drug information, home remedies AND you'll get a copy of our brand new full-length health guide — for FREE!

  1. HJL

    Molly, I actually read the article you linked.
    This is the first paragraph:
    I’d like to begin by emphasizing that carbohydrate restriction has helped many people lose body fat and improve their metabolic health. Although it doesn’t work for everyone, there is no doubt that carbohydrate restriction causes fat loss in many, perhaps even most obese people. For a subset of people, the results can be very impressive. I consider that to be a fact at this point, but that’s not what I’ll be discussing here.
    Your own source concedes that for a subset of people the results can be impressive and also concedes that the the fat loss may occur “perhaps even (in) most obese people.”
    That is the point. One size doesn’t fit all. As I have repeatedly said, if fruits and carbs work for you, great. But I know for me low carb and high fat works and all my lipid and blood studies are radically improving. Note: your guy refers to improved metabolic health.
    Your source refers to leptin and hunger which is in fact key. For me I simply am not hungry on a low carb high fat diet and eat less.
    Your source also talks about genetic differences. The latest research shows on a DNA level some people are better adapted to handle carbs. You don’t feed celiac sufferers gluten, you don’t feed peanuts to people allergic to it. Why feed carbs to those of us who likewise can’t handle it???

  2. J.L.

    High carb foods of the type listed in the article aren’t good for us for multiple reasons and their presence does contribute to a little extra weight. My family has always eaten well but we gained insight into this when my young son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (this is an auto-immune condition where the body attacks and kills off the insulin producing cells in the pancreas – not to be confused with Type 2 diabetes which instead is linked with diet, weight, exercise).
    For a type 1 diabetic, potatoes, bread, rice, etc. have a terrible effect on blood sugar, causing it to spike, and their effects are difficult to regulate. Cutting back on these items and substituting them with other things made a world of difference in my ability to keep my son’s blood sugar numbers in a healthy range and, to my surprise, trimmed about 5 pounds right off my own middle. My weight is low for my age and height and I am active, so dropping this weight without effort was a surprise indeed. The changes were easy to make and easy enough for a child to follow.
    My son simply does not double up on his carbs in the course of one meal (he isn’t going to have a sandwich AND chips, for instance) or over a day (if he does have bread at lunch he’s not going to have it again at dinner). He eats a low carb breakfast (scrambled eggs, yogurt) because that’s an easy meal to go low carb on; he usually has a carb at lunch – say a piece of chicken, a vegetable, a scoop of pasta salad; and whatever I cook for dinner – since I know he usually has pasta salad or a sandwich for lunch at school I don’t serve breads, rice, or pasta at dinner (last night we had salmon, sauteed spinach, broiled pears and he had a banana lightly dipped in dark chocolate for dessert).
    High carb foods give anyone who eats them a blood sugar rush. For Type 1 diabetics, long term high blood sugar numbers lead to health complications, including heart disease. Since the people who have the most high blood sugar numbers are Type 1 diabetics we see the exaggerated effect of these health complications in them – the same problems simply happen on a smaller scale for the rest of us. Diabetic or not, we all end up healthier (and a little trimmer) by reducing the amount of bread, rice, potatoes, etc. in our diets.

  3. Denise

    After losing 5 pounds in 5 days in the first phase the Dukan diet, I can say, from my experience, high protein/no carbs (except for the obligatory oat bran) will give you weight loss (provided the proteins aren’t high fat). After adding back in the non-starchy carbs every other day, the fat loss was much slower. Had I exercised more the weight would’ve dropped off much faster.

  4. MJW

    I’ve always felt that quantity is what matters most. In America today, most people simply eat too much. And when it’s too much of the wrong kind of food (I’m referring to processing, not the food itself), one is sure to have problems.

  5. James M. G.

    I’m 67 now. Looking back, one of all of the children my Grandmother had was big. We all knew him as Buster. Always big and always had problems connected with weight. Of five siblings, I have one brother who always had problems with weight. I have one large daughter (even as a small child). Each of these, as far as I have been able to determine, ate/eats what each of us ate/eats. None of them were “pigs”.
    My daughter has tried all sorts of diet & exercise regimens. She STILL tries to be watchful of how/what she eats, still exercises but, now she no longer “blames” herself. My other children are of “average” size. I think the conclusion is obvious.

  6. HJL

    No comment, just want to receive email of follow-up comments. I’m the guy you quoted above.
    Keep up the good work and hopefully science will eventually prevail.
    H J Levitt

What Do You Think?

We invite you to share your thoughts with others, but remember that our comment section is a public forum. Please do not use your full first and last name if you want to keep details of your medical history anonymous. A first name and last initial or a pseudonym is acceptable. Advice from other commenters on this website is not a substitute for medical attention. Do not stop any medicine without checking with the prescriber. Stopping medication suddenly could result in serious harm. We expect comments to be civil in tone and language. By commenting, you agree to abide by our commenting policy and website terms & conditions. Comments that do not follow these policies will not be posted.

Your cart

Shipping and discount codes are added at checkout.