Why Gary Taubes, an investigative food and science journalist, continues to challenge the status quo of nutrition
Taubes, whose articles and books on healthier eating have garnered controversy, says his goal has always been to ‘translate expert opinion.' He will be speaking at The Longevity Project event from 5-8 p.m. on April 12 at the Silverthorne Pavilion.
Gary Taubes is used to controversy. And he refuses to let it be a deterrent for his career.
Through articles and best-selling books, Taubes, an investigative journalist focused on the intersection of nutrition and public health, has delved deep into the world of dieting. Some of his published works, including “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” “Why We Get Fat” and “The Case Against Sugar,” highlight Taubes’ endorsement of a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet — a stance that has been met with mixed reactions.
But Taubes said his reporting, like any strong journalism, is based on the facts.
“The argument that I’m making is, ‘look, clearly the conventional wisdom hasn’t worked,’” Taubes said. “And that’s because the conventional wisdom is based on bad science, biased science.”
Taubes’ instinct to challenge the status quo began when he landed a job as a staff writer covering science for Discover Magazine in 1982 after studying physics at Harvard University, aerospace engineering at Stanford University and after graduating with a master’s in journalism from Columbia University.
Inspired by the watershed reporting on the Nixon administration by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which he read about in their famed book, “All the President’s Men,” Taubes said he saw investigative journalism as an “honorable career.”
His foray into publishing came in the late 1980s when Taubes released his first book, “Nobel Dreams,” which explored the science and politics behind a Nobel Peace Prize winner’s work on the origins of the universe.
But it was in his subsequent book, “Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion,” that Taubes challenged some the accepted science of the time. Through nearly 300 interviews, Taubes sought to expose the flawed research of scientists touting an unproven hypothesis for room-temperature nuclear reaction.
What: The Longevity Project with speaker Gary Taubes, New York Times bestselling author and investigative health journalist
When: 5-8 p.m. April 12
Where: Silverthorne Pavilion, 400 Blue River Parkway, Silverthorne
Tickets: $25 at SummitDaily.com/longevity
“To get the right answer in science you need to be … skeptical, and skeptical of your conclusions,” Taubes said.
Taubes believes it’s that same skepticism that can be lacking in the science behind diets and nutrition.
Taubes was living as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles when he called an editor he knew at Science, an online science-based news website, who asked him to look into an emerging trend called “dash diet,” which is rich in fruits and vegetables while low in fats. While Taubes’ article centered around a study investigating if the diet could reduce or prevent hypertension, Taubes said his reporting led to more questions than answers — especially after a call with a former president of the American Heart Association left him skeptical.
He went on to commit much of his reporting to the root causes of diet-related disease, in particular the obesity epidemic which, at the time, was still emerging in the United States. Mulling over research papers stacked “a foot high,” Taubes said his articles were guided by the work of his initial books which explored what he called “good” and “bad science.”
“There’s a common theme in bad science, those scientists involved fall in love with their hypothesis,” Taubes said.
In 2002, Taubes published a now infamous story in New York Magazine titled, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” The print magazine’s cover was eye-catching: A juicy cut of steak, glistening with butter, accompanied by the words, “What If Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat?”
Through scrutiny of past scientific research and conclusions about dieting, Taubes’ article pointed to a need for higher-fat, lower-carb diets as a solution to obesity. Carbohydrates, in particular sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, were among the primary culprits of America’s accelerating health problems. And eating less and exercising more was not the answer to a leaner body, Taubes’ findings argued.
“It was one of the few magazine articles that prompted other media to respond to it,” Taubes said, adding the article even caused a rift with friends. “Anytime you have a journalist saying, ‘the expert’s got it wrong,’ you’ve got a problem.”
Taubes acknowledged that his role of critiquing the science community as a journalist poses an “interesting problem.” Taubes said his audience must trust him to “translate expert opinion,” rather than push his own agenda.
“We’ll never understand a theory as well as the people we’re talking to. And yet, clearly, a lot of mistakes have been made,” Taubes said.
Taubes’ books, including his most recent, “The Case Against Sugar” (2016) and “The Case for Keto” (2020), highlight what he’s said are serious flaws in dieting research that have cast excessive eating, particularly of saturated fats in animals, as a key reason behind obesity. Taubes’ reporting disagrees with that narrative.
Sugar, the central antagonist of much of Taubes’ work, is “a substance that’s similar to cigarettes,” he said. But Taubes said he also understands dieting is not a one-size-fits-all for the whole population.
“But the leanest you’re likely to be is going to be very different for different people,” Taubes said. “That’s not a willpower issue, physiology is also different with how people respond to food cues.”
Taubes added that he’s not “dogmatic” with his dieting either. His wife is a vegetarian and his pantry at home is stocked with its fair share of potato chips, he said.
But what he hopes his work shows is that other alternatives to conventional diet wisdom exist.
“I’m not telling a whole country to eat a ketogenic diet or low-carb diet. I’m telling people you can try it and that it’s safe and effective,” Taubes said. “I’m fascinated by good science and bad science. And I think one of the things that makes a good journalist is that they’re more interested in things they don’t know than what they do. And there’s an infinite number of things we don’t know.”
Taubes will be the keynote speaker for the Longevity Project event on April 12. Hosted by the Summit Daily News, the annual event and its accompanying series seek to educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in the High Country — with a focus this year on nutrition. The event will take place from 5-8 p.m. at Silverthorne Pavilion in Silverthorne. More information, including tickets, can be found here.
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