Why we get fat – interview with Gary Taubes

Why do we get fat — and what should we do about it? Conventional wisdom says eat less, move more. The problem is that this advice rarely works very well.

Science writer Gary Taubes has spent the last decade finding a better answer. His book Good Calories Bad Calories has been very influential, changing the minds of many. He’s also written the more accessible Why We Get Fat – and What to Do About it.

Here Taubes discusses his theories (that are surely close to the truth) as well as the criticism from people who still think that calories are all that matter.

What do you think?

Gary Taubes’ blog


  1. Donna
    Great interview, if a little esoteric for many people. Too bad he didn't have time to talk a bit more about experimental design. It sounds like the only way to really test different macronutrient-composed diets is to confine subjects to an institutional setting so that you can control 100% what they are eating. I think I've heard Taubes say that before, and I don't see any way of getting around that. It is likely very expensive, but certainly not impossible.
  2. Stacy in USA
    I so appreciate Gary Taubes. I love his skepticism. He's not going to let anyone get away with pushing incomplete answers.
  3. Mike
    I remember that one of Gary's illustrations in Good Calories, Bad Calories was sumo wrestlers. Just as the Maasai, who were lean, had one of the highest percentage fat consumptions recorded, sumo wrestlers had one of the highest percentage carbohydrate consumptions. I doubt sugar is part of the wrestlers' traditional diet. Maybe sugar is not always necessary for obesity: perhaps really determined over-feeding with white rice is sufficient.
    Reply: #4
  4. Tim
    The thing is... Once in the body, white rice IS sugar.
  5. Erik
    I think Mike was inquiring about sucrose (glucose and fructose) being ingested in specific quantities to dysregulate appetite or promote insulin resistance as opposed to just eating starch, which breaks down to glucose.
    Within the carbohydrate paradigm, that is explanation of why populations eating higher proportions of carbohydrate do not get fat. Omega 6 fats and overall consumption are also explanations used, by Peter Attia, for example.
    Stephan Guyenet cites the Kitavans, who eat higher amounts of carbs, though no sugar, as an example of the food reward hypothesis. I thought that Gary's comment that if a population was obese without eating sugar, or high amounts of carbs, would disprove his hypothesis.
  6. 2 comments removed
  7. Mike
    I wasn't really inquiring about anything.

    Gary says in the video that perhaps sugar (table sugar: sucrose) might be necessary for obesity.

    I'm suggesting that perhaps the example of the sumo wrestlers, who he himself cited in his book, shows that that's not necessarily true -- although it may, of course, be generally true.

  8. Jonathan Swaringen
  9. Bernardo
    Very good video! Very good quality too! You are becoming a true professional, Doc! It is amazing to see how GT is honest, as he's always been, about not knowing all the answers and how much knowledge, common sense and logic are always present in the way he's thinking a articulating. Thanks for the video!
  10. First, let me add to the praise that your video production skills are outstanding.

    At some point, I hope this artificial debate over whether calories count ends, because it is dividing people pointlessly. Obviously, a caloric deficit is needed for weight loss and, obviously, calorie counting strategies have had such a high history of failure that one must focus on more fundamental causes. Yes, yes, we know the reason the restaurant is so crowded is because there are a lot of people in it. We want to know why there are a lot of people in it!

    In declining order of certainty, I think we can say that:

    (1) Eating nutritious food is critical, because the body cannot possibly stop craving food until it has received all necessary nutrients.

    (2) Reducing consumption of empty calories (energy without other nutrients) is bound to be helpful in reducing weight loss. As it happens, most of the popular sources of empty calories are high carb foods. But not all.

    (3) It is easier to drink large quantities of empty calories than to eat them, so special attention should be paid to reducing caloric drink intake.

    (4) Food addiction seems real. Each of us should figure out if we have a personal food or drink to which we're addicted (obviously, something we are unable to go one day without fits that category). Products made with wheat flour, corn syrup, or packaged products high in industrial bean or seed oils are likely candidates, but we should simply look for our own personal demons.

    (5) Theories involving insulin, leptin, and food reward may or may not be true, but don't need to be resolved for us to each obtain benefits. There is enough overlap in what we know to stop losing friendships over potatoes.

  11. Thank you for interviewing Gary Taubes. He literally changed out lives! :D
  12. @Less Antman

    You state "Obviously, a caloric deficit is needed for weight loss". However, I disagree with this statement in part. There were studies depicted in Taubes' book GCBC which indicated those that ingested higher levels of calories over those that ingested lower levels showed a greater weight loss when following a LC diet.

    In other studies, some individuals ate in excess of the 'normal' recommended daily calories and continued to lose weight.

    This is not to say you cannot lose weight with calorie deficit, but those deficits are usually coupled with decrease in carbohydrate.

    Reply: #15
  13. Ken
    Yes, great production and great interview.

    A tip: when you have a guest who coughs, if it's distracting enough you can just do a "jump cut" around the cough, then "patch" the jump by covering it with a video-only shot of you listening.

  14. I think it actually is correct to say that a caloric deficit really must accompany weight loss (assuming we're talking about losing body fat weight). Naturally, that does not imply that counting calories is the best weight loss strategy, but I don't think that's what Less Antman was saying at all. Although the laws of thermodynamics are often cited inappropriately in discussions about diet, we still can't get around them!
  15. @Josh

    I read GCBC cover to cover and admire Taubes. The problem, pointed out by many critics, is that none of the studies that showed higher weight loss with identical calories for LC were conducted under conditions of verified food intake. They relied on notoriously unreliable personal logs kept by the participants who lived normal lives away from the control of the experimenters. If my life depended on it, I couldn't reliably tell you the exact quantities of every food I ate today. And people lie, especially about foods they weren't supposed to eat on the diet assigned to them.

    In every study of inmates (those kept at a facility with their actual consumption of food could be controlled and verified), the metabolic advantage disappears. There's no real evidence for it. There are many reasons to favor a diet that is low in refined carbohydrates, but the metabolic advantage is highly dubious, in my opinion. I believe the explanation lies in the greater likelihood that avoiding processed carbs devoid of nutrients means one will satisfy hunger with less food.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

  16. Let me add that I agree a decrease in calories usually coincides with a decrease in carbs (most junk foods are high in carbs) and that my own diet is based heavily on meat, fish, nuts, berries, and high-fat dairy. I also avoid cereal grains like the plague. But I, like many others, have found potatoes to be very satiating (yes, with lots of sour cream and butter!) and to help with weight loss. And they are high in carbs, but not processed carbs.
  17. Ondrej
    LowCarb leads to spontaneus decrease in calorie intake. Protein and Fat are more satiating. And just the fact that you bother about your intake and really check something or make choices means you probably lower it. No magic in LowCarb. I know lean people on higher carb diets, as well as people who can't get lean on very low carb. That said, I'd probably choose LowCarb diet if I didn't want to do Intermittent Fasting. But I want to, and see results even with occasional cake/chips:-)
    Find a way to lower your calorie intake and stop believing in some magical diets. Standard diet means something very different in almost every country. There are no purely good or bad foods.
    LowCarb? It works. Calorie counting? Works. Fasting? Works. Paleo? Works. The problem is adherence, not method. What is certainly harmful is stressing over the types of food you eat every day.
    Reply: #21
  18. Wolfstriked
    Ketosis IS a totally natural state and easy to achieve....just don't eat.What people forget is that in our modern times food is so easy to come by and so some people will have a hard time staying in ketosis.That is totally natural and will cause these metabolically destroyed people to actually survive longer than people who just burn fat all day.Just get a ketone meter and see what level per meal keeps you in ketosis range you want.

    As for not losing weight even though in nutritional ketosis,that is proof that it is not just ketosis.Lower calories is where its at.......now hear me out and dont Carb Hate on the concept as that leads nowhere.There is also thyroid,leptin etc that come into play in weightloss and who knows what else.

    Interesting video I found on Jimmy Moore blog that states some very VERY important stuff.The video talks about studies that show that carbs raise T3 conversion the best and the important thing to take away from this video was that happens even at reduced calories(the cause of less and less T3 production),When the low calories are changed to pure carbs the T3 conversion ramps right back up.The problem with meat and fat as shown in this reduced calorie diet(800cal)was that it did nothing to elevate T3 levels.So again....at 800cals the t3 production drops and eating LCHF does not raise it....mixed meals slowly raises it while 800cals of carbs raises T3 rapdily.

    Now that said the video also shows that calories alone raise T3 levels so that eating LCHF becomes a very important exercise in getting the right amount of calories.Too much and you can gain weight even though your in perfect fat burning state and too little and you shut down T3 production.

  19. Paleofast
    GAry TAubes if a hero of mine...for crying out loud the man is lecturing medical doctors on the role insulin plays in energy partitioning! His book the Diet Delusion or good calories bad calories in teh USA is one of the best researched pieces of journalistic writing ever written...this man can change lives. It shows what a clear critical mind can do for uncluttering and clearing the cob webs ffrom any field of human endevour. I also own his other book on why we get fat. A decent summary of the DD but with much fewer WOW moments. The latter is the one I lend to friends and family...it is presently doing the rounds...Don't worry Gary most people end up buying it when they have to return it!

    I do paleo with IF (20 hour fast every day) and it seems to work great although I am yet to measure my ketones. IF also ensures a certain degree of CR as at least I can never make up for all the calories I would consume in one day by eating within a limited time window after 17:00. In my opinion if you fast what you eat becomes extremely important. The problems with carbs is that
    1) we have never evolved to consume them in the quantitties we do now. In teh stone age we did not have a staple food. We ate what we found on a daily basis. Variety was assured with occasional seasonal abundance of a certain type of food
    2) carbs especially processed ones come full of calories but little nutrition. I want to make each and every one of my meals count...
    In the end it is personal choice..... but the truth remains that certain foods are positively bad for us. We have said this ad nauseam. Even the lean carb eaters are not by any means exempt from the diseases associated with carb consumption. They can get diabetes, CHD, cancer etc. Even worse they do not have they same incentive that us fatties have to change our dietary regime because aesthetically they look fine....do as you please but be warned..lean on carbs does not mean healthy!

  20. @Ondrej

    "I know lean people on higher carb diets.."

    It is really important to understand the fact that very lean people can be metabolically obese. There is a lot of fat accumulation and damage that cannot be accounted for by looking at someone. Eating a low carbohydrate lifestyle cleans you from the inside out.

    "Magical diets."

    LCHF is not magical, it is a fundamentally healthy and sustainable way to eat and cut out junk which adversely affects your body.

    "There are no purely good or bad foods".

    I think you've entirely discredited your statements with the aforementioned comment. I mean, really?

    "What is certainly harmful is stressing over the types of food you eat every day."

    So, your hypothesis is stress affects health more than food ingestion. I cannot wait to read your randomized study.

  21. Ondrej
    even the best studies aren't flawless. There are too many variables. Adequate protein intake, vegetables, real food...that's ok. But people should admit their knowledge of metabolism is incomplete and we simply can't control all variables, obsess about omega 3, fructose or anything. Effects of drugs depend on dosage. I like occasional McDonalds meal, chocolate, as well as seafoood or steaks. What is healthy about eating the same unflavoured high fat yoghurt every day? About measuring ketones? I did it, it ruins life in the same way as calorie counting, it leads to bad relationship with food. Food is a) essential b) to be enjoyed. What is healthy about checking dietdoctor every day, arguing whether Lustig has moral right to eat baguette, as he does? Yes, food should not be labelled good or bad. One should try to go for nutritionally dense, toxin free diet. But there are other factors, sleep, stress, social live, exercise..that are negatively affected by food obsession. I have to laugh hard when people think that a journalist can appear and tell the doctors "it's all about one hormone, you missed it in all that research"...I know, use some evolutionary talk, some simplified biochemistry and people will love it. But life is complicated. It's nice to know people lower calorie intake and have all essentials covered, but that doesn't make LCHF superior, and it's not aan effect of macronutrient percentage or one hormone, that's pure bullshit. If you lower calorie intake and cover macronutrient and mineral needs, you are good to go whether you use LCHF, low-fat diet, imtermittent fasting, Joe's marshmallow diet or super horoscope diet.
  22. Paleofast
    The importance of evolution and adaptation to consume certain food types cannot be denied.
    LCHF does not like to be tied to the past. I think the paleo principle is the best guide of all. When the press keeps shooting bad science or incomplete science at us: eggs kill you, fasting makes you die sooner evolution offers a framerok to rationally evaluate this information. Were our ancestors likely to pass on a clutch of eggs? No. Were our ancestors likely to eat eggs every day?No there were no staple foods in the stone age. Were our ancestors likely to eat everyday three times day NO! So really who needs bad science, bod food questionnares and sensationalism.

    As for insulin please note that it is such an important energy switch only in teh context of our highly unnatural high carb diets of today. In ketogenesis our more natural state insulin is no longer so important.

    Anybody agrees that any diet internvention can bring change to body mass (& composition), but what is really healthy for you as an individual of a given species is dictated whether your like it or not by your genes and the enzymes they encode and by the relative proportions of the different gut segments and the strength of the digestive glands.

    Most people prefer to forget that we are after all jsut another animal on this planet. Like all other animals we were well adapted to your carnivorous semi omnivorous diet.
    This is the best diet for us hominins. Fasting helps as well to recreate the food scarcity we were exposed to for 100s of 1000s of years.
    This knowledge remain. We all have choices.

  23. Ondrej
    Hmm..I agree..the problem is..if Mark Sisson or Doc gives you template diet, it is more of a quesstimation, generalisation...far from "gene diet therapy" tied to your needs. Our ancestors ate many diets...I believe fasting might be the strongest principle, it's absence the biggest flaw of modern era. I think "what is really healthy for you" is really out of control, you can have specific slight intolerance, pathway defect...or predisposition for a disease development where dietary intervention wont help. Too much out of control to bother with strict good/bad food lists. Obviously this cant be excuse to combine fasting with Snickers and call it the ultimate diet.
  24. Paleofast
    @ Ondrej
    THis is the danger with IF. many people take it as a free ride to junk food. But this is because we see fasting as punishing so that we need a reward at the end. When supported by healthful meals (call it paleo or lchf) containing a huge variety of animal fat/protein and vegetables the fasting state become a time for cellular damage repair. With our 24 hour food culture when is the body ever going to carry out these vital processes?
    It is funny how we leave at a time of unprecedented plenty and yet we panic as soon as our stomach rumbles. We abhor somatic hunger but let ourselves be guided by our limbic hunger the one that makes us binge.
    The food perception and relationship in most people in Western society is seriously screwed up.

    And you don't need Mark or the doc to tell you what to eat. Build your own base knowledge. This is what either of these two men have done for themselves first and before sharing it with others on their blogs. Read the very good scientific papers by Boyd Eaton and Loren Cordain. Read Steffanson and Voetglin's book the stone age diet. Once you have the knowledge you can then make your own intelligent guestimates and enjoy the process as well!

  25. The Grinch
    I appreciate Taubes' skeptisicm and willingness to put himself out there against the mainstream, but he is guilty of exactly what he accuses other researchers of doing. He completely ignores all evidence that refutes his hypothesis. The reality is, the reason researchers think calories are king is because of the dozens of studies that show insulin and carbohydrate intake have virtually no effect on weight status, and that calories have the most effect of any one variable. And the benefit of eating less on a low carb diet has nothing to do with carbs, but instead has to do with increased protein.
  26. Ondrej
    This article is very enlightening, eat real food, even carbs, and be ripped:-) Chris...well, health is first for him, but he left paleo and moved to real food...
  27. Michael
    RE: confusions about calories. And I'm speaking as a Taubes/Attia/ fan. Here's my simple take away summary:

    A) If you want to get fat, you won't likely do it by overeating fat calories, for most people(**) they're going to need sugar. Sumo wrestlers eat a low fat diet. When I tried to gain 10-15 pounds on a ketogenic diet it didn't work well, it was a pain in the @ss to feel so full and I didn't gain fat easily. When I tried to gain 10-15 pounds on a high carb/sugar diet it was very easy and I had no trouble overeating. Maybe it's because I'm still young or whatever but my experience is: it's easy to get fat by eatin a lot of sugar, it's not easy to get fat by eating a lot of fat.

    B) If you're overweight you're likely stuck in this fat trap where you oversecrete insulin. That's when low carb diets do their best, to get you out of that zone of you being hungry all the time and carrying a lot of energy in your fat reserves but not burning it. In most experiments the low carb group eats less food without having to count their calories compared to the low fat group. And many people report eating more than before on a low carb diet yet they lose weight easily. Low carb diets offer satiety and fat loss that will get one out of the obesity zone but they probably won't get you to be as lean and thin as you want. Enter calories.

    C) If you want to get lean <10%bf you'll have to control calorie/food quantity intake. Your body doesn't care how you look on a photo. Only a smart calorie control + exercise program will give you that ripped look.

    So calories do count, but it depends where you are. They might not matter if you're overweight but they surely do when you want to lower your body fat % to see all of your abs.

    ** I say most people because I know there are exceptions but there are even exceptions when it comes to gaining fat on a fairly high carb / mixed diet. There's a documentary entitled Why Are Thin People Not Fat which is the story of an overeating experiment done on college students. Some students don't get fat even when they overeat twice the amount of calories they usually do. If that calorie balance model doesn't work 100% of the time then we need to stop invoking the laws of physics (:rolleyes:) and find a better model to explain body fat % fluctuations.

  28. Jenni
    Thank you for this and all the other fantastic interviews!

    I have been living my life LCHF/Paleo for some four months now and I feel fantastic overall. Nevertheless, I have gone through the transition phase with headaches, fatigues etc. which sometimes made me doubtful and had me considering going back to the old lifestyle. Also, being bombarded by all the propaganda from certain industries and large corporations about the healthiness of their products has been hard to overlook during those times. Lectures by knowledgeable individuals such as Gary Taubes, Dr Donald W. Miller, Dr Robert H. Lustig, Dr Mary Vernon and many others have provided strong support and kept me going. Similarly they have encouraged me to lower the amount of protein I get and increase the amount of fat which is a necessity and has made me really see a difference.

    We need more doctors and active individuals like you. Tusen tack!

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