For twelve years now I’ve been intrigued by the fact that every time I cut “habitual carbs” from my diet (and by that I mean carbs I eat every day, and not a couple of cookies or an ice cream cone now and then) I lose weight. I was even more intrigued when I spent a few weeks eating almost no carbs at all (basically, lots of protein and animal fat) and lost even more weight. I’ll have my latest bloodwork results back in a week or so, and (as requested) I’ll summarize the numbers here. I’ve read several books on the topic, as well as a pamphlet on obesity dating back to the Civil War. And having read the history of the carb wars in some detail, I see it as a classic “bad science” issue: Egos, agendas, lobbyists, grant money and slimy politics distorted the public message on diet and health, and even though the original science has long been discredited, too many people would lose too much face if the health establishment abruptly reversed itself…so the low-fat nonsense persists.
It’s a rich field of study, and if my last six months hadn’t been swallowed by rewriting a 600-page programming book, I would have begun reviewing the material here already. So let’s get started.
Tom Naughton’s DVD Fat Head is known mostly as a counterpoint to Morgan Spurlock’s much-hyped video complaint Supersize Me, but that’s not fair. Spurlock is a very small part of of it. What Naughton’s done here is create a witty 104-minute video overview of the carb wars that touches all the bases, from the historical origins of our low-fat hysteria to Flash-style animated illos of basic carb/fat metabolism, as well as a chronicle of a personal eating experience that weirdly echoes mine. (I had not heard of Fat Head until a few months ago, and did not watch it until last night.)
Naughton has done stand-up comedy, and it shows. He’s a disarming and engaging interviewer, buttonholing people outside of McDonald’s to see whether those people think fast food is high-calorie or unhealthy, or whether they feel addicted to it. At one point, he buttonholes a young woman with an accent. “Where are you from?” he asks. “Russia,” she replies. “Oh–can you say ‘Moose and Squirrel?'” She looks at him funny, but then she does say it, and it’s perfect.
I’m not a big consumer of video, documentaries least of all, but the lighthearted approach kept me going through a systematic debunking of Spurlock’s lard-it-on experience in Supersize Me that was in many respects the least interesting part of the film. Tom ate 2000 calories per day at McDonald’s or some other fast food joint for a month, and recorded what he ate. At the end of that period, having ingested a boggling quantity of what most of us could not have put down without vomiting, he found that he had lost weight. (At the end he said he was really tired of fast food–so much for it being addictive.) Most damning there is the fact that Spurlock refuses to release his food logs, suggesting that there was some exaggeration going on. (If not, why not just come clean and post the stuff?) And that’s one suggestion I have for future releases of this DVD: Put Tom’s food logs in a file on the DVD and allow people to view them without hunting for them. (The logs can be found online here.) My view: If you do not publish the data, what you’ve done is not research.)
As if that were not enough, after the McDonald’s month he spent another month doing what I did this past January: Eating almost no carbs at all, but feasting on bacon, eggs, marbled steaks, cheese fried in butter, and other yummy things that most people today find as frightening as the mythical Com’nists were in the 50s. When it was over, he had his blood numbers run again, and they improved.
Whoosh, can you spell “cognitive dissonance?”
That out of the way, Tom gets down to business, and explains how this came about, and then what the real story is, according to the best science we have today–rather than 1957, when the whole thing started going sour. He has short interviews with physicians and academics like Drs. Mary and Michael Eades, Dr. Al Sears, and Eric Oliver. He summarizes the whole problem with the 1950s-era research of Ancel Keys in a minute or so: Keys cherry-picked his data points correlating fat consumption and heart disease, ignoring nations where the two do not correlate. (He had data from 22 nations. He threw out all but 4 because the others made his graph a random walk.) Keys was originally opposed by almost everyone (including the American Heart Association) but he was a Right Man and would not back down over piddly things like additional research. Once politics got into the act in the early 1970s, government money started flowing to the low-fat partisans, and the war on fat began. (Funny how the obesity explosion began just about the same time.)
Probably the best part of the DVD is the summary of the health science behind his conclusions, done in simple animated diagrams. It’s not tremendously detailed and there are no citations to follow, but by watching it, you get your bearings. And that’s really what Fat Head is: orientation, and a starting point for further research. It doesn’t stand alone. After seeing Fat Head, you have to hit the library or the bookstore and pick up a few books, particularly Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, Fat Politics by Eric Oliver, and Protein Power, by the Drs. Eades. I would add Calories Don’t Count by Herman Taller (1962) and Banting’s Letter on Corpulence (1865). (I’m still working through Barry Groves’ Trick and Treat and have a few others on the shelf.) People cite much-ridiculed Dr. Atkins as well, but there’s nothing in the Atkins books that isn’t mentioned in many other places, and his conclusions have been vindicated in research that he had nothing to do with.
Finally, the closing credits roll over a wonderful original funny song (I guess you could call it a filk) called “The Experts,” which in some respects is worth the price of admission. I don’t see the lyrics on Tom Naughton’s Web site, but damn, don’t miss it!