Author Archives: Gary Taubes

Researching the Triggers for Obesity and Diabetes

Feb 15, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by Gary Taubes

Human Capital Blog: Why did you and Dr. Attia start the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI)? What was the problem you saw that needed to be addressed?

Gary Taubes: I spent the better part of a decade, from the late 90s through 2007, doing an extensive journalistic investigation of the research that led us to our established beliefs about the environmental triggers of obesity, type 2 diabetes and their associated chronic diseases, which include heart disease and cancer. During these years it also became clear that the economic burden of these diseases was becoming unsustainable and were driving health care costs in this country. Obesity alone is estimated to cost the health care system $150 billion a year, and add type 2 diabetes and that number might double.

My research led me to two major conclusions. One is that our understanding of what fundamentally causes obesity may be incorrect: that it may not be what researchers refer to as an "energy balance" disorder— that we merely consume more calories than we expend—but rather a hormonal/regulatory defect, just like any other growth disorder. This was the hypothesis embraced by European clinicians prior to the Second World War. What I learned in my research was that this hypothesis vanished with the war and the evaporation of the relevant medical research community. Instead we all came to believe that obesity is simple–caused by eating too much or being too sedentary or some combination of the two—and this is what our national guidelines have communicated to the public and to individuals. While this has happened, the nation has waxed fatter and fatter.

The second conclusion of my work and my books was that the research in nutrition and obesity has simply never been rigorous enough to establish reliable knowledge in this field, one way or the other. There are a lot of good reasons for this, in particular that doing rigorous experimental trials with humans is difficult and exceedingly expensive. But without these experiments, we're just guessing when we say we know why humans get fat. It's quite likely that one reason we've seen an obesity epidemic is because our fundamental understanding of the disorder itself and how to cure and prevent it is incorrect. And if this is true about obesity, it's true about diabetes and heart disease as well.

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