The case against sugar by Gary Taubes is his third book on the theme of nutrition following on from “Why We Get Fat” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories”. In this edition Gary levels his strongest accusations that the key problem in western diets is our huge sugar and refined carbohydrate intake. Gary traces the evidence over time regarding the slow and insidious weight that is being packed on around the globe and asserts that this trend beings at the moment that refined carbohydrate intake starts to increase.
First things first, this is a theory, albeit a compelling one, but a theory in the same. There are other theories out there that seek to explain the same phenomenon. The “traditional” ones are the “Calories In Calories Out (CICO)” model which state that we’re simply all eating too much and exercising too little. There’s also the “Dietary Fat” hypothesis that eating fat makes us fat. The authors have at Slime Mold Time Mold have also produced interesting evidence that it is trace amounts of lithium bioaccumulating around the world. The beautiful thing about science is that we can have many hypotheses and many theories and we can distinguish between them by doing research and searching for evidence.
This then is the central claim in Taubes’s work. The level of research in nutrition science is poor, contradictory and filled with dogmatic appeals to authority and personality conflict. Taubes is ultimately pleading for the scientists to do more research into sugar and to leave their preconceptions at the door.
The evidence that Taubes presents revolves around two main thrusts:
- The historical evidence that as populations adopt the western diet and increase their sugar and refined carbohydrate intake the prevalence of the “Western Diseases” beings to skyrocket.
- Research into the role that insulin plays within the body and the various insulin related disorders (of which Diabetes is the most widely known).
The argument is then simple. The Western Diseases (tooth decay, cancer, diabetes, gout, hypertension, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s and obesity) all have linkages to insulin and refined carbohydrates and sugar specifically have the unique property of flooding the body with insulin. This continued abuse of insulin producing system in the body over a sustained period of time through sustained periods of high consumption of refined carbohydrates eventually creates the disorders.
As an argument, it is clean, refined carbohydrates and sugar specifically are one of the hallmarks of the industrialised food system as they are incredibly labour intensive to produce without mechanised infrastructure to smooth the process. It’s also testable as well. If Taubes is correct then restricting carbohydrates and specifically sugar should lead to measurable improvements in health outcomes over time. Doing the research itself is almost impossible though. As the Western Diseases are accumulated over a long period of time and exist on the spectrum of human experience any such research project would take decades if not generations to see the result. This complicates things. A lot. Though, this is true for every other hypothesis that seeks to explain these results.
We can of course look to the natural world and what is clear to me is that the current approach is not working. We’re fatter and arguably less healthy than we’ve ever been. Looking around the world it is extremely clear that something is wrong. In the language of Thomas Kuhn from the “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” it feels as though we’re on the cusp of a paradigm shift in the nutritional sciences as the evidence continues to pile up that the current theory doesn’t work. Of course, we may have to wait for Planck’s Principle to work it’s magic before we see any meaningful change.
In the interim and noting that the choices here have both an individual and a population effect an approach to life must be determined. As this is a subject that generally interests me I tend to run natural experiments on myself over time as my diet changes. Currently, I am coming off a much higher sugar/carbohydrate base than historically for me as we continue to go through extended COVID lockdowns. This cannot all be attributed to diet as physical activity levels have dropped as well but diet has changed massively.
Weight wise, I’ve added on about 7kg of fat and increased the weight size substantially. I’m also tired, more stressed and low energy which is atypical for me. So I’m probably going to swing back the other way and remove the carbohydrates from the diet again. I’m not sure if I’ll go into full on ketosis noting that the keto flu is pretty miserable but I will definitely be cutting out as much sugar as possible from my diet to see the effects over the next couple of months.
This then is my main takeaway from Taubes’s work. I’m motivated to change my diet. That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give. A 4/5.