Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

I’m a fan of the EconTalk podcast and have been listening religiously for the better part of a year. The host, Russ Roberts, brings a variety of guests onto the show and ties diverse topics back to the fundamentals of economics. One of my favorite guests has been Gary Taubes, whom Russ brought on for the first time in November of last year to discuss fat, sugar and scientific discovery. The contrarian nature of his opinions interested me immediately, but it wasn’t until Taubes was on Econ Talk a second time that I felt compelled to pick up a copy of his book Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Published in 2007, Good Calories, Bad Calories is an extremely multifaceted book. Not only is it a comprehensive history of epidemiological studies on nutrition and obesity treatments, it’s also a exposé on junk science and the dangers of politicizing public health. There’s a lot more going on in this book than I’ll be able to give justice to here, but Taubes’ main thesis is that obesity, along with a whole host of other diseases, is caused by carbohydrate consumption; and, by extension, that low-carb diets are the only healthy way to achieve sustained weight loss.

That’s not a difficult concept to grasp. Most people already understand that to some extent. The problem is that people also have the contradictory belief that dietary fats are bad in that they too cause obesity as well as heart disease. I didn’t fully grasp how diametrically opposed these two ideas are until reading this book.

Taubes devotes the first portion of the book to the fat-cholesterol hypothesis — that diets high in fat and cholesterol cause heart disease. He attacks this myth systematically, calling it into question with the very data used to corroborate it. Taubes argues that researchers who believed this hypothesis never truly attempted to disprove it as the scientific method calls for. Rather, they promoted it through systemic group think, confirmation bias, and by politicizing the issue. They claimed, and still do, that “the verdict is in” (whenever I hear that phrase the “junk-science alarm” in my head implodes).

The dangers of this hypothesis, other than the fact that it’s simply not true, are that if you cut fats out of your diet you are forced to replace them with carbohydrates. You can’t have a low-fat diet that’s also low in carbohydrates. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s about the same time this hypothesis was taught to the American public that obesity rates started to rise along with diabetes and heart disease. It’s a vicious cycle, where people know sugar and flower are bad for them but health officials have scared them into believing fats are even worse. The next logical step is for public health officials (generally not actual scientists) to recommend low-calorie diets that are ineffective and unsustainable, leaving the public confused and demoralized when it comes to maintaining healthy weight.

From there he delves into the carbohydrate hypothesis, which has been largely overlooked by western health officials since WWII. The essence of this theory is very easy to grasp; anything that spikes insulin levels causes weight gain. This is because insulin is the hormone the body uses to trigger fat storage. As the body is bombarded with carbohydrates, insulin spiking foods, it begins to become resistant to the hormone. The body then reacts by producing more insulin which, in turn, causes increased resistance. This cycle eventually leads to obesity, diabetes, and a host other health issues. Weight gain is an effect, not the cause of these health problems. For this reason, low-carb diets, which are actually what humans have evolved to eat, are the only way to stave off these so called “western diseases.”

I’ve drastically oversimplified, but Taubes wades deep into the science and gives both historical and political context, as well as some great anecdotes — my favorite example was the study that proved the dangers of all-meat diets by force-feeding rabbits (herbivores) meat. Along the way he debunks a number of myths that have baffled me for years:

  • Fat stores = Caloric Intake – Energy Expenditure
    • Sure, the First Law of Thermodynamics might apply to simple machines, but humans are anything but. Once hormones (estrogen, testosterone, growth hormone, insulting, etc) enter the equation, overall calorie intake has little importance compared to the type of calorie it is.
  • Humans need to consume a wide variety of foods in order to get the needed vitamins and nutrients.
    • I remember asking my high-school Human Physiology teacher something along the lines of, “Why are humans the only mammals that need such a wide variety of foods?” He didn’t have a good answer and neither does science; because we don’t. Hopefully we’ve all realized how asinine the Food Pyramid is by now, but if not, it’s time to move on.
  • Eating just a few less, or burning a few more calories a day will lead to long-term weight loss.
    • It’d be nice if cutting out the cream-cheese on your breakfast bagel or always taking the stairs would help you shave off a few pounds over a year, but it won’t. As mentioned above, the human body is a wonderfully complex machine. It’s capable of adjusting to fluctuations in its environment. Add a few hundred extra calories and the body will react systematically to simply burn them off without notice. Subtract a few, and the body will simple adjust the amount of energy available for physical activity. This equilibrium won’t be affected by exercise either. In Taubes’ own words, “Expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss; it leads to hunger.”

One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Good Calories, Bad Calories is that Taubes isn’t trying to convert the reader to his own specially formulated weight loss regimen with included point systems and snack bars. While he definitely has a strong opinion to get across, his aim is to convince the reader that current views on obesity, weight loss, and diabetes are not based on proper scientific research.

The scientific obligation… is to establish the cause of obesity, diabetes, and the chronic diseases of civilization beyond reasonable doubt. By doing so, we can take the necessary steps to prevent these disorders, rather than trying to cure them or ameliorate them after the fact. If there are competing hypotheses, it does us little good to test one alone. It does little good to continue basing public-health recommendations and dietary advice on association studies… that are incapable of reliably establishing cause and effect. What’s needed now are randomized trials that test the carbohydrate hypothesis as well as the conventional wisdom. Such trials would be expensive. Like the Diabetes Prevention Program and Look AHEAD, they’ll cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. And even if such trials are funded, it might be another decade or two before we have reliable answers. But it’s hard to imagine that this controversy will go away if we don’t do them, that we won’t be arguing about the detrimental role of fats and carbohydrates in the diet twenty years from now. The public will certainly not be served by attempts of interest groups and industry to make this controversy go away. If the tide of obesity and diabetes continues to rise around the world, it’s hard to imagine that the cost of such trials, even a dozen or a hundred of them, won’t ultimately be trivial compared with the societal cost.

While I feel that anybody would benefit from reading Good Calories, Bad Calories, it may be a daunting task for some. It’s an in-depth look at the science and history of public health as it pertains to obesity and diabetes. This is not a “diet book.” You won’t find a list of foods you should or shouldn’t eat within its pages (though you can easily reason that out afterwards). Nor will you find helpful weight loss tricks.

What you will find is that the evidence in favor of our society’s current view on diet and exercise is extremely lacking and that the evidence against it is quite strong. This book has convinced me to change my lifestyle. Although I don’t expect everyone to have the same reaction, Taubes gives ample validation to make anyone skeptical of public health guidelines. I strongly recommend Good Calories, Bad Calories, but even if you don’t pick up a copy I’d urge you to study these things out for yourself. Also, the next time you hear some advice from a public health institution, you’d be wise to take it with a grain of salt gram of fat.

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The Economics of Entertainment

Let’s do some math. Don’t worry, it will be entertaining; or at least it will be entertainment themed.

As it stands right now, cable TV and Netflix eat up greater than 75% of my wife and I’s monthly entertainment budget. With our imminent purchase of a house, that budget could be shrinking. This has sparked a conversation in our home about how to maximize the value of the money we set aside for this most paramount of line-items. What follows is my plan to reform our entertainment budget (I will keep the numbers rough so this conversation flows quickly).

Current Spending

Currently we pay $130 per month (including tax) for cable and Internet — our provider strategically bundles them so that consumers can’t easily decipher the actual value of either. We also pay $20 for Netflix, totaling $150 per month or $1,800 per year. When we move to the new house our cable provider will graciously lower our rate for a period of time. I believe that rate is somewhere between $90 and $100 (let’s say $95 to keep things simple). With Netflix, our total monthly expenditure will fall to about $115. That isn’t too bad, but I can break it down further.

Recently a friend of mine, who has the same Internet and cable provider, decided to cancel his cable TV subscription. It took some negotiating, but he ended up with a monthly price around $50 for Internet by itself. Assuming that anyone could negotiate this same rate, we can value the cable subscription portion of the bundle at $45. That’s not all that bad for a few hundred channels, right? In our case that is dead wrong!

In our home At least 90% of the purposeful TV viewing, meaning we sit down to watch a specific program and not channel surf, is done on network television stations. That means that we pay $45 per month, $540 a year, for background noise. Why? D-V-R!

Those three simple letters are a thorn in my side. We pay $540 a year just for the ability to skip commercials.

Step 1: Cancel Cable

My first proposal is that we cancel our subscription to cable TV. This will immediately free up $45 a month. Although it would probably be best to save this money, I would be happy if it were simply spent on things we actually received value from: date nights, clothes, food, etc. However, if it is determined that we can not live without the ability to record live TV, I suggest that we purchase Elgato’s eyeTV HDHomeRun wi-fi enabled dual HDTV tuner. This product, costing $180, will give us the ability to record the network TV stations which are broadcast in HD and are free. Its features are far superior to our cable provider’s DVR and it would give us the ability to watch recorded programs on our iMac, AppleTV or iPad. The $180 cost would be offset in just 4 months of not paying for cable; making the total savings for the first year $360.

Step 2: Cut Netflix Spending by Half

But wait, there’s more! My second proposal is to dramatically reduce Netflix spending. Our current Netflix plan includes 1 DVD by mail and unlimited streaming content. The combination of our busy lifestyle and a toddler make it nearly impossible to sit down and watch a movie from start to finish. The result is that our 1 DVD by mail sits on a countertop for weeks before we get around to watching it. By eliminating this portion of our Netflix plan we would reduce our bill by half. Yes, $10 doesn’t seem like a lot; but, would you go to theater and purchase a movie ticket just to go home without viewing the film? Me thinks not! We can find a better ways to waste it than having a DVD delivered to our house that we aren’t even in the mood to watch. Besides, we can use RedBox to rent the occasional new-release or rent a movie through the AppleTV and still come out ahead.

Recap

There you have it. My plan in its entirety: Eliminate cable TV and cut Netflix spending in half; for a monthly savings of $55 and a yearly savings of $540 ($360 with the purchase of the HDHomeRun system). Please note that these proposals do not take into consideration the expected increases in productivity – which are quite substantial.

Let’s put it to a vote! Yea or nay in the comments below.

Taxes: Swallow the Pill

In my last post I started a conversation about taxes. I tried my best to keep it bipartisan and simple because this issue is one that affects everyone regardless of political views. However, I felt that it was becoming too lengthy, so I stopped nearly mid-thought in hopes that the first post, which was less opinion and more basic economics, would prime the pump for me to share some personal thoughts.

Assuming that you have at least skimmed the last post, I will only briefly recap. First, I accept that taxes are important for any society to run even somewhat smoothly. That being said, taxation introduces inefficiencies into the market economy. Also, by their very nature, governments are not incentivesed to get the best value out of tax revenue. Often it is in their best interest to be outright wasteful.

Obviously, some major changes need to be made to America’s system of taxation. I don’t actually see that happening anytime soon so I tend to focus on what we, as individuals, can do. If you would like to do some reading on tax reform, I recommend reading “The Flat Tax Revolution” by Steve Forbes and “The Fair Tax Book” by Neal Boortz and John Linder. Both are viable options for complete overhauls of the tax code. I tend to agree with Boortz and Linder that getting rid of income tax altogether and making a complete switch to a consumption tax would maximize tax revenue and strengthen the economy by filtering much of the static caused by taxation. Sadly, Boortz and Linder also explain why neither of these common sense solutions will ever by applied. Major reform would dramatically reduce the size of government. Their would be little need for the IRS or for many of the business built around helping corporations and individuals navigate the convoluted tax code. No self respecting politician would vote thousands of people out of a job, even if it was in the best interest of the entire country. On a more general level, if politicians actually fixed problems, they would be out of a job, so can we really expect them to accomplish much?

Sounds somewhat disheartening, but all is not lost. We can leverage some of the tools each individual has to at least shift the conversation toward true reform. It is my belief that our most important tools are freedom of choice and the right to vote.

By “the right to vote” I am not speaking of going to the public library the first Tuesday of November and punching holes in a slip of paper. While I go through this process every year, I feel that this form of voting is nothing more than a placebo. Once the hole has been punched and the “I Voted” sticker is strategically placed where others can see it, the majority of people go about their lives thinking that they have somehow fulfilled their civic duty. Statistically this one little vote is meaningless and has no chance of changing the outcome of any election. It is the way that we live our daily lives that actually has the ability to stimulate societal change. The vote that I am speaking of is the use of our heard earned money. Each dollar we spend is a vote cast. These little dollar votes compound to become exponentially more powerful than any vote cast for, or against, an issue on the public ballot. Also, because “time is money” I would suggest that how we spend our time is equally important.

The largest example of how we vote with money is where we choose to live. Housing is generally the largest expense anyone accrues. Also, the communities we decide to live in is where we spend the majority of our time. By purchasing a house, paying property taxes and supporting local businesses we are funding the local government. If we do not like the local laws, tax rates, school districts or general way of life, we vote against it by moving to another city. Of course we should try to get involved in the local community and influence it for the better, but in the end the best way to vote is to move. Communities are then forced to compete to get people to relocate and stay. If you, for whatever reason, choose to live in an area where you dislike the political atmosphere, you will be using your money to vote in favor of issues that you disagree with and you’ll have to get used to the cognitive dissonance it will cause. Believe me, that can be hard.

This principale applies to everything we spend our time and money on; from the TV programs we watch, to the products we purchase. It also applies on the local, state, and national level. If we don’t like the values portrayed in a television show, we vote against it by not watching. If we don’t like the direction our country is headed politically, we can relocate. When nobody watches the TV show, it will get canceled and when people start leaving the county hand over fist, the government will eventually be forced to change. Basically, put your money (and time) where your mouth is.

I recently read Henry David Thoreau’Civil Disobedience and it really opened my eyes to how one should use their own freedom of choice to voice dissatisfaction with both governmental and societal rules. If you have never read Civil Disobedience, I would suggest that you stop reading this post, and take the time to do so now. I feel that everyone can benefit from it. It is just as applicable today as it was in 1849.

Thoreau’s theme is essentially that when we disagree with government, or society, the best way to protest is to simply refuse to participate. Because it is Black History Month, the best example that comes to my mind is Rosa Parks. Rosa chose not to participate in the societal rules dictating that Blacks were to sit at the back of the bus. It was small, non-violent, choices like this that eventually changed the rules of society. The same can be done for taxation.

Am I saying that we should all stop paying taxes? No, I am not. What I am saying is that in order to keep the government in check, there has to be a way, short of leaving altogether, to opt out in protest. Current laws require that tax, Medicare and Social Security payments be taken before wages are distributed. This ensures that the government gets its money. It also removes the freedom to choose from the equation. Having payroll taxes taken out automatically also removes much of the feeling of ownership in that money. If the entire gross wage was paid to every worker and it was their monthly responsibility to write a personal check for taxes, the government would surely be held more accountable. It wasn’t that long ago that payroll taxes weren’t taken out automatically, and the government found it hard to collect its revenue.

Another added disadvantage of automatic payroll tax is that it makes more confusing for individuals to know just how much they are paying in taxes. Do you know how much of each dollar earned you pay in taxes? On top of that, do you know exactly how much you pay in sales or property tax each year? Generally when we spend money, we understand the value before we pay. Taxes are the direct opposite, making it hard estimate the value of what is paid.

If it were easier to opt out of paying taxes wouldn’t everyone stop paying? Not at all. Refusing to pay taxes is, and always will be, against the law. There would still be heavy punishments for those who chose not to pay. The punishments would be both social and legal. That is how the theory of Civil Disobedience is applied. Those who choose to protest do so at a high cost, making the protest meaningful to them on a personal level. In order for this protest to be meaningful to society, many thousands of people would have to participate. When just one African-American woman refuses to stay at the back of the bus, nothing happens. When they all refuse, things change.

In conclusion, simply going to the polls and voting is more like taking a placebo than enacting change. Taxes are much the same. Most pay their 40%, or at least don’t give much of a fight when it’s taken, and feel they’ve given back to society in some meaningful manner. We can either ingest these pills and continue on our way, or we can use our remaining time and money to vote for what we truly believe in. If the time comes that we feel government has overstepped its bounds it might be time to stop participating in they system. Personally, I don’t feel that time is now. I generally don’t sympathize with people who go around touting that they don’t pay their taxes because I feel that most of them are stupid. That being said, I think we need to work toward a system where everyone understands exactly how much they pay in taxes before they actually pay it, everyone has to physically pay it themselves, and the majority of taxes are paid on a state level. This would enable individuals to better asses the value they are getting out of the system and relocate accordingly. If society as a whole started to feel that they were overtaxed, they might stop swallowing the pills and force some real change. It would never actually happen, but I think the higher threat might help better balance the budget.

Honestly, I could go on about this all day, and much of my opinions are not fully vetted. I thought that it would be nice to get them out of my head and see if anybody agreed or disagreed. Please let me know your thoughts.