The UTSA Provost Lecture Series on Feb. 8 presented “Why We Get Fat” by renowned author Gary Taubes. The topic of Taubes’ lecture was based on the historical research outlined in his latest book, “Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It.”
A self-described “hard-core science journalist,” Taubes was the recipient of the “Science in Society Journalism Award” in 2001 for his article “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat,” published in the journal “Science.” Taubes holds degrees in physics, aerospace engineering and journalism; he writes on subjects ranging from science to nutrition and medicine for “Discover Magazine” and the journal “Science.”
His latest book, “Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It” was published in 2010. Taubes is also the author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” “Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet” and “Weight Control and Disease.”
Citing scientific observation and nutritional research dating back to the 19th century, Taubes debunks the accepted wisdom that claims overeating makes people fat. Taubes also refutes the notion that increased prosperity, access to abundant food choices and sedentary lifestyles of those in developed nations contribute to weight gain and obesity.
In an effort to understand and explain the causes of obesity, Taubes credits historical research with discovering high obesity rates and diabetes cases among Native American peoples, as well as other indigenous populations around the world.
“I went back through the literature looking for populations where obesity and diabetes levels were measured prior to 1980,” Taubes said.
His research found that in the 1960s and 1970s, cases of obesity and diabetes were found in one-third to one-half of the populations in countries such as Africa, Trinidad, Chile, including islands in the South Pacific and the Southeast and Southwest regions of the U.S. Additionally, Taubes also noticed segments of these same populations were diagnosed with malnourishment.
According to Taubes, these populations were comprised of people who led physically active lifestyles. They were ranchers, farmers, labor workers, yet close to the majority had serious medical problems due to obesity.
Taubes’ findings challenge what he calls the “inconvenient observation” [that concludes] “if eating more makes you fat, then eating less should make you thin.” He says the reason is because it does not adequately explain why, despite diets containing 2000 calories a day or fewer, these populations experienced such high obesity rates together with cases of under nutrition.
Taubes also points out that another theory, calories in/calories out (energy balance), which is currently supported by leading experts in the medical community, also cannot explain the disparity between high obesity rates and under nutrition in these communities.
After examining this research, Taubes’ alternative hypothesis became “Obesity is (caused by) excess fat accumulation, not energy balance or overeating.”
Taubes is convinced that excessive food consumption and inactivity do not lead to weight gain and obesity. Instead, Taubes explains that the opposite is more likely the culprit to increased weight gain as we age.
“We overeat because our fat tissues are accumulating excess fat,” Taubes said.
Inside our fat cells, fatty acids bind to other molecules and other fatty acids to form triglycerides. Taubes explains that triglycerides get stuck inside the fat cell because they are too large to pass through the fat cell membrane. The accumulated fat in the cells results in weight gain.
Science has proven that chemicals inside the body, called hormones, regulate how the body functions and responds to stimuli. Taubes states that the chief chemical that controls how the body regulates fat is the hormone insulin.
Insulin production is directly caused by the foods we consume. Foods high in carbohydrates and sugar signal the pancreas to secrete insulin for proper blood sugar regulation. Carbohydrate-rich foods – including sugary foods – are easily digestible; meaning they quickly raise blood sugar levels, creating a need for insulin. When our blood sugar levels rise, the sugar is stored as triglycerides in the fat cells.
When triglycerides become stuck inside the fat cell, “the fat cells get fatter” and “the fat stays in the fat cells until the insulin level drops,” according to Taubes. Once this happens, we become trapped in an unhealthy cycle of craving foods high in carbohydrates and sugar. Ultimately, this hormonal imbalance creates a chain reaction that Taubes attributes to fat accumulation.
Taubes points out that carbohydrate-rich foods continue to be at the base of the USDA’s Food Pyramid despite research dating back to the mid-1940s that prove carbohydrates and sugar are major contributors to weight gain and obesity,
The problem with the Food Pyramid, according to Taubes is that “we all grew up believing that we should eat a low-fat, high-starch meal as a way to prevent heart disease, but [instead] we got fatter and fatter,” Taubes said.