A nutrition journalist dieted his whole life and still gained weight. Then he tried the keto diet, and 'it was like a switch being flipped.'
Kirsten Lara Getchell / Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Journalist and low-carbohydrate lawyer Gary Taubes argues in the new book "A Case for Keto" that general dietary recommendations make some people obese and unhealthy by recommending too many carbohydrates.
Instead, Taubes' argues that low-carb diets can benefit people who are poorly responsive to insulin by reducing foods that can cause blood sugar to rise.
Keto may not be for everyone. But most people could still benefit from being more carbohydrate conscious and cutting out substandard sources like processed foods and sugar.
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If you've ever had trouble losing weight with standard dietary advice, or if you thought that typical diet advice (half carbs, mostly plants, not too much) was not for you, Gary Taubes can refer to it.
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The longtime nutritionist and journalist argues that low-carb, high-fat diets are more than just a trend in his latest book, The Case For Keto, dated December 29th. Instead, keto diets fill a serious gap in our understanding of how to eat for health, he says.
In part, according to Taubes, this is because people who don't have chronic diet-related health issues often make conventional dietary recommendations.
"The problem is we have received nutritional advice from lean and healthy people. My argument is if we do what they do we get hungry and fatter so we can't do it," he told Insider.
He says he tried unsuccessfully for years to lose weight before finding a low-carb diet as a health revelation. Now he hopes to share his experience to help people like him.
While the keto diet is considered relatively new to the nutritional world, growing research and books like that of Taubes suggest that the diet has entered the mainstream of our nutritional consciousness and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. "Keto" was recently ranked the Most Popular Diet in the World based on search engine data.
"If it hadn't worked for me, I wouldn't be writing a book about it."
Taubes, a retired soccer player, amateur boxer, and self-described "big guy," said conventional diets felt like a constant battle with his appetite. With a family history of obesity, he noted his weight gained in his thirties despite a low-fat diet and exercising an hour a day.
His first foray into the low-carb diet was stimulated by the popularity of the Atkins diet in the early 2000s. Similar to keto, the diet cuts out bread, pasta, and other carbohydrates in favor of unlimited amounts of meat, cheese, eggs, butter, and other high-fat foods.
Taubes filled eggs and bacon for breakfast, meat and cheese for lunch, and a large steak with a small green salad for dinner.
Within a few months, Taubes said he had lost significant weight. The experience prompted Taubes' revolutionary 2002 article, "What If It Was All One Big Fat Lie?" The New York Times praised low-carb, high-fat diets years before "keto" hit the headlines of the mainstream news.
The backlash was intense, and the rebuttals accused Taubes of selling sensational misinformation.
Nowadays it is more and more accepted that fat doesn't make you fat and that it may not be related to as many health problems as we previously thought. However, low-keto and low-carb diets are still controversial, partly because the lack of rigorous long-term studies leads to questions about the health effects of keto over time. This prompted Taubes to continue advocating low-carbohydrate diets in his work.
"If it didn't work for me, I wouldn't be writing a book about it," he said.
Keto is about how you use insulin, not calories
Taubes' experiences are similar to those many people describe during their first low-carbohydrate diet when, after years of struggling to lose weight, they finally succeed on other diets.
"I had been on a diet all my life. I was gaining weight, so I tried [keto] as an experiment," Taubes said. "I felt great. It was like flipping a switch."
Taubes argues that compelling research suggests that many people gain weight not because of excess calories, but because of insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar. When you consume carbohydrates, it causes blood sugar to rise and your body releases insulin in response.
Sometimes the body becomes desensitized to insulin (this can be caused by consuming too many refined carbohydrates and sugars) and needs more of it to keep blood sugar levels up. Keto advocates believe this may trigger fat storage in people who have poor responsiveness to insulin and trigger weight gain due to lifestyle factors or genetics.
This theory, sometimes referred to as the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis, has been contested. While insulin does play a role in fat storage, there is a lack of research showing that it is more important than calorie intake. Most dieters continue to advise that calories are the main contributor to weight gain or weight loss, and research supports this.
Nor is there any clear evidence that keto can work where other diets have failed.
Despite criticism that keto is restrictive, proponents find it "very easy" to adhere to
"The Case For Keto" delves into many of the popular arguments against keto, and delves into the historical context of low-carb diets and the scientific precedence for recommending them.
Taubes also has a beef with the popular claim that keto diets are hard to maintain. Many dietitians and other nutritionists have argued that cutting carbohydrates is too restrictive for most people to consistently maintain. And when strict diets fail, they can lead to even greater weight gain as dieters indulge in previously prohibited foods and then try to restrict them again, a phenomenon known as the "yo-yo diet".
But Taubes compares cutting off carbohydrates to avoiding food because you are allergic. Knowing that lactose is making you sick makes it easier to avoid despite the occasional temptation of ice cream, he says.
For him and other long-term keto players, the benefits of a low-carb diet overshadow the loss of beloved foods like pizza, pasta, and pastries.
"I find it very easy to keep it up," said Taubes. "Lots of people, especially men. If you tell them to live on steak, eggs, and bacon, they'll be pretty happy, at least for a while."
Keto may not be for everyone
Taubes doesn't think everyone has to go on a keto diet. His wife is a vegetarian and regularly eats carbohydrates.
"In some ways, I got her on the idea that carbohydrates were fattening, but she hasn't given them up entirely," he said. "She never tried to convince me how to eat it."
For Taubes, the health benefits outweigh the ethical and ecological concerns about a diet with a high proportion of animal products. He said he believed that "what is best for human health is not best for the planet".
"In an ideal world, I wouldn't eat animals. Physiologically, I'm not ready to go without them," he said.
Some people may be able to manage their weight and health while eating carbohydrates, but Taubes doesn't write for them.
"Those of us who gain weight easily need to minimize insulin levels. And when you eat to minimize insulin, you are eating something very close to a ketogenic diet," he said.
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