A new book by Gary Taubes is making me ponder what I know about eating, weight and disease. In “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” Taubes asserts that there’s no scientific evidence that cholesterol and fat cause heart disease, or that overeating and laziness cause obesity. Nutrition, he says, purports to be a science but functions like a religion, where theories are not tested but become cemented into dogma.
The Eisenhower Paradox: Ike dieted after his heart attack, exercised and ate no fat, yet his cholesterol kept rising and he died of heart disease.
The book’s title is misleading, making it sound like a new diet fad. Barbara Ehrenreich says it might be called “The Great Low-Fat Diet Hoax.” Since the 50s, Taubes writes, scientists, the AMA, the surgeon general, the American Heart Assoc. and the USDA have urged Americans to eat less fat and lower their cholesterol to prevent heart disease. In fact, since the 60s, Americans have made an effort to eat less fat and there’s been a 30% reduction in high cholesterol levels, yet the incidence of heart disease has not gone down, and obesity and diabetes have risen at alarming rates. One in three Americans today is clinically obese.
Taubes advances the alternative hypothesis: that carbohydrates, especially starchy foods and sugar, are the cause and should be limited. But he acknowledges that there’s no scientific evidence yet to support that theory either.
What Taubes does not address – and I invite your ideas – is the addiction I and countless others have to eating, not to satisfy hunger but for the sensory pleasure, which triggers a craving for more and more. Taubes doesn’t take up the problem of overeating, or the question of why most people regain the weight they lose on any diet – fat free or low carb.
I went on my first diet when I was 20, newly returned from a semester in Italy where I’d put on 15 pounds eating pasta. I went to a doctor who prescribed appetite suppressants and a diet of only protein and water. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and water – that was it. I dropped the pounds but as soon as I resumed “normal” eating, they came back.
Since then, I’ve been on and off diets continually. People tell me, “You don’t look heavy,” and I say, “I don’t have a weight problem, I have an eating problem.” I want to eat whatever tempting food is in sight, hungry or not, and I can’t leave food on a plate. Moderate portions do not satisfy me. Of course, this doesn’t apply to celery and such, which I can leave on a plate. I keep no bread, chips, or desserts in my house, so I have to go out to eat them.
When I was living in Venice, CA, and writing “Loose Change,” I made a daily trip to the corner liquor store to feed my habit – with a Hershey bar instead of alcohol. I tried shock therapy at the Schick Center for Weight Control and Smoking. For 10 weekly sessions, they put electrodes on my arm and sent mild shocks through me while I ate a Hershey bar. The first 9 times, I thought, it’s not working, the Hershey still tastes great, I’m just more stubborn than the machine. But after the tenth session, I lost my craving. It was wondrous! I could walk by a table loaded with chocolate and have no impulse to eat any. This lasted about two years, when, out of curiosity, I tried one chocolate truffle and that was it. Hooked again.
When the low-fat diets came into vogue in the 80s, I went on one, monitored by Gold’s Gym. I was allowed to eat bagels and pasta but I gained weight! So it was reassuring to read Taubes’ denunciation of that approach. Last year, I did the South Beach diet after a friend had dramatic success with it. It’s the low carb, high protein approach, and in 3 weeks I lost 12 pounds and went down one size. I’ve been able to keep it off for a year, and for the first time in memory, I’m happy with my weight!
But this hasn’t solved my overeating problem. Every so often, the monster in me runs amok and gobbles cake, mashed potatoes, guacamole and chips. Then I go back on the strict diet for a few days and undo the damage. It’s what Andrew Weil calls the “fast – glut cycle.” He thinks it may be a holdover from when we were hunter-gatherers and gorged when an animal was killed because a famine might be ahead. So that’s my story, and until a solution arises for my addiction, I’m stickin’ to it.