transcribed by Liz Reedy
To view Gary Taubes’ 1 hour and 22-minute YouTube video, please click here.
Please click here for our Part 1 transcription.
Please click here for our Part 2 transcription.
Part 3 continues beginning at 28:03
Think about it this way. If I was giving a talk on wealth, I might get a pretty good audience. And afterward in the Q&A, someone would ask me, “Why are Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos so rich?” And I would say, “Because they make more money than they spend.” You guys would leave, right?
If I was giving a talk on climate change, that would probably get a pretty full house. And at the end somebody would ask, “Well Gary, why is the atmosphere heating up?” And I would reply, “Because it’s taking in more energy than it expends.” And if I looked at you like it was a serious answer you would think I was joking.
But in obesity research, if somebody asks why some people get fat and others don’t, the answer is that they take in more calories than they expend. And it’s almost incomprehensively naïve. It has become conventional wisdom. You show me a paper on obesity, and I’ll show you where that belief system is interwoven into that research or that paper.
My geneticist friend at Cambridge University, the BBC host, is not studying the genetics of why people get fat; he’s studying the genetics of why he thinks people eat too much or exercise too little. Part of this goal is to get people to get rid of that energy/balance idea. And the stakes are enormous. I am trying to do a fundamental thing with this book.
Claude Benard, the great French physiologist, said in 1865, “Science is about explaining what we observe.” Fundamentally that’s what you’re always doing in science, whether what you observe is a supernova or a gamma ray burst or something else in the night sky. It could be how a frog behaves or how swallows mate or anything you can name.
Why we get heart disease, why we have obesity, it’s about explaining what we observe. The observation today that is so frightening is these obesity and diabetic epidemics are worldwide. It happens in every population in the world in which they transition to a Western diet from whatever they were eating baseline.
It doesn’t matter if they were Inuits living on caribou and seal meat, or Maasain Africans living on the meat and milk and urine from the cattle they herd, or the agrarian population in the Himalayas, or Native Americans or any population that started eating western diets. They experience these tremendous increases in obesity and diabetes.
In October, the director general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, gave a key note address to the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. She said that these epidemics of obesity and diabetes represent a slow-motion disaster world-wide.
They are overwhelming health-care systems. The estimated cost of obesity and diabetes in direct health-care costs in the U.S. is a billion dollars a day. If you look at indirect societal costs and you believe these estimates, it’s a trillion dollars a year.
Margaret Chan said the chances of the public health organizations like the W.H.O. to reign in these epidemics in order to prevent a “bad situation” from getting much worse is effectively zero. Think about that. The director general of the World Health Organization is talking about these slow-motion disaster epidemics, and not only acknowledging that organizations like hers have completely failed to curb them, but predicting complete failure in the future.
One of the things I would do if I were a journalist or in newspapers, I would imagine if this was HIV. In 1985 we understood that the HIV virus causes AIDS. But imagine after coming to that conclusion, thirty years later, AIDS prevalence and AIDS incidents had continued to go up and mortality from this disease had continued to go up.
We would have a task force, committees, think tanks and a team of researchers. We would be spending billions, if not trillions of dollars, trying to understand what we don’t understand about this disease. But in obesity and diabetes we’ve had this same phenomenon.
In the 1890s, on the Eastern coast the estimate was that one out of every three thousand patients in the hospital suffered from diabetes. Today, if you go to a VA hospital, one out of four patients suffers from diabetes. One out of every eleven Americans in or out of hospitals has diabetes today. There’s been this tremendous explosion, and we have to understand what’s causing it.
You cannot stop an epidemic unless you understand the cause. You have to know what to remove, what to get out of the population, whether it’s the HIV virus, or you recommend safe sex and contraceptives and you design drugs that go after the virus. If it’s a lung cancer epidemic you have to know that smoking is causing it, right? So you can tell people to stop smoking.
In this country with obesity and diabetes we have the director general of the W.H.O basically shrugging her shoulders and saying, “Yes, we’ve seen 900% increases of diabetes in the United States in 50 years. And it’s going to go up. But we don’t know what to do about it.” Well, how about you examine your assumptions.
What I’m trying to do in this book is ask the question, “Are we wrong about what the cause is?” If this was a legal case and we have a similar crime being committed in a very similar way in every country in the world, who is the prime suspect? Who should we be targeting? Why should we be targeting? And the answer is sugar.
So, with that long introduction I’m going to do a little bit of reading, and I’m going to hope for the best. I have to borrow a book. The first chapter of this book discusses obesity and diabetes epidemics and why I’m focusing on sugar and why I think it’s the prime suspect. As I say in this book, if this were a legal case this book would be the prosecution’s strategy.
I had trouble writing it. I don’t like writing. One of the reasons I’m such a good reporter, if I am a good reporter, is because reporting is a way to procrastinate on writing. As long as you keep doing the research you don’t have to write…until you run out of money as I said earlier, and then you have to write.
I finally wrote the first chapter, and then I wrote the second chapter, Drug or Food, which I’m going to read from. And I finally had the sense of profound relief that this is a good chapter, that I’m on my way, that I’m going to be able to get this book done. So, I have four thousand words written discussing whether sugar is a drug or a food, and is it addictive?
Then I read a book called 1493, [1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created] written by a friend of mine, Charles Mann. It’s about the history of what’s called the Columbus exchange, which is about the spread of foods and plants around the world after Columbus discovered America. Charles (Cam) is such a beautiful writer that I can’t even read his writing, as it depresses me so much.
But I realized he had a chapter on the history of sugar and knew I should read it. He’s a great reporter and a great writer. I read it and in this chapter, he has a single line made up of seventeen words. He says, “Scientists today debate amongst themselves whether sugar is an addictive substance, and people just act like it is.”
And I think, “Great. I’ve just written four thousand words about this, and here Cam wrapped it up in seventeen.” I could throw away my first chapter and then I’m back to the state of frozen writer’s block that I was in, or I could keep the first chapter and quote Cam, which is what I decided to do. So, you can find Cam’s quote in here.
It begins with two other quotes, two epigraphs. The first is from Roald Dahl, from his memoir, Boy: Tales of Childhood, which was written in 1984. Dahl said, “The sweet shop in Llandaff [UK] from 1923 was the very center of our lives. Thus, it was what a bar is to a drunk or a church is to a bishop. Without it, there would have been little to live for. Sweets were our life-blood.”
The second quote is from Michael Pollan’s, Botany of Desire in 2001, one of the great books Michael wrote before Omnivore Dilemma. He said, “Imagine a moment when the sensation of honey or sugar on the tongue was an astonishment, a kind of intoxication. The closest I’ve ever come to recovering such a sense of sweetness was secondhand, though it left a powerful impression on me even so. I’m thinking of my son’s first experience of sugar, the icing on the cake at his first birthday.”
“I have only the testimony of Isaac’s face to go by, that and his fierceness to repeat the experience. It was plain that his first encounter with sugar had intoxicated him. It was, in fact, an ecstasy in the literal sense of that word. That is, he was beside himself with the pleasure of it. No longer here with me in space and time in quite the same way he had been just a moment before. Between bites, Isaac gazed up at me in amazement (he was on my lap as I delivered the ambrosial forkfuls to his gaping mouth), as if to exclaim ‘Your world contains this? From this day forward, I shall dedicate my life to it.’”
By the way, you should argue the wisdom of starting a book with quotes from two authors who can write better than you can. Your readers are likely to put your book down and say, “I’m going to go get Botany of Desire.”
What if Roald Dahl and Michael Pollan are right that the taste of sugar on the tongue can be a kind of intoxication? Doesn’t it suggest that the possibility that sugar itself is an intoxicant, a drug? Imagine a drug that can do this to us, that can infuse us with energy and can do so when taken by mouth. It doesn’t have to be injected, smoked or snorted for us to experience its sublime and soothing effect. END at 39:08