Review: Keto isn’t sustainable, or is it?

The issue came out just after the Fourth of July weekend, featuring a ginormous porterhouse under a pat of butter on its cover, and served up a surprisingly effective beatdown for a host of previously sacrosanct ideas on diet and health.

Taking on nutritional gospel that had evaded scrutiny since its inception in the early 1960s, the article turned the tables on the widespread assumptions that animal fat is bad, carbohydrates are the basis of a healthy diet, and the biggest fallacy of all, weight loss comes down to a simple process of eating fewer calories than you burn.

It went on to raise the question of whether the science behind our nutritional status quo was only weakly based on scientific evidence, not to mention the product of well-meaning and mistaken array of doctor-activists, politicians, medical specialties and other dietary enforcers.

Lastly, it proposed that the heretical ideas of one Dr. Robert Atkins, he of the infamous Atkins “New Diet Revolution” fame, had not only copped 150-year-old ideas about food and weight, he had been right all along.

Gary Taubes, Submitted photo.

Gary Taubes, Submitted photo.

That’s right, the pork rinds guy.

Both the story and its author, a Harvard-trained science journalist named Gary Taubes, were quickly greeted with a chorus of censure, but for those who finished its 8,000-odd words, Humpty Dumpty had clearly taken a fall.

You see, no one with Taube’s scientific chops and high-powered prose had ever turned a critical eye on the origin story to the low-fat gospel. No one had asked how such ubiquitous dietary notions had been adopted with so little scrutiny.

Fast-forward almost two decades, and Taubes is now on his fourth book, “The Case for Keto, Rethinking Weight Control and the Science and Practice of Low-Carb/High-Fat Eating,” about the same subject.

While that may sound like a cash-in, the writer has never likely had a proper mega-seller, and though this is undeserved, likely never will. The same qualities that make him such a persuasive messenger for toppling the dietary applecart — he doesn’t dumb things down and he doesn’t overstate his case — make him constitutionally unable to write a traditional “diet” book.

You know, the kind that tell a few stories, make a list of 10 rules, and pack the back with recipes.

To the contrary, “this book is a work of journalism masquerading as a self-help book,” as he confesses on “The Case for Keto’s” opening page.

What he does do in this, his fourth low-carb title, is continue to chip away at the conventional dietary belief system, returning again and again to a recurring idea: we don’t all need carbohydrates, and those of us who struggle with our weight need to find a way to avoid them entirely.

To the concerns that removing all breads, grains, fruit, tubers and sugar from the diet is unsustainable, Taubes replies that every act of abstinence faces setback, and keto is no different.

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To the concerns that replacing carbohydrates with high-fat, high-calorie foods made from animal fat is unhealthy, there are few writers more capable of relieving you of your illusions that anyone really knows what is healthy with food.

In short, Taubes says, the research showing what constitutes a healthy diet is largely unreliable, so you might as well pick a diet that does what it says it will do — help you lose weight — without causing undue suffering in the process.

Both are qualities that few can dispute about keto.

The Case for Keto” comes on the heels of Taube’s 2016 book, “The Case Against Sugar.” Where his previous book looked at the history of Big Sugar and our reluctance to name the sweet stuff as the public enemy numero uno, “The Case for Keto” is more generous in its exploration of the human side of changing a diet. While this can feel belabored in places, it makes “The Case for Keto” Taubes’ most accessible book yet.

For a born debater, that’s no small feat.

His first book, 2007’s “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” clocked in at 600 pages. It was an exhaustive work, one meant to choke the critics, which it did quite handily. His second, “Why We Get Fat,” seemed to have been written for everyone else.

In both cases, Taubes takes up the same problem: we’ve been given the same dietary advice for 40 years, and keep getting fatter. Is the problem us, or the advice?

In an enjoyable thread that he returns again and again, “The Case for Keto” seems keen on toppling a memorable if made-up mantra behind “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan’s 2008 manifesto for whole foods. Readers may remember that it was a slim bestseller from a slim man that famously advised: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Heartwarming and succinct though this aphorism may be, as Taubes reminds us, they are the words of a lean person, a demographic he says has historically molded dietary advice in its own image, largely via the notion that heavy people, well, they just eat too much.

“That’s why it’s almost invariably lean people, or at least not-fat people, who counsel that all we have to do to achieve or maintain a healthy weight is to avoid ‘overeating’ or to eat … ‘not too much’ or ‘in moderation.'” he writes. “This is also why it’s almost invariably lean, healthy people who advocate that we should eat effectively as we have been told to eat for the past fifty years — because it seems to work for them.”

For Taubes, this commitment to a failed message reveals a striking feature of those who cling to our outdated dietary advice — “a lack of both curiosity and empathy.”

In fact, he says, should you trace our entire focus on calories-in, calories-out to its source, a 1930s physician named Lewis Newburgh, you will find a clinician “who appears to have been pencil thin.”

In reality, Taubes writes, to be heavy is not so much overeat, as to try to fit in within a society that pushes carbohydrates on people at every turn. We do this in a way that we would never push alcohol on a teetotaler, or cigarettes on a former smoker, and all in the name of “moderation.”

“Few of us like being the person at the party who’s saying no to the treats or the cake,” he writes, “but it’s a skill we have to learn.”

Review: “The Case for Keto, Rethinking Weight Control and the Science and Practice of Low-Carb/High-Fat Eating,” by Gary Taubes (Knopf, 304 pages, $28.95)

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