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33 of 46 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile information, poorly presented, 16 Sept. 2012
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This review is from: Why We Get Fat: And What to Do about It (Mass Market Paperback)
I bought this book partly out of curiosity, and also because its knowledge could inform my diet for the purposes of athletic activities.

I have read the book in its entirety, and with care over a period of several months - some reviewers claim to be able to comment upon a reading in one sitting. Since I cannot sit for 120 hours or so at a time, I would not make that claim.

I should preface this review by saying that I am particularly skeptical about books of this sort: those that are readily available, lay press items purporting to provide answers to those niggling questions that arise in all of us: why are we fatter than we'd like to be? how do we find a partner? how can we make more money? etc...You will get a critical review from me as a lay reader with no competing interests, and only his own body with which to put dietary amendments to the test.

The book begins concisely, with the author quickly laying bare his special claim: chiefly that excessive consumption of carbohydrates, particularly those that are easily digestible, are significantly responsible for excess adiposity. This is good, because unlike some books of this ilk, one is held for innumerate pages before 'the truth' is finally released.

However, it is almost as if it has been written with Amazon's Introduction-/First Chapter-only preview in mind, since thereafter it rapidly shifts to a lower level of literary competence and engagement.

The principle problem with the book is that it is poorly edited: I should think I could reduce it to around 100 pages and it would be more cogent, cheaper to produce and a better read. The presumption that one requires 300-odd pages to make a decent book is ill-founded. One finds oneself struggling with the boredom of reading its waffling prose - featuring constant reminders of what was covered in the previous chapters as an example - to irritatingly have their consciousness reawakened periodically by a juicy nugget of new knowledge.

The secondary problem with the book is that it develops into an increasingly polemical work, whereby the 'excessive simple carbohydrates' that were originally the problem, become 'fattening carbohydrates' toward the end. It also appears to exclude relevant knowledge due to the author's ignorance, without due acknowledgement of this deficiency: there is scant discussion of the relevance of exercise to diet and body composition, and it is virtually written off as a waste of time - almost merely as a calorie expenditure process - from the point of view of fat loss, which it is not (merely). It may be true to say that a person predisposed to obesity and who is consuming a great deal of simple carbohydrate will fail to see fat loss whilst engaging in an exercise program maintainable by the average person, but it would conversely be fair to say that someone not predisposed to obesity, who consumes carbohydrates in moderation, and then engages in frequent exercise will lose fat, steadily. So what we might conclude is that, other conditions being favourable - genetics and diet - greater and more rapid fat loss will take place in the presence of exercise. This is a moderate and reasonable proposition, the sort that at first Taubes presents on carbohydrate consumption in relation to adiposity. It is reductionist, and I would argue plainly wrong to villify carbohydrates in the manner in which Taubes does so toward the end.

There is also a remarkably shallow analysis of the justification for the typical Western diet, in that it omits a discussion of food in relation to economics. Instead, Taubes presents the justification for the typical, high carbohydrate diet as the product of what appears to be the rather arcane and petty disagreements between medical counsels and nutritionists. This neglects to attend to the most major reason (I believe) why carbohydrates make up the base of our diet - Taubes makes a one-liner of it: they are cheap. Lean meat and fish require a greater area, time, and space to produce than crops. Thus the world may be fed more cheaply and easily on the produce of crops, particularly those which provide energy densely. Yes, we may be more likely to get ill if we overly rely on them, but America, one might say, was made off the back of farming the Plains, and doing away with the vast reservations required so that a relatively small number of Indians might survive otherwise. I make this point without political loyalty, social bent or environmental consideration.

This leads me onto my next criticism: Taubes similarly dismisses willpower in a line as "whatever that is". As someone who eats functionally, that is, in accordance with my requirements for athletic performance, I would say that will is possibly the most significant dietary 'intervention' that one can make in maintaing an appropriate level of adiposity. Willpower determines whether one will be arsed to read his book in the hope of actively doing something about their adiposity, whether they will practise an instrument, do a job well, in short anything that (ironically) involves the expenditure of energy. Having a good diet and healthy lifestyle is not accidental; it requires directed effort and educated actions. It is not easy, and if one is not sufficiently motivated, it will not happen. It is also a matter of priority. Some people would sooner spend £21,000, rather than £18,000 on a new car in order that it be fitted with accessories, rather than increase their lean meat and fish intake by £2-300 a year for the lifetime of said car.

The good news is that in general, since most of the carbohydrates we consume do not satiate us, unlike the more expensive proteinous foods, when we consume the later, we need less to become satiated. Alcohol is extremely expensive, and yet we easily write off several £100 to it each year as 'just a drink' as if it were some basic nutrient. When we buy food, we are prone, as we are consumers with everything, to seek value - more for less - and when we look to fill ourselves up cheaply, we invariably consume too much carbohydrate - bread, pasta and pastries typically - without regard for the price of doing so. As with anything, good costs money and better costs more: why should food be any different?

I think deep down most of us know this stuff; Taubes's writing comes across as somewhat paternalistic and as if he were exposing something new, yet even ten years ago in my state school cookery class (read 'establishment' disseminating 'the standard' nutritional knowledge) we were taught that carbs were for energy, fibre created a healthy challenge to digestion, protein was for growth and repair, and fat was there to lubricate the process and provide energy when it was in short supply. Broadly speaking, I have lived via this knowledge and I am healthful. It does not take a rocket scientist to put two and two together and see that excess energy (carbs) would be stored as fat (adiposity) and be released (only) as necessary. There are all sorts of finer points - hormone regulation for example - and exceptions to this 'truth' but it is in the main correct, and I know so by my own semi-consciously monitored, but nonetheless anecdotal, experience. Taubes neglects to tackle adequately whether, since carbs are high in energy content relative to other food types, it is in fact the elimination of carbs and therefore excess calories that yields a reduction in adiposity.

In summary, I have provided criticisms of the book, via which hopefully some of its more useful and better points are illuminated. The main thrust of Taubes's book is correct; however, it is verbose, with serious omissions. Had it dealt with such important matters as dietary economics and exercise, and featured a more appropriate, pragmatic conclusion on how to adjust one's own living accordingly, the present 269 pages would have been concise, wise prose.

Please forgive me if I have made editorial mistakes - I have no more time to give to this; I only hope that it is helpful.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 May 2013 18:32:22 BDT
Bea says:
Oh my, you need 120 hours to read 270 pages??? The vilification of carbs is a much needed knee jerk reaction in response to the very aggressive marketing and the booming release of products that are branded as healthy. Example: the brand new Danio, marketed as 'high protein low fat yoghurt' containing a shocking 18.2g of sugar per pot (blueberry flavour). Another one? One serving (250ml) of the new Peaches & Apricots Innocent smoothie advertises 2 of your 5 a day in every bottle or 250ml glass, 15% of your gda of fibre, the goodness of 6 different types of fruit. No mention of the 54.5g of sugar contained in the same 250ml serving. So yes, we need to be educated about the danger of sugar, even if it sounds like vilification, until the public becomes more savvy about these despicable and unethical practices, becomes aware that one serving of a supposedly healthy, all natural smoothie contains almost twice as much sugar as a mars bar.
Gary Taubes is the exact opposite of the type of writers you dismiss in your 3rd paragraph. I would recommend the excellent 'The Diet Delusion' study of the history of western diets and conception of what is healthy and what isn't; but it is a 505 page book which based on your reading sped would require 224 hours of your time...

In reply to an earlier post on 29 May 2013 02:19:10 BDT
Dear Bea,

Thank you for your comment.

I would firstly like to respond to your criticism (para. 2): I do not dismiss Taubes 'as a type of writer' - I was judging his writing in this book and this book alone. I agree with you that Good Calories, Bad Calories (aka The Diet Delusion) is indeed a nuanced treatise.

Secondly, your conception of reading a book might be different from mine: I can get through sentences quite quickly, but analysing the authors claims, references, and checking the consistency and coherence of the arguments etc is quite time-consuming, and this is what I mean by reading (as opposed to merely seeing, as makes for an awkward analogy between listening vs. hearing).
I don't disagree for a minute that transparent consumer information should be available, and I suspect our government is complicit in the nutrition scam. There was even a photo of chips on the NHS website stating that we should eat less fat. Last time I checked, a chip was principally constituted of carbohydrate from potatoes. So the NHS does not know (or else is deliberately misrepresenting) the basic nutrients to people. And here is the problem: if the state is corrupt and/or inept, then whom should educate the public?

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Nov 2013 12:50:29 GMT
Last edited by the author on 15 Nov 2013 12:53:47 GMT
minty says:
Thanks for your review, Mr Pardoe. I get what you're saying anyway. I have often thought this about diet books e.g. being too long, or wading through so many pages to get anything important or new, the repetitive nature of the text, etc. And agree with outdated, even stupid views of NHS and medical profession on this - they are still advising nonsense e.g. "5 a day", which includes sugar-high fruit juice!!!! Even my son's primary school has recently introduced "milkshakes" as a healthy drink, though they will clearly be full of sugar.
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