We’re lingering over breakfast at the Kendall Hotel when we notice a man watching us. He looks distinguished, not creepy, so we get back to our food. My tablemates finish their meals — plates of fruit and bowls of oatmeal. I dig into some scrambled eggs with a side of melon half-moons.
We are journalists from Kansas City, Chicago, London, Toronto, Baltimore, and New York, and we’re in Cambridge for MIT’s annual Food Boot Camp, part of the school’s Knight Science Journalism programs. We’ve come to learn about all aspects of food science, from our increasing resistance to antibiotics to why it’s so hard to remove dangerous bacteria from spinach. Mostly, though, I suspect we’re here to learn why people get fat.
We had already spent two days learning about the history of e. coli, the regulatory holes in the food safety net, and the connections between climate change and crops by the time we encountered the breakfast spy. Later that day, we saw the man again.
His name is Gary Taubes, the bestselling author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health” and “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It.” He is the founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative, and one of the few people not afraid to go on Dr. Oz’s show and tell him he’s wrong. And he was about to call me out for eating cantaloupe.
“You were the one eating melon this morning, right?”
I told him I was.
He smiled, and then he launched in: Everything we thought we knew about nutrition is wrong, he said. We have no reason to restrict saturated fat; we should be cutting sugar instead. There is sugar in melon, and in all fruit. Given the choice, I should have picked bacon, not melon.
Taubes revealed that he had eaten eggs and bacon for his breakfast. He might drop dead of a heart attack someday, he said, but he will not get diabetes.
What Taubes didn’t know was that I had recently lost 40 pounds. I chose the melon after calculating the harm of consuming the Kendall’s other appealing choices — the scones, the granola, the yogurt. I had come to Food Boot Camp, in fact, to learn not just why Americans got fat, but why I had.
So I told Taubes and the 20 other journalists in the room. I explained I had given up so many tastes that had given me pleasure — crusty bread, sweet lemon cake, even my morning cereal. Fruit was all I had left. Take it away, and my diet would be grilled chicken, eggs, cashews, and spinach. And after our recent e. coli lesson, spinach was not long for the list.
I felt relief after my confession. My new friends at MIT only knew me as an average-size woman. They hadn’t seen who I had been, a woman who could just barely still shop at the regular clothing stores.
I was embarrassed that I was fat, but mostly, I was just confused.
I’m 42 years old and I’ve never had a fast-food hamburger. I don’t like french fries. I don’t drink soda, or lemonade, or really anything but water and coffee. I exercise regularly, too. Yet I seemed to put on a few pounds every year.
Then I had my first child. I gained 27 pounds. I hung onto the weight for five years, finally losing it just before becoming pregnant with my second child. This time, I gained more than 40 pounds.
Just when I had decided it was easier to be fat, my older daughter and I went to an amusement park, where I couldn’t fit on a ride. Granted, it was a children’s park, and most of the problem stemmed from my engorged breasts. But feeling fat at an amusement park is a recipe for depression. The next day, I stopped nursing my 1-year-old and vowed to lose the weight.
I attacked the problem like a reporter and sought out the facts. During this research I discovered Taubes and his books. And I realized that what I’d been told my whole life about food was a lie.
Specifically, all calories are not created equal. Sugar is the culprit for our increasing obesity, not fat, Taubes and other nutrition experts now say. And nothing good comes from consuming white flour.
And exercise? It is good for you for all sorts of reasons, but exercise alone does not lead to weight loss.
My diet of foods I thought were good for me — things like whole-grain crackers and breads and low-fat sweets — would slowly kill me if I did not change it.
I wanted to know more. So I applied to Food Boot Camp, where we learned that Americans are eating an average of 523 more calories each day than they did in the 1970s. Sugar makes up most that difference, and it’s in everything.
Sodium, too, is a contributor to weight gain. Most people assume that if you don’t add salt to your food, you’re fine. But sodium is a preservative. Insidious and often tasteless, it lurks in products like milk, cheese, and cookies. On average, we eat 3,500 milligrams per day. We should eat 2,000. One turkey sandwich on wheat bread with hummus — hold the sprouts — contains about half of our daily allotment.
My confession about my weight loss led others to open up. Two fellow Boot Campers had lost 40 pounds and gained it back. A woman my age lamented her frustrating battle against her metabolism. Another confessed she had reached her ideal weight after giving birth, only to find she had to starve herself to maintain it.
We were all navigating this difficult terrain. And if we, the science journalists, couldn’t figure it out, we didn’t have much hope of communicating a path to wellness for our readers.
Food Boot Camp crystallized something I had long suspected: Our weight gain as a nation was in some ways pre-ordained. Even if we all follow the same guidance on balanced eating, we are not all built the same. In many cases, we were doing what we were told; but we had gotten bad information.
I returned home from the week-long camp committed to reducing sodium in my diet but confused about fruit. I checked labels. If an item had more than 100 milligrams of sodium, I put it back. Within a few weeks, I’d lost about 10 pounds. Good thing —
Without sodium-laden cheese and cold cuts and with limited pathogen-prone spinach, my diet was sparse. Breakfast might be an apple with peanut butter and a handful of cashews, lunch a salad with more cashews, and dinner a piece of chicken with a baked sweet potato.
I e-mailed Taubes with questions about fruit, and he graciously replied. I knew that fruit has sugar, but I don’t think it was what made me fat. How could it? Isn’t “Five Fruits a Day” a healthy-eating mantra?
Taubes explained that, for people who are naturally slender (like Dr. Oz), fruit might be fine, especially if those people cut more dangerous refined carbohydrates from their diets. But as I could clearly see, not all metabolisms are created alike. Taubes said he tends to gain weight when he eats fruit, but not, apparently, when he eats bacon.
About five months after the boot camp, my father had a mild heart attack and his doctor told him to lose 20 pounds. He planned on doing it on a low-fat diet, as he’d done before: Cottage cheese and cantaloupe, whole-grain breads and low-fat crackers, grain-rich breakfast cereals, and 100-calorie granola bars.
He looked at me from his hospital bed and told me that my weight loss had made me almost unrecognizable. I told him I’d never worked harder to lose weight, but I was now convinced that the only way to do it was to nearly eliminate carbohydrates and sugar. I did it and he could, too.
But my dad said that wasn’t an optimal diet for heart patients. Given his condition, I didn’t want to argue.
But the next week, my father called to tell me I had been right: He’d been researching, too, and the science literature had changed. It was the carbs that had to go from his diet. He had already started a new eating plan and had lost two pounds.
When my father spoke of the “literature,” he meant the scientists who study nutrition and the writers who have helped spawn a more honest dialogue about it. They are people like Robert Lustig, author of “Fat Chance”; Michael Moss, author of “Salt, Sugar, Fat”; and of course, Gary Taubes. I’m grateful to them all, especially Taubes. His work is upending decades of nutrition science. His legacy will be one of reducing obesity and weaning us from a sugar addiction we hardly knew we had.
Still, I’m really hoping he’s wrong about the melon.
Rona Kobell is a staff writer for the Chesapeake Bay Journal and a Baltimore radio commentator. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.