Gary Taubes’ Revolutionary Research for Eating Disorders?
After writing my post where I raised some questions about behavioral aspects underlying obesity in Gary Taubes’ May 9th article in Newsweek, I reached out to him directly to gain clarification. Today I spoke with him for one delicious hour and want to share the many ways I was enlightened.
Taubes began our conversation by sharing a bit of his background: he is a journalist with serious training in hard science. In the mid-90’s he began writing about nutrition and helped me understand the history of science that has greatly affected the field of nutrition. Of particular import, he mentioned that “prior to World War II, the only real medical research happening in the world was in Europe. After the war, America was no longer interested in obtaining findings from Germany or Austria.” In particular, Taubes claims, the field of nutrition suffered greatly from this hiatus.
According to Gary, this is important because it potentially draws attention to some imbalances that exist in our practices of medical research — especially surrounding the topics of nutrition, obesity and potentially the field of eating disorders.
During the meeting, there is no question that I was offered a new perspective or lens through which to observe these findings. Gary had my attention — I couldn’t write fast enough. When I asked him about his research, his answers were succinct and clear, yet entirely new to me — especially after reading, writing and digesting so much information from the field of psychology and neurobiology for the last several years. My question — as ever — is “why isn’t everyone talking to each other about this?” (perhaps they are and I just haven’t read about it yet??)
Taubes’ research shows that we may not be gaining traction by focusing on the behavioral aspects underlying obesity because they are not “eating” disorders (as in … “related to eating”) … they are fat accumulation disorders … issues that are caused and should be treated on the cellular level. To quote directly from his May 9, 2012 article in Newsweek,*
There is an alternative theory, one that has also been around for decades but that the establishment has largely ignored. This theory implicates specific foods—refined sugars and grains—because of their effect on the hormone insulin, which regulates fat accumulation. If this hormonal-defect hypothesis is true, not all calories are created equal, as the conventional wisdom holds. And if it is true, the problem is not only controlling our impulses, but also changing the entire American food economy and rewriting our beliefs about what constitutes a healthy diet.
Oddly, this nutrient-hormone-fat interaction is not particularly controversial. You can find it in medical textbooks as the explanation for why our fat cells get fat. But the anti-obesity establishment doesn’t take the next step: that fat fat cells lead to fat humans. In their eyes, yes, insulin regulates how much fat gets trapped in your fat cells, and the kinds of carbohydrates we eat today pretty much drive up your insulin levels.
Back in the post-war days, these issues were inaccurately coined “eating disorders,” according to Taubes, rather than “fat accumulation disorders.” Because of this, the illnesses were shifted to specialists in the field of psychology, who led the research from their area of expertise. But, HAD they been categorized as “fat accumulation disorders,” Taubes suggests that perhaps endocrinologists would have been pursuing the research instead.
It really made me think: what if the people generating the hypotheses and performing the research on the issues of eating disorders were endocrinologists and biochemists as much — or more — than psychologists or mental health professionals?
Gary pointed out that diabetes and obesity are so similar, we are calling it “diobesity.”
What if we started calling Anorexia another term that is more directly connected to what might be going on on the cellular level? “Too Little Fat Accumulation” — based on a defect in the fat tissue. At least then we wouldn’t be looking at those who have these conditions as sloth-like or gluttonous or at fault for these conditions — regardless of which end of the spectrum they fall. We would be looking at them the way we look at patients with other similar cellular (or insulin-related) illnesses.
According to Taubes, if we can start there, then we might also refine our research lens. If these issues prove to be ones of insulin or fat accumulation on the cellular level, perhaps we can treat conditions like anorexia or obesity with insulin therapy or other related strategies.
Taubes isn’t saying that obesity is a clinical “eating disorder” he is saying that rather than thinking of obesity as an issue surrounding eating, we need to be looking at it as an issue surrounding fat accumulation. If we can start there, we can potentially steer the course of research in an entirely new direction.
What do you think? Is this crazy? Genious?
Very soon, Taubes will be conducting research with his newly-formed nonprofit organization — Nutrition Science Initiative — which he noted is so new it doesn’t yet have a website.
My opinion is that this is one cutting-edge thinker that we need to watch.
I also have a hunch that some major politics could lie at the core of these divides…
So what else is new?
… To be continued.
*Taubes, G. (2012) Why The Campaign to Stop America’s Obesity Crisis Keeps Failing
Robyn Hussa, MFA, E-RYT, is Founder and CEO of NORMAL, for which she was awarded the 2010 Champion in Women’s Health award from Ms. Sue Ann Thompson and the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation. Ms. Hussa is also a professional performer and New York producer and President of WhiteElephant productions in New York City. She is the Editor of the WeAreTheRealDeal blog site and author of Healthy Selfitude.