Monday, 3 April 2017

Gary Taubes and sugar abstinence

The slippery slope doesn't get more blatant than this from Gary Taubes in the Guardian...

So now, assuming [the food] industry goes along with this voluntary programme, and assuming that kids don’t respond to smaller portions or sugar-reduced formulations by eating more, both of which are possible, what’s the chance that we’ll see a significant curbing of the epidemics, even if the 20% goal is reached?

Let’s use cigarettes and lung cancer as our pedagogical example, confident, as we are, that cigarettes cause lung cancer. Cigarette consumption in the UK peaked in the mid-1970s when half of all men smoked and over 40% of women. Together they averaged 17 cigarettes a day. Now let’s imagine that we didn’t get those smokers to quit, but we managed to cut their consumption by 20%. Instead of 17 cigarettes a day, they’re averaging 14.

Would we expect to see a decrease in lung cancer prevalence? Would we expect that the lung cancer epidemic would be curbed at all, let alone within a few years of peak consumption? I would wager that even the PHE authorities would acknowledge that such a change would have little effect. Reasons here, too, would abound. Among them that it takes lung-cancer risk 20 years to return to baseline after the smoker quits. So these 14-a-day smokers would still be at high risk, albeit perhaps not quite as high.

I don't have high hopes of the food reformulation scheme but this comparison is ridiculous. Obesity is caused by an excess of calories. If people reduce their calorie consumption (or increase their energy expenditure) they are less likely to be obese.

If we take Taubes' analogy with cigarettes to its logical conclusion, there is no point reducing calorie consumption - the only answer is for people to consume no calories at all.

I am, of course, assuming that the laws of thermodynamics (or what people like Taubes pejoratively describe as the 'calorie theory') are correct. I'm not quite sure what theory Taubes has to replace mainstream science, but it sounds fairly bizarre...

We see an overweight child with a chocolate bar and our tendency is to think that the chocolate bar is the proximate cause [speak for yourself - CJS]. Get rid of that chocolate bar, or shrink it in size, and we have a child who never gets overweight to begin with. But these epidemics of obesity and diabetes have been in the works since the late 19th century, cooking along, quite likely passed down from sugar-eating mothers to their children even in the womb. If so, our kids are getting fatter not just because they’re eating sugar, but because they’re programmed – epigenetically, in the scientific lingo – before they’re even born.

This is classic Taubes. One of his characteristics is to make wild suggestions that have little or no evidence to support them and then proceed as if they were true ("If so..."). His cigarette metaphor above uses the same trick. He insists that smoking is the 'pedagogical example' without demonstrating that it is similar or relevant to the issue of obesity.

In any case, it all lurches towards a predictable conclusion...

This epidemic has deep roots and may require drastic action to curb. That PHE is acting is admirable. But maybe we should treat this like cigarettes: aim to curb the number of sugar consumers, rather than the amount of sugar they consume.

Spoken like a true fanatic. Taubes has previously claimed that people need to give up sugar entirely (see The Case for Eliminating Sugar. All of It.)

Needless to say, he has an anti-sugar book to sell. It's a crowded field of publishing that requires authors to make increasingly ludicrous statements if they want to be noticed. This is not to say that Taubes doesn't believe what he's saying. He probably does. The all-or-nothing approach is integral to the life of a zealot.

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