I didn’t realize how Gary Taubes came to write Good Calories, Bad Calories:
He majored in applied physics at Harvard, where he also played on the football team’s defensive line. (John Tuke, one of his teammates, recalls that Taubes stood out for his intensity.) After Harvard, Taubes headed to Stanford for a master’s in engineering with visions of becoming an astronaut. It was only after realizing that NASA wasn’t likely to send a man of his size to space—Taubes is 6?2? and 220 pounds—that he decided to pursue an interest in investigative reporting that had been sparked by reading All the President’s Men.
He attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and soon landed a job at Discover magazine. He caught a break in 1984, when a profile of particle physicist Carlo Rubbia led to a deal for his first book, Nobel Dreams. Taubes thought he would be documenting a breakthrough in physics. Instead, the book chronicled Rubbia’s errors and the machinations he used to outmaneuver his fellow physicists. Taubes was struck that science could be so subjective at the highest levels—that it’s not just the big mistakes that scientists have to worry about but the numerous small ones that accumulate to support their misconceptions. “You can be fooled in a thousand subtle ways,” he says.
That lesson stuck with him when, almost by accident, he turned his attention to nutrition science in 1997. By then a freelancer and running low on rent money, he called his editor at Science and asked if there were any assignments he could turn around quickly. The editor mentioned a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine that detailed a dietary approach to reducing blood pressure without restricting salt. Maybe he could write about that?
Taubes knew almost nothing about the topic. He would end up spending the next nine months interviewing 80 researchers, clinicians, and administrators. That research resulted in an August 1998 article headlined “The (Political) Science of Salt.” It was a sweeping takedown of everything scientists thought they had established about the link between salt consumption and blood pressure. The belief that too much salt was the cause of hypertension wasn’t based on careful experiments, Taubes wrote, but primarily on observations of the diets of populations with less hypertension. The scientists and health professionals railing against salt didn’t seem to notice or care that the diets of those populations might differ in a dozen ways from the diets of populations with more hypertension.
Taubes began to wonder if his critique applied beyond salt, to the rest of nutrition science. After all, one of the researchers Taubes interviewed had taken credit not only for getting Americans to eat less salt but also for getting them to eat less fat and eggs. He kicked off a multiyear research project that culminated in 2002, when he published a New York Times Magazine cover story on fat that would vault him into prominence and onto the path to NuSI.
Under the cover line “What if Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat?” Taubes made the case that we get fat not because we ignore the advice of the medical establishment but because we follow it. He argued that carbohydrates, not fat, were more likely to be the cause of the obesity epidemic. The piece was a sensation.