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January 13, 2008

Q&A With Tom Naughton, Part One

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

When I read about Tom Naughton’s as-yet-unreleased food-and-diet documentary "Fat Head," I was instantly interested, and on two counts. In the first place, Naughton sounded as fascinated as I am by the way that the official health-tips class has put a lot of bad eating advice over on the public during the last few decades. How did this happen?

In the second place, I was eager to learn more about Tom's experience as a first-time filmmaker. We're witnessing a major shift occurring in the world of audiovisual-through-time entertainment. As digital technology grows ever cheaper and ever easier-to-use, moviemaking has ceased being something that only fulltime professionals can afford and manage. Tom Naughton made his own feature-length movie almost entirely by himself. What was this like? So I contacted Tom and talked him into sending me a copy of his movie.

I enjoyed it very much. Framed as a response to Morgan Spurlock's headline-grabbing, eating-all-month- at-McDonald’s film "Super Size Me," "Fat Head" is humorous, engaging, and informative.

In only 80-odd minutes, Tom brings you up to speed with a lot of science and history -- and he does it all without strain, which is quite an accomplishment. Trust me on this, by the way: I've read a number of the books that cover this material, and I've done some professional writing myself. It's quite miraculous how efficiently and enjoyably Tom has conveyed the essence of a lot of very dense and dry work. Concision and easygoing-ness only look easy.

But "Fat Head" is more than just sharp and entertaining. It's also resourceful, straight-shooting, and direct. Tom -- who has worked as a health writer and as a standup comedian -- is a very smart, droll, and agreeable host. As a filmmaker, one of his smarter choices was not to compete in the slickness sweepstakes. You might say that "Fat Head" is to the usual contempo documentary what a great blogposting is to a Vanity Fair production number: twice the substance presented with a tenth the clatter. And with graphics by his wife and a few appearances by his kids, "Fat Head" is nothing if not pleasingly handmade, and full of real-people personality and "touch" of a sort that we don’t often get from movies.

Tom’s gimmick is that, like Morgan Spurlock, he too is going to eat at fast food places for a month. Will the experiment lead to a Spurlockian weight-gain and health-decline? At the end of the film, Tom caps this stunt by going on an Atkins-ish low-carb diet to see what ingesting all that saturated fat will do to his cholesterol profile. Not to give anything away, but ... Well, let’s just say that Tom’s doctor was surprised by the results. You may be too.

I’m very glad that Tom Naughton has agreed to be interviewed by 2Blowhards. I wanted to ask him about the diet-and-health subject matter of his film as well as about his adventures as a first-time filmmaker in this wide-open new digital-filmmaking world.

Today: the diet, food, health, and eating side of “Fat Head.”


The 2Blowhards Q&A with Tom Naughton, Part One


2Blowhards: Standup comedy, writing, health issues, tech-geekery, filmmaking, the whole low-carb thing ... What an interesting and unusual collection of skills, talents, and interests. Would you tell me a little about where they all came from, and how they came together?

Tom Naughton: Okay, it’s an odd assortment. The brief version is that I spent two years in pre-med before admitting to myself that biology and chemistry were only mildly interesting to me, but writing juiced me. I switched to journalism as a major, which, combined with the pre-med, landed me my first job out of college, as a writer and editor for a health magazine.

After a couple of years, I started writing and selling some freelance humor pieces to magazines and newspapers, then took some sketch-comedy classes, and eventually decided to try standup. Like nearly all first-time comedians, I fell flat on my face. But I kept at it and eventually became a full-time club comedian.

Unfortunately, that means living on the road, which is fun for awhile but isn’t a good permanent lifestyle. So I bought some books and taught myself computer programming so I could have a second career that allowed me to stay at home, but still take time off when I wanted to accept a traveling standup gig.

I perform my standup act on cruise ships now and then, but I stay home more often than not because I have a wife and two little girls I adore. I don’t want to be an absent husband and father.

2B: What kinds of apprehensions do you have that you'll be seen not just as someone debunking Morgan Spurlock but as, heaven forfend, an actual defender of McDonald's?

TN: The original working title for this production was “In Defense of Common Sense,” which is what I’m really defending. But in my book, Spurlock accused McDonald’s of a crime they didn’t commit, so by pointing out the bologna in “Super Size Me,” I am in a sense defending McDonald’s as well. So be it. There are too many people in our society who will believe any bogus charge, as long it’s directed at a large corporation.

Apprehensions? … I don’t have any. The people who embraced “Super Size Me” without noticing the rather large gaps in logic are people whose intellect I don’t particularly respect, so I’m not concerned with their opinions.

2B: How did you like eating at the fast food places? Does it turn out that the real Tom Naughton is actually a Slow Food buff?

TN: I happen to like fast food, so it wasn’t unpleasant for me to eat the stuff for a month. I did get tired of it toward the end, though. That’s why I thought Morgan Spurlock’s “addiction” angle was just plain silly. [Junkfood-lawsuit lawyer] John Banzhaf probably got him to tack on that one to help his lawsuit strategy.

2B: Congrats on your cholesterol, by the way. Did you lose any weight on the low-carb diet at the end of the film?

TN: I lost two pounds during my saturated-fat pigout month, in spite of what had to be a very high calorie count. I later tried the same thing on a two-week cruise-ship gig. I ate in the buffet restaurant and loaded up on eggs, bacon, sausage, burgers, steaks, fish, cheeses and green vegetables. I didn’t touch sugar or starch. My weight stayed exactly the same, in spite of eating four big meals per day.

2B: Have you shown your movie to your doctor?

TN: I’m waiting to produce what I consider the final cut before showing the film to him. After reading Gary Taubes’ book, I realize I need to update the narrative a bit, so there’s more work to do.

2B: How are you eating these days?

TN: Probably the biggest change for me is that I no longer worry at all about saturated fat. In fact, I consider it health food. I also avoid sugar and starch more diligently. I had to consume some starch to go on an honest fast-food diet, but my daily diet now includes almost no starch at all.

2B: What with the Gary Taubes book, with bloggers like Jimmy Moore, with more people finding their way to the Eades' blogs (here and here), etc, it certainly seems to be the moment for awareness of the shortcomings of the high-carb / low-fat hypothesis. Were you aware of the low-carb, skeptical-of-the- conventional-wisdom group before starting the film?

TN: I once lost 35 pounds on the Zone diet, so I knew limiting carbs was helpful. I didn’t discover Jimmy Moore until he contacted me after Dr. Eades wrote about the film on his blog. And of course, Gary Taubes’ book just came out, but I read his newspaper and magazine articles while researching the film.

2B: How'd you find your way to that point of view yourself, and to those people?

TN: My point of view is based on my personal experiences. Lowfat diets always made me feel terrible, but back in the day, I still believed what the nutritional establishment was preaching, so I beat myself up for not having the discipline to stick to a low-fat diet. Eventually I decided my body was smarter than my brain, and it was trying to tell me something.

I also know people who follow low-fat vegetarian diets and claim to feel terrific, and I doubt they’re lying to me. We all have different body chemistries. But I think for most people, the standard advice is nothing more than an invitation to live with constantly elevated insulin and all the damage it can cause.

My composer, Tom Monahan, is a bit of a health nut, and he was already familiar with Dr. Sears and Sally Fallon, so he pointed me to them. I heard Dr. Eric Oliver on the Dennis Prager radio show and looked him up. I found Dr. Michael Eades through internet research that led me to his blog. I read “Protein Power” before I got in touch with him and Mary Dan Eades so I’d be more familiar with their work.

2B: How were the big names -- Sears, Enig, Oliver, the Eades, etc -- to deal with?

TN: They were all, without exception, very accommodating. I initiated contact with all of the interviewees by sending an email explaining what the film would cover, along with links to some sample trailers I’d put together using my home video camera.

Sally Fallon and Mike Eades both wanted to make sure I wasn’t being paid by McDonald’s to make this film before agreeing to appear on camera, but once I convinced them I was acting on my own, they were great. Keep in mind, these are people who don’t like fast food and don’t eat it. But I made it clear I’m not trying to portray fast food as health food; I’m showing how people can make healthier choices if they do eat fast food -- which most people do.

Dr. Sears struck me as the quiet, reserved type when we first met, but he is quite passionate about health topics, so he kind of lit up once he started answering questions on camera. You can’t really see it in the film because of the white coat he was wearing, but he used to be a strength coach for a college football team, and he’s built like a gymnast. Whatever he’s doing, it works.

Mary Enig was recovering from cancer treatments when I interviewed her and Sally Fallon, so she wasn’t feeling particularly energetic, but she still agreed to go through with the interview. Naturally I was impressed with her dedication. She could’ve begged off, and I certainly wouldn’t have held it against her.

Mike and Mary Dan Eades are two of the most likeable people I’ve ever met. Before we got around to the interviews, we spent over an hour on their back deck, drinking coffee and just getting to know each other. Then we spent another six hours on the interviews. One of the lights in the ceiling of their library kept flickering on, then off, then on again, so sometimes we’d have to back up and reshoot the question and answer, but I think it actually worked out, because sometimes they thought of more they wanted to say the second time around.

2B: While it certainly seems to me that the anti-low-fatters are the clear thinkers who are tearing down the quasi-religious nuttiness of the low-fatters, I've run into some people who think that Eades, Atkins, Sears, the Weston Price people, and others are their own kind of nutty cult. What are your thoughts and feelings about that?

TN: The people who think Eades, Atkins, Fallon, and Sears are nuts are basically saying that it’s nutty to recommend the diet that human beings thrived on for about two million years, the diet that is clearly our natural diet.

When I was a grain-eating near-vegetarian, I was tired too often, I had bouts of gastric reflux, I had skin rashes, and I started getting arthritic pains in my joints. Now I live mostly on animal protein and animal fats, along with some fruits and vegetables, and all those problems have gone away. My physical endurance has never been better. If that’s nuts, well, I’ll probably live to be a very nutty, very old man.


Many thanks to Tom Naughton.

Please visit and explore the website that Tom has created for "Fat Head." It's a fun, generous, and informative resource in its own right, with trailers, clips, and stories on offer, as well as links to many of his sources. Jimmy Moore interviewed Tom Naughton here. Here's Tom Naughton's personal website.

Start your reading about the carb con with this succinct article about how badly the low-fat hypothesis has failed to pan out. Key bit: "Four large trials between 1980 and 1984 comparing disease rates and diet 'showed no evidence that men who ate less fat lived longer or had fewer heart attacks'."

Tomorrow I'll talk with Tom about his experiences as a first-time filmmaker.



posted by Michael at January 13, 2008


Excellent! Thank you for spotlighting Tom and his work. I had to watch Spurlock's film for a college nutrition course and I don't think the instructor was too pleased by my essay on it. Not only did I point out that just about nobody would eat at MacD's three times a day for a month, I claimed that any drastic change in diet, even if you ate oatmeal only 3/30 you'd feel different, even sick, as your body adjusts.

They also tried to push the typical "the poor are the ones who suffer" b.s. and I argued that I couldn't afford to eat out that often, and it was cheaper (I had to produce a grocery receipt) to eat healthy by cooking your own.

It's true--the gullibility of the general public is always primed and ready to swallow any anti-government or anti-corporation propaganda.

Posted by: susan on January 14, 2008 7:53 AM

Wow, Tom's movie sounds really exciting. I've been wanting to make a documentary myself, but I've held myself back. This is inpsiring, knowing how you can make a movie this directly and yet have it be so effective. I would like to know what Tom's thoughts are about distribution.

Posted by: Sara Porter on January 14, 2008 3:45 PM

Two and a half years on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet followed by two and a half years off taught me everything I needed to know about the value of staying off sugar and starch. SCD prohibits all di- and polysaccharides, which effectively removes all processed food as well.

It's a gargantuan pain in the ass at times, but there's no question that I thrive on it. As to weight gain/loss, most people on SCD end up normalizing: if you need to gain, you gain; if you need to lose, you lose. Pretty compelling (if anecdotal) evidence.

Posted by: communicatrix on January 14, 2008 3:47 PM

I've been having my doubts about the diet I've been on. The high-carb way of eating leaves me exhausted. Am I missing protein, maybe? So interesting to learn that there's a school of people offering an alternative. These postings about Gary Taubes and the Eades and now Tom have really opened my eyes. I'm heading over to explore Tom's website now!

Posted by: Andymon on January 14, 2008 3:49 PM

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