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March 31, 2009

Tom Naughton and "Fat Head": A Revisit

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some months back I managed to get hold of a DVD workprint of what sounded like an intriguing new documentary: Tom Naughton's "Fat Head."

Although the film was still being edited and polished, I found it fun and fascinating -- and for a number of reasons. For one, it's a very effective takedown of Morgan Spurlock's popular anti-McDonald's movie, "Super Size Me." For another, it's an amazingly fast and effective intro to the low-carb / Paleo / Primal critique of establishment diet-and-eating advice. For a third, the film is an example of a newish and fascinating development in the history of filmmaking: the homemade, completely personal, yet fullscale movie.

(Realistically speaking, it's only in the last few years that digital videocams, computers, hard drives, and audiovisual programs have evolved to the point where non-professional people working in their kitchens can create ambitious, inventive, and / or expressive work. For more about how these factors have affected this longtime moviebuff's view of movies and video, read this recent posting.)

Curious and enthusiastic, I got hold of the film's creator, Tom Naughton, and did an interview with him. Here's Part One; here's Part Two. Tom is smart, funny, and down-to-earth; he's also an unusual new figure on the filmmaking scene. He gave us a very generous interview, so I urge you to click on the links above and give the q&a a read.

Now finished -- and polished to a high shine -- "Fat Head" is available for purchase at Amazon and for rental at Netflix. I recently watched the film again, liked it even better, and got back in touch with Tom Naughton to bring myself up-to-date with his adventures in filmmaking.


A Revisit with Tom Naughton


2Blowhards: You're a real film director now. How has becoming a film director affected your life?
Tom Naughton: I don't think having a credit as a director has changed my life much. Well, I did grow a beard. And I wear a safari jacket. And after reviewing the video footage I shot at Christmas, I shouted "This isn't right!" and made everyone go through Christmas morning again so I could use more creative angles. It was tough re-wrapping all the presents. Plus I fired my daughter from the role of "daughter" and hired another girl whose head is larger in proportion to her body. But other than that, no, life is pretty much the same.

2B: Great to see the movie available to the public. How did you arrange distribution, and get from "a guy with a movie" to "a guy whose movie is on Amazon and Netflix"?
TN: I was turned down by all the film festivals I entered. That may sound discouraging, but I wasn't discouraged. It's kind of what I expected. The film-festival crowd, like the Hollywood crowd, is almost uniformly left-wing. Many of them talk about their commitment to "diversity" in their guidelines, but in Hollywood-speak that means "We want films made by people who all look different, from all walks of life, as long as they think the same as we do."

"Fat Head," of course, is a product of my own libertarian world-view. No one makes you eat fast food. If your kids get fat on Happy Meals, that's your fault, not Ronald McDonald's. And if you tell me you gained 25 pounds in a month eating just three meals per day at McDonald's, I will expect your math to actually add up, instead of just believing you because it feels so good and righteous to hate a big, bad corporation like McDonald's.

So I knew it would be an uphill battle, and it was. Fortunately, I sent a synopsis, some clips, and some online press coverage –- including our earlier interviews, by the way -– to some producer's reps, and one of them really liked what she saw. I ended up signing with her, and she pitched and arranged the distribution deals.

2B: The finished film is a somewhat different than the one I watched some months back. I noticed that the sound is more vivid, and that you did some re-editing. What were you up to with these changes?
TN: There's a saying that works of art are never finished, merely abandoned. If I were going to re-release "Fat Head" a month from now, I'd still be tinkering with it.

But I think what you noticed was the effect of having professionals take a whack at it for the first time. Woody Woodhall, my audio engineer and sound designer, re-worked all the sound and added a lot of subtle layers in addition to the obvious comic effects. A post house called Digital Film Tree re-balanced all the color. A music producer named Martin Blasick worked with my composer to punch up the music. And of course, I added a whole new section to cover some of what I'd just learned from reading Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories."

2B: Making the movie was a learning experience for you. For one thing, you were catching up with a lot of diet-and-eating information as you made the film. How much knowledge did you go into the film with? How did you manage to do your learning as you made the film?
TN: I knew there was more to losing weight than just counting calories, and I knew the fat-causes-heart-disease theory wasn't quite right, because my cholesterol dropped when I tried the Zone diet some years earlier, even though I was eating more fat. So I'd say I had fuzzy knowledge. I didn't quite believe the standard advice, but I couldn't cite details on exactly what was wrong with it.

When I started really digging into my research for "Fat Head," I was stunned at just how wrong the standard-issue advice really is. It's worse than wrong; it's harmful. We're telling people it's healthy to consume the equivalent of a cup and half of sugar every day in the form of bread or pasta, and then wondering why we've got a Type II diabetes epidemic. That's when I decided to change the focus of "Fat Head," and make it less of reply to "Super Size Me" and more of a look at how much of what "everybody knows" about diet and health is a load of bologna.

Fortunately, in the internet age, I could do research sitting at my desk at night, after the girls were in bed and I'd finished whatever programming work I was doing for the day. I'd run Google searches, read articles, and follow links pretty much endlessly until I ended up back where I'd started. I ordered books I saw referenced and read them with a highlighter in hand. I downloaded and printed online articles, until the pile got so huge, I had to number them and organize them into topic folders, and write summaries on note cards, kind of like my own personal card catalog.

2B: For another "learning experience" thing, you were teaching yourself filmmaking as you went along. How'd that go? What were some of the dumbest mistakes you did committed?
TN: I made all kinds of rookie mistakes, but I was lucky that none of them turned out to be fatal. Let's see … Well, first mistake was not numbering and labeling my tapes. I thought once you captured the footage to a computer, you were done with the tapes. When the post-house people realized I didn't have numbered tapes, there was about a minute of silence, during which I'm convinced they were trying not to scream in horror.

Second mistake was not creating a track outline and sticking to it. I edited the film in sections. In one section, I'd have the subtitles on the third video track, in other section I'd have them on the fourth video track, and in some sections they'd be on the same track as the B-roll photos. I had no idea what the post process was like, and I didn't know my edits were basically just blueprints for what would go into the film. I thought my edited sections were the film.

My biggest, dumbest mistake was not doing a bit of research ahead of time to find out what editing system the post-production houses use. I used Adobe Premiere for all my early drafts because I already owned PCs for my programming work, and there's no Final Cut for PCs.

When it came time for post, that's when I discovered that nobody could work with my Premiere files. The sound guy told me to export a OMF file; turns out Premiere doesn't do that. And I couldn't successfully export an edit decision list that was readable by Final Cut for the guys doing the video post. Wouldn't have done them any good anyway, because I hadn't numbered my tapes in Premiere. Fifteen or twenty different tapes could've considered "Tape 001" in my Premiere files.

And so, with a deadline looming to deliver the final film to one of our distributors, I bought a Mac Pro with Final Cut, spent two days pounding through a bunch of video tutorials, re-imported my footage, then worked 18-hour days, 7 days a week, to re-edit the whole film on my Mac. And this time I knew to always put the subtitles on the same track, the cutaways on the same track, the sound effects on the same track, and so forth. And I numbered the tapes.

2B: I'm curious about how you proceeded generally. With any kind of script or outline to start with? How did you "grow" your film?
TN: I didn't have a real, word-for-word script until the foreign distributor asked for one. They needed it to create subtitles for the non-English markets.

You can't really script a documentary like this one ahead of time, at least not if you intend to make an honest film. So much of the film depended on interviews. You can script the questions, but not the answers. Look at the before and after checkups with my doctor; there's no way to script those or even outline them until they happen.

I didn't start outlining until after most of the shooting was done. I had a lot of footage and a lot of ideas, but I was still trying to decide what exactly this film should cover, aside from my fast-food diet and my parodies of "Super Size Me." It's like looking at a pile of sticks and trying to discern a pattern.

When I realized how much of the current dietary advice is wrong, that gave me the direction the I was looking for, but it also created a huge problem: How do I show this stuff? If I want to convince people the Lipid Hypothesis is based on data that was intentionally cherry-picked by Ancel Keys, what the heck do I shoot?

So I found myself with a lot of voice-over text but nothing visual to go along with it. I tried talking over still photos and graphics that my wife drew, but that got way old, way fast. When I watched the first edit, I was discouraged. I knew there good information being presented, but visually it was a dud.

That's when I knew we needed an animator. And once I decided we would animate those sections, I re-wrote the voice-overs, because I knew I could include a lot more humor. It's tough to make a still photo funny.

And even after we started animating, I changed the structure as I went along. I got out the ol' note cards, wrote a brief description of each scene, re-arranged the scenes several times on a big table, and eventually decided to break it into part one, which deals with Spurlock and the other anti-fast-food evangelists, and part two, which deals with what's wrong with the current dietary theories. I also marked which scenes were intended to be funny and made sure I spread them out fairly evenly.

But after getting the outline the way I wanted it, I was still looking for a unifying theme. Then it hit me one day, something that Dr. Mary Dan Eades said: "Your brain is made of fat. When they call you a fat head, they're not kidding." That gave me a title I liked for the first time. About a minute later, the subtitle came to me: "You've been fed a load of bologna." Then I had my theme.


2B: Did you manage to keep up your own low-carbishness as you made the movie? I know that, often, people caught up in the fever of making a media-thing eat just terribly.
TN: Well, there was no craft services table around to tempt me with Pringles and Coca-Cola, so it was pretty easy to stay low-carb. And since I decided to focus at least as much on the dangers of sugar and starch as on the stupidity of "Super Size Me," I was pretty motivated to stay away from the stuff.

2B: How many hours do you figure you put into making the film?
TN: Somewhere in the thousands. I can't be much more precise than that. I worked around the clock sometimes, had to get away from it at other times either to keep my sanity or to work a programming gig and pay the mortgage.

2B: I'm curious what you think about a theory that's been occurring to me. It seems that the lowfat-and-often-vegetarian world has a kind of academic-socialist mindset. They're idealistic and bossy, and they love lawsuits and legislation. By contrast, the low-carb / Paleo / Primal world seems much more freewheeling -- less eager to boss anyone around, more modest, and more willing to be of help to people as they actually are. Fair?
TN: There does seem to be a bit of correlation, but I'm not sure how strong it is.

The idea that the government should use taxes and regulations to encourage a particular diet … Well, obviously that's going to have more appeal for people with socialist leanings, the same people who applauded all the anti-smoking laws. If it becomes undeniable later that it's carbohydrates that are causing most of our health problems, will those same people support anti-sugar, anti-bread, anti-pasta laws? I don't know. I can't picture someone marching around Berkeley in a pair of Birkenstocks carrying a sign that says "Wheat Is Murder."

I've noticed that most vegetarians I know personally also lean left politically. And certainly the people who adored "Super Size Me" agree with Spurlock that McDonald's has a "corporate responsibility" to take better care of us, which I consider a socialist attitude. When I hear the words "corporate responsibility" tossed around when we're talking about a restaurant that will happily sell us whatever we prefer to buy, whether it's a salad or an order of fries, I cringe. If people wanted to eat tofu burgers, McDonald's would sell them.

And does anyone ever go after Ben & Jerry's for selling full-throttle dairy fat with plenty of sugar mixed in? No, because they have this image of being a cool, hippie-dippy kind of "progressive" company. So obviously there are some political attitudes getting twisted up with these beliefs about what's bad for us and what isn't.

Now, having said that, I have one good friend who's a vegetarian and is also a rock-ribbed conservative. She doesn't eat meat, but she would never try to tell other people they shouldn't. And at least half the people who worked on "Fat Head" and completely support the film's message are liberals who voted for Obama. I know, because we had some political discussions during long hours of production and post.

So I guess I would put it this way: I think nearly all of the do-gooders who want the government to tell us how to eat are liberals. But I don't think most other liberals agree with them.

2B: How much time are you giving to promoting "Fat Head"? Any plans taking shape yet for another film project?
TN: Since this is an independent film, it seems to be picking up steam by word of mouth. I'm trying to get the word out with reviewers, newspaper health writers, and other members of the media. I've turned the "Fat Head" site into a blog, partly so I can continue to pop off on a subject I feel passionately about, and partly to maintain the film's visibility.

As far as another project, sure, I have ideas. I always have ideas. But this was a heart-and-soul, bet-the-farm kind of project, and at this point, I have no idea how far it will go. I won't make another film until I know what's going to happen -- or not -- with this one.


A couple of notes.

  • If you're prone to dismiss the "diet and eating advice" issue as a trivial one, consider this: It may represent one of the biggest mistakes in the history of medicine. It's beginning to look like taking the Lipid Hypothesis (roughly: the idea that saturated fat in the diet turns into bad cholesterol in the bloodstream, which in turn causes heart disease) seriously, and embedding it into a lot of establishment advice and practices, has been a social disaster of quite amazing proportions. It has likely damaged the health of millions of people, killed some of them, caused untold amounts of unhappiness, and been the basis for all kinds of crazy and pointless business endeavors. That ain't trivial.

(By the way, if anyone's tempted to compare the low-carb / Paleo / Primal view of establishment eating-and-diet advice to 2Blowhards' take on the arts scene -- well, please go right ahead. The parallels strike me too. Read my posting about "The Arts Litany" here.)

  • Why not buy a copy of "Fat Head"? If you think that $19.95 is a lot of money, consider this: It's about what you'd pay for a couple of books -- and while you're likely never to get around to reading those books, you'll almost certainly watch the movie. $19.95 actually consumed sure beats $19.95 sitting on a shelf. Also, part of what's tremendous about "Fat Head" is how clearly, concisely, and entertainingly Tom summarizes and presents a lot of difficult material. In my clueless and slapdash way, I've explored a lot of the research and the books that deal with this material. My verdict: Tom's film is the best introduction out there to this information and thinking. Fast, easy, and top-notch -- can't beat that. Besides, once you've been through the movie, you can pass your copy along to friends. So: You and your significant other watch the film ... Maybe you watch it again to let some of its points drive themselves home ... You pass it along to friends who do the same ... On a per-viewing basis, that's a very cheap purchase.

Thanks once again to Tom Naughton. Buy his movie here. Visit his website here.

Tom's an inspired blogger too. Don't miss his posting about the NYTimes' awful health columnist Jane Brody here. From that posting, here's today's Underknown Fact for the Day:

For women of all ages and men over age 50, there is zero statistical relationship between high cholesterol and heart disease. (In other words, the relationship only shows up in men under 50 -- and even then, it’s weak.)

Some of my other favorite places to go when I want to find out what's new in the eating, health, and fitness worlds: Dr. Michael Eades. Mark Sisson. Jimmy Moore. Stephan. Richard Nikoley. If I had a few bucks to spare, I'd buy a subscription to Arthur De Vany's Evolutionary Fitness blog.



posted by Michael at March 31, 2009


And certainly the people who adored "Super Size Me" agree with Spurlock that McDonald's has a "corporate responsibility" to take better care of us, which I consider a socialist attitude.

I've almost totally recovered from an advanced case of libertarian ideology - but you don't really need any ideology to be pretty libertarian about many things. All you really have to do is skip the whole yada yada and go quantitative: the average American has about a one in 60 lifetime risk of dying in an automobile accident. That's a fact. And I'm slightly less sure about the following, but I believe those accidents account for something like 20% of all early deaths - amazing.

In fact, I've seen government numbers showing that the annual number of automobile deaths in the USA has been roughly the same (~40,000) for at least 50 years: an astonishing two million people over less than a single human lifetime; ie more Americans than have been killed in war, ever.

The sheer volume of this destruction makes so many of the various demands for government intervention in this or that minutia look just kind of crazy by comparison.

Odd that the one thing the left isn't interested in boycotting is cars. I used to know a million arch-bohemian lefties, almost none of which made do without a car. (And I do drive one myself, of course... often a bit more slowly than the people behind me would like.)

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on March 31, 2009 8:13 PM

As someone who followed two years of near anorexia with a chaser of high carb vegetarianism, I can't tell you how grateful I am to have been liberated from my no fat mindset before it was too late. Just before I had the health crisis that alerted me to the fact that my healthy lifestyle was anything but, I had a cholesterol test that showed I had almost no lipids good or bad. Automatically assuming that low cholesterol was good cholesterol, I was proud of my results.

Imagine my surprise to discover six months later that not only was I fast on my way to becoming a diabetic, I was probably in the early stages of heart disease as well. I don't remember all the details except that without gaining much weight at all I was starting to have enough problems with blood sugar to be aware something was really wrong. I was also getting winded during low level physical exertion. Even worse, I aged 10 years overnight.

So, yes, you and Tom Naughton are dead right about the destructiveness of the diet advice we've been given over the last 3 decades. I imagine those of us who will be most affected are just now reaching our 40s and 50s when our bodies can no longer compensate for our toxic eating habits. Looking back, it's really obvious that you can't stave off all health problems simply by avoiding all dietary fat but you're young and everything seems to be fine especially if you can keep the weight off.

Two years later I still have to avoid almost all carbs in order to keep my insulin levels steady thus avoiding episodes of low blood sugar. I'm probably not ever going to be able to consume even a normal amount of carbs. That being said, I feel pretty good, I enjoy foods like cheddar cheese that I haven't eaten since childhood and my weight stays steady despite the fact I consume large amounts of foods I once considered taboo, pecans for instance. Fortunately, I've also age regressed a bit, not to the extent I look like I did the year before everything fell apart but not so bad as two years ago.

Though I've no doubt there's a genetic component to my health problems, I"m also certain that my misguided diet strategies from my late teens until just recently greatly accelerated the process. I gather from this blog and "Fat Head" that I'm not the only person whose been affected by following the prevailing wisdom. Interesting. I'm going to have to rethink this a bit if it's not simply a genetic predisposition for diabetes on my part.

Posted by: anonymous on March 31, 2009 8:36 PM

I can't picture someone marching around Berkeley in a pair of Birkenstocks carrying a sign that says "Wheat Is Murder."

I will buy the movie of anyone who thinks of a line like that.

The diet/health/fitness experts aren't academic socialists -- they're part of the priestly caste (maybe it's the paternalism you were driving at). Their mission is to save souls from damnation, they are certain what will accomplish that, and anyone who gets in their way is, purposefully or not, sending those poor wards to hell.

Before, this caste talked about souls, spirits, etc. Then they got materialist and talked about bodies, brains, etc. Materialist theories are more likely to be correct than spiritual theories, but their close-mindedness and fear of naysayers derailing their efforts at salvation -- these are the factors that make them bad scientists.

As Gary Taubes details at length, a lot of first-rate -- Nobel Prize-winning -- science has been done about nutrition for over a century. But it was by amoral nerds who just wanted to figure out how stuff works, not by priests and their disciples who felt called on to save souls. And it wasn't part of the anti-fat movement; if anything, the opposite (e.g., working out how insulin regulates fat deposition).

Posted by: agnostic on March 31, 2009 10:37 PM

As long as we're trading anecdotes, I might as well offer my own counter-testimonial. About 12 years ago, I stopped eating meat pretty much cold turkey, switched from a fat-and-carb-laden high calorie fast-food diet to a carb-intensive cereal-mad vegetarian plan and never looked back. I lost over 70 pounds in less than a year and I've kept it off without hunger pangs. Feel better, too. Maybe that's not an option for everyone (actually, it is), but it worked for me -- and I'm no leftist.

My understanding is that lowcarb votaries don't make much of a blip in longitudinal studies of weight loss success, and judging from the experience of many friends who get hooked by Atkins-pitched ketosis only to balloon up months after the novelty has worn off (while swearing that lowcarbing really works), I'm not willing to dismiss the conventional calorie-counting wisdom out of hand. Oh, I'm sure there are differences in metabolism -- and natural history, as Cochran and Harpending remind us -- that complicate the ADA party line, but I'm also sure that protein- and fat-centered diets reduce calories dramatically when compared with the omnivorous indulgence that's become the rule.

It seems far more likely that the obesity problem boils down to plentitude and ubiquitous temptation, lathered by culturally-enabled sloth. Nutrient-centric approaches minimize the fact that people have gradually been consuming more of EVERYTHING over the past few decades, at every opportunity and turn. More fat, more sugar, more bad TV, more bloggy distractions, more leisure, more calories. If you're an office stooge, you're less likely to exercise than ever. Modern work environments are air-conditioned and weirdly sedentary. People don't even use file cabinets anymore.

I'm not saying the low-carbers are wrong. Perhaps a bit overconfident, but not wrong. I just know that in my experience, the opposite approach did the trick. And the trick stuck. Whatever works for you is fine by me.

Posted by: Chip Smith on April 1, 2009 1:40 AM

"I'm not saying the low-carbers are wrong. Perhaps a bit overconfident, but not wrong. I just know that in my experience, the opposite approach did the trick. And the trick stuck. Whatever works for you is fine by me." - Chip

I should probably emphasize the fact that my current low carb diet counteracts the ill effects of my previous high carb diet. I'm certain a person who hasn't developed insulin insensitivity fares better with a diet much more balanced than mine; I do have to take supplements that provide the nutrients I should be getting from the beans and whole grains I can no longer eat.

My only advice to you is to look again at the nutrition requirements for carbs. The suggested serving per day runs about 300g. In my case, I'm certain I was at least double that and when I had snacks they were also high carb be they popcorn, raisins or something acknowledged to be unhealthy like custard. Balance is the key. Also, be aware of warning signs like always being hungry. You should be able to go at least 4 hours between meals. Constant thirst and frequent urination are other warning signs as well as certain cholesterol results.

And I do try to up my carb load above the 50 -100g limit I have now. Currently I'm seeing how well I metabolize beer since wine seems to help. I'm hoping the beer will replace some whole grains. ; )

Posted by: lynxclknot on April 1, 2009 11:38 AM

Agnostic (& Chip & everyone),
Have you contended with this paper, which says white pasta is only 80% as insulinogenic as an equal-calorie portion of beef?

See table 4, last column. (For the geeks: the test was done with 1000 kJ portions eaten for breakfast, and the "insulin score" for various foods is the two-hour AUC for insulin, expressed as a percentage of the two-hour AUC for white bread.)

If insulin is a key to energy storage dynamics and to baseline inflammatory tone, and white pasta is better vis-a-vis insulin than beef, then why be a low-carber (unless you aim at ketosis or something)? Why not be a low-insuliner - which might in practice amount mainly to eating more fat hence less protein and carbs (I'm not fully sure that would be less insulinogenic)... while of course avoiding highly insulin-provoking carbs like white bread, but not avoiding white pasta and other carbs that are less insulinogenic than beef.

That's if this paper is right and if the insulin thing is almost the sole mechanism (it might not be) of any benefits of low-carbing (if there are any).

Incidentally, I did try out ketosis briefly, out of curiosity. My aerobic performance was very poor, as other people have noted on the web. Hence, I find it hard to swallow the heterodox contention of some low-carbers that ketosis was a more or less "normal" state for our ancestors. I think any ketotic humans who got into a mortal fight, or a bit of physical status sparring, would get wadded up into a ball and slam-dunked if the fight lasted longer than 3 to 5 minutes. (As most people here may know, most of human history, and especially human prehistory, was almost certainly highly violent compared to life today.)

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 1, 2009 1:57 PM

More fun/provocative counterintuiveness (link tks to Charlton Griffin):

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2009 3:33 PM

Oh, I get it, Eric. White pasta gag for low carbers? Hmmm. I almost believed some lunatic was suggesting any carb was less likely to require insulin for glucose metabolism. For the uninitiated, it's net carbs that determine how acceptable carbohydrates are for those concerned with limiting their intake. Atkins does another calculation with different types of sugars but I think you have to buy products by Atkins to distinguish one type of sugar from another. And whatever you do, don't go to Eric for advice.

I also find it interesting that you entered into a state of ketosis, Eric. I've got a book with guidelines for lowering your carbs to that extent but I think the practice is more for obese people who have to do this to start losing weight, not sure someone who isn't obese can really experience ketosis, btw.

Posted by: lynxclknot on April 1, 2009 4:09 PM

Eric J. Johnson,
You might notice that the Animal Foods that produced the smallest Glucose response were the ones with the highest fat/protein ratio (i.e. Eggs and Cheese) where the ones with the "worst" fat/protein ratio (i.e. Beef and Fish) produced the biggest Glucose response.

Pasta, relative to other carb rich foods like White Bread and, especially, Beans has a higher fat/carb ratio.

The fact that fat helps with both digestion and glucose response, assuming that you are not doing some sort of Morgan Spurlock like gorging, has been known for a long time.

Chip, about your high carb weight loss. I feel pretty well versed in the low-carb literature and, AFAIK, know where does it say that you CAN'T lose weight with a high carb diet. The low-carb dogma usually focuses on how effective a low-carb, high-fat (yes, high-fat, not high-protein) diet is in either maintaining current levels of bodyfat or reducing bodyfat.

Some people simply do well on moderate or high carb diets. The Olympic trainer Charles Poliquin who has trained tons of Olympic and professional Athletes estimates that about 30% of his trainees can eat carbs with impunity. This number is likely even higher for Asians, who have had longer to adapt to carbs.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on April 1, 2009 4:25 PM

Michael, something that they did not mention in that article you just linked to was that the people who are likely to focus on cardio are also the people who are likely to follow high-carb (and, possibly, low fat) diets. Whereas the muscleheads in the free weights section are more likely to eat eggs with butter (Vince Gironda's favorite fat-loss/muscle-building meal).

Oh, Chip, something I forgot to address before was your comment about the seeming irrationality of the Atkins followers. First,i should mention that I am not an Atkins dieter, however, I have never known a single person to go on the diet and NOT lose significant weight.

And, they will all, like you said, swear by it...regardless of the ULTIMATE results.

I say ultimate, because so many of them go nuts after a while (you basically have to make all of your own meals because over 90% of what you find made for you at restaurants, 7-Eleven, vending machines, catered lunches, etc is loaded with carbs). They lose the weight, but, then, they want to eat the pizza at the company luncheon just like everyone else. Then, after that pizza, they decide that they might as well have that morning bagel as well. And so on it goes.

Also, I believe that you implied that the evidence is simply stacked against Atkins-like diets, but, to my knowledge, the Atkins diet has only been involved in 1 trial. The AMA had a group on Atkins, a low-fat diet, and some other diet.

The people on the Atkins diet lost more weight, stayed on the diet longer (you could opt out, obviously, whenever) and kept off the weight longer than the competing diets.

The only reason why they even included the Atkins diet (this was around 2002 if I remember correctly), which had been fairly popular since at least the late 70's, was because the Atkins group paid the for the trial themselves.

Personally, I am a much bigger fan of the Natural Hormonal Enhancement diet by Rob Faigin (don't be fooled by the name, the diet simply involves plain old food) or the Anabolic Diet by Mauro DiPasquale myself.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on April 1, 2009 4:39 PM

I wasn't thinking too straight when I chose the word "ketosis" - I did not actually measure indications of ketosis on the occasion I ate very low carbs for a few days, so I don't really know what happened biochemically.

(I did measure the exercise precisely, though: I have a rowing machine that meters my output; I do hard 20 minute pieces regularly, with very similar performances, and my performance completely tanked on very low carbs.)

I don't quite understand your point about net carbs. The concept of net carbs seems to have to do with the glycemic response. But I have seen it claimed (not necessarily by Atkins) that insulin response is the main key to weight loss, energy levels, etc. If so, measuring the insulin response directly is even better than measuring the glycemic response, which is related to the insulin response, but not perfectly so.

In any case, I'm not giving advice; I'm just trying to understand how the theory works. I don't have a strong opinion.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 1, 2009 6:36 PM

Pasta, relative to other carb rich foods like White Bread and, especially, Beans has a higher fat/carb ratio.

I've got Kroger white pasta right here; per 210 kcal it has:
7 g protein
1 g fat
41 g carb incl 2 g fiber, 2 g sugar

The first white bread hit I got on google has, per 120 kcal:
3 g protein
1 g fat
23 g carbs incl 1 g fiber, 2 g sugar


So the bread has about twice the fat of the pasta. I think there are things other than fat which afffect digestion rate and glycemic and insulinemic responses.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 1, 2009 6:48 PM

Hey, some excellent -- or at least pretty darned good -- low-carb pasta.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2009 10:31 PM

You might notice that the Animal Foods that produced the smallest Glucose response were the ones with the highest fat/protein ratio (i.e. Eggs and Cheese) where the ones with the "worst" fat/protein ratio (i.e. Beef and Fish) produced the biggest Glucose response.

On top of provoking a greater glucose response, animal foods with lots of protein and little fat DON'T TASTE LIKE ANYTHING. Salmon's pretty good, but aside from that, you've got to make a conscious effort to lard up you fatless animal foods -- wrapping anything in pancetta or bacon is a simple, broadly applicable way.

Give me pepperoni and salami over ham and turkey!

Posted by: agnostic on April 1, 2009 10:45 PM

So the bread has about twice the fat of the pasta. I think there are things other than fat which afffect digestion rate and glycemic and insulinemic responses

No doubt, but the fat/protein ratio will absolutely affect, if not necessarily dominate, the insulin response.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on April 1, 2009 10:54 PM

I'm in no way prepared or inclined to debate this issue on the scientific merits. I merely wanted to provide my own personal account, since it is at odds with the testimonials that invariably follow when the lowcarb business comes up. I've lived on a carb-laden diet for over a decade, but I assume my sustained weight loss is due to caloric reduction and walking to and from work, just like the registered dietitians tell me. I also suspect that initial lowcarbing success might be explained by a similar caloric shell-game, perhaps with ketosis providing the initial hook. The people I know who have maintained significant weight loss over a long period of time are without exception calorie cutters who exercise, and this is consistent with surveys of those who have kept the pounds off for the long term. On the other hand, I've seen many obese friends shed spectacular poundage rapidly through lowcarbing, but they invariably gain it back. And then some.

I'm not sure it matters whether the reasons are cultural since lowcarb diets have fallen in and out of fashion for ages. If it circles back to willpower in the land of plenty, traditional calorie reduction just seems like the surer strategy.

Posted by: Chip Smith on April 2, 2009 12:51 AM

Re: weak, slow humans in ketosis.

People who are conditioned to burning primarily glucose do indeed feel sluggish if they drastically cut carbs, but only because it takes time for the body to re-adjust to burning primarily fat. The effect passes.

The Inuits ate virtually no carbs at all, consuming nothing but fatty meat and whale blubber for months at a time, but managed to live in a harsh environment that required a great deal of physical strength and endurance. Same goes for the Plains Indians, who lived primarily on buffalo meat.

As for our ancestors, well, mine came from Northern Europe. Pre-agriculture, what were their sources of carbohydrates? Fruit was only available in season, and it wasn't the high-sugar stuff we've engineered today. What kind of carbs did my great grandfather to the 1000th power eat in the winter? Probably few if any. But I bet he went hunting ... God bless him.

Posted by: Tom Naughton on April 2, 2009 1:42 AM

Tom, you make a good point - maybe you're right.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 2, 2009 12:59 PM

This is just know-nothing me tossing a few things in here ...

1) Taubes makes the point that low-carbing has always been the way most people who succeed at losing weight do it. Traditional knowledge: if/when you get fat, cut out potatoes, dessert, and beer. That's low-carbing, basically. Meanwhile the lowfat/calorie-counting approach is of very recent vintage.

2) In my very limited experience, the low-carb/Primal/etc world is more prone to say, "Hey, cool man, whatever works for you" than the low-cal/lowfat world is, let alone the veggie/Ornish team.

3) For myself, I think the greatest value in the low-carb/Paleo approach is in its critique of the lowfat dogma. There are probably a number (if a finite number) of different ways of eating healthily and pleasurably, and there are probably a number (if a finite number) of different physical types. And of course things can change as we grow and age. So the first thing it's important to do is bust up the one-size-fits-all official health-establishment line.

FWIW, of course ...

Fun to hear about everyone's experiences and thoughts, I gotta say.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 2, 2009 1:31 PM

My main guide has been Gretchen Becker's PREDIABETES, Eric. The best explanation I can give without my books on the subject is that fiber slows down the process of digesting your food, releasing the glucose in smaller amounts over a longer period of time. I generally follow Becker's recommendation to eat no more than 12 net carbs at one meal though I can usually consume as much as 20 or 30 with no ill effects. A year ago I was testing my blood sugar 2 hours after every meal then tapered to testing only in the a.m. because at my stage of prediabetes as long as I've metabolized enough but not too much glucose overnight, I'm in the sweet spot so to speak. So, from my results during that extended period of self monitoring, I discovered the suggestions about how to manage carbs generally worked for me with some minor adjustments. Despite encouragement to eat beans in many prediabetes books, for instance, I found the fiber in beans doesn't counteract the huge carb load in a serving for me, why this is so I don't know.

I could go on and on about this topic with the caveat that what's true for me as an individual will probably not be true for someone else with insulin resistance. Many of the suggestions for "pharmafoods" that include red wine, pumpkin, cinnamon and others help me manage a steady level of blood sugar while others don't affect me at all. I really haven't paid attention to meats because they either weren't discussed in the books I've read or their effects compared to carbs were insignificant for my purposes. I'm also only at the beginning stages with my knowledge of the different types of fats and probably won't explore further until after I get my cholesterol levels checked. For now, I'm going to assume my ability to handle short periods of intense exercise compared to before I started the low carb diet means I've made great progress with replacing the bad fats with good ones. But you guys should know that you have to balance the kinds of fats you eat. I've heard ratios of 2:1 or even 1:1 for omega 3 to omega 6. And most of your fats should be of the unsaturated variety.

"The low-carb dogma usually focuses on how effective a low-carb, high-fat (yes, high-fat, not high-protein) diet is in either maintaining current levels of bodyfat or reducing bodyfat." - UL

Who are you reading? All the low carb books I have actually suggest eating lean protein. I've discovered I can get by with eating what I & these authors consider to be too much fat though I'd choose either to reduce my fat intake or exercise more if I wanted to lose the 10 lbs or so of extra weight I allow myself for being over 40.

I'll visit the official Tom Naughton blog when I finish a book I'm reading this week. Would've done a quick check from MBs link but sometimes his links don't work out too well for me. Maybe I should download Firefox again so it can tell me ahead of time which links are dodgy. Would most of this site set off alerts? I wonder.

Posted by: lynx on April 2, 2009 3:24 PM


Does Taubes discuss the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR)? They track the habits of a large sample of people who have maintained significant weight loss over long periods of time. As expected, some recent NWCR reports have noted a shift in macronutrient emphasis (reflecting the cultural influence of lowcarb diets), but the consistent finding is that low-fat and low-calorie regimens have the strongest showing over time. You can read some papers by doing a PubMed search for NWCR.

Depending on your source, the average Irishman consumed between 5.5 and 12 pounds of potatoes a day prior to the great famine. Any evidence that they were fat?

Posted by: Chip Smith on April 2, 2009 3:57 PM

Anybody who's a fan of Gary Taubes is a fan of mine. So I've just ordered the DVD on Amazon at $14.99.

Note: 'Good Calories, Bad Calories' sells in the UK under the title 'The Diet Delusion'.

I know because I ordered both titles by mistake (thinking they were different books).

Posted by: Carolus Obscurus on April 2, 2009 6:09 PM

Greetings, Chip --

Taubes did discuss the NWCR in a letter to REASON magazine. Relative passage pasted below.

If my Irish ancestors consumed, say, 8 pounds of potatoes per day, that translates to about 2800 calories, according to my math. That's rather low for adult males working in the fields. If you are forced to restrict calories below output long enough, you will lose weight. Prisoners of war in the Pacific became skeletal eating nothing but rice. The question is which combination of macronutrients encourages faster weight loss, with less hunger?

From the Taubes letter:

In this case, the inadequate emphasis is communicated by ignoring the fact that the NWCR is completely uncontrolled. Fumento does point this out, but then he decides it's irrelevant. He quotes Suzanne Phelan, a Brown University NWCR co-investigator saying, "you cannot get around the problem" that people who sign up for the NWCR are self-selected. Phelan is right. You can't. As a result, the NWCR is no more than an uncontrolled exercise in data collection. The only reliable statement that can be made from the NWCR data is that some 3000 individuals out of the tens of millions each year who try to lose weight, said they succeeded by reducing the fat and calories in their diet and maybe by exercising, as well. That's a nice factoid, but it adds excruciatingly little to the relevant science.

Fumento then rightfully asks why low-carb dieters do not appear in the NWCR. That's a good question and one worth investigating. This is of particular interest considering, for instance, the May 2002 issue of Consumer Reports. CR queried their readers and came up with 8000 who reported that they lost ten percent of their body weight and kept it off for at least a year --including 4000 "super losers" who lost an average of 37 pounds. According to CR, the number one lesson learned from these successful dieters was the need to "tame your blood sugar" and to do so by eating less carbohydrates and particularly less refined carbohydrates and starches. Now this is no scientific survey, but it is no less scientific, regrettably, than the National Weight Control Registry.

Posted by: Tom Naughton on April 2, 2009 10:44 PM

Michael, just followed the link and read your arts litany for the first time, and let me belatedly say, "BRAVOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"

I've been a member of theater groups and writers' groups here in Hollyweird, and the amount of groupthink that goes on is truly disturbing -- and this is among people who consider themselves anti-establishment free thinkers. But offer a political opinion that opposes the accepted groupthink position, and watch the fur fly.

Anti-establishment, my @##. Tolerant, my @##. They've simply created their own establishment, and by god, you better be part of it, or you will suffer the consequences.

If you haven't already seen it, you would probably enjoy "Indoctrinate U," both for the story and the micro-budget filmmaking.

Posted by: Tom Naughton on April 3, 2009 3:20 AM


Thanks for your response. I won't argue that the NWCR is scientific, but I think it's a more credible data source than a one-time magazine reader survey taken at the height of Atkins/lowcarb popularity. And for what it's worth, lowcarb dieters do show up in recent NWCR reports. Their comparative success rates are discussed in NWCR reports issued in 2006 and 2007. Regardless, a properly sampled and controlled longitudinal survey that tracked cohorts over a period of at least five years would settle the matter to my satisfaction. Perhaps something like this is underway?

Concerning microbudget filmmaking, intrepid viewers might want to look for John Stagliano's under-appreciated 1999 porn introspective, "Buttman Confidential." It's a serious and eligiac film made by a man who has since found himself on the wrong side of the law of obscenity.



Posted by: Chip on April 3, 2009 9:47 AM

The key to low-carb and weight loss is that low-carb is better at managing hunger. Fat especially gives a certain heft to stomach contents, and of course, doesn't lead to blood-sugar spikes and crashes with their concomitant hunger "pangs", themselves, IMO, a sign of a hunger/satiety mechanism twisted all wonky by excessive carb intake.

You still have to do the calorie in/calorie out math right, though. Second Law, and all that. It's just that low-carb makes low(er)-cal easier to take.

And once you're through the switch to low-carb, I agree with Tom that your ability to exercise returns. Though not with ultra-low or no-carbs. That route just leaves me permanently bonky and wonky (I get badly enstupidated by no-carb, and not just slow and weak).

I still think, though, after reading the 10,000 Year Explosion, that we need to be cautious about claims that the way our ancestors ate more than, oh, 10,000 years ago, really has that much to say about how we should be eating now. Empiricism, (and research of the kind Chip suggested) is the way to go.

My guess is we'll find something like Michael's general take on diet: different strokes for different folks, more or less.

Posted by: PatrickH on April 3, 2009 10:31 AM

Great interview, Michael.

And Tom, what a piece of work. This interview really makes me appreciate what you went through all the more.

I've been tracking your project since your early clips first went up on YouTube and have blogged them a number of times. A couple of examples:



I'm the kinda guy who almost never cares to watch a film more than one, and I've already seen yours three times. The first was on a flight, the second a screening with family, and the third a screening with some friends.

Nobody I've showed it to has been anything but astounded and they are just blown away with the scope.

Here's what you can't fake, Tom: you come off as _trustworthy_. Spurlock couldn't produce that in a million years.

Thanks for your work.

Posted by: Richard Nikoley on April 3, 2009 12:32 PM


With regard to cal in/out and 2LT, keep in mind that the fallacy underlying that is the assumption or assertion that any excess energy must necessarily be stored as fat.

Every single chemical process in the body requires energy. For example, what if eating less carbs and more fat stimulates metabolic activity that adds uo to more than in a carb heavy environment (slightly higher body temp, more sweat, different composition of fecal matter, a few more heart beats per hour, etc.).

In the end, it all has to add up, but fat storage is only one of thousands of possible metabolic expenditures and the cal in/out people always treat it as the only one.

Posted by: Richard Nikoley on April 3, 2009 12:37 PM

In The 10,000 Year Explosion, Harpending and Cochran emphasize that they're talking about tweaks, or dial-slidings to existing designs -- not inventing wholly new designs. For example, there was a complex system already set up for digesting lactose. That took far longer than 10,000 years for natural selection to design. The new aspect is that some people have a version of a gene that just keeps it from turning off in childhood.

Similarly, we may have gotten smarter or changed in personality, but the biological basis of intelligence, neurotransmitters, etc., took millions of years to design. Since agriculture, we've just dialed something up or down within that existing system.

In order to become adapted to a high-carb diet, it would require re-engineering the entire digestive and endocrine systems. So, aside from mutants, most of us are not adapted to high-carb. We see this in the small size of our guts -- our plant-eating primate ancestors had huge guts and cone-shaped rib-cages, in order to process all that vegetation.

Roughly 1.8 million years ago, Homo Erectus showed signs of eating less plants -- the rib-cage looks a lot more like ours, so no huge gut for processing plants.

That's several million years of evolution from the first human ancestors to Homo Erectus, in order to switch from a vegetarian to a more omnivorous diet. 10,000 years isn't even close to enough for us to make the switch back to carbs.

Populations practicing agriculture are surely more adapted to plants than other populations, but the correct analogy is to resistance to infectious disease: Africans are more resistant to malaria than Finns, but Africans are hardly "adapted" to it -- before modern medicine, it still wiped out a large fraction of them.

Posted by: agnostic on April 3, 2009 4:04 PM

> In order to become adapted to a high-carb diet, it would require re-engineering the entire digestive and endocrine systems.

That's hard to say until we know what are the likely main mediators of the fitness decrement due to super-carbivory. I'd mention (without great confidence in my knowledge) high blood glucose, and undesirable excess stimulation of inflammation and fat deposition by increased insulin levels - right - ?

It seems like if you can increase glucose uptake by cells per unit insulin signaling, while decreasing the amount of pro-fat-storage and pro-inflammation activity per unit insulin signaling, you'd basically be "there". Assuming the clockwork of the signaling cascade permits this to be done with few mutations and the fitness landscape is conducive to getting to the new peak.

Posted by: Eric J. Johnson on April 3, 2009 7:51 PM

Hey, Richard --

I've seen your posts on Fat Head, and I appreciate the help you've provided on getting the word out.

Posted by: Tom Naughton on April 3, 2009 9:43 PM

Hey, Patrick --

Taubes himself pointed out if we're not as hungry on a low-carb diet, there must be a reason. Research is pretty conclusive that hunger isn't the result of an empty stomach; it's the result of the cells running out of fuel. So if low-carb diets prevent that from happening on a smaller volume of food, it means the food is being used for fuel. If it's not being used, it's being stored.

As he points out in his book, the calories in - calories out = weight gain/loss equation is true, but misunderstood. The number of calories out can be dramatically affected by the type of calories coming in. If the food consumed creates a chemical reaction that stores fat and the body begins to run out of fuel, it can and will slow its metabolism. People who simply restrict their calories have been shown to produce less body heat, for example.

What was hilarious to me was the number of nutritionists, etc., who were quoted in the press, indignantly claiming that Taubes' theories would violate the laws of thermodynamics. They seem to think he's "just" a journalist, and of course he is ... but he's a journalist with a degree in physics -- from Harvard.

Posted by: Tom Naughton on April 3, 2009 9:53 PM

Hey, Chip --

Unfortunately, no one seems to be interested in funding a controlled, long-term study comparing low-carb diets to others. I corresponded with Gary Taubes quite a bit while making Fat Head, and he's the first to say his theories should be subjected to vigorous research, like any other theory.

He just wishes the NIH or some other funding organization would fund such a study. When the only funding comes from the Atkins foundation, people are suspicious, as they should be. (If they knew how much cereal money was behind many low-fat studies conducted at universities, they'd be horrified.)

Posted by: Tom Naughton on April 3, 2009 9:59 PM

Eric, I completely forgot ... I was going to comment on the study about pasta vs. beef and insulin response. I asked Dr. Mike Eades about that one some time ago.

As you suspected, insulin is an important part of the process, but not the whole ball of wax. There are hormones that encourage fat storage (insulin being first and foremost) and hormones that encourage fat mobilization for fuel.

Interestingly, one of those that encourages fat mobilization is nicotine. Smokers are on average 10 pounds lighter than non-smokers -- we may assume it's not because they're avid joggers -- and people who quit smoking almost always gain weight, even if they're disciplined enough to avoid eating more to fulfill the oral-gratification urge.

Another hormone that encourages fat mobilization is glucagon, which rises when protein is consumed. So while beef may raise insulin, it also raises a compensating hormone. Pasta has some protein, but not much, and so it raises insulin but very little glucagon to compensate.

If eating beef caused harmful insulin spikes with no compensating hormone response, we would've seen a lot of fat, diabetic Indians among the buffalo-hunting tribes, but as we know, that wasn't the case ... not until they moved onto reservations and were forced to make wheat flour their dietary staple.

Posted by: Tom Naughton on April 3, 2009 11:24 PM

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