Big Fat Fake: The Atkins Diet Controversy and the Sorry State of Science Journalism

By Fumento, Michael | Reason, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Big Fat Fake: The Atkins Diet Controversy and the Sorry State of Science Journalism


Fumento, Michael, Reason


IT WAS EXACTLY what millions of obese Americans wanted to hear: Diet guru Robert Atkins has been right all along; conversely, the "medical establishment" that has routinely criticized him has been entirely wrong. Unlimited-calorie, high-fat meals are the key to low-fat bodies. So claimed award-winning science writer Gary Taubes in an 8,000-word New York Times Magazine blockbuster that appeared last July, "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?"

The magazine's cover was even juicier than the title: It featured a slab of steak topped with butter and asked, "What If Fat Doesn't Make You Fat?" In fact, Taubes declared in his article, the consumption of too little fat could explain the explosion in obesity.

Atkins quickly wrote an editorial for his Web site claiming the article "validated" his work. Gushingly favorable follow-up stories appeared on NBC's Dateline, CBS' 48 Hours, and ABC's 20/20. Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, with II million copies already in print, shot up from No.; to the top spot on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous" books. It went from No. 178 to No. 5 in Amazon's rankings. Taubes himself landed a book contract from publisher Alfred A. Knopf for a big fat $700,000.

But there were serious problems with this revolutionary argument about one of our nation's most Serious health problems. For example, Taubes omitted any reference to hundreds of refereed scientific studies published during the last three decades that contradicted his position. Researchers from whom he could not pull even a single useful quote supportive of his thesis were banished from the piece, while many of those whom Taubes did end up quoting now complain that he twisted their words.

"I was greatly offended by how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins diet," says one such source, Stanford University cardiologist John Farquhar. "I think he's a dangerous man. I'm sorry I ever talked to him."

Upon closer examination, Taubes' "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" turns into a big fat mess. The misguided hoopla over the New York Times Magazine article and the Atkins Diet is a short study in the sorry state of scientific and medical reporting, not to mention a diet industry that routinely panders to people's worst impulses.

The Fat Shall SetYe Free?

In Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, Robert Atkins claims that by simply minimizing your carbohydrate intake you can quickly lose massive amounts of weight, even while pigging out daily on fatback, pork rinds, and lard. He also claims his diet will relieve "fatigue, irritability, depression, trouble concentrating, headaches, insomnia, dizziness, joint and muscle aches, heartburn, colitis, premenstrual syndrome, and water retention and bloating."

Claims like those should make anyone suspicious, even those who have barely scraped through high school biology. Gary Taubes has gone well beyond that level. He's a contributing correspondent to America's preeminent scientific journal, Science. He has won the National Association of Science Writers' Science in Society Journalism Award three times--the maximum allowed. Only one other writer has ever achieved that status.

Nonetheless, at the very outset of his piece (viewable in its entirety at www.atkinsdiet.com) Taubes set forth the proposition that Atkins was crucified by the "American medical establishment," which claimed his diet was ineffective and possibly dangerous and in so doing encouraged the "rampaging epidemic of obesity in America."

There is a nugget of truth in Taubes' criticisms of establishment dietary fat advice. Well-meaning but misguided health officials and health reporters, joined by opportunistic anti-fat diet book gurus, have convinced much of the public that the major culprit--perhaps the only culprit--in obesity is dietary fat. Avoid fat, we were told, and you won't get fat. …

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