Why Do We Get Fat? An Ongoing Debate

By Students for Food Policy and Obesity Prevention

On Tuesday, April 21st at 4:00 pm, FPOP, OSA, GSA, SPIM, and the Department of Epidemiology will host science writer Gary Taubes for a special Public Health Fights Obesity Month lecture: Why We Get Fat: Adiposity 101 and an Alternative Hypothesis of Obesity. Mr. Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, is a co-founder of the non-profit Nutrition Science Initiative, a recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator Award in Health Policy Research, and a three-time winner of the National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Journalism Award.


Mr. Taubes is also a controversial figure in the world of nutrition and dietary science, despite his best–selling status. Since his 2002 New York Times article, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie,” Taubes has come under fire for questioning the energy balance (“calorie in calorie out”) paradigm and suggesting that carbohydrate intake rather than dietary fat has been the largest contributing factor to the obesity epidemic. Furthermore, Taubes has been critical of many nutrition and obesity researchers, openly doubting the merits of observational epidemiology. Because his hypothesis challenges a firmly entrenched idea behind the cause of obesity, it has understandably ruffled some feathers in the public health community.

Although the obesity epidemic is stabilizing by some metrics, it is still a very serious issue in the United States and worldwide. More than two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese and the estimated annual medical cost of obesity is almost $150 billion in the US alone. Despite years of research and interventions, we still have not found the answer to why so many of us are getting fat and what to do about it. As long as obesity continues to be a serious problem, public health professionals have an obligation to continue dialogue on the issue. It has been a long time coming for someone to question the underlying assumptions driving the epidemic.


Like many other areas of research, nutrition and dietary science involve an evolving body of evidence. This is reflected in the fact that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are reviewed and updated every 5 years in a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Notably, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) removed the recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol to no more than 300 milligrams per day, citing evidence that dietary cholesterol does not have a major effect on serum-cholesterol levels. This represented a major reversal from decades of advice to avoid eating high cholesterol foods, including eggs, because they were thought to increase blood cholesterol and contribute to cardiovascular disease. Over the last few years, researchers like Mr. Taubes have begun to examine the evidence and subsequent dietary recommendations related to salt and dietary fat and have found a need for additional explanations.

As public health students, we learn about epidemiological methods and the importance of recognizing limitations in different study designs and methods. During our first Quantitative Foundations lecture in the fall semester, our professors emphasized the importance of critical thinking in public health to avoid contributing to random medical news. This semester, in our class titled Epidemiology II, Professor Sharon Schwartz warned us of not giving in to confirmation biases; when results are consistent with our expectations, we often do not consider alternative explanations. Similar to religion and politics, nutrition can be an inflammatory topic that is difficult to discuss without injecting emotions and personal biases. An opportunity to rigorously debate these issues while applying the concepts we have learned in the classroom will be a wonderful learning experience for students.

Columbia University is known for emphasizing the importance of free speech and allowing speakers to share their ideas in the spirit of academic discourse. As Columbia graduate students, we appreciate the faculty and administration’s support and commitment to continuing this legacy.

For these reasons and more, FPOP looks forward to engaging Mr. Taubes in a productive conversation about nutrition and obesity on Tuesday April, 21. We hope you join us at the Faculty Club for what will surely be a stimulating and dynamic discussion.


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