A nutrition journalist dieted his whole life and still gained weight. Then he tried the keto diet, and 'it was like a switch being flipped.'

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Gary Taubes
Kirsten Lara Getchell/Courtesy of Penguin Random House
  • Journalist and low-carb advocate Gary Taubes argues in new book "A Case for Keto" that mainstream nutrition advice leaves some people overweight and unhealthy by recommending too many carbohydrates.

  • Instead, Taubes' makes a case that low-carb diets can benefit people who react poorly to insulin by cutting back on foods that can cause a spike in blood sugar. 

  • Keto may not be for everyone. But most people could still benefit from being more carb-aware and cutting out low-quality sources like processed foods and sugars. 

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

If you've ever struggled to lose weight with mainstream nutrition advice, or felt that typical diet guidance (half carbs, mostly plants, not too much) wasn't for you, Gary Taubes can relate.

The longtime dietary advocate and journalist argues that low-carb, high-fat diets are more than just a trend in his latest book "The Case For Keto," out December 29. Instead, keto diets address a serious gap in our understanding of how to eat for health, he says. 

According to Taubes, that's in part because conventional nutrition advice is often given by people who haven't experienced chronic health issues related to diet. 

"The problem is we've been taking diet advice from lean and healthy people. My argument is if we do what they do, we get hungry and fatter, so we can't do it," he told Insider. 

He say he tries for years to lose weight, without success, before finding a low-carb diet to be a revelation for his health. Now he's hoping to share his experience to help people like him. 

While the keto diet is considered relatively new in the nutrition world, growing research and books like Taubes' suggest the diet has entered the mainstream of our nutritional consciousness, and it's not likely to disappear anytime soon. "Keto" was recently ranked the most popular diet in the world based on search engine data.

"If it didn't work for me, I wouldn't write a book about it"

A former football player, amateur boxer and self-described "large guy," Taubes said conventional diets felt like a constant battle with his appetite. With a family history of obesity, he noticed his weight starting to increase in his 30s, despite eating a low-fat diet and working out an hour a day. 

His initial foray into low-carb diets was prompted by the popularity of the Atkins diet in the early 2000s. Similar to keto, the diet cuts out breads, pasta, and other carbohydrates in favor of unlimited amounts of meat, cheese, eggs, butter, and other high-fat foods. 

Taubes started loading up on eggs and bacon for breakfast, meat and cheese for lunch, and a big steak with a small green salad for dinner. 

Within a few months, Taubes said he lost a significant amount of weight. The experience prompted Taubes' revolutionary 2002 article "What If It's All Been A Big Fat Lie?" in the New York Times, praising low-carb, high-fat diets years before "keto" appeared in mainstream news headlines. 

The backlash was intense, with rebuttals accusing Taubes' of peddling sensationalized misinformation. 

Today, it's becoming more accepted that fat doesn't make you fat, and that it may not be linked to as many health issues as we previously believed. But keto and low-carb diets are still controversial, in part because a lack of rigorous long-term studies lead to questions about keto's health consequences over time. That prompted Taubes to continue to advocate for low-carb diets in his work. 

"If it didn't work for me, I wouldn't write a book about it," he said. 

Keto is about managing insulin, not calories

Taubes' experience is similar to what many people describe feeling during their first low-carb diet when, after years of struggling to lose weight on other diets, they finally have success. 

"I had been dieting all my life. I was gaining weight, so I tried [keto] as an experiment," Taubes said. "I felt great. It was like a switch being flipped."

Taubes argues that compelling research suggests many people gain weight not because of excess calories, but because of insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar. When you consume carbohydrates, it causes a spike in blood sugar, and your body releases insulin in response.

Sometimes, the body becomes desensitized to insulin (this can be caused by consuming too many refined carbs and sugar) and requires more of it to continue maintaining blood sugar levels. Keto advocates theorize that this can trigger fat storage for people who respond poorly to insulin, either because of lifestyle factors or genetics, triggering them to gain weight. 

This theory, sometimes called the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis, has been contested. While insulin plays a role in fat storage, there's a lack of research showing it matters more than calorie intake. Most dietitians continue to advise that calories are the main factor in weight gain or loss, and research supports this. 

There's also no clear evidence that keto can work where other diets have failed.

Despite criticism that keto is restrictive, advocates find it 'very easy' to stick to

"The Case For Keto" takes a broad look at many of the common arguments against keto, with a deep dive into the historical context of low-carb diets, and the scientific precedence for recommending them. 

Taubes also has a beef with the common claim that keto diets are difficult to sustain. Many dietitians and other nutrition experts have argued that cutting carbs is too restrictive for most people to maintain consistently. And when strict diets fail, they can lead to even more weight gain as dieters treat themselves to previously forbidden foods, then try to restrict them again, a phenomenon called "yo-yo dieting."

But Taubes compares foregoing the carbs to avoiding a food because you're allergic. If you know lactose makes you sick, it's easier to avoid despite the occasional temptation of ice cream, he says.

For him and other long-term keto-ers, the benefits of low-carb diets overshadow the loss of beloved foods like pizza, pasta, and pastries. 

"I find it very easy to sustain it," Taubes said. "A lot of people do, especially men. If you tell them to live on steak, eggs, and bacon, they're pretty happy about it, at least for a while."

Keto might not be for everyone

Taubes doesn't think everyone needs to be on a keto diet. His wife is a vegetarian who regularly eats carbs. 

"On some level, I converted her to the idea that carbs are fattening,but she hasn't given them up entirely," he said. "She's never tried to convince me to eat like her."

For Taubes, the health benefits also outweigh the ethical and environmental concerns about eating a diet high in animal products. He said he believes that "what may be best for human health is not best for the planet."

"In an ideal world, I wouldn't eat animals. Physiologically, I'm not willing to give it up," he said. 

Some people might be able to manage their weight and health, just fine while eating carbs, but Taubes isn't writing for them.

"Those of us who gain weight easily have to minimize insulin levels. And if you eat to minimize insulin, you eat something very close to a ketogenic diet," he said. 

Read more:

The biggest diet myths debunked in 2020, from the alkaline diet to 'loaded' fat loss tea

The keto diet could help people with diabetes control blood sugar, lose weight, and improve insulin sensitivity, according to a new analysis

A low-fat, high-carb vegan diet could speed up your metabolism and boost weight loss, a new study says

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