A slew of scientific evidence, more than 50 years of it, allows you to take out the steak knife and eat up, according to author and science journalist Gary Taubes. But put those potato chips away.
Doctors, students and those with an interest in nutrition packed Monsanto Auditorium on Thursday afternoon at MU to hear Taubes tell them about the root of the obesity epidemic, the reason people get fat.
"I'm here to convince you that many of your cherished preconceptions are incorrect," Taubes said with half a smile.
Taubes' work is controversial for ruffling broad medical opinions that seemed to be set in stone. Those opinions, derived from sins of gluttony and sloth, Taubes said, are that we live in a toxic environment that "encourages overeating and physical inactivity."
"But I don't buy into the overeating theory," Taubes said. To him, the obesity epidemic is caused by hormonal or metabolic defects in the human body and the dangerous effects of carbohydrates, not fat.
He provided many examples, one being the wide presence of obesity in impoverished areas.
The problem is not in the amount of calories, Taubes said, but in the kind of calories a person eats. He insists on the low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet made famous by Dr. Robert Atkins in the 1970s.
It's the same argument he made in his New York Times Magazine article, "What if It's All Just A Big Fat Lie?" in 2002, and then in his book, "Good Calories, Bad Calories" in 2007.
In his study of more than 50 years of medical research on the subject, Taubes found that a high caloric intake is not the cause of obesity but the symptom. He compares the process to that of a growing child.
"A child doesn't grow because he eats more," he said. "A child eats more because he's growing."
Similarly, obesity is a disorder of fat accumulation rather than intake. Fat cells are not "garbage cans" for ingested calories, he said, but fat will accumulate no matter what calories are taken in when there is an imbalance of hormones.
The cause of the imbalance: carbs.
Insulin, the hormone most responsible for fat distribution, is released as a result of blood sugar levels, which are raised by the intake of carbohydrates. A high level of insulin causes abnormal distribution of fat.
"It's not the brain that makes a person obese," Taubes said. "It's the body."
Christopher Hardin, chairperson of MU's Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, introduced Taubes on Thursday.
"This kind of presentation increases the dialogue," Hardin said. "The more discussion we get, the closer we'll get to solving the problem. We need to raise the profile of this issue in the community."
Hardin also discussed the future economic hardships of a continuing obesity epidemic.
"If we don't take care of it now, we'll pay for it in less than a generation, and it'll make the 'bailout' plan look like nothing," he said. "There are red issues, there are blue issues — this is a purple issue."
But Hardin's not completely sold on Taubes' arguments.
"He raises some good points, but it's an over-simplification, I think," he said. "But it's healthy to challenge the paradigms because when you come back to them later, you have a clearer understanding of the issue."
Dr. Gil Wilshire of the Boone Hospital Center, though, is passionately sold on Taubes' doctrine.
"What people believe to be true about (low-fat diets) is pure dogma, all incestuous references," he said. "They have all referenced each other's positions since the 1960s when, really, there was no data."
Wilshire said there are "a few enlightened" young doctors who understand the benefits of the low-carb diet and that in 10 or 20 years, the public will catch on. He was thrilled with the fact that Taubes had caused an overflow of the auditorium.
"People at the university here are a little uncomfortable because it's rattling their cages," Wilshire said.
Dana Carpender of Bloomington, Ind., another low-carb believer and the self-described world's best-seller of low-carb cookbooks, also spoke passionately about the subject.
"The way people believe in the established ideas feels like a religion," Carpender said, "but their science doesn't bear any weight."
"It's wonderful to see Taubes' science," she said. "People say, 'Atkins, he's a quack.' But the science is right here, and it works."