Don’t Train Yourself Like a Dog.

These days, there’s quite an emphasis on appreciating the animal side of human nature. We’re cautioned to respect the power of our lizard brain, and to consider how we respond to stimuli in an instinctual way. We should train ourselves like a dog to improve our habits, say.

I agree that the animal element of human nature is a factor in everything we do.

But sometimes, I think, we overlook the ways that people differ from animals.  People are powerfully moved by imagination, belief, and knowledge. They can consider the past and future. They can make changes in their behavior out of reason, in a way that animals can’t do.

I had a recent experience like this. In March, I was intrigued by the title of Gary Taubes’s book, Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It, and when I flipped through it, I saw that Taubes writes a lot about insulin. Because my sister is a Type 1 diabetic, I’ve become very interested in insulin. So I read the book.

I finished the book in two days, and when I’d finished, I’d completely changed both my beliefs about the elements a healthy diet and my actual eating habits. I’d been thinking and eating one way for years—now, overnight, that was all changed.

Among other changes, though I wasn’t eating much sugar, relative to a lot of people, I gave up sugar altogether—and it wasn’t even hard. After what I read, and what I now believed, I didn’t want to eat sugar.

This sounds so difficult, but as an abstainer, and with this new knowledge, I found that it wasn’t difficult at all. In fact, it was easier just to give it up than to try to indulge at a low level. (Except ketchup. I still do eat ketchup.) I made other giant changes, as well.

Now, Taubes’s argument about “why we get fat” is controversial. Highly controversial. You may disagree! This controversy surprised me, because I thought that the basic elements of a healthy diet were more or less beyond question.  Such as “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.” I’d always wondered how this could be true, given that it seemed obviously contradicted by common experience, but I hadn’t known that it was seriously debated, or why.

The fact that there’s controversy about the make-up of a healthy diet is important. Compared to forty years ago, many more Americans are obese or have diabetes or other related health problems. (Then: 1 in 7 Americans obese, 4 million diabetic; now: 1 in 3 Americans obese, 20 million diabetic.) Why? What has changed in such a short time with such a huge result? This question is so critical, and it’s in dispute.

Therefore, I was very happy to see Gary Taubes and  Dr. Peter Attia launch a non-profit, the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI). Its purpose is to facilitate and fund research to resolve questions related to the relationship among diet, obesity, and chronic disease.

For people, ideas matter. If, based on what they assume is sound science, people believe that eating X or Y or Z is healthful, that belief is very likely to influence their behavior. So it’s important that the science shaping that behavior is accurate.

That’s what NuSI is going to tackle.

Through the magic of the internet, I connected with Gary Taubes and Peter Attia, and I’m thrilled to serve on the Board of Advisors for NuSI, to help spread the word about the work they’re doing, to use rigorous science to answer the simple, essential question:  What is a healthy diet?

How about you? Have you ever read a book, seen a movie, or had a conversation or experience that completely transformed your behavior? From talking to people I know,  this seems more common than you might think.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.


Last chance to win a free copy of Happier at Home. Enter your name and email in the sign-up form here, and every day, a name will be picked at random. U.S.Canada, and U.K. only–sorry about that restriction on the give-away.

  • Hey, two writers that I already liked working together! Very cool.

  • I frequently read books or have conversations that seem to, at least for the moment, enlighten me to something in the universe I hadn’t thought about before. This has happened enough that I have wondered if I am really just obtuse to the world. That said, Gary Taubes book was quite wonderful, and it led me in search of many others. I was so confused, one book said something was okay to eat, others said moderation in all things, others said never eat the thing the first book said was ok. Why We Get Fat was backed up with science, and it led me to other nutitionists and educators so that the science converged to a diet/lifestyle that made sense.

  • Julie

    Yes! This is one instance where simple information is 90% of the battle. We all want to do what is healthy; we just need for conventional wisdom to catch up to what exactly that is. Giving up grains and sugar seemed crazy until I did it and watched 30 extra pounds I’d been carrying my whole adult life fall off.

  • peninith1

    OK Gretchen, I’ll try this book. I definitely have an issue with being overweight and I must admit that I am also a type 2 diabetic, with a vexed relationship to food. I’m still looking for something that I am able to do to change my habits, and change the results.

    I admire how you have taken the health challenges of people you love and done something positive to address those problems for all of us. That is a great way to choose a service to give to the world. Thanks for all you do, and motivate the rest of us to do as well.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ll be curious to hear what you think!

      • peninith1

        Ok I have given it a good look. I have to agree with Taubes argument. I had a brush with the South Beach Diet (very low carb regime) this spring, and for the first time in several years, was able to lose some weight. Several rounds with another popular system no longer worked for me at ALL, and I can testify that even 90 minutes a day of really vigorous exercise at the gym never did more than help me maintain a lower weight even with extremely careful eating.

        After my great two weeks on South Beach, stressful family events–illness and injuries of loved ones–sent me rushing back to all my favorite carbs, and the weight loss instantly reversed. Also my insulin levels went right back up. The message is clear–I would do better if I could become an abstainer about a number of favorite items.

        I am a little more relaxed and hopeful about my sick relatives right now, so I’ll give my pantry another once over. Although I did ‘know’ the idea he is arguing for, he definitely relieves me of a lot of the ‘energy balance’ theory I have beaten myself up with for years on end.

  • Maureen Anderson

    I was bemoaning how fast my daughter’s childhood went by with the mother of another seventeen-year-old. She said she wasn’t going there. She wasn’t going to waste one second of her last year with her son wishing she could stop or even slow time down — as if that was possible.

    I was inspired. I promised Katie on the spot and in front of this woman that I would take a lesson. I would not boo-hoo my way through her senior year of high school. We would talk about only joy.

    The big surprise wasn’t so much that I’ve been able to keep my promise, but that I’ve started to FEEL only joy.

    People like you, Gretchen, often suggest we act the way we want to feel. I didn’t even know I was skeptical about that advice.

    But it works!

  • Courtney

    One of my best friends just lost 93 pounds in 10 months by following the Paleo diet. She gave up all grains, dairy, and sugars (not fruit–she still eats fruit) while concentrating on adding more healthy protein. Because of her testimony, my husband and I are starting the 30 day challenge tomorrow. In our early 40s, we both have multiple health challenges (hypertension, fatty liver, etc). As I’ve tried every other diet with little to no success, I am really curious to see if the Paleo people are on to something.

  • Amy P

    I really enjoyed the book ‘Real Food’ by Nina Planck and found it inspiring. I’m hoping to check out this book as well to see how they compare and contrast – none of them seem to think the same! Planck is about healthy fats (from healthy animals!) and old-school food (less processed, less factories).

  • Daphne Gray-Grant

    I read his other book — Good Calories, Bad Calories (same message but much more science-y) — and did exactly the same thing several years ago. I gave up sugar. It was not hard! I also keep white flour out of my diet and I have completely stopped worrying about fat. Like you, my mind was blown by how quickly all my former assumptions changed more or less 100% I also now look at EVERYTHING nutritionists tell me with a very jaundiced eye!

  • Susan B.

    HI Gretchen. Along the same lines, reading the blog Mark’s Daily Apple by Mark Sisson of the Primal Blueprint website and books has been life-changing for me. I feel healthier, more myself and have more even energy levels after giving up sugar, grains, legumes (mostly: just a little peanut butter now and there) and vegetable oils. Okay, a little ketchup from time to time. Now I find myself much less apt to get hungry (and grumpy) and much freer from cravings. I have read that artificial sweeteners can also raise insulin levels – so maybe you’ll be giving up Diet Coke? I really liked your post (although not what I was expecting from the cute dog photo and headline). Nutrition is so important to health, mood, mental functioning and good aging (for those of us baby boomers). I also like Gary Taubes and look forward to seeing what NuSI does.

  • DJ

    Oh ABSOLUTELY! I had a similar experience to yours over a year ago, where everything I believed for years about nutrition was totally blown out of the water (I’m following a diet called The Primal Blueprint, in many ways similar to what Taubes writes about). I’ve experienced amazing health benefits from following this diet, not just weight loss although I’ve experienced that too. Having lived this experience over the past year has caused me to question just about every cow I’ve held sacred for my entire life! If all the things the so called “experts” in the field of nutrition have told me for the past 50 years is a lie, then what else might there be??? Definitely eye opening!

  • DT

    Reading ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ (the dense, technical predecessor to Why We Get Fat) changed my life. As a scientist, I was appalled at how flimsy the data are behind what we’ve been told to eat, and I have immense respect for Gary, and, after devouring his blog, Peter as well. Congrats on being part of NuSI.

  • Tara Lee

    I have had that sort of transformative experience myself. After watching SuperSize Me several years ago, I became nauseous just THINKING about eating fast food. I think I may have eaten at a fast food restaurant ONCE in the last six years or so. (And, to give you a hint, my college nickname was McTara).

  • Stephanie

    Gretchen, I had the exact same experience recently! I’ve always had a massive and insatiable sweet tooth but after reading The Science of Skinny by Dee McCaffrey, I have given up sugar, white flour, and almost all processed foods. The evidence she presented was so convincing and irrefutable that now I don’t even want to eat those things- they equate to poison in my eyes. I wonder what Gary Taubes says about stevia- Dee McCaffrey gives it a thumbs up as a go-to sweetener which I was thrilled to discover.

  • Debbie

    YES! We recently had this experience also. We watched the movie Forks Over Knives and it completely changed the way my husband and I now eat. He is not easily convinced and had been an Atkins follower! We also read Gary Taubs book. It might be in your best interest {for the sake of research} to watch Forks Over Knives also. One thing that is never in dispute ~ a whole foods diet, free of processed foods is much healthier. I recently had a check up and my cholesterol levels and blood pressure are in the ‘incredible’ category! I’m thrilled. Check it out…

  • Elizabeth

    Yes, I recently read a book that changed the way I viewed the world! It’s Mycophilia, about mushrooms and other fungi. I had no idea of the number of bacteria and fungi who inhabit the human body…in fact, there are far more of those in our body than there are human cells. Pretty fascinating read, highly recommended!

  • that’s great, gretchen! i have not read Why We Get Fat but i have heard of it. i started eating about an 80% paleo diet a year ago. i truly believe that some of these ‘ailments’ that the world population has been impacted by is due to our own eating habits. i signed up for NuSi’s email alerts and im excited to hear about what y’all are doing next!

  • Jamie

    I’ve been a healthy weight all my life. After 3 children (and the youngest being 3 yrs) I still carried 5-7 lbs and I couldn’t get my body to release that and reset. A friend read The New Fast Girls: Fasting: An Ancient Practice for the Modern Girl and lost 11lbs in three months from employing a weekly fast. The growth on her thyroid (that docs recommended she surgically remove) also stopped growing and started to shrink. As for me, it only took two 24 sessions for my body to reset itself 5lbs back. Gary Taubes does mention in Why We Get Fat that an 18-24 hour fast can help people who have plateaued although the research doesn’t understand why this is. I haven’t done a true fast in awhile now, but I do eat very lightly on Sundays usually saving my first meal until 2pm. The rest of the week I eat normally. And normal for me does include sugar in my coffee and bread.

  • Tricia

    Gretchen, I first read Good Calories, Bad Calories. I was SHOCKED that almost everything I was raised to believe about a healthy diet is not supported by the research at all. It blew my mind and instantly changed my perception of a healthy diet! I’ve read Why We Get Fat as well. Taubes has done everyone a public health service. Thanks for sharing the info about the Initiative.

  • LynzM

    Not in regards to food, but in regards to handling emotion and meta-processing of brain patterns: Buddha’s Brain, and My Stroke of Insight. Each changed the way that I parse what is going on in my my and my body, and the amount of control that I have an can choose to exert over those things. Absolutely recommended reading. 🙂

    • mani

      I agree re. Stroke of Insight – have you watched her TED talk?

  • Martha

    Heinz makes a low-sugar ketsup that I LOVE! I don’t eat a lot of ketsup, but when I do, I want a particular flavor, and this is delicious.

  • Genevieve

    Food Matters documentary!

  • photopoppy

    I”m glad to hear that someone is looking at nutritional guidelines and health from a scientific viewpoint instead of a marketing one. I hope one of the research questions NuSI decides to take on is what the relationship is between insulin resistance/diabetes/weight gain – all we know for sure is that there’s a strong correlation there, and it’s not sufficient to demonstrate that being overweight causes diabetes when it’s also possible that insulin resistance causes weight gain!

  • Emily

    I have read so many books about what’s “right” and “wrong” about diets that it makes my head spin. I am overwhelmed. Lately, I follow the 80-20 rule. Eat well 80% of the time, and you’re fine. More or less. BUT, my real comment is to tell you the book that made me change my life in an easy way, “Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain” by Katy Bowman. I gave up all heeled shoes, cold turkey. High heels are the new smoking!

  • Astarelly

    I must check this book out – although not obese, I have been on a fitness bout and lost some weight, after reading Venice Fulton’s, Six weeks to OMG. Although somewhat extreme, I fully believe in his mantra – i.e. lots of fish, good proteins, unlimited vegetables and exercise everyday!

  • I often joke that everything I learned about parenting came from my mistakes in dog training!!! I’m very curious about this book, as I have a huge sugar addiction and obviously you learned something motivating…isn’t that what we are all looking for? I loved Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. My husband and I often filter our consumption through that book. We listened to it on a road trip two summers ago. LOVING yoru new book. Saving and savoring it.

  • Simone McCreary

    If you are interested in reducing your risk of cancers and heart disease along with diabetes and obesity and you respect sound science then I HIGHLY recommend The China Study by the same Dr. Campbell that appears in the Forks Over Knives documentary. I was on a low(ish)-carb plan before I read it, thinking I was making a healthy choice, but the intelligent and well-reasoned review of decades of research converted me away from animal-based foods. And, even though it was very science-heavy, it was riveting! I listened to the audiobook, and as soon as I finished it I started it again!

    • Margaretrc

      The book “The China Study’ has been refuted by the data from the China study and a number of peer reviewed articles, including some by the author Dr. Campbell himself. The book and the FOK movie are created by people with a vegan agenda and not based on science. Gary Taubes’ books are based on science, not agenda. I have an advanced degree in science and I found GT’s books more compelling and factual than “The China Study.”

  • Diana

    I decided to do a very low carb diet after reading your post & downloading Gary Taube’s book – very excited because I was looking for a way to maintain the weight I lost after 3 weeks of hiking in the Rockies this August–exercise that is just not possible in my regular life. Thanks for the inspiration!
    Also, your new book has re-energized my happiness project. I have followed the commandment “Be Diana” more deeply & I see how it is making me happier and helping me realize why certain things are making me happier (such as deciding my vision of spirituality was communion with friends and family and being in nature–and it was ok to give up the 5 year struggle of finding a religious home for my family & to substitute our weekly hikes/bike rides & plenty of dinners with people I love (and my 3 book group & our moms & sons book club).
    Other happiness-producing changes: Buying a giant hammock for the back yard, starting a happiness group & following the resolutions to “give warm greetings and farewells” and to “clean as I go.” Thanks again Gretchen.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m thrilled to hear that “Happier at Home” resonates with you!

  • Acappella Lady

    I also read Gary’s book… and it just confirmed the only diet that has worked for me… a low-carb life style that cuts out all of the processed junk. As an abstainer, its easier for me to cut out complete food groups (like bread) than to try to maintain moderation. In the past six months I have dropped 27 pounds and two complete pants sizes… 🙂

  • Carla

    A caveat: I haven’t read Gary Taubes’s book. But this concept of “sugar is bad” and all of the variations of low-carb diets that are popular now rather disturb me. When you say that you cut out all sugar, does that mean you stopped eating fruit? Fruit is full of sugar. A candy bar is full of sugar too, but that doesn’t make it the same as a piece of fruit; fruit offers a lot of other nutrients in addition to the sugar. In fact, I would say most foods contain sugar of some type. It feels very misleading for people to talk about “giving up” sugar.

    My husband has lost 37 pounds in the last 5 months. He did this by limiting his calorie intake and starting to jog. In order to limit his calories, he had to eat foods that would satisfy his hunger – lots of fruits and vegetables and cereals. He focused on eating a healthy balance of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.

    I worry that people adopt nutritional changes that are actually harmful to them and deprive them of necessary nutrients. It disturbs me even more when I hear people saying that they view “EVERYTHING nutritionists tell me with a very jaundiced eye”. If you treat them with such skepticism, why are you consulting them in the first place? I think that people should consult their doctor/nutritionist about diet changes, and they should take their opinions seriously, even if it doesn’t match the current fad.

    I agree that there are a lot of misconceptions about good nutrition. I am all for an organization that will take a scientific approach to what makes up a healthy diet. I do think that there are many, many reasons for the increase in obesity numbers beyond simply diet (increase in population, increased longevity, lack of exercise, etc).

    • Margaretrc

      Increase in population is irrelevant. It’s the PERCENTAGE of overweight and obese people that has increased drastically–as well as numbers. Just saying… Perhaps you should read Gary Taubes’ book before criticizing the concept. I’m not going to speak for Gretchen, but I cut out sugar, too–sugar as an added ingredient, that is–and I cut way down on fruit and other carbohydrates, because they all end up as sugar (and/or fat) once in the body And after more than a year and a half, I am healthier (and thinner) than I have been in a very long time. There are those, like your husband and my daughter, who can lose weight by simply watching calories and exercising more. I already exercise a lot (and it wasn’t helping) so exercising more wasn’t an option. And I don’t want to “limit calories” by carefully counting everything I put in my mouth. My body has a built in calorie counter and I prefer to use that–by eating plenty of fat, moderate protein, and limited carbohydrates. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it–or at least checked out the science behind it. And there’s a lot.

  • s_ifat

    ahhh…would love for you to write a book – happier healthier 🙂 in fact would love to read a different kind of happier project each year.

  • Steph

    I can relate to this very well. I’ve been reading about quitting sugar, etc., etc. for quite some time now, and it doesn’t sit well with me. My partner is Italian and absolutely lives for his food. Through him, I have grown in my love and care for the food that I eat, and of course much of that includes carbohydrates, cheese, and even a bit of sugar. He eats what is in season and he savours his daily lunchtime pasta, made with loving care. It never grows old for him. Both of his parents are in their 90s and in perfect physical health; it’s difficult to reconcile this aspect of the traditional Italian longevity with many of the current food movements. I write this as well as someone who has 1) never been fat; 2) always eaten what in the western context would be considered a vegetable-driven and lean protein-driven natural, healthy diet; and 3) was a nationally-ranked distance runner in my 20s (so it’s not as though I have never thought about the nexus between food and health/performance). I can’t help but feel that the current food movements are just another version of trying to control everything in order to have the “perfect” life, when enjoying what we eat and, more importantly, with whom we eat it (this part is the crux of the Italian way of eating) are perhaps more important elements of diet than anything else.

  • diane

    My mother-in-law has lived with us for 15 months. There was never any sort of good relationship between her and my husband, an only child. I hate it. I have lost my privacy, my home, and my financial edge ( husband is not working, at 64). Happiness?

  • Margaretrc

    I read “French Women Don’t Get Fat” too and there’s a lot to be said for the French way of eating (and the Italian and almost any other traditional way of eating)–enjoy food, don’t be afraid of any natural whole food, be mindful of what you are eating, and so on. The problem is, in this country we have been sent down a very wrong path–the path of reduce fat and fat free, high sugar processed foods laden with highly processed, anything but natural vegetable oils–and correcting the health issues that have arisen as a result is going to take more than simply returning to a way of eating that works in countries where they’ve never been taught to be afraid of fat and have a traditional way of eating that has worked for generations to keep them thin and healthy. (And you’re right–thin does not necessarily = healthy.) Many people’s metabolisms have been irreparably damaged by a diet high in sugar and refined flour and low in fat. We’ve relied on faulty science (and government guidelines based on that faulty science) instead of tradition to tell us what to eat and it’s very important to understand where the science went wrong so that we can begin to return to health as a population. That’s where books like those written by Gary Taubes come in. I’ve read the books–both of them–and pretty much any article he’s written, not just reviews of his book. You don’t have a weight problem. That’s great. I don’t either–any more. But that’s because I eat low carb and intend to for the rest of my life. I’d love to be able to eat like French Women do and, for a while I did. I didn’t gain any weight, but I didn’t lose any, either and I had some to lose from years of being on a low fat, vegetarian, often low calorie diet of one sort or another. The only way I was able to lose the weight was to eat low carb high fat, which I did after reading Gary Taubes books and watching the movie “Fat Head” and doing a whole lot more research into the science of nutrition.

  • That book was incredible. I found a few supplements that helped improve insulin response and I’m not craving anything.