Calories Don't Count


Herman Taller, M.D.


Simon and Schuster, New York,

I just read an old book written in 1961, before I was born.  It sold over 2 million copies back then and is interesting because it was prescient but also quaint. In those days obesity was a whopping 20% of American adults. Thirty-six percent today.

This was the first widespread popularization of the low carb, high fat diet for weight loss. That idea has come back in style and gone out of style and is presently back in style again. Another iteration of the low card diet is the Atkins diet and today there are many experts (Dr. David Ludwig) who say that carbohydrates and especially sugar, are particularly pernicious apart from their caloric value. Other experts (me) say that the way that low carb diets work, in so far as they might work, is because while a diet of steak and eggs may seem like something you could get used to, in the long run it is unappetizing, even unpalatable. And so you eat less of it and calories do count.

Back then Dr. Taller already knew that blood cholesterol was bad and that you had to eat the right kinds of fat. He also points out the abundantly obvious fact that low-calorie diets don't work because when you lose weight you get hungry and miserable and have to eat again. So in the case of a low-calorie diets at least, calories do count. 

Herman Taller was Romanian and tells us his personal story. He went to medical school in Italy and then, fleeing the turmoil before World War II, worked in Chile, and Ecuador before landing in New York. He came from a fat family and wrestled with obesity most of his life until he discovered that calories don't count etc.. and lost 65 pounds. He spoke Romanian, German, French, Italian and Spanish before he learned English and says, "I played bridge, so I had no problem making friends."

The rest is the quaint part. He says many times that 95% of obesity cases are because of poor diet and 5% are glandular. The reason his diet works is cockamamie. "The fat burned by your body burns clean and hot. The carbohydrates are what your metabolism burns improperly. Instead of converting them to energy, carbon dioxide and water, it converts some of them only to the substance called pyruvic acid. And later pyruvic acid becomes fat." (p 112) He says that good fat is soft. Fat made from carbohydrates is "hard and tough."

One of the liabilities of being fat that he talks about is his experience with "husbands who had stopped having sexual relations with their wives, apparently because of their obesity." I'm sure that many of the 2 million copies of this book were sold to women but today that point of view might not be so cool, except for Trump.

On page 127 of my copy there is a note at the bottom that says "Page numbers 125 and 126 do not appear. The omission is a purely mechanical error; the text is complete."

The last chapter of "Calories Don't Count" gives Dr Taller an out. He says that some cases of obesity are caused by a psychological problem. So if his diet does not work it may be because some people just can't do the right thing because of that psychological hang up of habitually eating carbohydrates.

Dr. Taller did get into trouble from the medical establishment of that day, for violating what they were saying and from the government, for improperly peddling safflower oil capsules, but he still did very well by his ideas.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.