The big news for me came this week, when the New York Times published an article entitled "Is Sugar Toxic?" by Gary Tobes. The discussion on the so-called alternative hypothesis is incredibly compelling. For those who are interested, Dr. Lustig’s YouTube video does a deep dive into the science discussed in the article. The article also references a 2002 NYT article on the scientific debate about the Atkins diet. This rather long article contains some history around the creation of the famous Food Pyramid, which may have been one of the costliest mistakes in the history of American Government, here’s the center of the steak:
It was Ancel Keys, paradoxically, who introduced the low-fat-is-good-health dogma in the 50’s with his theory that dietary fat raises cholesterol levels and gives you heart disease. Over the next two decades, however, the scientific evidence supporting this theory remained stubbornly ambiguous. The case was eventually settled not by new science but by politics. It began in January 1977, when a Senate committee led by George McGovern published its ”Dietary Goals for the United States,” advising that Americans significantly curb their fat intake to abate an epidemic of ”killer diseases” supposedly sweeping the country. It peaked in late 1984, when the National Institutes of Health officially recommended that all Americans over the age of 2 eat less fat. By that time, fat had become ”this greasy killer” in the memorable words of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the model American breakfast of eggs and bacon was well on its way to becoming a bowl of Special K with low-fat milk, a glass of orange juice and toast, hold the butter — a dubious feast of refined carbohydrates.
In the intervening years, the N.I.H. spent several hundred million dollars trying to demonstrate a connection between eating fat and getting heart disease and, despite what we might think, it failed. Five major studies revealed no such link. A sixth, however, costing well over $100 million alone, concluded that reducing cholesterol by drug therapy could prevent heart disease. The N.I.H. administrators then made a leap of faith. Basil Rifkind, who oversaw the relevant trials for the N.I.H., described their logic this way: they had failed to demonstrate at great expense that eating less fat had any health benefits. But if a cholesterol-lowering drug could prevent heart attacks, then a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet should do the same. ”It’s an imperfect world,” Rifkind told me. ”The data that would be definitive is ungettable, so you do your best with what is available.”
Some of the best scientists disagreed with this low-fat logic, suggesting that good science was incompatible with such leaps of faith, but they were effectively ignored. Pete Ahrens, whose Rockefeller University laboratory had done the seminal research on cholesterol metabolism, testified to McGovern’s committee that everyone responds differently to low-fat diets. It was not a scientific matter who might benefit and who might be harmed, he said, but ”a betting matter.” Phil Handler, then president of the National Academy of Sciences, testified in Congress to the same effect in 1980. ”What right,” Handler asked, ”has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?”
Nonetheless, once the N.I.H. signed off on the low-fat doctrine, societal forces took over. The food industry quickly began producing thousands of reduced-fat food products to meet the new recommendations. Fat was removed from foods like cookies, chips and yogurt. The problem was, it had to be replaced with something as tasty and pleasurable to the palate, which meant some form of sugar, often high-fructose corn syrup. Meanwhile, an entire industry emerged to create fat substitutes, of which Procter & Gamble’s olestra was first. And because these reduced-fat meats, cheeses, snacks and cookies had to compete with a few hundred thousand other food products marketed in America, the industry dedicated considerable advertising effort to reinforcing the less-fat-is-good-health message. Helping the cause was what Walter Willett calls the ”huge forces” of dietitians, health organizations, consumer groups, health reporters and even cookbook writers, all well-intended missionaries of healthful eating.
The accusation that Senator McGovern’s committee focused in on the low-fat recommendation without any conclusive evidence is a true indictment against our political process. I, like many of my fellow liberals, would like to believe that our government is the best entity out there for deciding on good public policy based on science. But what I’ve read this week has shaken my faith in science based public policy to it’s very core. It seems that it’s quite likely that literally millions of Americans might have lost limbs due to diabetes, suffered years of mental anguish trying to fight their obesity, and even died from heart disease and strokes because they followed the recommendations of their government. If it had been left up to the market to figure out what a healthy diet meant, the obesity epidemic may have never happened… Now that’s some food for thought.