An unexpected consequence of the fall of the U.S.S.R. was the number of ordinary citizens who poured out of Russian apartments to topple statues of Lenin, the most visible symbols of 70 years of oppression by the Soviet state. In spite of my years, my fantasy is someday to see angry American citizens emerging to destroy whichever of the countless symbols of the oppressive U.S. government they deem to be most objectionable.
Based on the narrative in an engaging new book by Nina Teicholz, among such future hordes of angry and resentful Americans may well be those afflicted with an array of health problems that have come to be known in the past few decades as ‘metabolic syndrome.’ The disorders associated with this pattern are persistent belly fat, high blood pressure, raised triglyceride levels, low HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, and increased blood sugar – all of which indicate above-average risks of coronary heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes.
Recognition of these afflictions as a related group has paralleled soaring epidemics of obesity and diabetes in this country since about 1980, essentially when it was decided that yet another appropriate function of the federal government was to offer dietary advice. A 1977 Congressional hearing chaired by Sen. George McGovern resulted in an official report linking heart disease to cholesterol raised by eating saturated fats. While scientific evidence for this link was extremely weak and controversial, the report was approved on the dubious grounds that it couldn’t hurt to ingest less fat and, who knows, it might save lives.
In February 1980, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA published its first-ever Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Mark Hegsted, a Harvard academic who had served as the main advisor to the McGovern Report, was by then ‘nutrition director’ for the USDA. While admitting the science behind the fat-heart link was flimsy, Hegsted’s view was that people could “hedge their bets” against heart disease by reducing dietary fat until results of research became stronger. These initial guidelines led to the USDA’s famous ‘food pyramid.’
Soon the alleged link between dietary fat and heart disease became “conventional wisdom” in America, and countless food products, from ready-to-eat cereals to candy bars, which happened not to contain much fat, were suddenly and proudly labeled ‘low fat.’ And the American Heart Association began allowing food companies, for a (ahem!) fee, to add special labels certifying that their products, such as Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, were ‘Heart Healthy.’ In short order, millions of Americans altered their eating habits in hopes of living healthier lives, and most of those who didn’t change likely thought that they should.
The problem, of course, was not merely that the purported link between dietary fat and heart disease had never been satisfactorily proven, but that removing fats from human diets required some other source of energy (calories). Almost overnight, with the powerful encouragement of physicians, dieticians and the media, carbohydrates became the food that replaced dietary fat. Americans were advised to cut back on meat, eggs and dairy products, and to eat instead multiple daily servings of carbohydrates, including not just whole-wheat breads but also pastas, potatoes, fruit juices, and “non-fat” cookies (by the boxful!).
The result of this massive campaign – sponsored, marketed, and heavily financed by the federal government – has been virtually the precise opposite of what those reassuring advocates promised it would be. The incidence of obesity, heart disease and type-2 diabetes has skyrocketed in this country and, tragically, those most affected appear to have been the very people – more women than men – who seemingly tried the hardest to heed the advice of those they trusted. Instead of the trim health promised, they got obese and sickly.
What is the response of those still advocating low-fat diets? The most recent USDA report suggested that Americans haven’t followed its guidelines well enough, but data about consumption over the last few decades completely contradict that theory. Many advocates of vegetarian diets, for whom there will never be sufficient research to warrant advising more meat or fat in diets, have tended to blame the growth of obesity on the fast-food restaurants. Famously, the former mayor of New York City blamed large servings of soft drinks.
Over nine years, Teicholz interviewed seemingly everyone still alive who was deeply involved over the last half-century in the science and the politics of the diet-health link. The lengths to which certain scientists and politicians went to perpetuate the dogma that animal fat was to blame for obesity and heart disease is astounding, until one recalls what has been occurring over roughly the same period of time in the debate over climate-change or what has taken place in economics, history and foreign policy for a duration twice as long.
There is a ray of sunshine in the story Teicholz relates. In spite of huge amounts of government support for the low-fat/healthy heart theory, there is a broad and accelerating interest in, and awareness of, the alternative premise; namely, that the link is not proven scientifically and that it now appears far more likely that it is excessive carbohydrates, not fat, that threaten heart health. Of late, Americans increasingly have increasingly turned to best-selling books and websites that directly contradict the link and the “pyramid.”
The truth is, every time the government attempts to force-feed the American people theories that turn out to be either untrue or severely distorted – from nutrition to climate to economics to foreign policy to private property to education to economics – another extra-intelligent segment of the citizenry loses its faith in the institution of the State. And, while hoodwinking the masses was once fairly easy, the Internet’s ‘social media’ has undermined that process. One need not be an intellectual to learn what others now believe.
The reason more Americans are waking up to these controversies about health and nutrition – as opposed, say, to those involving climate change, or foreign policy, or market economics – is that issues of diet and disease are vitally personal. No matter which way the average person feels about warfare or inflation or the environment, whether those beliefs are true or false is still a detached and abstract issue, just something to argue about with friends and relatives. But health, especially one’s own, is something that matters.
Of course, it was never a majority of Russians who toppled those Lenin statues, only an alert and angry minority. And if one heeds only the mainstream media, such as CNN or USA Today, the most common nutrition stories still warn about animal fat. But great social and political changes are always the work of alert minorities. And when wars, regulations over environment, and economic collapse become as personal to average Americans as diet and health, the alert minorities related to those controversies will change society.
The content and the writing in this book are both first-rate; a real page-turner, and I can scarcely recommend it any higher…for the facts and for the hopeful lesson.
Rich Wilcke (send him mail) who farms in Kentucky and still teaches in the University of Louisville College of Business, has been a libertarian activist for over 40 years.