Nothing has changed over the past 36 years, except for this: everyone is fatter.
The U.S. government began issuing dietary guidelines in 1977, when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, led by Senator George McGovern, issued the first dietary recommendations for the American people. Although these recommendations were made some 36 years ago, you probably recognize them immediately: “Increase consumption of complex carbohydrates and ‘naturally occurring sugars;’ and reduce consumption of refined and processed sugars, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.” And those should sound identical to your doctor’s advice: decreased consumption of refined and processed sugars; foods high in total and animal fat, eggs, butterfat, and other high-cholesterol foods; and foods high in salt.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity has more than doubled among adults since these dietary recommendations were put in place in the 1970s, and as of 2010, more than one-third of Americans were obese. Over the same time, the rate of diabetes has quadrupled, up to eight percent of the population in 2011. Clearly, something hasn’t been going according to plan.
Perhaps you’ve witnessed someone struggle with a diet, or struggled yourself. It’s not just stuff of TV shows; people breaking down, sobbing, wishing they looked differently and trying incredibly hard but it just isn’t working. This happens to real people, millions of them. It seems odd and a bit heartless to assert that this meteoric rise in obesity and associated diseases is a result of people not trying hard enough.
But there’s another explanation, one that’s gaining traction across the scientific community. Maybe the science behind this diet was bad, and the decision to launch the country into the diet was a poor one, and the non-decision to back off in the face of contradictory evidence even worse. At its most charitable, these experts say, it was a bad experiment. At its worst, it was a crime that has cost millions of lives, and the toll keeps rising.
THE SENATE SELECT COMMITTEE on Nutrition and Human Needs based their recommendations largely on the Seven Countries Study, which was first published in 1970 and led by University of Minnesota researcher Ancel Keys, whose findings were affirmed by several subsequent, large-scale studies such as the Nurses’ Health Study, which found that high saturated-fat diets were related to high cholesterol, and higher cholesterol in turn led to higher risks of obesity, heart attack, stroke, heart disease, and mortality. The Seven Countries Study painted a direct link between dietary fat, misery, and death–and that’s been the story ever since.
But there were issues from the start.
“Keys chose seven countries he knew in advance would support his hypothesis,” Gary Taubes wrote in Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fat, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health. “Had Keys chosen at random, or, say, chosen France and Switzerland rather than Japan and Finland, he would likely have seen no effect from saturated fat, and there might be no such thing today as the French paradox–a nation that consumes copious saturated fat but has comparatively little heart disease.”
Zoe Harcombe, author of the Obesity Epidemic: What Caused It? How Can We Stop It?, also found, using World Health Organization data, that not only is there no statistical correlation between mean cholesterol levels and mortality, but there’s no positive relationship whatsoever.