|Last update November 11, 2021, article reviewed & updated multiple times since November 30, 2001.|
What You Need to Know
In our last two discussions (here and here), we looked at how it came to be that so-called nutritional science blames dietary fats for many illnesses, especially heart disease. We saw that, over some fifty years, ‘nonfat’ and ‘low-fat’ have become synonymous with health, and the suggestion that fats might cause heart disease became the dogma that fats are absolutely bad for absolutely everyone.
Nutritional Guidelines By Committee
This dietary dogma came about despite the fact that there was very little evidence connecting diet to heart disease, and despite the concern of some scientists that eating too little fat could also have harmful effects. And it happened, not because of any new science, but by the actions of a governmental committee.
This special government committee was formed in 1968 with the stated mission “to eradicate malnutrition in America.” The committee acted to institute a whole series of federal food assistance programs, but after doing that it ran out of things to do. Rather than disband, the committee members decided to take up a new cause: dietary excesses.
Some of the members were personally very taken with an extremely low fat diet plan advocated by Nathan Pritikin. With Pritikin’s ideas as a foundation, the committee held a few days of hearings in mid 1976. But the hearings did not ask for input from the varying points of view, since the committee had basically decided that the low-fat position was the one it wanted to advocate.
The committee issued its report in January of 1977, making the blanket declaration that everyone should cut total fat intake to 30% of calories eaten, and that everyone should cut saturated fat to 10% of calories eaten.
The report acknowledged that cutting fats in this way was originally only recommended for men who were at high risk for heart disease, and it admitted that there was a huge controversy over the recommendation, but the report writers insisted that people had nothing to lose by following the advice. The report actually said “it is not a question of why we should change our diet, but why not”! And then they went on to completely ignore the arguments that cutting fats might not be such a great idea.
The Response To The Committee’s Recommendations
It is interesting to note that much of the initial response to the first committee report was unfavorable. There were those who emphasized that no one even knew if eating less fat or lowering blood cholesterol levels would prevent heart attacks. Others pointed out that the suggestion was setting up a huge nutritional experiment with the public as guinea pigs, and with no controls on how the experiment would be done. Even the American Medical Association protested.
But along with those dissenters, there were objections from the egg, dairy, and cattle industries. And, this is where the media jumped on board. They said the contrary opinions issued from these food industries were “merely self-serving,” and then they lumped the scientific criticisms together with the criticisms from the industries.
The media being what it is, it pushed all the scientific criticisms aside, and stood behind the simple, easy-to-understand but incorrect idea that less fat equals longer life. The public was able to understand this, even if it wasn’t necessarily true. People believed what the media reported, and since the media didn’t report the arguments from the other side, those ideas didn’t get heard.
With a consensus among the committee members, the media, and much of the public, all the alternative opinions to the committees recommendations were swept under the rug. Once the committee’s recommendations became “The Official Opinion,” few people questioned it, and even well-intentioned professionals passed it along as gospel.
Legitimate Scientific Studies Were Ignored
Nonetheless, there was some action on the questions asked by the dissenters. The National Institute of Health funded some studies beginning in the early 1970s. The results of four of these studies, published ten years later, showed no evidence that men who ate less fat lived longer or had fewer heart attacks. A fifth study suggested that eating less fat might actually shorten life. But the results of these five studies did nothing to alter “The Official Opinion.” Instead, it was generally considered that there must have been faults in the methods used in the studies themselves.
Then there was a sixth study. This study sought to determine whether or not a certain drug would lower blood cholesterol levels, and whether heart disease rates would be lowered at the same time. The results showed a small decrease in the heart disease rate among the test subjects. This study was a drug trial, not a diet trial, but since the results were seen as supporting “The Official Opinion,” that was good enough.
The investigators concluded that the drug’s action could be extended to diet, as well, without there being any data concerning diet whatsoever in the study. And although this sixth test only looked at middle-aged men who had cholesterol levels higher than 95% of the population, the test results were assumed to be a benefit that could and should be extended to everyone.
The small link between the cholesterol-lowering drug that was studied and better health was henceforth to be considered the same as a wished-for link between a cholesterol-lowering diet and health. This was viewed as the end of the dietary fat debate, and there was now said to be no doubt that low-fat diets would protect against coronary heart disease.
Then The Food Manufacturers And The FDA Jumped In
What followed was the creation and marketing of reduced-fat food products. It has become a huge business, and an entire research industry has arisen to create palatable nonfat fat substitutes.
The government publishes the US Department of Agriculture’s booklet on dietary guidelines every 5 years, and so far the well-known Food Pyramid still recommends that fats and oils be eaten “sparingly.” The low-fat message continues to be spread by physicians, nutritionists, journalists, health organizations, and consumer advocacy groups who truly believe that the message is well-founded in fact.
The Tide Is TurningBut it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone who looks closely that the science of dietary fat is much more complicated than it has been presented. Among the factors now showing themselves to be involved are the different forms of cholesterol, the influence of high levels of carbohydrates in the diet, the involvement of triglycerides, the effects of regional diets, the increased use of cholesterol-lowering drugs among the general population, the health effects of a diet too low in dietary fat, and the tremendous amount of money being earned and spent trying to influence what we buy and eat.
Next time we’ll be looking at some of these concerns as we continue our discussion of dietary fats. Please join me then.
The Science of Low-Carb & Keto Diets
|About Dr. Beth Gruber
Dr. Gruber is a graduate of the Southern California University of Health Sciences and has been in private chiropractic practice in Long Beach, California since 1964. She also received both a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree from California State University at Long Beach. She has written on health-related subjects for over 30 years, for several different publications. She lives in Southern California with her husband of 33 years. Both she and her husband follow and live the low-carb lifestyle full time.
Health agencies began advising everyone to restrict fats consumption. Said to be based on sound science - which it wasn't. Despite a 6% or more drop in average fat intake over the past 30 years, there is no real evidence that health has improved. Article 16 of the Science of Low-Carb & Keto Diets series.