The Big Fat Lie: How Government Caused the Obesity Crisis

Ryan Lau | @agorisms

If you take a walk through your local grocery store, you’ll find a lot of labels accentuating low-fat foods. “Reduced fat”, “2%”, and “fat-free” signs stick out at consumers anxious about an American health crisis. In fact, for nearly 50 years, lowering your daily total fat intake, as well as cholesterol and saturated fat, has been a staple of American healthy eating, courtesy of the USDA. In 1977, coinciding with a flawed study from the 1960s and 70s by physiologist Ancel Keys, they proposed the first ever dietary guidelines. These recommendations suggested the following:

  • Decrease intake of fat
  • Decrease intake of cholesterol
  • Reduce intake of salt
  • Reduce intake of sugar
  • Increase intake of carbohydrates

Decreased Fat, Increased Obesity

Interestingly, though, these guidelines did not prove to be particularly helpful for the American people. Allegedly, they were supposed to curb the rising rates of obesity and heart disease in the country. But compared to modern standards, obesity was not nearly as problematic 50 years ago.

In fact, throughout the early 1970s, as the below graph indicates, total overweight and obesity rates dropped slightly. Previously, they had risen steadily, though at a relatively low rate. But following the new dietary guidelines, the numbers immediately skyrocketed. From 1976 to 2004, obesity more than doubled, climbing from around 15% to well over 30%. Similarly, the overweight plus obese rate increased. In 1976, the figure was considerably below 50%, but by 2004, it was approaching 70%.

U.S. Overweight and obesity rates over time

Now, it is true that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. The U.S. dietary guidelines were not the only factor influencing health in the 1970s. It would be irresponsible to place the blame on any one particular factor. For example, the 1970s also marked the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup to American markets. It appears that this, too, had a marked impact on obesity rates. Arguably, these two factors were the most critical nutritional changes of the decade. Thus, it is critical to examine the guidelines.

The Flawed Seven Countries Study

All in all, the guidelines took an approach that Dr. Keys would have been quite proud of. But does the science behind it hold up, or did Keys manipulate his data for some reason? His study, the Seven Countries Study, examined the relationship between heart disease and lifestyle. Over the years, Keys collected data and published results that would appear to suggest fat intake raises the risk for heart disease.

However, there was one critical problem with the study; Keys already had access to data from 22 countries. Given previously available scientific data, it is reasonably clear that he selected countries that would help prove his hypothesis. The True Health Initiative, in a 2017 paper defending Keys, articulates that the cherry-picking argument does not apply. This is because Keys had already published one famous graph outlining his correlation in six countries using national data.

Heart disease and fat consumption by country

Yet, this fact actually negates their own point. Yes, it is true that the information was already available, but this is only further evidence of bias. Keys looked at several countries, including Japan, Italy, and the U.S., that he had already collected data on. His previous graph suggested that such a correlation would be likely. What he failed to report on, however, were findings from countries that were not going to fit his narrative. Norway, for example, has low heart disease rates, but Norwegians tend to eat a lot of fat. The opposite is true in Chile, with high rates of heart disease and generally low fat consumption.

The Big Fat Lie: Dangerous Guidelines

Clearly, the belief that fat and heart disease are linked is not necessarily accurate. At the very least, the issue is far more complex than previously believed. In fact, says Zoe Harcombe, a dietary author with a Ph.D. in public health nutrition, there has never been any credible link between lower fat intake and lower cardiac risk. On the contrary, the USDA guidelines appear to be entirely arbitrary. At best, this is an unhelpful mechanism, but at worst, it can turn deadly.

As a result of the guidelines, as well as the Seven Countries Study, a crusade against fat began in the country. Ironically, this battle only led to a doubled obesity rate. Why is it, then, that the USDA continued advocating this particular way of eating? Why did they continue the big fat lie? The answer may lie in the sugar industry.

Dating as far back as Keys, scientists have realized that sugar plays a very harmful role in the American diet. Though processed sugars are worse than naturally occurring sugars, they all can lead to weight gain and heart disease. In fact, sugar plays a greater role in heart disease than saturated fat does. Though the guidelines did note to reduce sugar intake, the recommendation to increase carbohydrates considerably offsets this. So does the clear emphasis on behalf of the government that fat is the devil in food.

The Sugar Industry’s Crony Capitalism

Unfortunately, though, these pushes are fairly unsurprising. In the 1960s, Coca-Cola paid many scientists to research and publish studies that would downplay the role of sugary drinks in heart disease. The candy industry also paid other scientists to publish a study that claimed children who ate candy weighed less than those who did not. But the issues go far beyond a number of independent scientists.

One of the researchers that the industry paid was D. Mark Hegsted. At the time a private worker, he went on to become the USDA’s head of nutrition. Hegsted was heavily involved in the drafting of the nutritional guidelines. It now makes more sense, considering that the sugar industry paid off a leading USDA member, that the government’s policy would harshly condemn fat. Though there was dissent in the scientific and medical communities, the government nonetheless pushed fat as the bane of health. Sugar, on the other hand, was cast to the side, considered not to be the major focus.

Replacing Fat with Sugar

Looking back to the grocery store, what does the influx of low-fat advertising and food production entail? More often than not, it just means there are added sugars. Take peanut butter as a prime example. A standard serving of Skippy’s natural, full-fat peanut butter has around 190 calories and 16 grams of fat. Compare that to the same calorie number and 12 grams of fat for Skippy’s reduced fat peanut butter.

But looking at the carbohydrate and sugar count, it becomes apparent that the reduced fat is actually less healthy. 6 grams of carbohydrates jumps to 14, and the ingredients list shoots from 4 to 17. Generally speaking, unnecessary ingredients like corn syrup solids and soy protein have nothing to do with peanut butter and have little to no nutritional benefit. But to replace the natural, healthy, mono-unsaturated fats in peanut butter and preserve taste, Skippy has to add in something. Sadly, this something comes at the expense of the consumer’s health.

A New Link: Carbohydrates and Heart Disease

Not all carbs are sugars, so they can’t be bad, right? Though carbohydrates in moderation are not unhealthy, there is mounting evidence suggesting a link between elevated levels of carb intake and heart disease. A 2009 study found that swapping saturated fats with carbohydrates did nothing to reduce heart disease. In fact, a 2014 study actually discovered that increased carbohydrate consumption increased the risk of both heart disease and type-2 diabetes.

When food companies follow the archaic advice against eating fat, they inevitably increase the occurrence of highly refined and processed carbs. The Skippy example was not a lone wolf, in this regard. From milk to salad dressing to cheese and chips, reduced fat options nearly always increase the prevalence of processed carbs. This is neither an endorsement nor a criticism of any of those foods, but merely a statement of fact surrounding reduced fat options. After all, to make a food lower in fat, they must add additional ingredients to it, taking away from the wholeness of the product. This violates the one law of nutrition that has almost never come under fire; natural, whole foods are better for you than processed ones.

The Government’s Damage Is Done

Thankfully, the influence of this era of nutritional guidelines is beginning to end. In the past decade, there has been an increase in skepticism surrounding sugar. Likewise, many medical professionals are starting to welcome fat back into the diet, particularly in the form of eggs, fish, and nuts.

But the damage has been done. Thanks to ignorant or even cronyist dietary policies, the government has contributed to a 50-year acceleration in obesity rates. Now, obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the country. There are many instances in which government cooperation with corporations can have negative results, but this is perhaps one of the worst in our country’s history. Admittedly, obesity rates may have risen regardless, as they have in many parts of the world. Without a doubt, though, the failed nutritional paradigm of the later 20th century has led to the deaths of many citizens with good intentions.

Yet, there is still hope. As recognition of fat as an essential macronutrient rises, health may still improve. Hundreds of thousands report success with higher fat diets, such as Paleo and Keto. Though such a strict reduction in carbohydrates is not essential for good health, and healthy eating is a highly individualized topic, these are certainly viable options.

Obesity rates are still rising, thanks to crony capitalist collusions, but in the dawn of the information age, the truth is beginning to spread. With it comes a way forward, out of obesity and into longevity.

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