Food Freedom

The Big Fat Lie

The government's bad info on food.


If you have even a passing acquaintance with current events, then you've probably seen a host of headlines about the ostensible revolution in dietary thinking. "Eating Fat Is Good for You: Doctors change their minds after 40 years," blared a London newspaper in 2013. "Why Experts Now Think You Should Eat More Fat," explained Men's Journal the next year.

Last month The Economist made "The Case for Eating Steak and Ice Cream." Last week Time argued that "The Case for Eating Butter Just Got Stronger." That article cited an earlier Time cover story noting that "fat had become 'the most vilified nutrient in the American diet' despite the scientific evidence showing it didn't harm health or cause weight gain in moderation."

The new dietary bugbear is sugar, now the target of "Twinkie taxes," soda taxes, and the opprobrium of public scolds everywhere.

This is pretty big news, given the drumbeat of advice Americans have been receiving for so long. Starting in the 1980s the federal government's urged people to shun fats and cholesterol and load up on carbs. A 1990s food pyramid from the USDA placed bread, rice, and pasta at the base, suggesting a person eat six to 11 servings a day—but only two or three servings of meat or eggs and even less of fats.

As a long piece by Ian Leslie in The Guardian notes, "consumers dutifully obeyed. We replaced steak and sausages with pasta and rice, butter with margarine and vegetable oils, eggs with muesli, and milk with low-fat milk or orange juice. But instead of becoming healthier, we grew fatter and sicker. Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the U.S., the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12 percent of Americans were obese in 1950, 15 percent in 1980, 35 percent by 2000."

You can't necessarily ascribe that to diet alone. Other factors, such as more sedentary jobs and lifestyles and zoning policies that required people to drive more, surely played a role. But it seems clear that official government dietary advice didn't help.

What makes that even more remarkable—and the main subject of the piece in The Guardian—is the degree to which the scientific community enforced what turned out to be erroneous dogma.

For many years, starting in the late 1950s, a British nutritionist named John Yudkin waged a lonely war against the prevailing scientific consensus. Dietary fat was not the bogeyman it was portrayed to be, he argued. The real problem, he said, was sugar. In 1972 he published a book on the topic: Pure, White and Deadly.

And for going against the scientific grain, Yudkin was thoroughly savaged by the peers in his field. Among them was Ancel Keys, who believed fat was the culprit behind heart disease and other ailments. He made lacerating attacks on Yudkin and his research, and was joined in them by entrenched interests such as the British Sugar Bureau.

"Throughout the 1960s," Leslie writes, "Keys accumulated institutional power. He secured places for himself and his allies on the boards of the most influential bodies in American healthcare, including the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health. From these strongholds, they directed funds to like-minded researchers, and issued authoritative advice to the nation."

Keys and his allies produced research to support their conclusions, but the work fell victim to confirmation bias: Information that undercut the fat-is-bad hypothesis was dismissed and ignored. Or, in the case of Yudkin's work, angrily shouted down.

Eventually, however, the data suggesting problems with the fat-is-bad hypothesis—such as the fact that the French eat a lot of saturated fat but have very low rates of heart disease—piled up so high that it caused nutritionists to pause and rethink, albeit slowly and with considerable resistance. But by then, Leslie writes, "Yudkin's scientific reputation had been all but sunk. He found himself uninvited from international conferences on nutrition. Research journals refused his papers. He was talked about by fellow scientists as an eccentric, a lone obsessive. Eventually, he became a scare story."

The enforcement of dietary orthodoxy is not limited to fat. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, currently is pushing the food industry to reduce salt content—even though scientists now think this is wrong: "According to studies published in recent years by pillars of the medical community, the low levels of salt recommended by the government might actually be dangerous," the Washington Post reported last April.

The parallels to other hotly debated scientific issues—climate change in particular—are obvious. An overwhelming majority of climate scientists accept the anthropogenic thesis: the notion that human activity is at least partly responsible for climate change. Like-minded researchers are lionized and blessed with research grants; skeptics are vilified as whores for the fossil-fuel industry.

Of course, just because the nutritional consensus about fat was wrong does not mean the consensus about global warming is wrong. There's an overwhelming scientific consensus about evolution and gravity, too. And evidence in favor of those theories continues to accumulate while evidence that could falsify them remains scarce as unicorns. Besides, prudence counsels restraint. Science might one day revise its view of gravity, but that doesn't make it safe to jump off bridges.

Nevertheless, the story of John Yudkin should serve as a cautionary tale about the danger of groupthink and the folly of demonizing people who dare to ask hard questions. It's crucially important that we get the facts about salt, climate change, and other possible hazards right. To that end, it's also crucially important to recognize the possibility that we might be wrong.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

NEXT: Is There a "Conservative Case For Letting Clinton Skate"?

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  1. Oh, for a second I thought this was another post on Hillary.

    Carry on.

      1. golf clap or as we hoi polis call it, putters syphilis

  2. Every time we have pork chops, my wife cuts the fat off the edge and dumps it on my plate. She’s clearly insane, but I love her insanity.

    1. hmmm
      The opposite happens to me. If I want anything I must make two and eat one real quickly.

    2. Fat on the edge is good for cooking pork chops, but who wants to actually eat it by itself?

      1. To make fat palatable, i cut up meat after cooking and put it in a food processor, turning it into shreds, then blend it in with vegetables, etc. in a bowl.

        1. You said “food processor,” but I heard “miniature woodchipper.”

  3. “The science is settled” — except is wasn’t science and it rarely is.

  4. The latest “against the grain” trend I’ve heard is that exercise is overrated. I’m trying to get reliable information to take care of myself but noooope. That shit’s gotta take a backseat to agendas.

    1. The health benefits of exercise are up for debate? This is stupid.

      1. It’s people’s tendency to be excessive about it under the premise that “you can’t have too much of a good thing.”

        1. So much this. Every nutritional/health fad of the past few decades, if not further back, has been plagued by this mindset. The number of people who actually seem to understand what the word “holistic” means is vanishingly small.

          1. moderation in all things both in diet and exercise except for beer you can drink all the beer you want.

    2. The latest “against the grain” trend I’ve heard is that exercise is overrated.

      I think it depends on what type of exercise you do. I’ve heard/read some people saying that weight lifting is overrated while cardio and athletic training that tend to increase stamina, range of motion, etc. are “better for you” while others claiming that running is the spawn of Satan and it’s all about “how much ya’ bench”. I think the main thing is that some studies have shown that there seems to be a point of diminishing returns where regardless of what kind of routine you do, eventually just doing more isn’t helping anymore. Anecdotal evidence: I recently had to add some circuit training and a little strength and conditioning because just doing more of what I was already doing didn’t seem to do jack shit anymore. In ~ 3 months I’ve gone from 210/ 29% body fat to 195/ 25% body fat, so it seems to be doing something even though the absolute amount of weight loss is pretty minimal.

      I think probably the best advice would be: do what feels good to you and makes you happy. If going to the gym for 3 hours a day and pumping iron is your thing, go for it. If circuit training with a lot of stretching, athletic training and cardio is more your thing, knock yourself out. Or if you’d rather sit at home on your ass doing nothing, that’s fine too.

      1. I think probably the best advice would be: do what feels good to you and makes you happy.

        Agree 100%. The only way you’re going to make a habit of exercising is if you enjoy it. So go find some activity that you enjoy and do it. Just gotta remember that sometimes it takes a few months to really get into something.

        1. unless someone doesn’t like that approach then it’s all “BURN WITCH BURN”

          1. Well, now that society has a direct monetary interest in each individual’s health care, a common-sense daily exercise individual mandate would be good policy.

            1. Hamster wheels for all.. that way we can also geenrate power and save Gaia!

        2. It took me 5-6 months to see real distinguishable results.

          I’m a lift weights and paleo guy full disclosure

      2. If you wanna be complete about it, you need four types of exercise: weight-bearing, explosive short term cardio, slow long term cardio, and flexibility.

        1. You forgot lots of slow non cardio movement.

          For example when I golf I often carry my bag.

        2. Yoga does all of that.

          1. Tantric?

    3. Exercise is important to health. It doesn’t matter as much for weight loss. Weight loss happens in the kitchen, not the gym.

      -source-guy with a belly who is in excellent shape-but not “shape”.

  5. Yeah, it’s not fat. It is sugar.
    It’s carbs to be more general, but if you stay away from sugar, white flour, and white rice, you’re doing ok.

    BTW, ice cream has a ton of sugar in it, so you still can’t eat that. So does fruity yogurt, surprisingly. (And everyone thought it was healthy.)

    The occasional high-carb vegetable like potatoes won’t kill you, but don’t let them replace green vegetables.

    Basically, your plate should be 1 meat + 2-3 vegetables, and at least one vegetable should be a leafy green. No more than 1 starch (potatos, corn, brown rice, whole grain bread) .

    1. BTW, ice cream has a ton of sugar in it, so you still can’t eat that.

      For the life of me, I can’t figure out why there isn’t a high-fat, very low sugar ice cream brand. It wouldn’t be super sweet, but I imagine they could have some artificial sweeteners to make it tolerable, and the fat would keep it creamy. I’ve found some brands that are close, but it’s very difficult to find a full-fat, low carb ice cream. Maybe it’s not easy to make it.

      1. it’s very difficult to find a full-fat, low carb ice cream. Maybe it’s not easy to make it.

        It is. Many, many years ago I worked for Dryer’s and had to learn much more about all that stuff than anyone should rightly have to know.

        No-sugar or low-sugar ice cream is very tricky, and involves lots of synthesized substances that can be quite hard on your digestive tract.

        1. “is not,” that is.

          1. that and too high a fat content inhibits the crystal growth. So while possible, it is harder to make high fat low sugar ice cream…BUT the french have a solution, if you start with a beautifully crafted creme anglaise then you can make a decent ice cream but it will still have WAY too much sugar for the likes of my lazy pancreas.

            1. When people would call to complain about the horrific stomach cramps and explosive diarrhea from eating a 1/2 gallon in one sitting, I would recommend eating 1/2 cup of regular, un-tampered-with ice cream.

              Didn’t compute with most people.

        2. I think you’re referring to sugar alcohols (actually slightly more calories for the sweetness than sugar) as being hard on the digestion. But what about no-cal or low-cal sweeteners in ice cream?

          1. Sugar gives a thickness to ice cream that low-cal sweeteners lack. Also, artificial sweeteners don’t really taste as great as real sugar. We can try to fool our taste buds, but they’re smarter than they look. If you make ice cream with, for instance, Splenda, eat it as soon as it comes out of the machine, before it has a chance to set like a rock.

      2. There used to be Atkins ice cream, which satisfied that definition. I don’t see it anymore, but then again, when I tried it, I thought it was kaka, so never bought it again.

        I tend to be a believer in “if you want it, eat the real thing in a small/modest serving size, because you know the substitute is going to taste like shit” so I’d never buy a specialty low-sugar or artificial-sweetener ice cream. I don’t use sugar or butter substitutes for the same reason. For me, anyway, you go real or go home. I’d rather have a Haagen Dazs or Magnum ice cream bar, maybe 3-4 ounces of lethally awesome, than 8 ounces of Splenda sadness.

    2. This time we’re sure for sure!

      1. The evidence against sugar is pretty compelling.

        1. The evidence for any conclusion is compelling right up until it’s not.

          1. You just want cake.

              1. They all want cake.

            1. If all you ever ate was meat pizza and cake, you’d have the most balanced diet ever.

        2. The “evidence” is that very high sugar intake correlates with certain poor health outcomes. It doesn’t say anything beyond that.

    3. Most commercial yogurt is literally just candy disguised as a health food. I’m astonished how many people still fall for it.

      1. They even have yogurt with fucking chocolate sprinkles mixed in these days.

        1. So that’s how they get all those sprinkles in there: Just throw in a breeding pair.


      3. “Most commercial yogurt is literally just candy disguised as a health food. ”

        But making your own yoghurt from germ and milk is quite a shocker. It’s just excrement. I imagine commercial yoghurt manufacturers go out of their way to make sure to unexcrementalize their products. That probably accounts for the sickly sweet taste.

    4. If you look hard enough you can get yogurt that still has all the fat, but doesn’t have any sugar added. It’s hard to find, though, because fat-free yogurt is so common these days.

      1. I found this Greek Gods yogurt that’s full fat and unsweetened. Tastes pretty bland by itself. Awesome with berries though.

  6. Starting in the 1980s the federal government’s urged people to shun fats and cholesterol and load up on carbs. A 1990s food pyramid from the USDA placed bread, rice, and pasta at the base, suggesting a person eat six to 11 servings a day?but only two or three servings of meat or eggs and even less of fats.

    And through a totally bizarre coincidence, this was the same time period when weights started ballooning and we saw the largest obesity epidemic in American history. What are the chances??


    2. It’s also the time period when a lot of physical labor became more mechanized. That had been going on for a century already, but even a lot of blue collar shop jobs that involved standing on your feet, turning a wrench became sitting at a bench making sure the machine didn’t break. So carb heavy diet plus more sedentary lifestyle = bigger pants.

      1. bigger pants

        John nods.

      2. also air conditioning. eliminate air conditioning and people will go outside and do stuff again. when I was a kid almost no one had ac and fat people were few and far between. I do realize though if you live in a government high rise apartment you won’t let your kid outside and you can’t leave the windows open so you are stuck with ac

    3. It’s also a time when the popularity of smoking started to decline.

  7. Unfortunately, it is hard to have sympathy for the willing victims that choose to “trust and not verify”.

    Vast majority of the people choose to follow, and the rest of us can only try to figure out how to satisfy our self-interest given the cards we are dealt.

    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to convince our family and friends to wake up because we should all do our part as citizens.

    Bottom line: It’s the reality, but cheer up!

    1. It’s part of the Top Men culture. One of the podcasts I listen to fairly regularly is Seth Shostak’s “Big Picture Science” which is pretty enjoyable. In one episode they took a look at fad diets and it was pretty good – attacking analogs of the watercress & water diet. They encouraged people to do due diligence on diets, etc. But, then, near the end of the show, they basically said, “Trust the FDA guidelines.”

  8. This is the normal pendulum swing of authoritarian advice.

    In the 80s it was common wisdom that you needed protein. Protein was what was going to make you live forever. So people started eating nothing but protein.

    Come the 90s, “the Thinking” came to be that people were obsessing about protein to the detriment of their health. So then came the recommendation to obsess about grains. It’s all about carbs, you see.

    The recommendation, of course, was for whole grains, but that part got ignored. So then people started getting fat from eating too much white flour and white rice. So then Atkins came around, and the pendulum swung back to meat and protein, and the “eat more fat” recommendation became fashionable.

    Rinse, repeat.

    You actually need: fat (unsaturated), protein, carbs (both complex and simple). You need them consistently, and in a rough balance. You also need fruits and vegetables for vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Too little fat is as bad for you as too much. Same with salt.

    This is not rocket science. It’s what primates have been eating for millennia.

    But continuing to do what has always worked doesn’t keep government experts employed, now, does it?

    1. You don’t need saturated fat?

      OK. I’ll be over here synthesizing testosterone, but you do you, I guess.

      1. My control-F is broken because it’s not showing any results for ‘saturated fat’ in Square’s comment. But he clearly must have specifically said that you don’t need saturated fat because that’s what you’re responding to. I should take my internet to the mechanic.

        1. You actually need: fat (unsaturated)

          1. Thank you. Hugh isn’t bright.

          2. You actually do much better with monosaturated fats, such as olive oil and walnut oil. And saturated fats such as coconut oil and palm oil. And butter. The worst fats are polyunsaturated.

        2. But he specifically said you need unsaturated fats and made no specific mention of saturated fats. Clearly he hates saturated fats and believes you’ll die if you eat them.

          1. So now someone criticized him by saying he hates saturated fats! Was that comment deleted? Who said that? Was it Tulpa?

          2. He also didn’t mention anything about Hillary being a despicable criminal, so clearly he’s in the bag for Team Blue.

            1. Dig that hole deeper, Hugh.

            2. Clearly. I’ll bet he thinks Comey made the right decision too.

        3. I think it was in reference to the fact that when he mentioned that we needed fat, he specified unsaturated and omitted saturated. An obvious and fair conclusion being that since he took the time to specify what fat he was talking about he was omitting the other on purpose.

          1. hmm, i need to refresh the comments more.

          2. Yep. Again, Hugh ain’t too bright.

      2. You don’t need saturated fat?

        OK. I’ll be over here synthesizing testosterone, but you do you, I guess.

        My understanding has always been that your body can make saturated fat from unsaturated on its own, and you really don’t need to seek out saturated fat.

        It’s also saturated fat that has been linked with heart disease, while unsaturated fat is not linked with any adverse health conditions I know of other than obesity if you eat too much.

        If I am mistaken, I am always open to learning something new. If I have offended, I sincerely apologize.

        1. Apologize? Wtf is going on here?

        2. Nope. It’s POLYUNSATURATED fat that has been linked to heart disease. We need a mix of monosaturated fats such as olive oil, and saturated fats, such as coconut oil.

    2. You probably get enough fat with the meat and as condiments though. You don’t need to set out to eat fat.

      Like I was saying. 1 meat/protien, 2-3 veggies (one of which is a leafy green), 0-1 starches (whole grains or vegetable). Fat comes with the meat or as cheese or butter on the veggies. No sugar, no white rice, no white flour.

      1. My doctor said he wants me eating 60-70% of my calories from fat. 20 from protein. It is kinda cool cause by weight they are almost the same, one ounce of fat and one ounce of protein are about 2/3 to 1/3 in calories.

        1. Fat contains 9 calories per gram. Protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. (Damn metric system!)

      2. I may be the only one, but I don’t care about your dietary recommendations. So there.

      3. You probably get enough fat with the meat and as condiments though. You don’t need to set out to eat fat.

        ^ This. You have to work a bit to get too little fat, as with salt. But when people react to government recommendations as extremely as they often do, you do actually get people having problems with these things.

    3. You actually need: … carbs (both complex and simple)

      You don’t, actually. The human body can synthesize enough glucose to survive on. That’s why there is no “essential carbohydrate”.

      There are, however, essential fatty acids and essential amino acids that you would die if you didn’t consume enough of.

      1. So… consensus?

      2. This.

    4. “This is not rocket science. It’s what primates have been eating for millennia.”

      It’s far more complicated than rocket science, which is more of an engineering problem in any case.

      Nutrition experts I’ve heard tell us to avoid heavily processed foods. As most primates manage to do.

  9. Obesity is caused by the corporations creating food deserts and forcing poor people to eat processed food!

    It’s the corporations!

    Only government can save us from the corporations!



    1. “It’s the corporations!”

      True enough. Large industrial concerns are responsible for the manufacture of our most heavily processed foods. Corn, sugar etc. These are linked to obesity.

      1. And those dastardly corporations are forcing people to eat the food! At gunpoint! Only government can save us!

        1. “And those dastardly corporations are forcing people to eat the food!”

          They choose to put these heavily processed foods on the market. Nobody is forcing these corporations to do so.

            1. The decision to market heavily processed foods is down to the corporations. Nobody is holding a gun to their heads.

              1. Nobody held a gun to my mother’s head to force her make her fried garlic meatballs, either. Absolutely addictive, and whenever I used to ask, she would make them for me.

                Evil mothers, who make things that their children like to eat, instead of giving them a small bowl of healthful gruel.

                1. “Nobody held a gun to my mother’s head to force her ”

                  Your mother’s not a tax payer, then. It’s lavish government subsidies to sugar and corn that accounts for their place of pride on grocery shelves.

                  1. Really? I’m opposed to subsidizing sugar and corn. But I am skeptical that without those subsidies sugar and corn syrup laden products wouldn’t still occupy many shelves in the grocery store.

                    1. ” I’m opposed to subsidizing sugar and corn. ”

                      You’re the first one here to admit it. I admire your courageous stand.

                      “corn syrup laden products wouldn’t still occupy many shelves in the grocery store”

                      Who knows? I assume the subsidy works to ensure that more of these foods are produced and eventually appear at the market.

  10. Who knew?

    Dr. Atkins and anyone who read his book.

    1. I read Atkins in the early 70s. The main thing he was wrong about was his idea that weight loss was caused because of the extra ketone bodies that escaped when the body was in ketosis from the curb on carbohydrates. He kept studying though, and refined his diet and supplement program. Mad respect.

  11. Selfies Overtakes Shark Attack As Cause of Death

    Because I love you all and want you to have something nice today.

    1. Anything that thins the herd of stupid people is alright in my book. I hope there’s another update when people dying from shark selfies surpasses people dying from shark attacks.

  12. I like why my doctor says: Everyone is different.

    kinda weird right?

    That being said, show me an Inuit that has ever had a grain or a leafy green vegetable as an even moderate portion of their diet. Show me a frenchman that DOESN’T drink a bottle of wine a day. Show me an east Asian that eschews rice.

    People are all unique and certain tranches have certain basic adaptations…Northern and Western European descendants can process milk into adulthood, that is something 75% of the planet can’t do. I say keep an eye on your blood sugar, your ketones, and your weight. That is how you figure out what i ok for you.

    1. “People are all unique…”

      True, but I defy you to find me a nation that thrives on a high sugar/low fibre diet.

  13. I eat nothing but psyllium husk and coconut oil. Drink nothing but Aloe Vera juice.

    1. and I’ll bet you shit your brains out every 3-4 hours!!!

  14. Don’t worry, once they win the war on sugar, they’ll come for our salt.

    1. First, they came for muh sugar…

      1. actually first they came for your balls, once they had them everything else was a walk.

  15. Woody Allen predicted this in 1973.

  16. My conclusion: I’m right and you’re wrong, so do what I do and then you will be right.

  17. Three words!

    Anthropogenic Global Warming!

  18. Their might be a consensus about evolution and gravity (and lots of other things), but people are still looking at how they work, in order to verify that those theories accurately predict how the universe works. In fact, it was people looking at how Mercury traveled around the sun (a gravity issue) who discovered that it doesn’t quite work the way that Newton said it should. And Einstein looked at the data and came up with a theory that explained it much better. Which people are still trying to falsify, more than 100 years after he published his work.

    Science is not about consensus. If it is about consensus, then it is not science.

  19. No subject of discussion brings out the fascist in everyone like diet/fitness these days. Just look at this comment thread. Everyone telling everyone else what they think is bad or good for you. ‘Fitness’ is the new religion in the sense of enabling one to look down their nose at non-believers.

  20. Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the U.S., the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12 percent of Americans were obese in 1950, 15 percent in 1980, 35 percent by 2000

    I’m not the 1st to point out that this exaggerates the effect of crossing the line into obesity. If you just look at weight, the increase has been steady, w no such point of inflection.

  21. The main usefulness of the case of nutrition’s wrong turn in discussions of climate change is to show that a forced consensus of groupthink can be forged and maintained for decades without a “conspiracy” to do so.

  22. However, eating a healthy, balanced diet doesn’t mean surviving solely on carrot juice, rabbit food and bird seed. All you have to do is really simple. Eat from a wide variety of food groups in the right quantities to maintain the energy and nutrients a healthy adult needs.

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