The Big Fat Lie, Part Two

Read Part One

In the mid-1950s, a scientist named Ancel Keyes completed a statistical study of global diets, and postulated that a diet high in fat — especially, a diet high in animal fats — contributed to heart disease.

Please note, if you will, that scientist Keyes did not study obesity, nor the effect of nutritional fats on overall health. He only looked at heart disease. And he did not conduct any actual experiments to confirm his statistical assumptions. However, his theory was embraced by the American Heart Association, and eventually by the U.S. government.

Here’s a quote from a lengthy study of nutrition policies published in the New York Times in 2002, written by researcher Gary Taubes:

“Over the next two decades, however, the scientific evidence supporting this theory remained stubbornly ambiguous. The case was eventually settled not by new science but by politics. It began in January 1977, when a Senate committee led by George McGovern published its ‘Dietary Goals for the United States,’ advising that Americans significantly curb their fat intake to abate an epidemic of ‘killer diseases’ supposedly sweeping the country. It peaked in late 1984, when the National Institutes of Health officially recommended that all Americans over the age of two eat less fat.”

Dietary fat had become — in the memorable words of the Center for Science in the Public Interest — a “greasy killer”. And the typical American breakfast of eggs and bacon was on its way to being replaced by “a bowl of Special K with low-fat milk, a glass of orange juice and toast, hold the butter — a dubious feast of refined carbohydrates,” to quote Mr. Taubes.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health spent several hundred million dollars trying to demonstrate a connection between eating fat and getting heart disease… “and, despite what we might think, it failed. Five major studies revealed no such link.”

A sixth study costing well over $100 million “concluded that reducing cholesterol by drug therapy could prevent heart disease. The N.I.H. administrators then made a leap of faith. Basil Rifkind, who oversaw the relevant trials for the N.I.H., described their logic this way: they had failed to demonstrate at great expense that eating less fat had any health benefits. But if a cholesterol-lowering drug could prevent heart attacks, then a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet should do the same.”

Mr. Taubes quotes Basil Rifkind:

“It’s an imperfect world. The data that would be definitive is un-gettable, so you do your best with what is available.”

So let’s summarize. Some scientists spent $100 million proving that a certain drug could lower cholesterol, and also seemed to reduce the incidence of heart disease. Meanwhile, five major studies had failed to find a link between fat consumption and heart disease. What is the policy of the U.S. government? They began to tell everyone that we ought to eat less fat.

It appears that some of the most respected nutrition scientists in America disagreed with this approach, but were ignored. “Pete Ahrens, whose Rockefeller University laboratory had done the seminal research on cholesterol metabolism, testified to McGovern’s committee that everyone responds differently to low-fat diets.” It wasn’t possible, in other words, to demonstrate scientifically who might benefit — and who might be harmed — by a low fat diet, but rather, it was a roll of the dice.

Phil Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, testified in Congress to the same effect in 1980. ”What right,” Handler asked, ”has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?”

This controversy took place 25 years ago. How is America faring, under a low-fat diet?

Here’s a few facts from a 2004 report on chronic diseases, published by John Hopkins University:

Today, 133 million people, almost half of all Americans, live with a chronic condition. By 2020, as the population ages, the number will increase to 157 million. These people represent all segments of our society – they are of all ages, races, and economic status. Many have multiple chronic conditions, including functional limitations and disabilities. Data show that in the general population, people with five or more chronic conditions have an average of almost 15 physician visits and fill over 50 prescriptions in a year. … We also know that many people with chronic conditions report receiving conflicting advice from different physicians and differing diagnoses for the same set of symptoms. Drug-to-drug interactions are common, sometimes resulting in unnecessary hospitalizations and even death.

Here’s a chart from the Center for Disease Control, showing the increase in diabetes in America:


And here’s a chart from the National Center for Health Statistics showing the startling increase in obesity:


In 1980, the U.S. government began telling us that dietary fat was bad for us, and that we ought to, therefore, eat more carbohydrates — grains, sugars, starches. And starting in 1980, our basic overall health started to show a serious decline.

How does that 10 ounce candy bar look to us now?

Read Part Three…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson spent a pleasant 18 months living in downtown Salida, during which time he did his best to understand the inhabitants and their motivations. He then escaped back to Pagosa Springs to resume his work at