This is how we understood obesity in the 1950′s. Certain foods made us fat. Those were the sugars and the starchy foods. Sweets and desserts made us fat. So did bread, cereal, and pasta.
Then there were other foods that didn’t really cause obesity. Eating broccoli and apples did not make us fat, no matter how many calories worth we ate. And this perspective on obesity served us well. There wasn’t much obesity and it was a controllable problem.
Things started to change in the 60′s and 70′s. Dietary fat began its villainization as a major contributor to heart disease. A vigorous debate ensued between the anti-fat and the anti-carbohydrate sides. The major problem was that eating a low fat diet meant that one must eat plenty of carbohydrates.
That meant that carbohydrates could not be both good for you (low fat) and bad for you (fattening) at the same time. The only way around this cognitive dissonance was to say that carbohydrates were no longer fattening. Instead, calories were fattening.
There was, of course, no evidence that this was true at all. It was merely assumed. This, of course, tends to make an ASS out of U and ME. Not just an ass, as it turns out, but an obese ass.
This debate was settled by Senator George McGovern in 1977 not by scientists , but by politicians. He decided, after a few days of meetings with journalists and scientists, that dietary fat was the villain, and that refined carbohydrates were as innocent as a nun in a convent. The nutritional sins of sugar were exonerated. Peace be with you, high fructose corn syrup.
So, what resulted was the odious Dietary Goals for the United States. Nutritional advice from a politician. We could hardly have been stupider if we tried.
Recognize, too, that this was a major break from tradition. Prior to 1977, no government agency told us what to eat. Our mothers told us what to eat and what not to eat. If we were obese, they told us to lay off the sweets and the starchy foods (bread, pasta, potatoes). And hey, guess what – usually that was enough to control the weight problem.
Now Big Brother would have specific recommendations on what to eat and not to eat. This was taught in all the public schools. Pamphlets were produced and reinforced. Mom never even had a chance to protest. Low Fat. Low in Saturated Fat.
A conscious effort was made to increase the carbohydrate content of our foods in order to decrease the percentage fat. These formerly fattening foods overnight became the healthy foods. We shouldn’t eat less bread to lose weight. We should eat more bread. Sugar? It was fine as long as you ate a low fat diet.
With non-existent scientific evidence and maniacal zeal, the fattening carbohydrate made a stunning transformation into the healthy whole grain. Was there any proof? It didn’t matter. This was now the nutritional orthodoxy. Everything else was heathen. If you didn’t toe the line, you were ridiculed.
What we got was the infamous food pyramid that we all learned about in school. Here it is in all its counterfactual glory. The base of the pyramid – those foods we should eat every day – bread, pasta, rice and potatoes.
The key message was that everything was OK as long as it was low in fat. Fat was the major problem we were told. It reached an extreme in 1995 the pamphlet “An Eating Plan for Americans: The American Heart Association Diet” proclaimed
“To control the amount and kind of fat, saturated fatty acids and dietary cholesterol you eat, choose snacks from other food groups such as…low fat cookies, low-fat crackers…unsalted pretzels, hard candy, gum drops, sugar, syrup, honey, jam, jelly, marmalade (as spreads)”
In other words – candy, which is low in fat is a healthy snack for all. Hallelujah! Let them eat cake! (as long as it is low fat – you can have sugar and flour as your heart desires). So what happened to our food consumption?
High fat items such as butter, eggs and red meat decreased in consumption and grains and sugars increased in consumption.
This is exactly what the government wanted to happen. The American diet reduced from an average of 45% fat to 35% fat. The public responded to the new dietary guidelines with great compliance.
If we look at sugar consumption, we see that there was an increase from 1820 to the 1920′s. This was the result of increased availability of sugar as sugar plantations spread throughout the Southern USA and Caribbean.
Things flattened out from 1920 to 1977 or so. That’s when we had all the sugar we needed. But Mom was still there to tell us not to eat so many sweets else we might become a little hefty.
When the dietary sins of sugar were exonerated, consumption increased again until about year 2000.
The story on grain was very similar. Consumption of grain had been slowly dropping until 1977 or so. Then we see a sharp rising in the consumption of total grain most of which is wheat until year 2000 or so.
Around the same time, as physicians counselled patients to stop smoking – smoking rates dropped from 33% to 25%. We told people to to watch their blood pressure. Hypertension (high blood pressure) dropped 40% from 1976-1996. We told people to watch their blood cholesterol. Hypercholesterolemia (high blood cholesterol) dropped 28% in that same span.
People weren’t ignoring public health warnings, as some have argued – we were listening and complying.
What was the reward for such great deference to the nutritional orthodoxy of the time?
For many health reasons, losing weight is important. It can improve your blood sugars, blood pressure and metabolic health, lowering your risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. But it’s not easy. That’s where we can help.