A reader named from Paolo wrote to me from Italy to recount an online debate he had with a doctor. It’s very much like my recent go-round with the nutritionist. Paolo translated the debate into English so I could enjoy the doctor’s ignorance. Here’s a transcript so you can do likewise:
Doctor (to a reader): Maureen, do not pay any attention to the articles found on websites which have not the slightest scientific foundation. Take your information from those who have no partisan interest and should not sell anything except health: public and then, not individuals who, for various reasons, are interested in selling something, sometimes just to have a reason to exist. INRAN, ISS, Ministry of Health … to name examples of Italian, or FDA or USDA for Anglophones are the references to follow. Everything else is … let’s say out of the scientific consensus.
Paolo: I see that you mention USDA and FDA as reliable sources of information on nutrition. Can you explain then why the obesity epidemic that devastated the U.S. started right after these organizations started to give official guidance on what to eat? Fault of the citizens who have not listened? Or deeply wrong directions (for example, the restriction of fat and the subsequent increased consumption of carbohydrates)?
My answer is implicit in the question, I would like to have an interpretation of the curious phenomenon.
Doctor: The obesity epidemic in the US is now experiencing is a tragic situation but it has certainly not exploded after the guidelines. Indeed, the guidelines were made just to put a stop to this. Even when Ancel Keys began the Seven Country Study Americans were concerned about the large number of cardiovascular diseases that afflicted the country, while this disease was unknown in Italy, as we were dying of hunger. Since then, the relationship between diet and a large number of diseases was clear and the recommendations are enacted. Not the opposite. It ‘s a bit like saying, since there are dentists man has more cavities. The recommendations are not deeply wrong, but if you believe that they are, please try to convince the scientific community.
Paolo: The first official guidance on what to eat came in 1977 (McGovern Commission). The famous cover of Time with the sad eggs is of ’84. Obesity has rocketed up since the ’80s, as shown here. You can’t deny that official statements have not brought the expected results (yes, you can to say that without the signs they would have gone worse, but it would be profoundly dishonest)
The famous Seven Country Studies was really about 20 countries, but Mr. Keys has chosen to ignore data that did not contribute to the demonstration of his conjecture (for example, has failed to consider the data of France and Switzerland where, despite a fat intake saturated well above the average, had an incidence of cardiovascular disease by far the lowest).
All this has led to an incredibly reckless campaign against animal fats, so that many have been consuming artificial trans fatty acids (oh my god…). It also has allowed pharmaceutical companies to make billions of dollars on anti-cholesterol drugs, which nobody has ever been able to demonstrate the effectiveness in preventing heart attacks (I know that doctors advise them to healthy people of 40 years because “who knows what can happen”).
This fat phobia led consequently people to consume more carbohydrates. A direct consequence: obesity.
In fact, carbohydrates are, unlike fat, addictive. Typically, three hours after a lunch of pasta or pizza, that unbearable stomach hole leads us to put in a sweet snack. With the fat this does not happen, and in fact I eat them at will.
Doctor: The first guidelines appeared in the 40s and 50s in “a daily food guide”. Obesity is increasing throughout the Western world and so guidelines were given to populations. Of course, if your nutritional culture is based on wikipedia, you can make big mistakes. Governments made for years anti-smoking campaigns and smoking is still increasing (he really said this!) . If there were no smoke problem recommendations would not exist.
Paolo: From wikipedia I took only a chart that seemed significant enough. As for smoking, no one questions the danger of smoking and in fact much less than before (where did you read that today smoking is increasing?)
In the case of nutrition the question is much more controversial and there are many scientists who are starting to question the “religion of cholesterol.” The problem is that questioning the sacred word of the USDA for a scientist means jeopardizing his career. He risks being excluded from the scientific community, and in fact many are convinced of the error, but avoid saying so for fear.
What can you say about the recommendations are given to American children to drink only skim milk? Do you know that this has been correlated with the epidemic of ADHD that has been fought with Ritalin and Strattera? (Strange, drug companies that make money). What a shame …
Doctor: I suggest you stop taking news from “Mickey Mouse Magazine” and pay attention not to say things that are completely false. If you are not a scientist, please just ask questions of me, or you are out. If you are a scientist, introduce yourself so we can discuss at the same level.
Paolo: It’s not important who I am, science is done with the facts and not with academic qualifications. The provocation (scientifically speaking) was clear from my first message, which I did not think it would have been published. [NOTE: I know I’m missing something in translation in that last one– Tom]
Personally I am quite convinced of my opinions and I didn’t write to you because I wanted a confirmation, but because they I’m always ready to change my mind when I find some opposite evidence.
Unfortunately, I have to say that your contribution was not satisfying, as you carefully avoid commenting on the facts that I suggested and preferred to ridicule my sources (wikipedia from which, I remember, I extracted only a graph).
One last question: The American Diabetes Association recommends people with diabetes to maintain carbohydrate intake at 50%. What do you think about it?
Doctor: It’s very important who you are. It’s not easy to make science, nor to discuss about it. So you need to study. If you can produce any document that proves that USDA and FDA are wrong, I will be happy to read it. But I think it’s difficult, as USDA and FDA positions come from deep analysis of documentation provided by the scientific literature. What you say are personal opinions not approved by the scientific community. It’s good to give carbohydrates to diabetics, cause it’s the best way to prevent CHD, cancer, and metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
At this point, Paolo had an “Oh my god!” moment and chose not to continue. How do you say “banging my head against my desk” in Italian?