Part of the problem with convincing people to cut back on carbohydrates and eat more natural fats is what I call everyone knows knowledge. As in everyone knows whole grains are good for you. Everyone knows saturated fat and cholesterol will clog your arteries and kill you. Just try convincing someone who isn’t a critical thinker that what everyone knows can be flat-out wrong.
Everyone knows knowledge permeates the culture. I enjoy watching old reruns of Seinfeld, and while they still crack me up, they include a lot of everyone knows ideas about health and nutrition. I recently watched the episode in which Jerry is trying to get healthier by eating veggie sandwiches and salads. Elaine’s cousin cooks dinner for him and asks how he likes his pork chops, to which Jerry replies, “I like mine with an angioplasty.” In another episode, Jerry and his friends gain weight eating frozen yogurt that was advertised as fat-free, but turned out to contain fat. (As if sugary fat-free foods won’t do the trick.) And of course, in countless episodes, Jerry chows down on breakfast cereals. Nothing wrong with those, right? Everyone knows cereal is health food.
In the hilarious film My Cousin Vinny, a cook in a small-town diner plops lard onto a grill to begin fixing breakfast, prompting Vinny to remark something along the lines of “Are you by any chance aware of the rather large cholesterol problem in this country?” And in the very witty film Thank You For Smoking, the scheming tobacco lobbyist defends himself against a crusading senator by pointing out the senator’s state is known primarily for producing “artery-clogging” cheese.
I’m not knocking the writers of these great films and TV shows, you understand. They were simply relying on everyone knows knowledge. I did the same while writing for a small health magazine 20-some years ago …Should you switch to a low-fat diet? Of course! Everyone knows fat is bad for you.
I’m an optimist, so I may be engaging in wishful thinking here, but it seems to me that what everyone knows about diet and health is changing — slowly, perhaps, but changing. When I began my research for Fat Head, I discovered some well-researched articles claiming that the anti-fat hysteria sparked by the McGovern committee was misguided, but those articles appeared mostly on blogs and alternative-medicine sites. (The Gary Taubes article What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie? was a notable exception.)
Lately, I’ve been noticing more articles in the mainstream media knocking the standard-issue advice. Back in December, the Los Angeles Times ran an article titled A Reversal on Carbs with the sub-headline Fat was once the devil. Now more nutritionists are pointing accusingly at sugar and refined grains. Here are a few quotes:
Most people can count calories. Many have a clue about where fat lurks in their diets. However, fewer give carbohydrates much thought, or know why they should.
But a growing number of top nutritional scientists blame excessive carbohydrates — not fat — for America’s ills. They say cutting carbohydrates is the key to reversing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
“Fat is not the problem,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases.”
Outstanding. I can say it, you can say it, Jimmy Moore can say it, Dr. Eades can say it, a hundred other bloggers can say it, and the average mainstream journalist either won’t know or won’t care. But when Dr. Willett at Harvard says it, mainstream journalists pay attention. “Fat is not the problem” ends up being printed in the Los Angeles Times. Now it stands a chance of becoming everyone knows knowledge, at least among newspaper readers.
Over the weekend, readers sent me links to other articles that appeared in the popular press. An article in Consumer Reports that rated diets gave the top pick to the Jenny Craig plan because of a high level of adherence – that’s the bad news. The good news is what the article said about the Atkins diet:
The 2010 edition of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which we’ve used as the basis for the diets’ nutrition Ratings (available to subscribers), still frowns on eating 10 percent or more of calories from saturated fat from meat and dairy products and more than 35 percent from fats overall. So the Atkins diet, which is 64 percent fat calories overall and 18 percent saturated fat, ends up with only a Fair nutrition score.
But there’s more to the story. Evidence is accumulating that refined carbohydrates promote weight gain and type 2 diabetes through their effects on blood sugar and insulin. “If you have insulin resistance, your insulin may go up to 10 or 20 times normal in order to control your blood sugar after you eat sugar or carbs,” says Eric C. Westman, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Duke University who co-wrote the newest version of the Atkins diet. “But the insulin also tells your body to make and store fat. When you restrict carbs, your insulin goes down and you can burn your body fat, so you eat fewer calories and aren’t as hungry.”
Isn’t it dangerous to eat so much fat? That’s still a subject of vigorous scientific debate, but it’s clear that fat is not the all-round villain we’ve been taught it is. Several epidemiology studies have found that saturated fat doesn’t seem to increase people’s risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke.
Moreover, clinical studies have found that an Atkins or Atkins-like diet not only doesn’t increase heart-disease risk factors but also actually reduces them as much as or more than low-fat, higher-carb diets that produce equivalent weight loss.
So there’s an interesting admission for you: Consumer Reports uses the USDA Guidelines as the basis for its nutrition rankings, then explains that actual research doesn’t support those guidlines. Perhaps in the future, Consumer Reports can do one of its famous reliability tests on the USDA Dietary Guidelines. (“A whopping 92% of our readers report these guidelines failed within the first year.”) But this article is a good start.
Another reader informed me over the weekend that the Dallas Morning News ran an opinion piece that shredded the government’s dietary advice. I couldn’t access that article without a subscription, but found that the same article (I think) was also published in City Journal magazine:
America’s public-health officials have long been eager to issue nutrition advice ungrounded in science, and nowhere has this practice been more troubling than in the federal government’s dietary guidelines, first issued by a congressional committee in 1977 and updated every five years since 1980 by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Controversial from the outset for sweeping aside conflicting research, the guidelines have come under increasing attack for being ineffective or even harmful, possibly contributing to a national obesity problem. Unabashed, public-health advocates have pushed ahead with contested new recommendations, leading some of our foremost medical experts to ask whether government should get out of the business of telling Americans what to eat—or, at the very least, adhere to higher standards of evidence.
… The McGovern committee, in coming up with its diet plan, had to choose among very different nutritional regimes that scientists and doctors were studying as potentially beneficial to those at risk for heart disease. Settling on the unproven theory that cholesterol was behind heart disease, the committee issued its guidelines in 1977, urging Americans to reduce the fat that they consumed from 40 percent to 30 percent of their daily calories, principally by eating less meat and fewer dairy products.
… The latest nutritional thinking has indeed zeroed in on carbohydrates as a likely cause of heart disease. Easily digestible carbs, in particular—starches like potatoes, white rice, and bread from processed flour, as well as refined sugar—make it hard to burn fat and also increase inflammations that can cause heart attacks, several studies have concluded. A 2007 Dutch study of 15,000 women found that those who ate foods with the highest “glycemic load,” a measure of portion sizes and of how easily digestible a food is, had the greatest risk of heart disease.
Looking at such evidence, several top medical scientists have concluded that the government’s carb-heavy guidelines may actually have harmed public health …“In general,” the doctors wrote, “weak evidentiary support has been accepted as adequate justification for [the U.S. dietary] guidelines. This low standard of evidence is based on several misconceptions, most importantly the belief that such guidelines could not cause harm.” But, they concluded, “it now seems that the U.S. dietary guidelines recommending fat restriction might have worsened rather than helped the obesity epidemic and, by so doing, possibly laid the groundwork for a future increase in CVD,” cardiovascular disease.
I certainly don’t expect the nutrition geniuses at the USDA to change their guidelines, no matter how many articles like these appear in the mainstream press. But I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to believe we’re approaching the time when everyone knows those guidelines are a load of bologna.