Two Things That Ought To Change Everything

Two items have appeared the news lately that ought to change what most people think they know about diets and health – that is, if most people were aware of the news items.

I covered one of them in a recent post about the tipping point: several prominent organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, have finally admitted that upon further review, cholesterol and saturated fat aren’t health hazards after all. We can’t underestimate that one. Given how entrenched the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! theory was, this is akin to officials in the North Korean government announcing that upon further review, communism doesn’t actually work.

Think about just how profoundly the fear of saturated fat and cholesterol has affected us over the decades. It’s why whole milk was banned from schools and replaced with sugar-laden skim milk. It’s why when you go shopping for yogurt, almost every container is labeled nonfat or low-fat. It’s why doctors and nutritionists wanted to put everyone on a low-fat diet. It’s why Weight Watchers started peddling those ridiculous Smart Ones (one gram of fat) meals. It’s why so many restaurants feature a “heart healthy” section of low-fat foods. It’s why restaurant foods are fried in those lousy vegetable oils.  It’s why hospitals feed low-fat carbage to patients, including diabetics.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. The point is, fear of arterycloggingsaturatedfat! has underpinned millions of bad decisions over the decades by everyone from food manufacturers to frustrated dieters. Let’s cross our fingers and hope those days are finally coming to end.

Of course, we haven’t just been warned away from fatty foods over the years. Nope, we’ve been warned that all kinds of foods will kills us – red meat, to name an obvious example. And we’ve been assured that some foods will save us – whole grains, to name an obvious example. Most of those warnings and assurances have been based on observational studies. This or that is linked to such-and-such, blah-blah-blah.

I’ve been yammering on about how unreliable those studies are ever since I started blogging six years ago. It’s bad enough that researchers want to draw conclusions from mere correlations. But even the correlations are suspect, because (as I’ve pointed out several times), the data is based on food-recall surveys that simply aren’t reliable. I’ve known that for decades, because when I worked at a magazine, we all had to fill out a food-recall survey for some kind of health evaluation, and it was a joke. We just made stuff up to be done with it.

Now a paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings says the same thing. Here’s part of the abstract:

We assert that uncritical faith in the validity and value of M-BMs [memory-based dietary assessments] has wasted substantial resources and constitutes the greatest impediment to scientific progress in obesity and nutrition research. Herein, we present evidence that M-BMs are fundamentally and fatally flawed owing to well-established scientific facts and analytic truths. First, the assumption that human memory can provide accurate or precise reproductions of past ingestive behavior is indisputably false. Second, M-BMs require participants to submit to protocols that mimic procedures known to induce false recall. Third, the subjective (ie, not publicly accessible) mental phenomena (ie, memories) from which M-BM data are derived cannot be independently observed, quantified, or falsified; as such, these data are pseudoscientific and inadmissible in scientific research.

Pow. Zing. Whamo. The researchers are calling B.S. on M-BMs. But wait, it gets better: they’re also calling B.S. on perhaps the most influential organization to make use of (ahem) “studies” based M-BMs. Here’s how an article in Reason Magazine online describes what the researchers have to say:

A new article by University of Alabama-Birmingham researcher Edward Archer and colleagues Gregory Pavela and Carl Lavie, published this week in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, argues that the conclusions drawn by the federal government’s controversial Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) rest on fatally flawed assumptions about unusable data. Consequently, the authors conclude that the DGAC’s work—and the research used to support that work—is so off base as to be scientifically useless.

Pow. Zing. Whamo. Take that, USDA.

The Reason article includes an interview with researcher Edward Archer. Here’s some of what he had to say:

“My coauthors and I wrote this article because for over 50 years, government-funded researchers have been presenting anecdotal evidence as science. Given that these data constitute a majority of the evidence base for the federal nutrition guidelines, we think the greatest problem in nutrition and obesity research is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge created by pseudoscientific methods.”

“My previous work demonstrated that 60-80 percent of the dietary data from the NHANES is physiologically implausible. That is a scientific way of saying that people could not survive on the amount of foods and beverages they report.”

“It defies scientific and common sense to think that anyone can accurately remember and will honestly report the exact amount and specific type of foods and beverages they consumed yesterday, much less last week or last year.”

“The confluence of self-interest, institutional inertia, and scientific incompetence has led us to where we are today. The federal government has massively increased spending on nutrition and obesity research over the past few decades, and now spends over $2 billion of taxpayer’s money per year. Unfortunately, the people that control that funding are the same researchers that use these anecdotal methods, train the next generation of researchers, and control the publication of scientific papers. The same researchers are getting funded to do the same research year after year after year. This inertia and self-interest are exacerbated by the exorbitant amount of grant funding established researchers receive. As with many things in life, follow the money.”

Follow the money … I should use that line someday.

“The government funded researchers control the field by funding only those researchers that use the same flawed methods; they stifle progress by rejecting contradictory evidence, and immediately impugn the integrity and competence of researcher who disagree.”

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that government-funded researchers stifle research and reject contradictory evidence. But let’s set all that aside and focus on the main point: food-recall surveys are a complete joke. I don’t care how much fancy-pants statistical analysis you perform, if the data going in is garbage, then garbage is what comes out the other end.

So once again, think about how many This Food Linked To That Disease articles you’ve seen in the media over the decades. You’ve probably had well-meaning friends and family members shove them in your face while you’re busy trying to dunk a piece of bacon in an egg yolk. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me they don’t eat red meat because they had a near-relative die of colon cancer, and well, you know, red meat is linked to colon cancer. It’s been in the news and everything.

Saturated fat and cholesterol aren’t health hazards, and pretty much every This Food Linked To That study ever published is a joke.

Those two things ought to change everything.


44 thoughts on “Two Things That Ought To Change Everything

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I think it has to happen if the nutritionists don’t want their clients laughing at them.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Win some, lose some. First we end the war on fat. Then we deal with the “whole grains are good for you” nonsense.

      1. Joe

        Nobody eats whole grains anyway. How many people are filling their plate with oatmeal and barley? What we call whole grains is sludge, processed to the point where it is so easy to digest that any the body can’t handle it responsibly anymore. At least with real whole grains, the body has to do some work to digest it and the resulting hormonal changes aren’t nearly as devestating.

  1. Tom Welsh

    Annoying things I noticed today:

    1. A prominent article in a major British daily newspaper, explaining that now saturated fat, meat and eggs are good for you and refined carbs and sugar are bad for you. (So far so good). BUT I nearly screamed with rage when I came to the next bit, where the journalist wrote that these “discoveries” were a result of “recent progress” in dietary science. Wow. Whereas in fact, every single one of those facts was common knowledge among ordinary lay people between the world wars. My mother knew that sweets, potatoes and bread made you fat, and she made damn sure that we all had meat or eggs at least twice a day.

    2. Looking for some decent vanilla ice cream (an unusual treat) for our week-late celebration of the 4th of July. (Living in Britain, the exact date doesn’t matter so much as getting the family together). My first pick, “Cornish clotted cream ice cream” listed the ingredients as about 80% “milk”, then sugar, then about 5% clotted cream. Great. Most other products were even worse. Finally I settled for MacKay’s Scottish vanilla, only about 60% milk with a tad more cream. In passing, I noticed a “Be Good To Yourself” section, featuring ice creams with LESS FAT (hence more sugar). Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I expect we’ll see mixed messages for a long time. The scientific community has (ahem) “discovered” that saturated fat isn’t bad for us after all, but most people have been conditioned for years to fear the stuff.

    2. robert

      Finding decent ice-cream is really hard work these days. Even the really expensive “premium” brands mostly contain skim milk, various vegetable fats and maybe some dairy cream (single digit percentage).

      Some of the cheaper brands I examined had a total fat content of about 5% and lots of various thickeners and syrups. Sadly this is still allowed to be called ice-cream, instead of imitation ice-cream.

      The “best” one I found came with 42% dairy cream. It is palatable but far away from what I remember having eaten decades ago.

      In one market, one that stood out by selling only fake imitation ice-cream I asked one employee when they would have the good stuff in stock again. Result: an extremely puzzled women, probably questioning herself from which mental institution I had eloped.

      The sad thing is that the younger folk don’t even know what real ice cream tastes like. They are used to the overly-sweet chemical shit-storm, a concoction that is only creamy due to lots of tiny air-bubbles mixed in. A one-liter container of your typical ice-cream weighs at best about 550g, nothing but fluffed up BS.

  2. Alison

    I just wanted to say that I have fallen victim to the whole, low fat is better for you epidemic. My weight has always been an issue since I was a child. I was able to slim down for my wedding 8 years ago but since then it has gotten out of control & ballooned up. I got very depressed…even the recent clothes I had purchased were getting tight. I tried everything. Counting calories, trying the mostly fruit or vegetable diet. None of them worked because I was always hungry. I couldn’t control my hunger & at night would binge eat. Finally I decided enough was enough. I watched your movie several times & have been reading up on your blog. It’s been about 3 weeks now since I have eliminated almost all carbs, I’ve added fat, protein & fiber to my diet & I can finally say for once in my life I’m not HUNGRY!!! It’s amazing! I’m not using a scale because when I don’t see progress right away I get dissuaded…but all of my clothes are getting looser & I feel wonderful. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us & I hope you continue to do so. Can’t wait to share with you my before & after photo when I get to a healthy weight.

  3. Bret

    I hear/read numerous podcasters/bloggers in the ancestral health community who blame all the frankenfood propaganda on industry, but it’s obvious the government funded research is what screwed everything up. That took away the natural competition of ideas and centralized the decision making in the hands of The Anointed. I can’t think of a dumber idea.

    Problem is, I don’t have faith that enough people understand this to demand a change. Folks seem to think Government = Santa Claus, the adult version.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Unfortunately, lots of people believe in the simple notion that business = bad, government = good.

      1. Rimas Janusonis

        Unfortunately, I don’t think either one (business or government) are good. Food industry introduced vegetable & seed oils (like crystalized cottonseed oil) into the food supply at the turn of the century which started this country’s decline in health…

        1. Walter Bushell

          And business has basically bought the government.

          Not to mention people who owe their jobs to government contract to build weapons the military doesn’t want or people who vote for politicians because they keep inutile military bases open etcetera.

          1. Tom Naughton Post author

            The bigger and more powerful the government, the more likely it will be bought. Nobody bribes anyone who doesn’t have the power to rig the game.

  4. Firebird

    I met Dr. Greg Ellis back in 2001. He was writing an extraordinary book at the time called “Ultimate Diet Secrets”. To me it is the definitive book on low carb dieting because it gets into the science of food. He is the only I have ever heard discuss “metabolic adaptation”…the body slows down the metabolism based on the amount of calories consumed, so you CAN get fat eating 1,000 calories per day.

    Anyway, he had a lot clients come to him, including current KC Chiefs head coach Andy Reid (he was still with the Eagles at that time) and the Doctor’s head bang on desk moments always came from his client’s food logs…NEVER accurate. One woman in particular was this rather obese woman, a librarian at South Carolina. She’d swear up and down that she was only eating 1500 calories per day and her carbs were around 60 gms. After he crunched the numbers…the calories were always more than she reported and her carbs were much higher.

    Needless to say, she got mad and dropped him as her doctor.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      And those are numbers from people trying to keep a daily log. Imagine just how bad the data is when people are asked to estimate what they’ve eaten over the previous months or years.

  5. Wenchypoo

    Well, Nina Teicholtz said (in her book) that this whole house of cards is built on a foundation of sand…and it looks like the tide’s coming in. 🙂

  6. j

    Business only creates and sells frankenfoods (or anything else for that matter) because there is a consumer/market demand for it…So it’s not right to blame them for giving people what they want..It’s not Walmart’s fault, it’s not Mcdonald’s fault, or any industry’s fault…

    The role of gov was to protect life, property and liberty…seems the opposite is true..The only thing it’s good at is expanding and wasting money…our money >:(

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Agreed. Many people mistakenly believe we buy what businesses produce. I’m sure they wish that were the case, but in fact, they produce what we’re willing to buy.

  7. Lisa

    This gives me a little bit of hope that by the time my daughter starts attending public school they will have improved these ridiculous school lunches. She’s 8 months old now. Actually, maybe I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

  8. Stephen Richardson

    The arterycloggingsaturatedfat! argument reminds me of a scene from “Idiocracy” (which is one of my favorite comedies). In the film the food pyramid has been altered so that all the foods in the pyramid have been replaced by a Gatorade-like substance called “Brawndo!” In this futuristic world everyone just knows Brawndo! is good for you because it has electrolytes. No one in the film can even explain what electrolytes are but they all keep parroting what they have heard on television: “Brawndo’s got electrolytes!” The idea has become so ingrained that Brawndo! Is good for you that it’s health benefits can no longer be questioned.

  9. Ulfric Douglas

    Colon cancer : one of my best friend died of that. His whole life diet was oven-chips and white bread sandwiches.
    As you say : go figure.
    My Dad’s brother probably died of the same : he was a 1970’s health-food fan : whole grains everywhere!
    I’m sticking with my bacon and eggs because at least it can’t be THAT bad!

    1. Walter Bushell

      And full trans fat margarine instead of butter.

      Yes, some people have suggested using bacon fat in mayonnaise, but who has extra bacon fat?? It’s like leftover whiskey in an alcoholics house.

      To get extra bacon fat I cook bacon first and fry the eggs in butter. Can’t use butter in mayonnaise.

  10. Todd

    I think it was in your movie or maybe one of your articles where you pointed out that half of all people who die of heart disease die with above average cholesterol and the other half with below average cholesterol. I think you even paused and gave that look you give if I remember right. I have to go back and watch the movie again. I apologize if I got the source wrong.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      In one study, 75% of all people hospitalized for heart attacks had cholesterol levels that would put them in the normal or low category.

      1. j

        If youre referring to the UCLA study, one doctor’s reply to the finding was “…current guidelines may not be low enough to cut heart attack risk…”

        So it sounds like another “the plan didnt work because it didnt go far enough” situation.

  11. Edward Archer, PhD, MS

    Mr. Naughton:

    Thank you for profiling my research! I most certainly appreciate your humor! If you and your readers are interested, the link below is to the original research paper. Given the importance of this issue, we (my co-authors and I) and Mayo Clinic Proceedings made arrangements so that the paper would be free to the public:

    On a related note, I have a recent paper (also in Mayo Clinic Proceedings) detailing my theory of the nongenetic evolution of obesity and type II diabetes that may interest you and your readers. Due to its potential impact, this paper is also free to the public. Link to the paper and video:

    Many thanks for your insights and good humor. Sincerely,

    Ed Archer


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