Back To The Future: A 1985 Article Praises Americans For Switching To ‘Healthier’ Diets

The movie Back to the Future came out in 1985. I had my own back to the future moment recently when I stumbled an across a New York Times Magazine article written the same year. Reading this article was a bit like going back in time and seeing the happy faces of people boarding the Titanic.  You know the disaster is coming, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

I wasn’t surprised to see the author was Jane Brody, who’s been on the arterycloggingsaturatedfat! and hearthealthywholegrains! bandwagon for decades. She was, unfortunately, one of the most influential food writers in the mass media. You can get a sense of her capacity for critical thinking by reading one of the first posts I wrote back in 2009, which was titled Jane Brody’s Cholesterol Headache.

Before we get to the 1985 article, it’s worth mentioning that yet another study exonerating saturated fat came out last week. Here are some quotes from an article in Newsweek:

Consuming dairy products such as milk and cheese could cut the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to a study that challenged the commonly held belief that dairy is harmful.

Marcia Otto, lead author of the study and assistant professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health, said in a statement: “Our findings not only support, but also significantly strengthen, the growing body of evidence which suggests that dairy fat, contrary to popular belief, does not increase risk of heart disease or overall mortality in older adults.”

One fatty acid present in dairy was actually found to potentially lower the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke, she said.

When you see that the lead author is a professor of epidemiology, you might be tempted to write this one off as another lousy observational study that depended on food questionnaires. Nope, that’s not the case.

To arrive at their conclusion, the researchers evaluated 3,000 adults 65 years old and older. At the start of the study in 1992, the levels of three different fatty acids found in dairy products were measured in their blood, and again six and 13 years later.

No surveys or guesswork involved. The investigators measured the actual fatty acids in their blood to determine who consumed how much dairy fat.

The team found none of the fatty acids were linked to a higher risk of dying. And one was linked to a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. In addition, people with higher levels of fatty acids, which the researchers believe may have stemmed from their consumption of dairy products, had a 42 percent lower risk of dying from stroke.

A study conducted in 2011 that also measured biomarkers for dairy fat consumption found the same thing: no relationship between dairy fat consumption and heart disease. And of course, there have been several studies since then showing no relationship between saturated fat — whether from meat, eggs or milk — and heart disease.

So with that in mind, let’s go back to the future and look at some quotes from Jane Brody’s 1985 article titled America Leans To A Healthier Diet:

JIMMY JOHNSON USED to wake up to the smell of bacon in the pan and coffee in the pot. ”And,” his wife, Laura, recalls, ”I’d save the bacon grease to fry the eggs.”

Now, Mr. Johnson says just a bit ruefully: ”The smells are gone from breakfast, but we’re all a lot better off for it.”

You can imagine what they started eating to become better off. If you have tendency to bang your head on your desk, I’d suggest donning a helmet before continuing.

Only once every two or three weeks does the Johnson family – which includes 20-year-old Todd, a college student, and 14-year-old Maclaren – sit down to a breakfast of eggs. The bacon and sausage are even rarer and the saltshaker stands unused.

At 6:30 on a typical morning in their home in Marine on St. Croix, Minn., a picturesque country town overlooking the scenic St. Croix River, the Johnsons dined on orange juice, cantaloupe, blueberries and buckwheat pancakes, fried without grease on a nonstick griddle, and sweetened with a dab of pure maple syrup and lemon yogurt.

On busier mornings, the Johnsons breakfast on juice, fresh fruit and large bowls of a whole-grain cereal, such as shredded wheat, Grape Nuts or bran flakes, garnished with a sprinkle of granola.

Mmmm, sugar and processed grains! Industrial food saves the day.

Their lean, muscular physiques attest to their longstanding devotion to the human body as a physically active machine, and their recent switch to premium dietary fuel.

Let’s see, they’re lean and muscular, but only recently made the switch from bacon and eggs to Grape Nuts, shredded wheat and other “premium fuels”?  Helloooo! McFly!

Should the elder Johnsons slip from dietary grace, the younger ones pull them up short. ”We still eat more meat than we should,” Todd complains, and at the last family barbecue, his sister, Maclaren, fresh from a stint in wilderness camp, shunned the sausages and dined instead on bread and vegetables.

I wonder how much bread young Maclaren found out there in the wilderness?

The Johnsons are part of a movement that is changing the nature of food in America. With millions of Americans getting ”into nutrition,” the nation’s food producers and purveyors are undergoing the greatest upheaval since the advent of frozen and fast foods in the 1950’s and 60’s. Everyone – from farmers, food technologists and Government regulators to supermarket managers and restaurateurs – agrees that significant changes in diet and nutrition are here to stay, and increasingly become the norm.

I don’t know about you, but this article has me feeling wildly optimistic. With food technologists and government regulators leading the charge on significant changes in diet that are here to stay, I predict we’ll be a nation of virtual supermen by – oh, I don’t know – the year 2000.

No longer relegated to long-haired ascetics dining delightedly on brown rice and sunflower seeds, healthy eating has become fashionably chic as it has moved into the mainstream, transforming the word ”nutrition” from a consumer turnoff into a potent selling force.

Yeah, I tried living on brown rice and vegetables for a few years. I don’t think the term dining delightedly is how I would describe the experience.

For those who think the government’s advice was just hunky-dory and the problem is that Americans didn’t follow that advice, look at some of the statistics Ms. Brody quotes in her ain’t-it-all-so-swell article:

Perhaps the most telling change has been the declining consumption of red meats, the universal symbol of plenty and the nemesis of heart-healthy eaters. Beef took the sharpest cut, from a peak of 94.4 pounds per capita in 1976 to 78.8 pounds in 1983, and is still dropping.

Along with the drop in meat consumption, healthy changes in eating habits in the two decades ending in 1982 include a per capita decline in the consumption of eggs from 326 to 263 per year; in lard, from 7.1 to 2.4 pounds; in butter, from 7.3 to 4.5 pounds; in coffee, from 11.8 to 7.5 pounds; in whole milk, from 252.4 to 133.3 pounds, and in sugar, from 97.9 to 75.2 pounds. At the same time, Americans significantly increased their consumption of low-fat milk from 32 to 100.2 pounds; of canned apple juice, from 1.1 to 7.2 pounds; of broccoli, from 0.6 to 1.5 pounds; of chicken, from 29.8 to 52.9 pounds, and of rice, from 7.4 to 11.8 pounds. More fresh fruits, potatoes, pasta and slightly more fish than even a decade ago are also being consumed.

Red meat, eggs, lard, butter and whole milk all way down. Low-fat milk, apple juice, chicken, rice, pasta and potatoes all way up. Yessir, Americans must’ve gotten way healthier in the next few decades.

Changes are even apparent in America’s leading glossy cooking magazine, Gourmet. The emphasis in recent years has been gradually shifting from dishes based on eggs, butter and cream to those featuring grains, beans, fruits and vegetables.

The outlook for the future just keeps getting better and better. Let’s not forget to thank the people who made it happen:

THE NUTRITION movement was sparked in the late 1960’s, when a growing body of scientific evidence prompted public-health experts, starting with the American Heart Association, to launch an attack on the fat-and-cholesterol-rich American diet as a major cause of the nation’s epidemic of coronary heart disease. More recently, fat and cholesterol have been indicted in a third of the nation’s cancers as well.

The highly publicized Dietary Guidelines issued jointly in 1980 by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in effect made nutritious eating Government policy by advising America to eat less fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt, eat more starches and fiber, and be moderate in the use of alcohol. With fitness the new national passion, many would come to see for themselves the incongruity of a bacon-and-eggs breakfast after a three-mile jog.

Even in 1985, the picture wasn’t quite as rosy as Ms. Brody wanted us to believe:

WHAT EFFECT, IF any, is this new concern for nutrition having on the health of Americans? Reports from the nation’s health statisticians thus far are mixed. Deaths from cardiovascular diseases dropped 30 percent from 1972 to 1983, due at least in part to the lowering of blood cholesterol through dietary changes.

Deaths from cardiovascular diseases dropped because smoking rates began plummeting in the 1960s.

But despite diet mania and reduced per capita caloric intake, average weights are up as machines continue to make human effort superfluous.

Head. Bang. On. Desk.

Like the Johnsons, families that are eating better find the payoff in renewed energy and feelings of well-being. As Mr. Clausi of General Foods put it, ”The emphasis on nutrition is not a passing fancy. We’re into a generation of people who will continue to live on the basis of the belief that they are what they eat. Now that we’ve got their attention, we’ve got to be sure that they get the right message.”

Yup, you got our attention. Too bad the message was very, very wrong.

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35 thoughts on “Back To The Future: A 1985 Article Praises Americans For Switching To ‘Healthier’ Diets

  1. Dianne

    It would be nice if someone could search out any surviving members of the Johnson family and tell us what happened to their “lean and muscular” bodies as they followed the government’s advice through the intervening decades.

  2. Lori Miller

    On a breakfast of fruit, yogurt, cereal, pancakes and juice at 6:30, I’d be hungry enough to eat the carpet by 9. It’s “a breakfast of sugar,” as Mary Dan Eades put it.

      1. Walter

        You didn’t have the full syndrome. I was intermediate between Lori Miller and you. I lasted until about 10,

        I was the fat kid in my class. I would add sugar to the presugared serial killers.

        These daze many people’s diet is dessert.

  3. Tom Welsh

    Ms Brody likes the word “dining”, but she seems to think it is a general synonym for “eating”. E.g.

    “At 6:30 on a typical morning in their home in Marine on St. Croix, Minn., a picturesque country town overlooking the scenic St. Croix River, the Johnsons dined…”

    If they dined at 0630, when did they break their fast – midnight? 2100?

  4. Tom Welsh

    “We’re into a generation of people who will continue to live on the basis of the belief that they are what they eat”.

    Yup, the new generation of supermen and superwomen whose bodies are made of solid carbohydrate. None of that yucky protein or fat.

    Come to think of it, since normal people’s brains are almost 100% fat, that helps to explain Ms Brody’s poor mastery of vocabulary, nutrition, logic and everything else. Apparently brains made of flour and sugar don’t work as well as the conventional type.

  5. Desmond

    “I wonder how much bread young Maclaren found out there in the wilderness?”

    No much, unless she had a time machine and went back to the Sinai during Exodus. Of course, manna was only half the diet… the children of Israel dined on quail in the evening.

  6. The Older Brother

    Think you overlooked the smoking gun:

    At the same time, Americans significantly increased their consumption of … broccoli, from 0.6 to 1.5 pounds;

    George Bush was right all along.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Given that broccoli growers sent thousands of pounds of the stuff to the White House in protest, he should have said he doesn’t like scallops.

  7. The Older Brother

    “Beef took the sharpest cut, from a peak of 94.4 pounds per capita in 1976 to 78.8 pounds in 1983, and is still dropping”

    About 55 lbs today. I suspect that will be turning around over the next few years.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I suspect that too. Meanwhile, the UN and other groups are telling us beef is bad for the planet. This could interesting.

      1. Tom Welsh

        Ever read “Farmageddon”? You should, although it will nauseate you.

        And those people say that beef is “bad for the planet”! What a compound piece of nonsense. The planet will survive pretty well unless the Sun goes nova, or it gets hit by another planet. The Earth is an oblate spheroid of rock and nickel-iron with a mass of 5.97237×10^24 kg (which I think is about 6,000 trillion trillion tons), and it can pretty much take care of itself.

        The biosphere is a lot more fragile, of course, and the species homo insipiens (sorry, “sapiens”) is very fragile indeed. So when the bien-pensants talk about “harming” or “destroying” or “saving” the planet, what they really mean is us.

        But of course beef is a very natural food, from a very natural and inoffensive life form. When millions of buffalo grazed the Great Plains, did that threaten the planet or even the biosphere? Of course not – North America’s ecology was far sounder and more stable then than now.

        Any fool like me can plainly see that farming should be done along natural and sustainable lines, which is exactly the opposite of what is being done in “civilized” countries today. There is a single reason, which is the single-minded (not to say blinkered) pursuit of money – unconditionally and with no concern for the harm done to the environment, the livestock or the consumers.

        Why not leave grassland as grassland and raise cattle on it? Why not leave forest as forest and orchards, and raise pigs and chickens in it? That would be better for everyone, except a handful of people who have got filthy rich from today’s vile, unnatural, unhealthy and ultimately disastrous industrial “farming”.

        1. Tom Welsh

          Whoops, I think the Earth’s mass is about 6 trillion trillion tons. So of course it is that much smaller and more fragile than I had been thinking.

    2. Dianne

      I’m doing my part to turn it around! Eating beef makes me feel great. Lately my favorite dinner is about a third of a pound of ground beef fried in avocado oil or coconut oil and topped with guacamole. (Living alone, I get those little guacamole minis — one covers a ground beef patty nicely.)

      1. Desmond

        Home. I don’t even know if his school serves breakfast, and we almost always pack his lunch. When he turns 16, we will offer him coffee to go with the eggs… heavy cream optional, no sugar. ? ☕

  8. Kayla

    Thinking back to how I ate through my childhood (70’s and 80’s), I’m surprised I have any muscle mass at all. Cereal for breakfast everyday, sandwiches, apple juice, and fruit for lunch, and I didn’t like the texture of meat, so I avoided most protein at supper (except for hotdogs).

  9. Walter

    I was reminded of the play and movie “The Prime of Miss. Jane Brody”.

    Jimmy Bowden beat me to it.

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