America has a sugar problem. It also has a dietary tradition problem. Somewhere in the depths of the 1950s, based on flawed research and a government grappling with an epidemic of heart disease, the fat in our diets became vilified by a government panel. This stubborn notion that eating fat will make you fat has persisted for more than half a century despite the fact that there’s increasing evidence that eating sugar makes you fat and eating fat makes you skinny. Now yet another study continues to support that the vilification of fat was a medical screw up.
The concept that fat was bad came from a seriously flawed study performed by the man who gave us K-rations in WW II. Dr. Ancel Keys was a University of Minnesota physiologist with great government connections. After observing that in southern Italy there was a high concentration of very healthy and very elderly people, Dr. Keys got the idea that a Mediterranean-style diet low in animal fat reduced heart disease and that a diet high in animal fats caused heart disease. He authored a study which seemed to show that high cholesterol was strongly related to heart disease. As a result, in what turned out to be a major blunder, in 1956 representatives of the American Heart Association went on national television to educate people that a diet which included butter, lard, eggs, and beef would cause heart disease. As often happens when science and politics mix, this one study went the 50s version of “viral” and resulted in the American government recommending that it’s citizens adopt a low-fat diet in order to prevent heart disease. This blunder has likely caused countless unnecessary deaths.
Why was this a blunder? The Keys study was a great example of what’s called selection bias. Keys selected only 6 of the 21 countries for which he had data, making it look like there was a strong correlation between eating saturated fats and heart disease. In fact, if you included all the data, the association was very tenuous to non-existent. Hence a scientist with government connections took us all on a wild goose chase of countless “Low Fat” products and educated a generation of nutritionists on a sure fire way to make us all very fat and increase our heart disease risk. Why? Because as any poorly educated rancher knows, you don’t fatten a steer by feeding it lard, you fatten a steer by feeding it grain. Too bad Keys didn’t grow up on a ranch and missed this bit of common wisdom.
So after decades of fattening the American populous, thanks to brave private clinicians like Dr. Atkins, a new generation of nutrition scientists and cardiologists have been trying to right the ship. This most recent study is a great effort in that regard. The authors took about 150 people without known heart disease or diabetes and randomized them to either eat a low carb diet or a low fat diet. As you might have guessed, those on the low carb diet lost more weight for the same calories as those people on the low fat diet. In addition, their blood work for heart attack risk was better. This is one of a series of studies all pointing in the same direction…low carb beats low fat.
The upshot? Mark Twain once said, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” For the modern interpretation, I think it’s best to insert the phrase “Government Panels”…