Stuck at the Bottom of the Food Pyramid

Scientists who ventured to criticize the diet-heart theory were ignored, silenced, or had their conferences canceled.

According to a poll conducted in the spring of 2021, the 42 percent of American adults who reported gaining weight during the epidemic gained an average of 29 pounds. Another 10% of those polled reported a weight increase of more than 50 pounds. Among the meanwhile, a Griffith University research discovered that "[h]ypertension was the most prevalent comorbidity in COVID-19 patients, followed by obesity and diabetes." Americans were making themselves even more vulnerable to Covid-19 by barricading themselves indoors to escape the sickness. It's like 1940s Londoners turning on the neon signs right before fleeing indoors to avoid the bombardment.

But getting fatter is nothing new; we've been doing it for decades, transforming ourselves into a collection of comorbidities. In the 1950s, just 10% of Americans were fat. That figure is now 42 percent. In the previous 20 years, the extreme-obesity percentage has more than quadrupled to 9.2 percent, virtually matching the total obesity rate in the 1950s. Something has gone horribly wrong, and we appear to have missed it.

You may read headlines or television stories on the obesity epidemic, but why obesity has tripled in the previous several decades is rarely, if ever, explored. Did Americans of all income levels have more options in the 1950s than they have now? Is the ostensible "food desert" problem getting worse?

Nina Teicholz questioned 40 years of dieting common thinking when she published The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet in 2014. "Almost nothing that we typically think today about fats in general, and saturated fat in particular, appears to be correct upon thorough investigation," she said in the introduction. "[F]or many years, the public has been given with the illusion of a uniform scientific agreement on the problem of fat, particularly saturated fat, yet this apparent unanimity was only possible because alternative viewpoints were ignored."

Ancel Keyes, the American physiologist primarily responsible for the diet-heart hypothesis—the theory that cholesterol and saturated fat cause heart disease—was the driving force behind that scientific consensus. He had supervised an epidemiological research involving seven nations that was supposed to back up his claims. Keyes' findings arrived at a critical juncture, just as heart disease was becoming a serious issue in the late 1950s. His views extended to key actors like the American Heart Association (AHA), which had developed from obscurity to become a significant source of influence on heart-health concerns. In 1948, Procter & Gamble, a major supplier of vegetable oil, donated $1.5 million to the AHA.

Whatever becomes dominant in culture or science ultimately finds its way into politics, as is always the case. A Senate committee released Dietary Goals in 1977, advising that Americans "consume more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less high-fat meat, egg, and dairy products." The Dietary Goals report is the forerunner of the food pyramid, a graphic depiction of what comprises a healthy diet. Bread, cereal, rice, and pasta sit at the bottom of the pyramid, indicating what foods should be consumed the most. Fruits and vegetables then take up a lesser position in the pyramid. Milk, yogurt, cheese, meat, chicken, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts have much less room. Fats, oils, and sweets have the least area at the summit of the pyramid.

According to Teicholz's book, Americans' dietary habits have changed over time to more closely reflect official dietary recommendations: "Since the 1970s, we have successfully increased our fruits and vegetables by 17 percent, our grains by 29 percent, and reduced the amount of fat we eat from 43 percent to 33 percent of calories or less." Since the 1970s, our consumption of beef has decreased by at least one-third, while our consumption of chicken has more than doubled. Meanwhile, use of cooking oils, maize sweeteners, corn products, and rice has skyrocketed (by 200 to 400 percent) during the same period. Consumption of saturated fat, which is found in animal foods such as pig and beef, eggs, and full-fat dairy products, has been decreasing, while consumption of carbs has been gradually growing, particularly since the 1970s.

Historically, Americans did not consume a high-carbohydrate diet. Their diet consisted primarily of saturated fats. Heart disease was uncommon, and obesity affected only a tiny proportion of the population. This is not unique to America prior to the 1970s. Populations throughout the world that ate high-saturated-fat diets had comparable outcomes. Teicholz, for example, recounts the work of George V. Mann, a doctor and professor of biochemistry who visited the Maasai tribe in Africa in the 1960s with a Vanderbilt University study team. Mann had heard that "the [Maasai] males ate nothing but meat, blood, and milk—a diet, like the Inuits', almost completely constituted of animal fat—and that they regarded fruits and vegetables appropriate only for cows to consume." Maasai males had "50% lower blood pressure and weight than their American counterparts—and, most importantly, these statistics did not climb with age." Furthermore, it was shown that when Masai males went to metropolitan areas and adopted a contemporary diet, they developed obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a considerably greater incidence of cancer.

Since the 1960s, the food-heart theory has progressively become the official doctrine of all major diet and health-related institutes. Its dominating position was further cemented when food-industry corporations recognized their interests fit nearly perfectly with the hypothesis's dietary implications. It is, however, perplexing to observe how limited the scientific evidence for the diet-heart concept is.

The few scientists who ventured to dispute the idea were ignored, silenced, or had their conferences canceled. In 1980, Philip Handler, the skeptical president of the National Academy of Sciences, warned of a "massive nutritional experiment." We are still dealing with the fallout from the "experiment" decades later. Even today, after millions of lives have been lost or harmed, we have yet to discuss why we abandoned traditional diets in favor of a shakily supported set of beliefs and industrial food items.

The history of the diet-heart hypothesis follows a predictable trend. An idea provides a reasonable explanation and solution to a public concern. The propagators of said concept march through the institutions for a long time. After they seize power, every resistance is labeled heretical, contentious, and dangerous. The science is settled, and to criticize those in authority is to call science into doubt. Any additional proof of the idea's failure merely helps to reinforce the narrative that people in power require even more authority in order to cope with the even bigger crisis at hand.

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