This year marks the 15th anniversary of Gary Taubes’ seminal The New York Times article, exposing the fraudulent research and advice from Ancel Keys, that saturated fats clog arteries and cause heart attacks. Titled “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie,” Taubes documented the history of the health advice we’ve been dished since the 1950s, the fact that the low fat dogma was decided by the government, the low fat diet’s increasingly negative impact on the health of the population, and the backdoor deals that provided certain industries with huge profits at the expense of everyone else.
We have since discovered that much of the research demonizing saturated fat—and fat in general—was in fact funded by sugar and cereal companies looking to keep the conversation away from their commodity’s place in everyday diets. Research conducted over the last 30 or so years reveals there is no evidence the consumption of saturated fats causes heart attacks or strokes; cholesterol’s role in developing heart disease is actually much more complex than we’ve been led to believe. In fact, despite constant protests from nutritionists and government authorities, the research actually shows that low carb diets are significantly more effective than low fat diets. And yet, the government’s dietary recommendations have changed very little.
Now, health authorities have attempted to cover up the fact that they are ignoring current research in favor of dated advice. In 2015, science and nutrition journalist Nina Teicholtz penned an editorial in the British Medical Journal criticizing the USDA’s dietary guidelines for failing to reflect the current scientific literature. After a year of scathing criticism from academics and authorities demanding the article be retracted, independent reviewers stood in favor of Teicholtz and her editorial. One of the most damning paragraphs is as follows:
In conclusion, the recommended diets are supported by a minuscule quantity of rigorous evidence that only marginally supports claims that these diets can promote better health than alternatives. Furthermore, the NEL (Nutrition Evidence Library) reviews of the recommended diets discount or omit important data. There have been at a minimum, three National Institutes of Health funded trials on some 50 ,000 people showing that a diet low in fat and saturated fat is ineffective for fighting heart disease, obesity, diabetes, or cancer. Two of these trials are omitted from the NEL review. The third trial is included, but its results are ignored. This oversight is particularly striking because this trial, the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), was the largest nutrition trial in history. Nearly 49, 000 women followed a diet low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and grains for an average of seven years, at the end of which investigators found no significant advantage of this diet for weight loss, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer of any kind. Critics dismiss this trial for various reasons, including the fact that fat consumption did not differ enough significantly between the intervention and control groups, but the percentage of calories from both fat and saturated fat were more than 25% lower in the intervention group than in the control group (26.7% v 36.2% for total fat and 8.8% v 12.1% for saturated fats). The WHI findings have been confirmed by other sizable studies and are therefore hard to dismiss. When the omitted findings from these three clinical trials are factored into the review, the overwhelming preponderance of rigorous evidence does not support any of the dietary committee’s health claims for its recommended diets.
Much of the nutrition research occurring even now is still muddying the waters. For example, we hear so often that red meat is bad, but it is almost always studied alongside processed meats and the results extrapolated for both. Look at any study and the actual line is “red and processed meats.” On what planet is it reasonable to consider a piece of salami, cured with nitrates and other preservatives, in the same category as unadulterated, grass-fed steak? Two entirely different meats, considered the same in most studies. That’s not to mention the number of studies relying on self-reporting diets, which is so far from accurate as to be pointless. Trusting someone to track their eating over a period of months, without fudging to make it look more healthy—for the purpose of scientific research no less—is ludicrously inadequate and a waste of funding.
It’s little wonder then that the general population, and anyone who has done a bit of reading, has trust issues when it comes to health advice.
We’re told to listen to the recommendations of doctors and qualified health professionals, but they’ve been preaching the same advice for 50 years with only minor changes over the last decade. Even Dr. Oz, the mainstream TV darling, has been touting that saturated fat “clogs arteries” because he says that sees it during his operations. All of the research contradicts this, and it isn’t surprising considering he is a heart surgeon—not an expert on nutrition or biochemistry. Yet that doesn’t stop Oz from using his platform to overstep his expertise and give advice that doesn’t align with evidence, which his viewers will take seriously because he’s one of the foremost cardiologists in the U.S.
The media certainly has their place in our current predicament as well. When it comes to nutrition, they don’t care what data and research is reliable—they care about what’s going to give them a great headline and arouse emotion in readers.
Who could forget in late 2015, when the WHO announced bacon and other processed meats as a level-one carcinogen in the same category as cigarettes? The news immediately broke everywhere that bacon was as bad for you as cigarettes, when the reality is that 50g of bacon a day is going to increase the absolute risk of cancer by a 0.01 percent—hardly something to get worked up over. Unfortunately, the headline, “Bacon isn’t too great for you as we all suspected, so don’t eat it too often,” isn’t as good as, “Bacon is in the same category of carcinogen as cigarettes, so eating it gives you cancer!”
But let’s get back to the boogeyman of the last four decades: saturated fats. We are still recommended to steer clear of them in favor of poly and monounsaturated fats. Yet some of of the foremost cancer researchers in the world, such as Dom D’Agostino, recommend ketogenic diets—20 percent protein, 70 percent fat and 10 percent carbs. Take a look at the below picture of multiple elite powerlifter Mark Bell, who has been on a ketogenic diet while continuing to train at a high level in his sport for a number of years. Are we to believe that the fat he eats is somehow eating away at his insides, clogging his arteries, and increasing his cancer risk, when his physique is better than 99 percent of the population? Health authorities keep telling us to keep the amount of fat in our diet low (RDI for saturated fat is 20g) despite the research showing that isn’t a good idea, yet we have living proof that it works just fine.
This raises the biggest question of all: what evidence is there for any of the current recommended daily intakes of food by health authorities? For instance, we now know there is no evidence to suggest that the cholesterol in eggs relates to blood cholesterol levels, but we are still advised to only eat up to two a day. Why? And why are these recommendations always so absolute? It makes no sense that regardless of whether one is a 50kg, slender female, or a 120kg male athlete that the recommended intake is the same. Whether it’s macronutrients, micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, how is it that we have a single RDI (recommended daily intake) for the entire population? Is this really the state of nutritional science in 2017, that we can’t even distinguish between male and female, manual labour/white collar, and at least a couple of weight ranges as well? We deserve better.
The worst part is the fact that no one seems to want to admit their advice was wrong. Instead, dietitians and nutritionists now speak in a sort of code that voids any culpability for their mistake. I’ve heard nutritionists and dietitians on numerous TV shows saying things like “research is now showing us” when giving dietary advice, while disregarding the full extent of what the research actually shows. Fats are apparently okay now, but only monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Saturated fat should still be limited—for what reason is unclear. The National Heart Foundation of Australia, on their own website no less, states that they “maintain there is a clear link between saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease, despite ABC media reports questioning the vast evidence base.” So despite all credible research and meta analysis—which they admit is “vast”—showing that there is no evidence to suggest that saturated fat is linked with heart disease, the National Heart Foundation has done the equivalent of stick its head in the sand and act as though nothing has changed.
At the same time they have given their tick of approval to McDonalds.
Of course, no one in the USDA, the AHA, the AMA, or other such authority can admit they got it all wrong, can they? The backlash would be enormous—we’d have class action lawsuits and an entire body of professionals would lose their credibility instantly and completely. If that controversy over fat wasn’t bad enough, we’ve also got the continued push by authorities to have us consume less salt, despite the evidence being at best ambiguous as to its effects. The war on salt would appear to be yet another case of the health authorities giving us one size fits all recommendations without hard evidence, but based on a logical progression that if high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, and salt increases blood pressure, then reducing salt intake would reduce the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, the Cochrane review found actually found an increase in risk when following a low sodium diet such as that recommended by the American Heart Association.
There is, yet again, far more to the story. Fructose consumption increases the uptake of sodium by the kidneys, and by reducing consumption of fructose by 350ml (an average small bottle of soda or juice) blood pressure lowers. Potassium intake is also a factor, with research indicating that the ratio of potassium to sodium a more important marker than absolute level of sodium. So if you eat a diet that mostly consists of fresh, whole foods (not packaged or processed) and don’t eat fruit or drink fruit juice, the insistence that one must reduce salt intake is ludicrous. The take home message once again is that one size certainly does not fit all, and we need specialized recommendations based on our individual makeup, lifestyle, diet, and genetics instead of messages like “you must cut saturated fat to 20g and reduce sodium intake at all costs.”
Considering the above, no one in their right mind would take any kind of dietary advice provided by the authorities at face value. It’s little wonder then that so many are taking matters into their own hands. Thirty years ago, if the USDA, AHA, or AMA told you something was bad for you, you stopped eating it. You didn’t question, because they were the ones with credibility and years of study. It was simply too much trouble for the average person to find the information they needed. Thankfully with the internet, all of the information needed is now available to anyone who wants it. We no longer have to put blind trust in authority figures because we can sift through the information ourselves and ask the right questions. If anything, the glut of information shows that the public’s trust in nutrition advice given by the authorities and media was sorely misplaced.
So who are we to trust then? The list would appear to be getting smaller every day.
Now more than ever the message is clear: if you want to truly be healthy, it’s up to the individual to do their own research and come to their own conclusions. There is a mountain of information out there to go through, and you’ll need to sift through the bias of people selling you diets, fringe groups promoting their social agenda, and the media misinterpreting real research findings.
While it may sound like too much trouble, is your health really of that little importance that you’d trust it to anyone else but yourself?
Pete Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and everyday life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.