For a half century the idea that saturated fat in foods raises cholesterol and, consequently, causes heart attacks was dogma ostensibly justifying government regulation. The attacks on dietary fat have increased in recent years due to the “war on obesity.” But a new book based on nearly ten years of research has fired a devastating salvo in defense of this designated dietary enemy. The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet by Nina Teicholz traces the origin of the fat myth from its faulty scientific beginning to its discrediting.
Teicholz notes the Inuit people in the Arctic, who got 70 – 80% of their calories from fat and ate no plants, showed no signs of cancer, diabetes, heart disease or hypertension. In another intriguing study Maasai warriors in Kenya, who ate only blood, meat and milk when they were studied in early the 1960s, had no heart disease or high cholesterol.
The alarming myth about fat was originated by Dr. Ancel Keys, for which he was even honored by being on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. That was the year he landed a position on the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association, the same year the AHA issued the first guidelines targeting saturated fats. Keys violated several scientific norms in his research, but some of these weren’t revealed until 2002 by later researchers. It turns out that from the 655 men he originally selected as a representative sample, he used just 33 from Crete and 34 from Corfu as the basis for the entire revolution of our diet. He also kept to himself for 16 years the results of a 9,000-patient coronary survey because it failed to find cutting saturated fat reduced the risk of heart disease. Though advocating limiting a diet to 7% saturated fat, Keys ate chops, roasts and steaks three time a week and lived to be 100.
While our ingestion of saturated fats has dropped 11% since the early 1970s, we eat at least 25% more carbohydrates—including 50% more grains. Teicholz explains:
Instead of meat, eggs and cheese, we’re eating more pasta, grains, fruit and starchy vegetables…The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin—a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat. Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are altogether bad news. Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease
In 1961 the AHA advised switching to vegetable oils for a “healthy heart.” Today these oils are 7% to 8% of our daily calories, compared to nearly zero in 1900. But these were found to create not only higher cancer rates but gallstones. It was also known since the 1940s that when heated, vegetable oils create oxidation products that lead to cirrhosis of the liver and early death in animal experiments. To counter these concerns, vegetable oils were hydrogenated, a process of adding hydrogen that turns the oils from liquids into solids and also retards spoilage.
Unfortunately, hydrogenation also produced trans fats, which were condemned by the FDA and many European countries for raising the levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. This led some restaurants and food manufacturers to return to using liquid oils, which had long-standing problems with oxidation. Worse, more recent research had implicated oxidation in a “sizable body of evidence…to heart disease and other illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.”
In addition to Teicholz’s work, researchers at Purdue University studied the relationship between fats and absorption of carotenoids, such as lutein, lycopene and beta-carotene. These are disease-fighting nutrients that slash the risk of cancer and heart disease, safeguard bone density, prevent macular degeneration, and soak up damaging compounds. The researchers served veggie salads topped with various types of salad dressing to participants who were then tested for absorption of carotenoids. Result: salads with the most fat—20 grams—yielded the highest absorption of these nutrients. This study was not just of saturated fats but included monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Canola oil (a monounsaturated oil) had the best absorption rates of lutein and beta-carotene, but the researchers said the type of oil “had less impact on the absorption of carotenoids than amount .”
So it’s about time for the myths about fats, particularly saturated fats, to die—and also the myths about government regulation of our foods being necessary and effective. How could the U.S. government be so wrong about such a major issue for a half century? Teicholz notes that problems with vegetable oils were known back in the 1940s; that Keys’ research had major errors; that a half-dozen large important trials from the 1970s had major methodological problems and were “unreliable at best;” and “even back then, other scientists were warning about the [Keys] diet’s potential unintended consequences.”
After the American Heart Association targeted saturated fats, the USDA apparently accepted the AHA’s recommendation without examining the validity of Keys’ research—for which he had received a massive grant from the U.S. government—or other dubious research. It also ignored skeptics’ warnings from, among others, the National Academy of Sciences.
Keys himself was likely instrumental in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approval in 1980 because of his governmental connections. Teicholz notes he had quickly developed important alliances with the National Institutes of Health, politicians on Capitol Hill, and the USDA itself. Harvard professor Mark Hegsted successfully persuaded the U.S. Senate to recommend Keys’ diet to the entire nation. In 1977 he said the question wasn’t whether Americans should change their diet, but why not? He told the Senate no risks could be identified. In a nutshell, that’s how bad science became bad federal policy for a half century.
Obviously, the American people would have been better off if the government had never gotten into this issue. And it never should have because there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that gives the federal government any authority over food. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration attempted to control agriculture with its Agricultural Adjustment Act, under the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause, but the Supreme Court struck that down. A second attempt was made under the federal power to regulate interstate commerce. In Wickard v. Filburn, a farmer had planted 23 acres of wheat although the government had allotted him only eleven. He was fined for growing the excess even though the grain was never marketed. It was consumed by livestock on his own property. There was no commerce, much less interstate commerce. Yet the Supreme Court ruled that if he had not fed the wheat to his stock, he might had bought feed, and that feed, even if locally produced, might have affected the price of other wheat in interstate commerce. Therefore, the federal government’s intervention in agriculture here was “justified” by its authority to regulate interstate commerce.
That farfetched, contorted decision was the basis for subsequent expansion of the USDA into food and nutrition programs, such as school lunches and food stamps. Furthermore, that empowerment was not limited to the USDA but extended to other federal agencies. According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal government in 2009 had six different agencies operating “about” 26 separate food and nutrition programs in the U.S.
In our next posting we shall discuss how, just as with fats, government policies on school lunches are based on bad science and have led to inferior nutrition. The nation would have been healthier without these programs, but the myth still persists that they are necessary and generally effective. Major mistakes—even those enduring for decades—are dismissed as rare or inconsequential when policies and programs are determined by good intentions rather than principles or actual results. As Milton Friedman pointed out, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” It always seems to be a winning argument—though unjustified by results—that somehow government coercion in the economy will be more effective than its absence. And if that doesn’t work, just try more of the same: bigger programs, more government-sponsored research, larger penalties for violations, etc., all in the name of “better” regulation. In truth, the solution is not a “better” government economic program but none at all. The best outcome results from people freely exercising their rights to life, liberty and property and not being forced by government to do anything. It’s where all interactions are by mutual consent to mutual benefit. That is the only economic principle appropriate for a nation of free people. It is the only system consistent with the principle of liberty. That’s why when our Founders wrote the Constitution, they did not delegate any economic authority to the federal government.