The myth of low-fat diets
CHICAGO — As a chubby and impressionable teen in the 1990s, desperate to lower my weight as Type 2 diabetes started afflicting my family, I was especially vulnerable to the Snackwell’s-ification of American food.
Fat was the enemy. It would not only make you overweight but ruin your heart. And the only known savior was a low-fat diet. Enter near-vegetarian meals, fat-free cream cheese, low-cal bread, baked potato chips, diet soda and, of course, fat-free desserts such as Snackwell’s cookies and Nabisco’s 100-calorie snack packs.
The well-documented “Snackwell’s Effect,” in which people overeat low-fat foods as a healthier alternative to their full-fat counterparts, led to binging on chemical junk far higher in taste bud-fulfilling sugar and salt.
It took me many years of dieting, exercise and nutrition research to understand that the substitution of far too many no-fat devil’s food cake cookies to satiate my protein-short diet was, in fact, a devil’s bargain that spiked my body’s insulin, making me no thinner or healthier.
After over a decade of having fallen into a sustainable pattern of balancing my fat and sugar intake and exercising religiously, it’s surreal watching obesity skyrocket in adults and children. Many are undoubtedly loading up on high-calorie fruit juice and pretzels or sweet cracker snacks to slake the hunger of the low-fat food they eat at mealtimes.
How in the world did we get here?
According to Nina Teicholz, author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” it was due to the power and influence of a few researchers, academics and “gurus.” They used thinly resourced studies on the effects of dietary fat restrictions in limited research populations — and plainly ignored any evidence that moderate fat intake is good for you — to create the belief that health can only be attained through a low-fat eating regime.
Teicholz, who delves into well-documented scientific research that rejects the thesis that fat causes weight gain and heart disease, and that low-fat diets prevent these twin illnesses, spares no one in her takedown of what has become the international consensus on dietary “common sense.”
It may sound like wacky conspiracy theorizing, but over the course of 10 years of research and 500 pages, Teicholz puts all the pieces together in a compelling story that illustrates how junk science and profit-seeking consumer packaged goods marketers joined forces under the banner of heart health to thoroughly confuse us about what we should eat.
There was Ancel Keys, a professor at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s, who came up with a definitive answer to why middle-age American men were dying from heart attacks, plus a simple solution: eat less fat.
Then there was President Dwight Eisenhower, who suffered a heart attack while in office and whose personal physician Paul Dudley White latched on to Keys’ theory, ignoring Eisenhower’s early-age four-pack-a-day cigarette habit.
Admittedly, it was an attractive and intuitive framing of a major public health issue with an elegant, if difficult to stick to, solution.
And who better to help the American consumer do so than the dynamic duo of the well-funded American Heart Association (AHA) and food marketers willing to create chemical compounds to substitute for natural fats in packaged foods? These manufacturers were more than happy to stuff food with cheap sugar and salt to make them still taste sort-of good while benefiting from the health halo of an AHA endorsement.
Opposing views will dismiss Teicholz’s findings, but it’s hard to argue with this observation:
“Our rush to banish animal fats from our diets has exposed us to the health risks of trans fats and oxidizing vegetable oils,” Teicholz writes. “If we had not abandoned meat and dairy, we still could be using lard, suet, tallow and butter as our principle fats for cooking and eating. These fats are stable, do not oxidize and have been consumed since the beginning of recorded human history.”
“The Big Fat Surprise” is journalism — not a diet book, or a work of advocacy. It has been hailed by eager headline writers as a pro-fat “everything-you-thought-you-knew-is-wrong!” book, but such oversimplification is a big part of how the myth of heart-decimating fat took hold in American society.
The book deserves a thoughtful reading. Teicholz challenges us to consider not only what we’re eating, but who benefits from a blind adherence to new “conventional wisdom.”
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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