Are So Many Americans Fat Because They’re Getting Terrible Nutrition Advice From ‘The Experts’?

Are So Many Americans Fat Because They’re Getting Terrible Nutrition Advice From ‘The Experts’?

A growing body of research shows inverting the food pyramid leads to favorable weight-loss results. So why do dietary guidelines continue to prescribe techniques inimical to progress?
James V. DeLong
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of American adults, both men and women, are “obese,” as defined by body mass indices, and millions more are somewhat overweight. Call them the “weight-challenged.” Children are in better shape, but obesity rates rise steadily with age.

This level of national obesity is new. In 1960, rates were about 10 percent for men and 15 percent for women. They drifted up a little for the next few years, then in the late 1970s inflected upward in a steady rise to their current levels. No reason exists for concluding the trend has reached any limit.

It would be safe to bet that no one wants to be fat. It would be almost as safe to bet that almost every one of the weight-challenged has tried to do something about it, often repeatedly, and that many have succeeded, for a time, only to have the pounds return like some unkillable horror movie monster. Study after study has found that vanishingly few dieters are able to maintain a weight loss for long.

The conventional explanation for obesity is that someone takes in more caloric energy than he or she expends, the solution is to eat less and move more, and that one should avoid eating fat. When this fails, the obese are subject to contempt for their “lack of willpower,” and a miasma of shame permeates the thousands of articles, websites, and products devoted to weight loss.

Despite the never-ending tales of failure and frustration, the “Dietary Establishment” (that is, the “Deep State, Food and Agriculture Division,” in alliance with major food-producing firms and grant-hungry academicians) persists in the view that anyone who is weight-challenged just needs one more turn of the ratchets of willpower, exercise, and low-fat food. So what caused this national epidemic of obesity?

How Dietary Guidelines and the Food Pyramid Came To Be

The most persuasive answer is that in the late 1970s, the U.S. government, acting under pressure from such senators as former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, launched a nutrition campaign that resulted in the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and, a decade later, the “Food Pyramid.” Bread, cereal, rice, and pasta were the base of the pyramid. Then in order upward were vegetables; fruits; milk, yogurt, and cheese; meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts; with fats, oils, and sweets in the small apex.

The guidelines are reviewed periodically, but the latest version (2015) continues the anti-fat, anti-meat, pro-carbohydrate basic philosophy. An even more recent embodiment is the 2019 EAT-Lancet Diet, which melds nutritional concerns with climate change alarmism to push the world even further in the direction of plant-based, low-fat, minimal-meat eating.

Because the weight-challenged are so upset with their condition and so determined to find an antidote, the guidelines have tremendously affected individual food choices, product formulation, and institutional food services. Fat has been extracted from food products and carbohydrates substituted. Furthermore, the fats are in the form of heavily processed vegetable oils rather than animal fats, due to concern about cardiac effects of red meat. Fruit is also highly recommended, even though it contains sucrose, a form of sugar that presents particular metabolic problems for the human body.

In the run-up to the guidelines, a few researchers questioned the underlying science. Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, asked McGovern in 1977, “What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?”

But the skeptics were drowned out and left stranded without research money or institutional support, and clinicians who tried a different approach, such as Dr. Robert Atkins, were traduced viciously. A huge body of respectable clinical observations that contradicted the guidelines — see, for example, “Treating Overweight Patients” from a premier medical journal in 1957 — went down the memory hole. Also unnoticed was the similarity between the guidelines and the recommendations in a 1930 Oregon pamphlet on “Fattening Pigs for Market.”

Growing Skepticism of the Food Pyramid

The failure of the guidelines to improve public health was not bad news for everyone. The more the weight-challenged fail, the higher the rates of Type II diabetes, which is accompanied by a rise in blood sugar and consequent insulin prescriptions, and the more the money that can be made from substituting cheap vegetable oils for natural fats, from weight loss programs, and from drastic surgical remedies. Good times for Big Farm, Big Pharma, Big Medicine, and assorted other major players.

Under the radar, however, skepticism has persisted, partly because the temporal connection between the guidelines and the upward jump in obesity is hard to miss, and partly because the Dietary Establishment does not actually explain anything.

Given the strong motivations for people to lose weight, why do so few succeed and maintain their loss? Was there a sudden loss of collective willpower after 1978? The human body is a wonderful thing, designed (or evolved — take your pick) to perform incredible feats of feedback and self-regulation, so why did so many bodies go so haywire so suddenly, and why has this persisted?

In 2001, investigative journalist Gary Taubes published “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat” in the peer-reviewed and prestigious journal Science. The article, and his subsequent book “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” argued that the food pyramid was almost totally wrong.

Taubes cited both solid metabolic research, which was being ignored, and extensive medical history, which had been amnesia-ized, to the effect that overconsumption of carbohydrates eventually leads to insulin resistance, which skews appetite regulators and turns off the ability to burn fat. The eventual result is a cascade in which the body is taking in excessive amounts of food and storing it as fat, but cannot access the fat for energy. The lack of available energy then reduces metabolic rates, which makes losing weight still more difficult. The solution is to cut carbs to decrease insulin, and add fat.

An Anti-Dietary Establishment Rebellion

Taubes, like other anti-establishment skeptics, was attacked as a loon, but Science was hard to ignore, his research was meticulous, the timing was right, and his work broke through the wall of obfuscation. Nina Teicholz, another intrepid journalist, debunked the connections between natural fats and heart disease in “The Big Fat Surprise” (2015) and reinforced Taube’s conclusions.

A rebellion against the Dietary Establishment took hold, with a growing army of reporters, researchers, and clinicians using the Internet to communicate around the old gatekeepers. The movement  is growing rapidly, with numerous conferences, countless videos, and a stream of pooled results, both clinical and experimental.

The rebels agree with the conventional wisdom on one crucial point: The refined-sugary fast foods that permeate the current American diet are terrible. Otherwise they conclude weight loss can be achieved by inverting the food pyramid, creating a diet of 70 percent healthy fats (not vegetable oil or saturated fats), 25 percent protein, and 5 percent or less carbohydrates, an approach abbreviated as “low-carb” or “ketogenic,” a term based on the fact that burning fat produces substances called “ketones.” Red meat is favored, the fattier the better.

The rebellion is reinforced by numerous clinicians who struggled with personal weight issues as well as with frustration over an inability to help patients. For example, “Dr. Tro” is one of many clinicians who came to the low-carb approach via personal desperation. He likes to start a lecture to an audience of medical professionals by challenging them to help a morbidly obese 32-year-old medical resident who has repeatedly tried and failed to lose weight.

At the end of the session, after the audience members have drawn a blank on producing useful advice based on the conventional approach, Tro reveals the resident is himself, and that he lost 150 pounds via the low-carb approach. To reach this end, he “read over 1000+ papers, eventually over 300+ books, and it’s right there under all the bias hiding in plain sight.”

The biochemistry is complicated and well beyond the scope of this article. Due to the miracle of the Internet, information is readily available and accessible. Go to YouTube and search for, to name only a few, Ben Bikman, Ivor Cummins, Georgia Ede, Gary Fettke, Jason Fung, Tro Kalayjian, Brian Lenzkes, David Ludwig, Ted Naiman, Stephen Phinney, Gary Taubes, Nina Teicholz, Jeff Volek, Eric Westman. For drive-time podcasts, check out LowCarbMD.com.

The Dietary Establishment Has More Than One Agenda

Not surprisingly, the Dietary Establishment is pushing back. In 2015, an article by Teicholz in the British Medical Journal criticized the scientific report behind the updated guidelines. Among her points: The report said its authors could find only limited evidence that supported the validity of the low-carb approach, a conclusion that could be reached, noted Teicholz, only by ignoring a body of evidence that “included nine pilot studies, 11 case studies, 19 observational studies, and at least 74 randomised controlled trials, 32 of which lasted six months or longer.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a leftist group, enlisted 180 nutrition experts to demand a retraction. The BMJ stood firm because most of the supposed errors were either nonexistent or trivial, but of course the PR objective of undermining Teicholz was achieved. The most recent Dietary Establishment counter-offensive is the EAT-Lancet diet, which mushes nutritional health considerations with its view of environmental sustainability to push for vegetarianism.

Teicholz has also critiqued this report, noting that it is mostly directed at attacking meat consumption for the sake of environmentalism, and that the recommendations are nutritionally deficient. Nutritional psychiatrist Georgia Ede reached similar conclusions, adding, “The EAT-Lancet report has the feel of a royal decree, operating under the guise of good intentions, seeking to impose its benevolent will on all subjects of planet Earth.”

The moving force behind EAT-Lancet is a vegan Norwegian billionaire, but it is also a darling of the corporate world. Among its sponsors are 20 Big Food companies, 7 Big Pharma, and 14 Big Chemical. All of these have their own interests, which do not necessarily include our health. As Teicholz says about Big Food:

The vast majority of packaged foods sold on the inner aisles of supermarkets — cookies, crackers, chips (crisps), candy, cereals — are made up of the same basic ingredients: soy, corn, grains, sugars, and salt. This is vegan. These companies would presumably like nothing more than to put a big green V on their packages.

Food’s Battle Between the Establishment and Reformers

These basic ingredients are anathema to the low-carb movement, so the Dietary Establishment can count on serious financial support from the gored oxen of industry. Combined with the financial backing and crusading zeal of the climate warriors and vegans, this is a formidable force. A recent study questioning the health case against red meat provoked immediate outraged attacks.

The establishment can also point to the reality that some people with healthy metabolisms and no weight problem can do okay on the conventional diet (as long as they avoid the junk), or on the popular Mediterranean Diet, so the recommendations for diet revision are not applicable to all, and that maintaining weight and losing it are different propositions.

But the rebels have powerful weapons too. They have convincing research, coherent biochemical theory, and good clinical outcomes. The conventional approach can claim none of these. And even if the conventional diet is adequate for the healthy, that is unfortunately a minority and decreasing segment of the population.

In addition, the reformers have the rage of the weight-challenged. Obesity is no fun. Women, especially, suffer greatly from the shaming and the guilt. In one comment now circulating on the Internet:

I have discovered a great many things in the past two-and-a-half years, but first and foremost: I am not broken. Like so many, I have been the victim of a system of government failures, doctors, academics, dietitians and industries that are at best uninformed, woefully lazy or living in cognitive dissonance and at worst, horribly corrupt mechanisms for preying on the desperate.

What else am I? ANGRY. Who could blame me? If just one of those ‘experts’ my parents had dragged me to had done their homework, gone to the literature, not called Atkins a kook, I might not have been tortured for 40+ years. I might have had the life I was meant to. FURIOUS doesn’t begin to describe it.

Now they are learning that purported experts are not experts, special interest capture of government is rampant, and most of the advice they received was given in ignorance of readily available information and history.

James V. DeLong is retired administrative lawyer, government employee, and foundation fellow. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
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