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Reality Check: Following the Government’s Nutritional Advice Can Make you Fat and Sick

RADIUS IMAGES/CORBIS

RADIUS IMAGES/CORBIS

For City JournalSteven Malanga writes:

Last October, embarrassing e-mails leaked from New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene disclosed that officials had stretched the limits of credible science in approving a 2009 antiobesity ad, which depicted a stream of soda pop transforming into human fat as it left the bottle. “The idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd,” a scientific advisor warned the department in one of the e-mails, a view echoed by other experts whom the city consulted. Nevertheless, Gotham’s health commissioner, Thomas Farley, saw the ad as an effective way to scare people into losing weight, whatever its scientific inaccuracies, and overruled the experts. The dustup, observed the New York Times, “underlined complaints that Dr. Farley’s more lifestyle-oriented crusadesshakedown are based on common-sense bromides that may not withstand strict scientific scrutiny.”

[Steven Malanga’s book Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer is available at Amazon]

Under Farley and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York’s health department has been notoriously aggressive in pursuing such “lifestyle-oriented” campaigns (see the sidebar below). But America’s public-health officials have long been eager to issue nutrition advice ungrounded in science, and nowhere has this practice been more troubling than in the federal government’s dietary guidelines, first issued by a congressional committee in 1977 and updated every five years since 1980 by the United States Department of

A British physician calls for an end to the war against saturated fat that began in the 1970s after saturated fat intake was linked to heart disease. Among the research cited is evidence that the saturated fat in dairy products may be protective against heart risk. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Agriculture. Controversial from the outset for sweeping aside conflicting research, the guidelines have come under increasing attack for being ineffective or even harmful, possibly contributing to a national obesity problem. Unabashed, public-health advocates have pushed ahead with contested new recommendations, leading some of our foremost medical experts to ask whether government should get out of the business of telling Americans what to eat—or, at the very least, adhere to higher standards of evidence.

Until the second half of the twentieth century, public medicine, which concerns itself with community-wide health prescriptions, largely focused on the germs that cause infectious diseases. Advances in microbiology led to the development of vaccines and antibiotics that controlled—and, in some cases, eliminated—a host of killers, including smallpox, diphtheria, and polio. These advances dramatically increased life expectancy in industrialized countries. In the United States, average life expectancy improved from 49 years at the beginning of the twentieth century to nearly 77 by the century’s end.

As the threat of communicable diseases receded, public medicine began to turn its attention to treating and preventing health problems that weren’t germ-caused, such as chronic heart disease and strokes, the death rates for which seemed to be soaring after World War II. Some observers cautioned that the apparent increase might be the result of diagnostic advances, which had improved doctors’ ability todetect heart ailments. This possibility, however, failed to deter the press and advocacy groups like the American Heart Association from declaring the arrival of a frightening epidemic.

One theory blamed the problem on the American diet, and in particular on cholesterol—both the kind that you ingest when you eat animal products and the kind that your body produces when you eat saturated fats. It wasn’t an unreasonable idea; cholesterol is, after all, one component of the plaque that clogs arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes. But isolating the true causes of coronary disease proved elusive. Multiple factors—not just diet but other personal habits, such as smoking, and genetics as well—were potential contributors. And measuring the influence of diet was especially difficult because of big variations among individuals in everything from blood composition to their response to different foods. Numerous studies on diet proved so inconclusive that in 1969, the National Institutes of Health found no hard evidence that what people ate had a significant impact on heart disease.

Nevertheless, in the 1970s, Democratic senator George McGovern’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs decided to fight the apparent epidemic by making recommendations on nutrition. “Our diets have changed radically within the past 50 years,” McGovern declared, “with great and very often harmful effects on our health.” As science writer Gary Taubes notes in Good Calories, Bad Calories, the McGovern committee, in coming up with its diet plan, had to choose among very different nutritional regimes that scientists and doctors were studying as potentially beneficial to those at risk for heart disease. Settling on the unproven theory that cholesterol was behind heart disease, the committee issued its guidelines in 1977, urging Americans to reduce the fat that they consumed from 40 percent to 30 percent of their daily calories, principally by eating less meat and fewer dairy products. The committee also advised raising carbohydrate intake to 60 percent of one’s calories and slashing one’s intake of cholesterol by a quarter.

Some of the country’s leading researchers spoke out against the guidelines and against population-wide dietary recommendations in general. Edward Ahrens, an expert in the chemistry of fatty substances at Rockefeller University, characterized the guidelines as “simplistic and a promoter of false hopes” and complained that they treated the population as “a homogenous group of [laboratory] rats while ignoring the wide variation” in individual diet and blood chemistry. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences released its own dietary suggestions, which saw “no reason for the average healthy American to restrict consumption of cholesterol, or reduce fat intake,” and just encouraged people to keep their weight within a normal range…(read more)

City Journal

Steven Malanga is the senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer

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One Comment on “Reality Check: Following the Government’s Nutritional Advice Can Make you Fat and Sick”

  1. […] Reality Check: Following the Government’s Nutritional Advice Can Make you Fat and Sick (punditfromanotherplanet.com) […]


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