May 21, 2016
Sugar, Not Fat Is the Cause of Obesity – Part 2
Some history is in order. In 1980, the US Government issued its first Dietary Guidelines without any scientific evidence, only the say-so of “experts.” The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them; food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. In 1983, the UK government issued advice that closely followed the American example.
The most prominent recommendation of both governments was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol (this was the first time that the public had been advised to eat less of something, rather than enough of everything). Consumers dutifully obeyed. We replaced steak and sausages with pasta and rice, butter with margarine and vegetable oils, eggs with muesli, and milk with low-fat milk or orange juice. Instead of becoming healthier, we grew fatter and sicker.
Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates at this source (and about two thirds of the way down the page) and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an airplane. Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. In the UK, the line is flat for decades until the mid-1980s, at which point it also turns towards the sky. Only 6% of Britons were obese in 1980. In the next 20 years that figure more than trebled. Today, two thirds of Britons are either obese or overweight, making this the fattest country in the EU. Type 2 diabetes, closely related to obesity, has risen in tandem in both countries.
At best, we can conclude that the official guidelines did not achieve their objective; at worst, they led to a decades-long health catastrophe. Naturally, then, a search for culprits has ensued. Scientists are conventionally apolitical figures, but these days, nutrition researchers write editorials and books that resemble liberal activist tracts, fizzing with righteous denunciations of “big sugar” and fast food. Nobody could have predicted, it is said, how the food manufacturers would respond to the injunction against fat – selling us low-fat yogurts bulked up with sugar, and cakes infused with liver-corroding transfats.
Nutrition scientists are angry with the press for distorting their findings, politicians for failing to heed them, and the rest of us for overeating and under-exercising. In short, everyone, business, media, politicians, consumers – is to blame. Everyone, that is, except scientists.
But, it was not impossible to foresee that the vilification of fat might be an error. Energy from food comes to us in three forms: fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Since the proportion of energy we get from protein tends to stay stable, whatever our diet, a low-fat diet effectively means a high-carbohydrate diet. The most versatile and palatable carbohydrate is sugar, which John Yudkin had already circled in red. In 1974, the UK medical journal, the Lancet, sounded a warning about the possible consequences of recommending reductions in dietary fat: “The cure should not be worse than the disease.”
I would suggest reading the rest of the long article as I can only make a mess of it and I think you would be better served reading it yourself.