Put away the tinfoil hats–but, still, WTF?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  Really. But as I wade through the thicket of science studies and rhetoric of science readings I have on my desk, I am more and more impressed with the power of paradigmatic thinking to distort how scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated.

Daisy Zamora and company have once again climbed in their wayback machine to reanalyze data from the Minnesota Coronary Survey, which began in 1968.  The vegetable oil intervention reduced saturated fat intake by about half and cholesterol consumption by about two-thirds, while nearly tripling the intake of polyunsaturated fat. Surprise, surprise–they found that although the vegetable oil intervention reduced cholesterol levels, the intervention also led to more heart attacks and increased risk of death. [The press release on the study is here; the study itself is here.]

Let me just add that the original study outcomes–which did not support the diet-heart hypothesis even then–were not published until many years after the study ended, in fact, after its primary investigator retired.

So, we’ve seen something like this with a red-meat-causes-cancer publication, a low-carb-more-calories-more-weight-loss one, and one of Zamora’s earlier studies, which she had to move mountains to get published.

Zamora and her team’s previous trip in the wayback machine turned up some interesting findings then too, which suggested that vegetable oils, far from being the “healthy” alternative to butter, might actually be contributing to increased risk of death from heart disease.

Zamora and her co-investigators politely refer to these sort of anomalies as “incomplete publication,” as in:

“… incomplete publication of important data has
contributed to the overestimation of benefits – and the underestimation of potential risks – of replacing
saturated fat with vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid.”

All I want to say, before going back and burying my head once again in my books, is that

1) Daisy Zamora and Christopher Ramsden are rockstars, and

2) “incomplete publication” of results from diet-heart trials is part of the reason that the folks at the USDA and DHHS have published guidelines where “oils” get to have their own category.

They aren’t trying to kill us on purpose.  Really.


Update:  You know you’ve increased the amount of sunshine in the world when your work gets Walter Willett to offer up yet another snotty comment (see here for previous peevishness) about any research that doesn’t align with his: “Walter Willett, the chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, called the research ‘irrelevant to current dietary recommendations’ that emphasize replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat.”

He’s right of course. Any science that doesn’t uphold the orthodoxy really is irrelevant to current dietary recommendations.

12 thoughts on “Put away the tinfoil hats–but, still, WTF?

  1. Authoritarian followers are only interested in conclusions not the evidence. Given cultural biases against our past love of fatty foods, and the divide and conquer nature of culture wars the environment is ripe for bias and manipulation. Willful ignorance is shameless within the interpretation nutritional science.

    1. Interesting. This meshes rather neatly with the previous comment. In other words, the focus is the package (of food, of nutrition knowledge)–which is what consumers “buy”–not the content or the production practices. I sense a journal article in the making …

  2. They not trying to kill you. But they may be trying to get you to buy products that the USDA wishes to sell on behalf of producer interests that, like Jack Horner, have their thumb in the pie. Furthermore, whether or not these products do, in fact, kill you may be a matter of irrelevance so far as “they” are concerned.

    Conspiracies in the “conspiracy theory” sense don’t occur. Manipulation of various kinds – doubtless usually on an ad hoc and opportunistic basis (not as a complex and deep-laid plan) – does occur.

    The late Mary Enig was told by people working for the vegetable oil industry, “We control the journals.” I bet that was said with a smirk.

    There is a very good talk by Dr. Jay Wortman entitled something like “How the Medical Herd is Led”. Jimmy Moore has put a recording of the lecture online. Dr. Jay certainly has quite detailed information on how campaigns of deliberate misinformation – disinformation, if you like – have been carried out.

    It’s not the only factor in public health. And, of course, the further down the scale someone is the less they know about it and the more they simply retell what they’ve been told in all honesty. But corruption is a fact all right.

    1. From a cultural studies perspective, it’s less about corruption per se (with its invocation of Watergate & all the following “-gates”), but that government and industry (food and health both) having a common goal, which is, as you said, shopping.

      Buying food, medical care, exercise equipment, diet plans–not to mention the clicks on the sites of our new “healthy lifestyle” gurus–it all keeps the engines of commerce a-chugging. So far, there’s little incentive for any of these institutions to change; the only incentive for change is at the individual level, which is what we are seeing (and hence, the “healthy lifestyle” gurus).

  3. Bureaucrats are not paid to think, and it doesn’t take any longer for an unexercised mind than an unexercised muscle to atrophy. They’re not trying to kill us. Their sole purpose upon arriving at work is to find something to do until the clock tells them it’s time to get the hell out of there.

    1. And by “bureaucrats” do you mean the scientists or the policymakers? I actually do think that the bureaucratization of science (a burgeoning field of study, it seems) could explain a lot of this & could explain why the authors that get some traction against the status quo come from interesting little nooks & crannies in the system.

      1. By bureaucrats I mean those who carry out policy on a day to day basis (these are vast in number). The policy makers are mainly political appointees who generally have insufficient knowledge or understanding of the field in which they operate, and little idea of the consequences of the policy they promulgate. I have great reverence for science, that is, science as a way of evaluating evidence. The scientific endeavor has been deeply compromised though, in government by regulatory capture, and in academia by the constant begging for funds from both of these entities (government/industry, which mostly are joined at the hip), since the forces of the right have systematically starved public universities of funds (I have little good to say about the left, either). Status and ego play a role as well. But you are right, and this pleases me no end, that there is still plenty of good science being done. Daisy Zamora and her team deserve a standing ovation from all of us who still remember the difference between right and wrong that we learned at our mother’s knee. It’s just that commercial interests are immensely powerful and influential in their control of the political process and the media. We’re seeing this play out with Vaxxed, and with the zika virus (which I think is the most blatant scam I’ve seen in my 67 years). Who knew that the CDC has a vast PR operation, complete with paid bloggers?
        An example of the damage bureaucrats can do is the untold harm done to family farms producing raw milk by John Sheehan of the FDA. The policy on this issue was put in place at the strong urging of Ralph Nader, whom we normally think of as an advocate for public good. Hasn’t worked out that way. But people like you, Daisy Zamora, Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, Dr. Mercola, the HFLC (or is it LCHF?) community, and many, many others are having a very big impact on human health, thanks to the internet. So I wake up each morning refreshed, and with a positive attitude. Thank you so much for what you do.

        1. You know, I used to believe everything the CDC said. Now, I believe little to nothing they say. The final straw was when they freaked out about the flu a few years ago. Now, when I go into any drug store, i get inundated with ads for getting a flu shot. And the evidence for the efficacy of flu shots is poor to bad.

          I think the problem is that when you realize that the nutritional guidelines you followed for years are physically making you sick and eating a diet that’s the exact opposite of the guidelines makes you better, you start questioning everything. Once you do that, you find that there is plenty of evidence AGAINST the prevailing wisdom (whatever that might be). And you start going to the dark side.

          1. BobM: I prefer to think of it as going toward the light. I no longer trust anything the government or media say; I generally do the opposite. My descent into utter cynicism about our political institutions began fifteen months ago with the battle against forced vaccination here in California. I knew little about the subject at the time, but thirteen books and hundreds of scientific papers and articles later, I’m horrified by what we’re doing to infants and children, and trusting adults. My nutritional journey began long ago. My mother was a Home Ec graduate (what they called nutrition and everything domestic in 1935), and an excellent cook. She fed us organ meats and soups made with bones, just like I eat now. And although she used Crisco for baking, we always had butter in the fridge, and only whole milk. But she, like all the rest of us believed Ancel Keys nonsense, and began buying lowfat milk and margarine sometime around our teenage years. I was well into adulthood before the USDA decided they should tell everyone what to eat, but I trusted them, even though I am by nature a skeptic. Then about fifteen years ago I heard Mark McAfee speak about the wonders of raw milk, and although I had drunk raw milk intermittently since the early seventies, a light bulb went on in my head, and there was no turning back. Eleven years ago I stopped eating all processed food; two years ago I stopped eating grains and legumes (except occasionally natto-yuck!), and added all the edible wild greens that appear in my garden. Haven’t been sick in that time, and feel fabulous. Personal dietary experimentation has done the trick for me. I highly recommend it.

        2. I just want to point out that Ramsden & Zamora et al. 2016 is getting all kinds of media play while the industry-sponsored Oldways consensus “summit” that Walter Willett and David Katz held back in November 2015 got exactly nothing. Unless you count Reddit threads 🙂

          Not that this will have any impact on government dietary guidance (see Willett quote above), but it is kinda interesting to see the difference in public response.

          And thanks for all the kind words. It’s a slog sometimes, so the encouraging words are always welcome.

          1. This is good news indeed. I will celebrate with a glass of wine. Lots of good news today, and I finished my taxes. US pretty easy, CA an amazingly complicated five pages (possibly the dumbest legislature in the nation).

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