Sugar and Spite: Mark Hegsted and the Great Sugar Conspiracy

Well. This is awkward.

A big scoop blows the cover on how, back in the 1960s, some gullible Harvard researchers were funded by the Evil Sugar Industry to make sure that fat (and not sugar) took the fall as the cause of all of America’s problems, including the cancellation of Lost in Space.

One of those aforementioned oh-so-easily-corrupted scientists was none  other than Mark Hegsted, the mastermind behind the McGovern’s Dietary Goals (okay, the mastermind behind the Machiavegiann, Nick Mottern, who actually wrote the 1977 Dietary Goals¹), and, as we all know by now, this set the whole nation down the path to mainlining sugar whilst shunning perfectly good food like pork ribs.

So the scene is this:  Mark Hegsted (and his co-authors, McGandy and Stare) are sitting around their labs at Harvard, minding their own beeswax, fillin’ up test tubes, and lookin’ through microscopes.  Y’know, doin’ science.  Along comes Evil Sugar, waving big fat stacks of green under their noses.  Suddenly, Hegsted and company are payola zombies, mindlessly extolling the virtues of sucrose.

sugar-zombie

Sigh.

One of the reasons I love my life is I get to teach a class called “Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society” to a bunch of bright-eyed, smart, and exceptionally polite undergraduates at North Carolina State University.  Last week we did an activity to help them get a feel for the ways in which science is a social process.  One of the things we talked about were “interests,” including funding,  but we also discussed the fact that “follow the money” is almost always an inadequate explanation for how and what knowledge gets created in science.  My students figured out pretty quickly that scientists have multiple interests, biases, concerns, and limitations–and that these all compete for a place in the process of transforming bits of reality into the “facts” that are the outcomes of scientific knowledge production.

“Evil Sugar Corrupts Scientists” is an attention-grabbing headline, but the historical picture is a bit muddier.

Inconvenient historical moment part 1:  Let’s start with the fact that in 1965, Hegsted, McGandy, and Stare (and a nutrition instructor named Myers) published a paper entitled, “Quantitative Effects of Dietary Fat on Serum Cholesterol in Man.”²  In this article, the researchers–who used fats and oils supplied by Proctor & Gamble and milk and ice cream supplied by the Hood Milk Company–developed something that would come to be known as the Hegsted equation, which predicts the relationship between fats in the diet and serum cholesterol.  That they tested these fats and oils by incorporating them into “waffles, muffins, cakes, cookies, pie crust, biscuits, salad dressings, and spreads for bread” was beside the point; their focus of concern was fats in the diet and serum cholesterol. [Let me briefly remind you that part of the rationale behind their experiment was to contradict the conclusion stated by Ancel Keys a decade earlier, that dietary cholesterol does not have an effect on serum cholesterol.]

So, in 1967, when this same group of researchers (minus Myers) publishes a review entitled, “Dietary Fats, Carbohydrates, and Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease,” we already know which macronutrient they think is the most important contributor to heart disease, and we already know that they are more concerned about serum cholesterol than any other biomarker.  My guess is that the Evil Sugar Industry knew this as well, and that’s why this group of researchers was asked to write a review.  Most of the review consists of summarizing studies where dietary carbohydrate is held constant while the type of carbohydrate–sucrose, glucose, starch, etc.–was varied.  It’s not a big surprise to me, and it shouldn’t be to you, that they found, in most cases, sugar didn’t have a much different impact on total cholesterol than starches or other sugars. In a few cases, sugar/sucrose is found to increase triglycerides–and they duly note this.  This is Rhetoric of Science 101:  Determined critics can poke holes in any experimental system or rationale; those same scientists can find sound reasons to justify their own methods and thinking.   They don’t (necessarily) need funding from an involved industry to be motivated to do this.

Hegsted and company’s unsurprising conclusion is this:

“The major evidence today suggests only one avenue by which diet may affect the development and progression of atherosclerosis.  This is by influencing the levels of serum lipids, especially serum cholesterol …”

This is also a conclusion which would render the Hegsted equation central to determining what constitutes a healthy diet. How ’bout that?

They go on to add that limited evidence demonstrates a “slightly significant role for the kind and amount of dietary carbohydrate” in the regulation of serum lipids, the effects of which are “more pronounced when diets low in fat are consumed.”   From their perspective, they don’t think dietary carbohydrate is worth talking about, except in the context of a low-fat diet. And, if you read their 1965 paper, you already know that Hegsted and co. think type of fat is more important than overall amount because that’s where they said, “Dietary advice to lower the total fat intake is likely to be self-defeating.”

They end with this:

“Since diets low in fat and high in sugar are rarely taken, we conclude that the practical significance of differences in dietary carbohydrate is minimal in comparison to those related to dietary fat and cholesterol” (emphasis mine).

From their perspective, a diet low in fat does not imply a diet high in sugar. The most commonly used sugars at that time were cane and beet–complicated politics kept prices fairly high–and corn syrup had not yet achieved widespread use.

sugar-usage-in-1875-1975

They could not envision a future where sugar (as high-fructose corn syrup) would be a cheap replacement for fat. They could envision a future where vegetable oils would be a cheap replacement for saturated fat;  this, in fact, was already beginning to occur in some sectors of the food industry.

veg-oil-use-from-1977-goals

Both figures above are from the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans. Which brings us to …

Inconvenient historical moment part 2: Yes, Hegsted was the scientist who was the primary supporter of McGovern’s 1977 Goals.  That much is true.   So let’s chase that lead.  In the first edition of the 1977 Goals, Goal Number 5 said: “Reduce sugar consumption by about 40 percent to account for about 15 percent of total energy intake.”   This doesn’t sound like the work of someone in cahoots with Evil Sugar.

1st-ed-1977-goals

1st edition Dietary Goals, February 1977

But wait, there’s more!  In the second edition of the 1977 Dietary Goals (the one where Michael Pollan whines about the meat people bullying the committee into revising the “reduce meat” statement to say “reduce saturated fat”), the “decrease sugar” goal has been moved up to Goal Number 3 and says, “Reduce the consumption of refined and processed sugars by about 45 percent to account for about 10 percent of total energy intake.”

2nd edition Dietary Goals, December 1977

This was still on Hegsted’s watch.  How do we reconcile the increase in sugar restrictions with this (particular) conspiracy theory?

Aside from anachronistic analyses and inconsistencies that can’t be explained simply by pointing to a funding source, the current media spin on the Hegsted/Evil Sugar story suggests some pretty problematic assumptions:

  • Hegsted was completely neutral on the topic of fats and carbohydrates in the diet until sugar industry money came along.
  • Hegsted is a “dupe” and has no morals or backbone as a scientist.
  • The article would have (somehow) been different without sugar industry money.

My students know better.  I know this because all of the comments just above came from them when I asked them if they could think of any problems with the way the issue was being characterized in the media.  Folks feeding the media frenzy should know better too.

Blaming Big Food money for everything that is wrong with nutrition science and policy suggests it was all was just-fine-thank-you until Big Food came along and messed it up.

One of the problems with this view is that it encourages us to believe there is no such thing as ideological (or other) biases in science, just money.  So when Walter Willett calls research that contradicts his own “a pile of rubbish,” are we to assume that his belief that even the slightest bit of weight gain will cause you to die badly is the result of his being secretly funded by Jenny Craig?  After all, the “pile of rubbish” research (which suggests that maybe overweight and even obesity are not so horrible) was funded by the government.

And, in the current media framework, government funding is without bias, just ask the mustachioed man himself:

“Most contemporary researchers, including Willett, also acknowledge that publicly funded studies are preferable. ‘Ideally, all research would be publicly funded, so there would not be any conflict of interest,’ he says.”

Pointing the finger at Big Food money to explain away the problems in nutrition science and policy posits a particularly wild assumption:  government funding = no conflict of interest. But, as Marion Nestle’s favorite diversionary tactic, it does work to steer the conversation away from how the federal government funded plenty of its own reviews that emphasized fat and dismissed the involvement of sugar in the development of heart disease.  Nestle worked on one herself.³

Blaming the involvement of Big Food money for flaws in the scientific process is the same as blaming Big Food for obesity.  They are both simply indirect ways of blaming individuals for their bad behavior:  When Evil Sugar waved that bag of money under Hegsted’s nose, he didn’t have to take it, now did he?

Should anyone think I’ve gone off the deep end–I did just finish my written exams, so this is a distinct possibility–I’m not defending the sugar industry.  I am, however, defending the reputation of Mark Hegsted.

Why is it is that, on the one hand, we insist on characterizing nutrition science as unquestionably sound and definitive and nutrition scientists as inherently neutral and objective, and on the other hand, we assume that nutrition scientists will sell every bit of their scientific integrity to the highest bidder at the drop of a bundle of cash and create fishy science–which no one finds the least bit fishy until we hear about this transaction?

If we are willing to accept a more nuanced view, we might consider this:

Government is as “interested” in particular outcomes from science as is any corporation. They provide support for preferred views in terms of funding as well as other resources that corporations don’t necessarily have, such as public platforms, training, positions of authority, and access to important information or policymakers. Government funders back nutrition scientists who reliably produce results they like–but that’s a conversation Marion Nestle doesn’t want to have.

For their part, scientists are human and biased in ways that can’t always be accounted for–and that might be more powerful than funding.  Nutrition science, in particular, is full of a priori reasoning and lousy methodology propped up only by time and reputation–but that’s a conversation Walter Willett doesn’t want to have.

The field of nutrition science is massively overrun with weak associations, contradictory results, and experiments that incorporate preconceived notions about the relationships between food and health into the methods used to test those relationships.  Instead of positioning Hegsted and his fellow investigators as dupes of Evil Sugar who then pulled the strings that poisoned America, we might ask why Willett and Nestle want to make sure that problems in nutrition science and policy are framed by a narrative that excludes their part in them.

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  1. Actually, according to Nick Mottern himself, he’s not a vegetarian.
  2. If you would like a copy of this article–or any other article I refer to in this post–for your personal use as a nutrition researcher, let me know.
  3. Hegsted’s work definitely influenced this document–in the form of the Hegsted equation which is reprinted therein.  His sugar review is nowhere to be found.

Will the real Dietary Guidelines please stand up?

I don’t say this very often (or ever).  I was wrong.  I think.

Here I’ve been laboring under the assumption that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines tell the American public to eat a diet lower in fat (because we eat “too much” of it now) and higher in carbohydrate (especially from whole grains like whole wheat–because we don’t eat “enough” of those now), to eat less salt, and to “eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.” But according to a document recently released from a source at the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) that isn’t what the Guidelines say.  Or at least not exactly. Maybe.

The good folks at CNPP were asked to respond to Kris Gunnar’s list of  “20 Mainstream Nutrition Myths (Debunked by Science)”  with the idea being that the Guidelines are about as “mainstream” as nutrition advice gets.  The hope was that, if the good folks at CNPP could explain why their advice is ostensibly “backed by science” and yet is “debunked by science,” we would all sleep a little better at night, even if we still insisted on eating bacon and eggs in the morning.

The good folks at CNPP rose to the challenge and cleared things right up.  But, to quote the inimitable if soporific Crosby, Stills and Nash, “just beneath the surface of the mud, there’s more mud.  Surprise.”

Below, I’ve restated their responses as dietary guidance arranged in an order that I found amusing.  The number of the corresponding “Myth” from Kris Gunnars is given as well, so that those of you with split screens or dual monitors can play along at home.

According to the good folks at CNPP, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • do not recommend Americans eat a diet low in total fats or high in carbohydrates, particularly from grains. (Myth 1)
  • do not encourage eating low-fat foods. (Myth 12)
  • do not suggest avoiding saturated fat.(Myth 16)1
  • do not say saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol. (Myth 6)2
  • do not suggest Americans should avoid egg yolks, nor do they suggest that dietary cholesterol is linked to heart disease. (Myth 4)3
  • do not suggest eating red meat raises risk of disease. (Myth 13)4
  • do not say seed and vegetable oils lower cholesterol levels. (Myth 20)5
  • do not recommend the population restrict sodium intake (Myth 2)6
  • acknowledge there may be more to weight management and diet-related diseases than calories in-calories out. (Myth 15) 7
  • do not state sugar is harmful. (Myth 19)8

I know what you’re thinking.   Adele’s mind has finally blown a gasket from reading all those big words they have in grad school.  I’m not going to argue that point, but you can check the CNPP’s response for yourself right here.

This response also acknowledges that current scientific evidence regarding the reduction of full-fat dairy is contradictory (Myth 10) and that a variety of eating patterns can produce weight loss (Myth 8).  It also says that  3-5 cups of coffee a day can be part of a healthy diet (Myth 7)–hallafreakinlujah– but whole wheat products?  Meh (Myth 5).

I can see the helpful public health messages now:

You should not avoid egg yolks, but you should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible, even though dietary cholesterol consumption is not linked to heart disease.

You don’t need to choose low-fat foods, just choose fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese even though it might not actually help you avoid chronic disease .

You should shift to lower sodium consumption without restricting your intake of sodium.

What’s going on here?

Good question.  Perhaps the good folks at CNPP didn’t actually read the Dietary Guidelines this time around.  Who, except for me, has that kind of time?  Or maybe they had a hard time finding them. Once you get to the health.gov/dietaryguidelines/ site, you have to click through 3 menus or links before you get to the actual guidelines (try it), which are a swarm of footnotes and “see more” hyperlinks.  Even Marion Nestle complained about how hard all those “annoying drop-down boxes” are to navigate.  It’s possible the good folks at CNPP just assumed that the other good folks over at DHHS–responsible for Guidelines online labyrinth–were paying attention so they didn’t have to.

Or maybe it means that it’s actually really hard to get words to say what you want them to say without them saying other things that you don’t want them to say.  And this is especially difficult when you are asked to make sweeping recommendations based on a weak scientific evidence base that both supports and contradicts past guidance, which you can’t contradict even when you can’t support it, because, then what?

No wonder the good folks at CNPP are having a hard time getting their story straight.

To tell the truth, I have a lot of sympathy for the message-makers there at the USDA.  We created the Dietary Guidelines 35 years ago assuming zero potential negative consequences.  True, the scientific evidence didn’t strongly support the recommendations, but whatever.  Whether they followed the recommendations or not, hey, the health trajectory of Americans couldn’t get any worse, could it?  We knew the Guidelines would significantly impact the food industry, but that could only be a good thing, right?  And we meant for Guidelines to set the direction for nutrition research, but since science is only about facts and never about politics or funding, any errors or biases in our original rationale would be quickly discovered and corrected, no?

Now it seems pretty clear that we might have spent a little more time thinking through the whole “Let’s make sweeping dietary recommendations that are meant to apply to every single American alive over the age of 2 as a method of preventing every single major chronic disease known to humankind “ thing before shrugging our shoulders and saying “Oh, no worries.  It will all work out.”  Now the folks at the USDA have used up their wishes and are left trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle with nothing but semantics and poor website design.

Will the real Dietary Guidelines please stand up?

If only they had a leg to stand on.

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1.  They just want you to reduce your intake of saturated fat without actually avoiding it.

2. They do recommend limiting saturated fats based on the notion that somehow this will reduce risk of heart disease. But let’s leave LDL cholesterol levels out of this. What did they ever do to you?

3.  But Americans still should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible, just fyi.

4.  Eating red meat does not raise risk of disease, but not eating red meat lowers it. Um.  Weird, right?

5.  But you should eat vegetable oils instead of animal fats, because, well, because.

6. They do want you to shift to lower sodium consumption, just not by restricting your intake.

7.  Although they remain singularly obsessed with calories in and out, there’s apparently no need for you to be.

8.  But you shouldn’t eat very much of it anyway, because, well, because.

The slick “new” Dietary Guidelines

Because never changing the recommendations means never having to say you’re sorry for 35 years of crappy advice, the 2015 (really 2016, but who’s counting?) Dietary Guidelines repeat the same old-same old “whole grains, fruitsandvegetables, low-fat/fat-free dairy, fish, nuts, and (if you must) lean meat” guidance from years past. Only difference: The new Guidelines are now oozing with vegetable oil.

In the list of recommended foods to include in “a healthy eating pattern,” “oils” now have their own category.
Oil its own food group
For the most part, we are talking Big Oil: canola, corn, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Oils that have been chemically extracted, de-gummed, bleached, and deodorized (y’know, stuff you do to dirty diapers). And good luck finding them at your local farmers market.

Big Oil is big business for the U.S. agricultural economy and for the nutrition science academic industry. Alice Lichtenstein, of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, has found more creative ways to feed all kinds of oil to hamsters, rats, and people than probably anybody on earth. Corn, canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, margarine and shortening, even rice bran oil–you name the oily food substance and Alice Slicktenstein has built her career on getting funding for studying it. Most of her work is done at–and funded through–the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, which is supported by money from, you guessed it, the USDA.  Her research is also supported by numerous grants from the NIH branch of HHS. However, this has nothing to do with the shiny new prominence of oily stuff in the USDA’s and HHS’s new Dietary Guidelines.

To be sure, oil oil everywhere is not the only thing slick about the new Guidelines. The language is pretty slippery too. There’s been a lot of cheering from the press about the “new” direction of the Guidelines, and indeed, some of the things being reported are actually in the Guidelines: The Guidelines have gotten rid of the ridiculous (and possibly dangerous) “1/2 teaspoon of salt a day” limits on sodium for some subpopulations–although the no-more-than 2300 mg (yes, a Whole Teaspoon!) limit should still be–wait for it–taken with a grain of salt.

Despite all arguments otherwise, nutrition–the politics and the science of it–is complicated. In a number of cases, trying to make the ugly stepsister foot of a “consistent public health message” squeeze into the glass slipper of inadequate and contradictory science has the Guidelines talking out of both sides of its oleaginous mouth. Here’s a closer look at what is going on:

1. Limits on cholesterol are gone.
Eh. Sorta kinda not really. It would appropriate to say “numerical” limits on cholesterol are gone, but the language of the DGA is still pretty limiting. As in:

“individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible”

What’s fun about this is that the Vegamanics are celebrating this as “cholesterol still sucks” while the SatFat Redeemers are all about “Eat them eggs, y’all.” They’re both right.  Or wrong.  Hey, this is nutrition! You don’t really expect a straight answer now, do you?

2. Red meat gets a pass.

It’s true that [lean] meat has not disappeared altogether, and that language about a “sustainable diet” (whatever that means) is not in the Guidelines. At the same time, the Guidelines recommend “lower intakes of meats, including processed meats,” lumping them in the same category as sugar-sweetened food and refined grains. So like the cholesterol issue above, this is getting played as “Evil meat lobby wins” on one side of the debate, and “Meat justice prevails” on the other.

The meat industry is happy to proclaim its support the Guidelines–as long as its product is still in them. If I were the meat folks though, I’d be working to shut the whole process down. If meat is still in the Guidelines, it is not for lack of 35 years of trying to get it out.

3. Limits on fat are gone.
Nope. Limits on “fat” are still there. If you’ve been hearing rumors that we are at the end of the “low-fat” era, and you thought that meant that the Guidelines were going to give the green light to fats–natural fats, fats that you could find at your local farmers market–you would be sadly, profoundly mistaken.

Just like all squares are rectangles, but only some rectangles are squares, all oils are fats, but only some fats are oils. The new Guidelines have been credited with saying, “Hey we’re okay with rectangles” but they are only okay with those rectangles that are squares.  You can eat fat, but only if it’s oil.

Evil fats

So: Fat–as in “saturated fat”– is still evil. But lower limits on “oil” are eased–with the exception of a few oils that the DGA folks still don’t like because their fatty acids are mostly saturated. Lower limits on oils in the diet have shifted from no less than 20% of calories to no less than 25%. But make no mistake: The upper limit on dietary “oil” as a macronutrient remains at 35% of calories, as it has been since 2005. Only by keeping limits on “oil” low can we manage to cram in the Guidelines’ requisite 45%-65% of calories of carbohydrate into our diets and still have room for protein.

In other words, the USDA hasn’t discarded the “low-fat” diet. They’ve discarded the “low oil” diet and actually, not even that. Now you are allowed a whopping 27 grams (about 5 teaspoons) of highly processed and refined, probably not local or within your foodshed, oily oil. Cheers!crisco oil
4. The DGA limits sugar intake.
Nope. It limits “added sugar” intake. That means that a bottle of orange juice, which “naturally” has as much sugar as a bottle of soda, is “good,” while soda is “bad.” Yeah yeah yeah. I hear you out there: “But but but. Orange juice has Vitamin C.” So add some Vitamin C to soda–same difference. Puh-leeze. Sugar is sugar. (I’ll save my “starch is sugar too” rant for another day.)

And all this talk about how Americans “typically exceed” recommendations for added sugar intake? Go look through the past 35 years of Dietary Guidelines. This is the first time ever that there has been an official numerical limit on sugar in any form–added or otherwise. I’m not sure how we could “exceed” something that wasn’t defined in the first place. However, the “Americans don’t follow the Guidelines” story is the best way to avoid confronting the fact that the Guidelines have not worked as intended. USDA/HHS can pretend that all would have been well if those fat stupid Americans had just done the stuff they were (actually not) told to do! Secretary Burwell suggested at the hearings in October that without the Guidelines the rapid rise in obesity rates might have been even rapider …

“We are on the wrong trajectory, but would the trajectory have been worse?”

… though it is hard to see how.  Fat lazy Americans can only cram so many Double Whoppers with Cheese down their gullets at a time, and besides Netflix wasn’t even invented until, like, 1997.

For a bit of perspective, although the 10% cap on “added sugars” is being hailed as some nutrition revolution, the USDA says Americans typically consume 13% of their calories from “added sugars” now. The radical new cap on “added sugars” heralds a (potential) whopping 3% decline in their consumption.  To be replaced by “naturally occurring sugars”? Or possibly more artificial sweeteners? Maybe, beer?

One thing is true about the Guidelines, though. Pretty much everyone hates them. Doesn’t matter where on the nutrition dogma spectrum you look–Marion Nestle or Nina Teicholz–everyone’s complaining.

I don’t like them either, but for reasons I don’t hear about in the press:

“All segments of society—individuals, families, communities, businesses and industries, organizations, governments, and others—can and should “align with the Dietary Guidelines.”

What this means:  The Guidelines have not worked as intended in the past and haven’t changed significantly in this edition, but this isn’t because the whole idea of having a single dietary prescription that will reduce risk of virtually every chronic disease in all Americans no matter their race, gender, age, genetics, lifestyle, etc. etc. etc. is patently ludicrous.  The Guidelines haven’t worked because we haven’t “aligned with” them.

As some snarky person once said, this is all about enforcing your right to eat what the folks behind the Guidelines have determined is good for you. 

“Aligning with the Dietary Guidelines by taking these actions is powerful because it can help change social norms and values and ultimately support a new prevention and healthy lifestyle paradigm that will benefit the U.S. population today as well as future generations.”

What this means:  Making certain behaviors the “norm” through public health dictum is a tried-and-true way for privileged classes to impose their values on the less-privileged.  “Aligning with” the Guidelines will help make eating (and exercising) like rich white people the morally superior choice for everyone.

To paraphrase how one brainless “expert” on public consumption put it many years ago, “Let them eat kale!”

For the rest of us, well, Marion Nestle is right when she says that the Guidelines are a “win” for the processed food industries.  She should know.  She was managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s  Report on Nutrition and Health, which said that processed food created to fit the prevailing definition of “healthy” is exactly what the public needs:

“Food manufacturers can contribute to improving the availability of palatable, easily prepared food products that will help people to follow the [low-fat, high-carbohydrate] dietary principles outlined here.”

The 2015-20120 Dietary Guidelines continue this line of reasoning:

“During the past few decades, food products and menus have notably evolved in response to consumer demands and public health concerns. The food and beverage and food service sectors and settings have a unique opportunity to continue to evolve and better align with the Dietary Guidelines.”

Which means that there is one group that always LUVS the Dietary Guidelines. As Food Navigator-USA puts it:

“The 2015 Guidelines released Jan. 7 create a marketing opportunity for savvy manufacturers and industry stakeholders to promote their products through educational materials that help consumers better understand how to meet the report’s recommendations.”

The Dietary Guidelines have been helping sell “healthy food” to consumers since 1980, just as “healthy food” manufacturers have been helping sell the Guidelines to consumers.  But “healthy food” doesn’t always lead to “healthy people.”  Moronically enough, the new Guidelines recognize that calls for “healthy processed food” might end badly (flashback to CSPI campaigning to add trans fats to food):

“In [developing and reformulating “healthy” products], care should be taken to assess any potential unintended consequences so that as changes are made to better align with the Dietary Guidelines, undesirable changes are not introduced.”

That means when the onslaught of oily, whole-grain, artificially sweetened and flavored food products fails to improve the health of Americans or (heaven forfend!) makes things worse, we know who to blame.

We can blame the American public for not following the Guidelines.  We can blame policymakers for not enforcing them.  And we can blame food manufacturers for introducing “undesirable changes” into the food supply.  But we can’t blame the Guidelines.

They’re too slick for that.

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PS.  I do plan on continuing the conversation started by Jennifer Calihan’s guest post “Low Fat, High Maintenance:  How money buys lean and healthy–plus an alternative path to both.”  If you haven’t read it already, you should (and the comments–good stuff there too). But, I just gotta get a couple of Dietary Guidelines rants out of my system.

Low Fat, High Maintenance: How money buys lean and healthy–plus, an alternative path to both

The 2015[6] Dietary Guidelines are out today. Although restrictions on cholesterol and overall fat [read: oil] content of the diet have been lifted [sorta, not really], the nutrition Needle of Progress has hardly budged, with saturated fat and sodium still lumped into the same “DANGER Will Robinson” category as trans fats and added sugars–and with cholesterol still carrying the caveat that “individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.” The recommended “healthy eating pattern” calls for fat-free/low-fat dairy, lean meat, and plenty of whole grains, plus OIL. In other words, the diet is still low-fat and high-carb–just add vegetable oil [you know, locally sourced, whole-food canola, corn, and soy oil].

However, the most disturbing part of the Guidelines is Chapter 3, which heralds “a new paradigm in which healthy lifestyle choices at home, school, work, and in the community are easy, accessible, affordable, and normative.”  In other words, let’s make what we’ve determined is the healthy choice, the easy–and morally permitted–choice for everyone [read: especially for those minority and low-income populations who insist on eating stuff we disapprove of].

Thus, it seems appropriate that today’s featured post focuses less on nutrition and more on the cultural context in which nutrition happens.  Without further ado:

Low Fat, High Maintenance: How money buys lean and healthy–plus, an alternative path to both

Guest post by Jennifer Calihan at eatthebutter.org

It’s Friday evening. There is a chill in the air. The smell of ‘Walking Tacos’[i] wafts over from the row below.  A rousing, “Give me an ‘S’!” commands my attention. All the cues point to one thing – I am sitting at another high school football game. I’m not really a huge football fan, but my son plays on the team, and I love watching him.

walking-taco

The parents and fans from my son’s school all sit on one side of the field, so the stands are filled with friends and many warm, familiar faces. I am struck, as I always am, by how good everyone looks. I see a lot of grey hair on the men but not much on the women – funny how that works! The adults watching are at least 40, and some are probably mid-fifties. But what is truly striking about this crowd is how trim they all are. Are there some people struggling with their weight? Sure. But the majority of these folks are maintaining a normal weight. No sign of the obesity epidemic on this side of the field. And I wonder what I always wonder – how do they do it – really?

At half time, I take a walk over to the visitor side of the field to stretch my legs. Over here, the stands tell a different story. The parents and fans of the visiting team look…  well, they look like most American crowds. Although this crowd seems a little younger than the home team fans, most of the people here are struggling with their weight. In fact, our national averages would predict about 68% of these adults are too heavy; 38% would be obese, plus about another 30% overweight.  And, based on what I see, that sounds about right. But it is not the weight, per se, that worries me. It is the metabolic disease that often travels with excess weight that is cause for concern. Diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver… a future of pills and declining health.

Experts acknowledge that obesity and the diseases that travel with it are tied to income.  Simplistically, you might think something like, “more money = more food = more obesity,” but that is just not how it works. As most of you know, it is the reverse. “Less money = more obesity.” So it may not surprise you to hear that my son attends an independent school in an affluent area.  And the visiting team is from a less affluent suburb. So, the mystery is solved – skinny rich people on one side, and overweight middle-class people on the other.

What interests me is the, ‘How?’ As in, ‘How do the skinny rich people do it?’

I affectionately refer to my neighborhood, and others like it, as ‘the bubble.’ The bubble is safe… it is comfortable… it is beautiful. But how, exactly, does the bubble protect my family and my neighbors from the obesity epidemic? Just as it is not a happy accident that actresses age amazingly well, it is not a happy accident that the affluent stay lean. Most of them spend a lot of time and money on it. They have to. Our nation’s high-maintenance dietary recommendations require most eaters to invest a great deal of resources to combat the risk of obesity and diabetes that is built into low-fat eating. Unfortunately, this means middle-income and working class families, who may be lacking the resources to perform this maintenance, are launched on a path toward overweight and diabetes. What can be done to level the playing field?

Seven Ways Money Buys Thin

1. More Money Buys Better Food

 For many in the bubble, there is not a defined budget for groceries. And, let’s face it, that makes shopping successfully for healthy food – however you define it – just a tad easier.  To imagine the flexibility that wealth can afford, consider this inner dialog that happens in a Whole Foods aisle near you. In the bubble, a mom might consider: “Should I buy the wild salmon or the chicken tenders for dinner? Hmmm… let’s see here. $28.50 or $8.99? My, that is quite a price difference. But those tenders are pretty processed. And they aren’t gluten-free. I’ll go with the salmon this week – Johnny loves it, and it’s so healthy.”  If it doesn’t really matter if the food bill is $300 or $350 this week, why not buy the wild salmon?

Much has been written about how cheap the processed calories in products like soda and potato chips are, and how tempting those cheap calories are to people who are shopping, at least on some level, for the cheapest calorie. I find it hard to believe that any thinking mother is buying soda because it is a cheap way to feed her family.  My guess is that she is buying soda for other reasons: habit, caffeine, sweet treat, etc. But certainly, refined carbohydrates and refined oils, which I believe are uniquely fattening, are cheap and convenient and are often processed into something remarkably tasty.  So yes, I think small grocery budgets lead to more processed foods and more fattening choices.

way better etbHigher grocery budgets often lead to high-end grocery stores that offer exotic, ‘healthy’ products, which, on the margin, may be healthier than their conventional counterparts.  Quinoa pasta, hemp seed oil mayonnaise (affectionately known as ‘hippie butter’), cereals or crackers made from ancient grains, and anything made with chia seeds all come to mind. Last week, I saw Punkin Cranberry Tortilla Chips on an endcap. Seriously? (Yet, mmmm…  how inventive and seasonal!) The prices are ridiculous, but upscale shoppers snap up these small-batch, artisanal products, regardless. They may not be worth the money, and may not really taste all that good, but they carry an aura of health and make you feel really good about yourself when you put them in your cart.

The idea that money buys better food also rings true when eating out. The cheapest restaurants tend to offer more processed calories with fewer whole food choices. And, even on the same menu, the fresh, whole foods tend to be quite expensive, especially if you look at cost per calorie. Again, in the bubble, a mom might consider, “Pizza tonight? Or should we stop by Cornerstone, the local home-style restaurant, and get grilled chicken with broccoli and a salad?  Hmmm…  $20 or $60? Well, we did pizza last week; I think we should go to Cornerstone.”

The bottom line is that money can buy more choices and some of those choices are less likely to add pounds.

2. More Money Buys More Time to Cook and/or More Shortcuts

Most of the moms (and a rare dad or two) in my circles have time to shop and cook because they are not working full-time. Thus, higher family income can mean more home-cooked meals. Cooking at home gives families more control of ingredients and portions. It also tends to mean more whole food and less processed food, which most agree is better for weight control.vintage ladies AND logo

Of course, affluent working moms are the exception to this, as they have little time for grocery shopping and cooking. But, again, money can help here. Many of my friends who work full-time outsource the grocery shopping and/or cooking to a nanny, a housekeeper, or a personal chef service. Even in a mid-sized city like Pittsburgh, there are boutique, foodie storefronts that deliver healthy, home-made meals for $12-16 (each). Lately, some moms are using the on-line services (like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Plated, and even The Purple Carrot, which offers a vegan menu) that ship a simple recipe and the exact fresh ingredients needed to make it to a subscriber’s door each day. How convenient! For only $35 or $40, you can feed your family of four AND still get to cook dinner. Perfect. Many skip the whole experience and simply purchase fully cooked gourmet meals at high-end grocery stores, which tend to run $8-15 per person. Fabulous. What a nice option for the health-minded busy mom who is not on a budget. Of course, not all working mothers are quite so lucky.

3. More Money Buys More Time to Exercise And More Access To Exercise

I am a firm believer that one cannot exercise one’s way out of a diet full of nutritionally empty calories. BUT, if people get their diet headed in a decent direction, daily exercise can really help them cheat their way to thin even if they are still not eating right all of the time. So, exercise is certainly a factor in this puzzle, particularly for people eating low-fat diets that seem to require a steady, daily burn of calories. As a committed non-athlete, I am continually amazed by how much my friends exercise. Running, walking, biking, swimming, tennis, squash, paddle tennis – the list goes on and on. Now, small fitness facilities offer pricey, specialized workouts: lifting, yoga, Pilates, rowing, bootcamp, kick-boxing, TRX, Pure Barre, spinning, Crossfit, and the very latest – wait for it – OrangeTheory. These boutique fitness plays are becoming more common, and can run up to $500/month…  not kidding. Here’s more on this trend from the WSJ.

Whew. It is exhausting to even imagine keeping up with most of my friends and neighbors. But I give it a go…  sort of. Devoting an hour or more each day to exercise is much easier for those living in the bubble. Let’s be honest – people with money can afford to outsource some of the busywork of life. If you don’t like cleaning your house or mowing your lawn or weeding the flowerbeds or repainting the fence or doing laundry, don’t do it. Pay someone else to do those things, so you have time for spinning 3x a week plus Pilates (work that core) and tennis. Have baby weight to lose? No problem. Hire a babysitter and a trainer and you will make progress.

Good trainers, although expensive, often deliver more effective exercise, more efficient routines, more entertaining workouts, and better results. Appointments are scheduled and you pay whether you go or not, which makes showing up more likely. You can even find a buff guy who will yell at you if you find that motivating. Personal trainers are just one more way money buys thin.

When I think back to what my mother might have considered doing to stay fit when she was my age, I come up with one thing and one thing only: walking the golf course. And I lived up north, so the golf season was only 18 weeks long. She had no regular workout routine, nor did any of her friends. Did she have cut arms, toned abs, and look great in a bikini? Absolutely not. Was she overweight? Absolutely not. And she had the good sense not to wear a bikini, btw.  It’s amazing that she could maintain her weight without regularly scheduled exercise. Her game plan was old-fashioned: bacon and eggs fried in butter for breakfast, no starch at dinner, very occasional desserts, plus a couple very dry martinis, never before 6pm. She’s a size 10 at age 91, so I’d say it worked for her.

Tithe closetmes have changed. In the bubble, 50-year-old upper arms are proudly bared, even in winter, and women walking around in fitness gear is so commonplace that the industry has a term for this fashion trend: athleisure.  If you think I might be making that up, check out this WSJ article, “Are You Going to the Gym or Do You Just Dress That Way?” The fact that Nike’s sales of women’s products topped $5 billion in 2014 is a little startling, no? Some women even need a completely separate closet to house all of their Nike apparel. Khloe Kardashian claims her fitness closet is her favorite closet. Ummm…  not quite sure what to say about this, except that girl has a lot of sneakers.

One doesn’t have to be athletic to exercise, so I am guilty of some of this behavior (although I swear I only have one drawer for my fitness gear). I am sure there are some naturally thin couch potatoes among the parents of the students enrolled at my son’s school, but they are the exception. Most of the lean and affluent are working pretty hard to look the way they look.

4. More Money Buys Access to Better Ideas About What Makes You Overweight

Maybe it is your personal trainer who talks to you about trying a Paleo diet. Or, perhaps your trip to Canyon Ranch exposes you to a more whole food, plant-based, healthy fats approach to eating.  Or, if you prefer to ‘spa’ at Miraval, you might learn about Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory food pyramid. Maybe your friend recommends an appointment with a naturopathic MD who suggests that you try giving up grains. The point is, if you have money, you have a greater chance of hearing something other than ‘eat less, exercise more’ when you complain about your expanding waistline. The affluent have easy access to many different ideas about diet and health, so they can experiment with several and see which one works for them.

Today, one of the most popular alternative ways of eating is a plant-based, ultra-low-fat diet. Books and sites (like the in-your-face, aptly named Skinny Bitch brand) market snotty versions of this blueprint for weight loss to their upscale customers. I see many women in my circles eating this near vegan diet these days: lots of whole vegetables and grains, very little fat, with perhaps a little lean meat, fish or eggs occasionally. Although this is not my chosen approach, as it requires giving up too many of my favorite foods and leaves me perpetually hungry, it seems to deliver some pretty skinny results.  And, since it is in vogue, it is something that will be accommodated at parties in the bubble – plenty of crudité platters with hummus and beautiful roasted beet salads, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, pomegranate kernels, and just a touch of olive oil. In affluent communities, being among friends and acquaintances who practice an alternative approach to eating means social activities are “safe” places to eat, not minefields of temptation. I don’t mean to suggest that people in less affluent suburbs have not heard of a vegan diet or only socialize around piles of nachos; I would maintain that those communities are as invested in their health as affluent ones. But, if your social circle has access to better food, as well as better information about food, you are more likely to be a part of a “culture of skinny.”

5. More Money Buys a ‘Culture of Skinny’

Living in the bubble means living among the lean. Which, as you might imagine, increases the odds that you will be one of them. There is a lot of peer pressure to look a certain way, and being surrounded by people who look that way certainly gets your attention. It also gives you hope that being thin is a reasonable expectation – as in, “If all my neighbors have figured it out, so can I.”  And, it helps that there will be healthier food at most gatherings. When the trays of cookies do come out, none of your friends will be reaching for more than one, either. So the bubble is sort of a support group for staying lean. As the success of AA can attest, when it comes to habits and willpower, support groups matter.

vintage ladies jane logoThere is even some research to back this up. Did you know that you are 40% more likely to become obese if you have a sibling who becomes obese, but 57% more likely to become obese if you have friend who becomes obese?[ii] It’s a little weird to think of obesity as socially contagious, but it seems that social environment trumps genetics. An article in Time explains it this way: “Socializing with overweight people can change what we perceive as the norm; it raises our tolerance for obesity both in others and in ourselves.”[iii] (Emphasis mine.)

Living immersed in the ‘culture of skinny’ makes the sacrifices you must make to stay that way more bearable. Misery loves company, and I often think that eating way too much kale and being hungry all the time is easier if you are doing it with friends…  Odd to think of widespread hunger in the affluent suburbs, I know, but I think there is a fair amount of self-imposed hunger here. Likewise, on the exercise front, you certainly won’t lack company on the paddle court or walking paths, and exercising with friends can truly be fun. Plus, you can take solace in the fact that you won’t be the only one foregoing the pleasure of lying on the couch with a glass of Chardonnay watching Downton Abby in order to make it to your spin class. In the bubble, the penalty for not keeping up with your diet and exercise regime is higher.  Being the only obese mom or dad standing on the sidelines at Saturday’s soccer game can feel a bit isolating. The ‘culture of skinny’ cuts both ways – it can serve as both a carrot and a stick.

6. More Money Buys Other Ways to Treat Yourself (and the Kids)

I attended a workshop about obesity and food deserts a couple of years ago. It was sponsored by a group of venture philanthropists (think: savvy business people advising and funding fledgling non-profits), hoping to shed some light on the obesity epidemic. One of our assignments was to go into a small market in a blighted urban neighborhood and try to buy food for a few meals for a single mother and two young children. Of course, the earnest healthy eaters (self-included) in our group dominated, and we came back with things like whole milk, regular oatmeal, vegetable soup, and turkey deli meat. Boy, were we – visitors to this world – going to prove that even in a food desert and on a budget, healthy eating was possible if we made wise choices. When we returned for the debrief, another mother said, “You know, we bought all this healthy stuff, but if I were that single mother, wouldn’t I want to bring home some joy? Like, something that would make my kids smile?” And, of course, she was right. If money were tight, would I really buy unsweetened oatmeal, disappoint my kids, and listen to the subsequent really loud whining? Probably not. I think I would bring home Captain Crunch and see some joy.vintage ladies eat it logo

In the bubble, breakfast does not have to be a treat. Like all mothers, I have to pick my battles, but breakfast can be one of mine. Would I be as likely to refuse to buy sweetened cereal if there were more important battles to fight? No. And, for the adults, maybe the food-reward cycle becomes less important when there are so many other ‘treats’ coming… the manicure, the tennis lesson, the new jeans… whatever it is that makes food less important.

7. More Money Buys Bariatric Surgery

If all else fails, people with resources have a surgical option. This is, of course, a very invasive approach to the problem – surgically altering the human anatomy to suit the modern diet rather than altering the modern diet to suit the human anatomy. But type 2 diabetes remission rates as high as 66% have been reported (two years post-op)[iv], so bariatric procedures offer more than just a cosmetic result.  Our health care providers love this option. (How exciting: a new profit center!) Expensive bariatric procedures are actually available outside the bubble because insurance will cover most of the costs. How interesting that this somewhat extreme solution is the tool that is subsidized enough to bring it within reach of our middle class citizens. But, of course, those without the means to fund the deductibles, out-of-pocket costs, and time off work cannot afford even this option.

Another Inconvenient Truth

Here’s the thing. As a nation, we have (perhaps inadvertently) chosen to push, EXCLUSIVELY, a very high-maintenance diet. (And I know high-maintenance when I see it.) A diet that requires most of its eaters to either perform hours of exercise each week, or endure daily hunger, or both, in order to avoid weight gain and/or diabetes. A diet that has taken us down the tedious path of measuring portions, counting calories, and wearing Fitbits. This is far from ideal, and has left too many of us hungry, tired, crabby, and sick, not to mention pacing around our homes at night in our daily pursuit of 10,000 steps. Yes, there are those genetically gifted people who can eat low-fat, not be chained to a treadmill, and remain skinny – ignore this irrelevant minority. Yes, there are neighborhoods of affluent people where most seem to make it work – ignore them, too. We should not let the success we see in privileged communities give us hope that our current low-fat dietary paradigm is workable. The bubble is a red herring; it telegraphs false hope.

Our nation’s overall results speak for themselves. Low-fat diet advice will never work for most Americans. Never-ever. Sticking, stubbornly, to our high-maintenance food paradigm is especially harmful for our working class and middle-income citizens; people who don’t have the time, money, or resources required to make the low-fat diet work, but care just as much about their health as those in the bubble. For them, we must move on.vintage ladies bathing suit logo

I am proposing that our obesity and diabetes epidemics reveal yet another inconvenient truth: our official dietary advice sets most people up for failure. Perhaps Jeb Bush could take a page out of Al Gore’s playbook and put himself on a post–campaign mission to shine a spotlight on this issue.  Jeb! has access, he has public speaking skills, he has bank, and, believe it or not, he’s Paleo. Who knew?

If Jeb! were to spread the word, what solutions could he promote?  What can any eater do to level the playing field a bit – to have a shot at vibrant health minus the prohibitive price tag of high-maintenance routines?

The Vintage Alternative

I run a small non-profit, Eat the Butter, that is all about real-food-more-fat eating. The main idea behind the site is that the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines have created many of our health problems, and going back to eating the way we used to eat, before they were issued, is a workable solution. The tagline is ‘Vintage Eating for Vibrant Health.’ Specifically, my site suggests some simple ideas about healthy eating. Eat real food. Unrefined. Whole food that has been around for a while. And don’t be afraid to eat more natural fat. To follow this advice, an eater must ignore some of the USDA’s guidelines. vintage ladies phone logoAnd there are millions of Americans doing just that. (Many of these rogue eaters are affluent, by the way.) I am trying to reach out to more – to every mother. It pains me that millions of mothers are teaching their kids to eat in a low-fat way that is likely to lead, when their kids reach their 30’s or 40’s, down the path of metabolic syndrome, just as it has for us. It is time for a different approach, informed by vintage, time-tested ideas (often backed up by thoroughly modern science) about the basic components of a healthy diet.

But can vintage eating be done outside the bubble – even on a budget? It worked pretty well in the 1950’s…  why not now?

Sometimes, back-to-basics can actually be pretty affordable… what could be more inexpensive and vintage than a glass of water out of the tap? Think of the groceries you would no longer need: almost all drinks – soda and Snapple and Gatorade and fruit juice (… alas, you might still ‘need’ your coffee and that glass of Chardonnay…); almost all packaged cereals and crackers and chips and snacks; almost all cookies and cereal bars and – God forbid – Pop Tarts. These products all contain highly processed ingredients and are relatively expensive for what you are getting. By buying whole, unprocessed food, the middleman is eliminated and so is his profit margin.  Whole foods are usually devoid of packaging or minimally packaged, and don’t typically require an advertising budget. So there are meaningful savings here, especially if you can buy in bulk and shop the sales.

I have lingered in the bubble long enough that saving money in the grocery aisles is not exactly my expertise.  My husband, much to his chagrin, can attest to this. I won’t insult you by offering second-hand tips, but there are plenty of smart women blogging about their take on buying high quality food on a budget. By mostly ignoring the packaged goods in the middle of the store, my hope is that you can offset much of the incremental spending you will do on the store’s perimeter: in the produce, dairy, and meat departments. These foods may be somewhat more expensive in general, but offer more nutrition for your food dollar and are more filling in the long run.

ETB_Postcard_Back_Cropped_900x900Can vintage eating be easy? Yes… perhaps not as easy as a drive-thru, but how long does it take to fry a pork chop? Scramble a couple of eggs? Open a can of green beans? Throw sweet potatoes in the oven? Vintage doesn’t have to be fancy. I bet you cannot drive to pick-up take-out in the time it takes to make a quick vintage meal. Simple vintage meals are the original fast food. Saturated fat is the original comfort food. If only we would give everyone permission to fry up some meat or fish and melt butter on their frozen peas. What a relief it would be for those who have very little slack in their lives and just want easy, satisfying meals that nourish them rather than fatten them.

The goal, after all, is not perfection. It is to move in the general direction of whole foods… not to be confused with Whole Foods, the grocery chain, which is definitely not where you want to go if you are on a budget ;-). Give up as many modern, food science inventions as you can stomach, replace them with vintage, whole food, and I bet you will see the ‘always hungry’ status that the processed stuff drives fade. Travel towards vintage eating just as far as your time, tastes, and budget will allow.  Then, see how you feel. Even if it doesn’t get you all the way to lean, it might just get you to healthy, which is really what this is about.

References

[i] ‘Walking Tacos’ are a high school snack stand special: open a snack-sized bag of Fritos and toss a couple of spoonfuls of taco meat, shredded lettuce, and grated cheese on top. Yum! Although initially put off by the idea of serving tacos in a foil bag of chips, I have made hundreds on my snack stand shifts and now marvel at the efficiency of this ingenious suburban housewife creation.

[ii] Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine, July 26, 2007. 357-370-9.

[iii] Abedin S. The Social Side of Obesity: You are Who You Eat With. Time, September 3, 2009.

[iv] Puzziferri N. Long-term follow-up after bariatric surgery: a systematic review. JAMA. 2014 Sep 3;312(9):934-42.

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Figures from the author’s comments in the comment section below:

King county king county obesity

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It may be a new year, but in the world of nutrition, not much has changed–yet. If the amount of press dedicated to who gets to say what in the next edition of a document the previous edition of which insisted no American has ever paid one whit of attention to has taught us anything, it’s that “facts” don’t always do what we want them to do, right, Secretary Vilsack? And so, just like David Byrne, we’re stiiiilll waiting on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, which were due out, like, last year already.

Like the Dietary Guidelines, my life is all about things changing and staying the same.  As both of my readers probably already know, I’m smack dab in the middle of a PhD program in communication, rhetoric, and digital media. Quite a switch from my work in nutrition? Not really. The things I work on in my studies now are the same things I was interested in as a PhD student in nutrition epidemiology: dietary recommendations, politics of food, the health gap, methodological issues in nutrition epidemiology of chronic disease, and the ethics of dietary policy. Only now I have a theoretical toolbox that is actually useful for critically examining those things.

Here’s the thing though. I thought that approaching nutrition from the perspective of rhetorical and communication theory would help me take a big step back and take a couple of deep breaths and have a nice cool, calm, totally “academic” attitude about things. Nope. The more I study this stuff, the more ticked off I get. In fact, the more sensitized I am to the rhetoric of nutrition and the better I can identify and understand the structures of privilege and power at work in the discourse surrounding food and health in America, the angrier it makes me.  Same as it ever was.

To avoid beginning the year with a full-on, foam-at-the-mouth rant, I am instead hosting a wonderful guest post from my good friend Jennifer Calihan over at EAT THE BUTTER.org. She has a smart, perceptive take on the past 35+ years of nutrition recommendations from a unique perspective. Her post, “Low Fat, High Maintenance,” provides some insight as to why the low fat dietary approach really does “work” for some Americans–and really doesn’t work for many more (and she does this without mentioning “insulin” once). If you haven’t already, you should check out her work.

Her post is the stepping stone to a different direction for my own writing. I’m sick of the diet wars, of “good” science vs. “bad” science, but I still think it is important to try to understand why all the talking heads of nutrition feel compelled to insist that everyone in the known universe can (and should) win at the game of “health through food” and in exactly the same way, despite vast differences in metabolic and genetic characteristics, and more importantly, economic and social contexts (I’m looking at you, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Walter Willett, and–the biggest meat puppet of them all–David Katz). Jennifer not only brings a fresh new voice to the discussion, she directs our attention outside of our own bodies, to how all of us must negotiate our “food worlds” on very different terms.

Stay tuned. Jennifer’s post will be up later this week, followed by some commentary by me. As grad school allows, I’ll return to the regularly scheduled, full-on, foam-at-the-mouth rant already in progress.

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts don’t stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape

–The Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”

New year, same old talking heads

Again, in 3-part harmony–it’s not about “the science”

Let me be straight.  I don’t believe in conspiracy theories.* There’s no Bacon-gate.  No Cowspiracy.  No Salami-mafia out to suppress sandwich meat.  But, as the students in my Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society course will tell you, there are professional interests (only one of which is funding) and careerism.  There is also the human desire to simply not be wrong.  In nutrition, this desire is personal.

(If I were queen of the world, every research article published about nutrition and chronic disease would list, in addition to “author affiliations” and “conflicts of interest,” what each researcher typically eats for breakfast every day.  You’d find out a lot more about “affiliations” and “interests” from that information than from anything else.)

And so there is this:  Meat and fat intake and colorectal cancer risk: A pooled analysis of 14 prospective studies.  It’s an abstract from the Proceedings of the American Association of Cancer Research, from back in 2004.  It found:

Greater intake of either red meat (excluding processed meat) or processed meat was not related to colorectal cancer risk.

Typically, such abstracts are presented at a conference, then later published.  This one never made it publication.  We don’t know why.

Trevor Butterworth does some speculating about the “whys” here:

When contacted by STATS.org, Smith-Warner said they wanted to add a few more studies before publishing their results next year. But the fact is that their colorectal cancer study had more subjects than many of the other studies published by the Pooling Project – and the four-year delay in publication cannot but raise the question of whether their results just didn’t fit in with the nutritional beliefs of Harvard’s School of Public Health, one of whose senior figures – Dr. Walter Willett – has long recommended limiting red meat and who, coincidentally, is a board member of the World Cancer Research Fund.

It’s not the first time studies that contradict the status quo in nutrition never made it publication.  This study also never got past conference proceedings, though there was an article about it in the Harvard Gazette and Walter Willett (who certainly seems to practice what he preaches) has his name on the abstract:

Greene, P., Willett, W., Devecis, J., and Skaf, A. (2003). Pilot 12-Week Feeding Weight-Loss Comparison: Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate (Ketogenic) Diets (abstract presented at The North American Association for the Study of Obesity Annual Meeting 2003), Obesity Research, 11S, 95-OR.

Greene’s study found that a higher calorie low-carb diet resulted in more weight loss than a lower-calorie low-fat diet.  I’m not arguing about what this study might prove about diets in general, so back off, all you folks out there foaming at the mouth to pick it apart.  Truth is, you can’t really critique it, because it never got published.

Another study that almost didn’t make it out of the gate concluded that:

Our findings do not support the hypothesis that a diet consistent with the 2005 DGA benefits long-term weight maintenance in American young adults.

In a nutshell, Daisy Zamora found that black participants with a higher Diet Quality Index (according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans) gained more weight over time than whites (with either a higher or lower Diet Quality Index).  More surprisingly, these black participants also gained more weight over time than blacks with a lower Diet Quality Index.

Again, I’m not arguing the strengths or shortcomings of this research. The part of the story that matters here is that Zamora worked on this study as part of her PhD research at UNC-Chapel Hill.  She found a tremendous amount of resistance to her findings, to the extent that she was counseled to “redo” her work without examining racial differences.

I’ve been hip-checked into the rails by the politics of nutrition science myself.

I guess that’s why, to some extent, I feel that all of the talk about “good” science vs. “bad” science in nutrition is misplaced.  How do we even know that the part of “the science” we get to see fairly represents the work that has been done when the whole process is so highly politicized and ideological?  How many grad students slogging away in labs or poking away at databases find things that never make it to publication because it would compromise the prevailing paradigm and their advisor’s funding (and don’t have the huevos that Zamora had to get her findings published anyway)? I feel pretty certain this doesn’t just happen in nutrition, but in nutrition it really matters to each of us, every day–and even more so to those who rely on government programs for food.

How did nutrition science become so politicized?  Dietary Guidelines, I’m looking at you.  When policy “chooses” a winner and a loser in a scientific controversy, things change. Science gets done differently. And when policy (dressed up as science) chooses a side in what we should/should not eat in order to prevent ostensibly preventable things like obesity and disease, well, all hell breaks loose. When we act like we “know” what foods cause/prevent disease, good health becomes entirely the responsibility of the individual.  If you get fat or sick–no matter what else is going in your world or in your body–it’s your own damn fault.

How do we un-politicize nutrition science? This article from Daniel Sarewitz, “Science can’t solve it,” offers some clues.  Although he’s focusing on new biotechnologies that have out-run our ethical frameworks for dealing with them, these remarks could just as well apply to diet-chronic disease science.  He calls for discussions and deliberations that:

… could address questions about what is acceptable and what isn’t, about appropriate governance frameworks for research, and about the relative priority of different lines of study given ongoing and inevitable uncertainties and disagreements about risks and benefits.

If there’s one thing we’ve got in diet-chronic disease science, it is “ongoing and inevitable uncertainties.”  It’s highly unlikely that science is going to solve those uncertainties anytime soon.  As for ethical frameworks, we have never given serious consideration to the ethical implications–not to mention the outright absurdity–of subjecting everyone in our diverse population to a single dietary prescription designed to prevent all of the major chronic diseases (none of which have ever been established as primarily nutritional in nature).

Until we get to these kinds of discussion, the creators of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines ought to listen to what Paul Marantz had to say back in 2010:

 When the evidence is murky, public health officials may best be served by exercising restraint, which is reflected by making no recommendation at all.

And when they don’t (cuz who can resist telling all those stupid Americans how to eat?), at the very least, we’ll all get a little smarter about “the science.”  As @Ted_Underwood put it on Twitter:

A stubborn love of bacon just taught Americans the diff. between p-values & effect size better than 100 stats courses could.

Works for me.

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Many thanks to Dr. Sarah Hallberg, without whom it would have taken me another 5 years to stumble across some of these articles.

*Run one PTA meeting and try to get a half-dozen fairly intelligent, well-educated adults to coordinate plans for a yard sale, and you’ll see what I mean.  We can’t agree on whether used children’s books should be 50 cents or $1–figuring out whether to ruin the health of Americans by buying off the media or silencing the scientists would be beyond any possible reckoning.

I went to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Report oral comments session and all I got was this lousy video clip

I had the pleasure of sharing the condensed version of my summary of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report with the folks in Washington earlier this week.

If your idea of fun is watching paint dry, you can catch the full series of comments here.  I’m at 46.24 minutes (at the end, you can play “spot the dietitian” who doesn’t think my comments are one bit amusing).

If you sit through it all, you’ll notice that it’s pretty much an industry vs. vegans cage-match.  Which, unfortunately, leads the folks in the D.C. bubble to think that all “regular folks” (i.e. non-industry) are vegans.

Do me a favor.  Head on over to HHS.gov and provide some written comments of your own.  They can be short, sweet, to the point, but add something! Oral comments (like mine) do not have any more “weight” than written ones.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.  Why bother? It’s not going to change anything.  You’re probably right.  It isn’t.  But do it anyway.  The vegatarian community has been vocal, active, present, and heavily invested in this process since the Dietary Guidelines began.  How do you think a vegan diet went from being a “dangerous fad” back in the 1970s to being part of national nutrition policy in 2010?  It’s not like it somehow got “healthier.”

If I try to make the case to policymakers that the rest of America kinda likes eating dead animals, the response is, well, why didn’t we hear from them?  Like attending a funeral “to pay respects to the dead,” it seems (and is) pretty pointless in some regards.  But it does matter.  If not for these specific Guidelines, then for the next ones.

Healthy Nation Coalition has a preliminary analysis of the DGAC Report here that you can use for inspiration.  Or take a few tips from our coalition letter here.

Better yet, tell the folks writing the Guidelines your own story about food and health.  Let them know their Guidelines don’t work for everyone.  And get any friends, neighbors, and co-workers who would rather not have a “culture of health” enforcing their right to eat lentil burgers to pitch in too.

Hey, if I can wear pantyhose for 6 hours straight in order to look presentable at this meeting, the least you can do is go fill out a form.  You can do that in your pajamas.

Written comments accepted through end of day on May 8.