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.

Keeping it Simply Stupid: Marion Nestle’s “Rogue Guidelines”

One of the things I do to irritate myself into a state of incoherence is read the comments section on interwebz articles that propose to address our national concerns about food and health. A constantly recurring theme about eating a “healthy diet”–100% guaranteed to appear in any comment section–is “It’s so simple. Just [do this thing].”*

I blame the Dietary Guidelines (but then I blame the Dietary Guidelines for everything–when my car won’t start, it’s those damn  Guidelines again).  They began the long proud tradition of over-simplifying nutrition guidance to the point of uselessness, a tradition that Michael Pollan, and now Marion Nestle, has taken to new levels of banality. This oversimplification not only displays an unholy disregard for any sort of cultural, economic, or metabolic differences between humans, but–when you get down to the details (the main ingredients of which are always devilish)–it “simply” doesn’t say much of anything.

Marion Nestle and Tamar Haspel wrote a whole long article about the “6 easy steps” to eating better, reproduced in the boxes below.  Ranting in regular type?  That’s me.

Go through the fine print of the omnibus spending bill just passed by Congress, and you’ll see that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, scheduled for release in — you guessed it — 2015, have been pushed out to 2016. You wouldn’t think that the government’s efforts, every five years, to help Americans eat more healthfully would turn into a political football. But when its appointed scientists reviewed the literature on meat and health, for example, they did something quite radical. They said what they meant with no equivocations: Americans should eat less meat.

In order to keep things simple, it’s best if you ignore any historical facts that might add nuance–or reality–to your story.  Like the fact that this 38-year-old “radical” idea to “eat less meat” arrived in the first edition of the 1977 Dietary Goals.  Yes, this statement was changed in the 2nd edition of the 1977 Goals, but not–as Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan would have it–due to the fact that Evil Meat ran roughshod over the science. Of course the meat folks were upset; this call to “eat less meat” had about as much science behind it as similar suggestions at the time that vegetable oil could cause health problems, which is to say, not enough to justify public health policy. Yet, due to reasons more social, political, and economic than scientific, the prohibitions about meat are still with us, while concerns about vegetable oil have faded out of mainstream nutrition

Numerous physicians and scientists represented in the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States: Supplemental Views, point out that (as McGovern himself and one of his primary supporters, Dr. Mark Hegsted, admit) the case against meat had never been proven. They go on to argue that suggesting that Americans remove/reduce an important source of nutrition in their diet (meat) may have unforeseen negative consequences. Norton Spritz (NYU School of Medicine) states: “… there are serious nutritional problems that affect many Americans that are clearly related to dietary inadequacies particularly of high quality protein …” George M. Briggs (Professor of Nutrition at UC-Berkeley) states: “There is good evidence that those who consume meat at the average level or more have as good health records and freedom from chronic disease as those who do not.”

The switch in language in the 2nd edition of the 1977 Goals to decreasing “saturated fat” intake rather than “meat” in general was not because there was more conclusive science to support that approach, but because it was politically more tenable.  Meat producers could try to–and did–breed animals with a reduced amount of the ostensible evil food component, saturated fat, in their product. But saturated fat wasn’t really the problem now, was it?

F.A. Kummerow (Director, The Burnsides Research Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) points out: “Your data indicates that animal fat consumption has decreased 24 pounds and vegetable fat consumption has increased 34 pounds/capita from 1940 to 1974. Yet, coronary disease has increased during a time period that this change took place. Why blame animal fats?” (See Nina Teicholz’s neato graph for a visual of the trend.) Well, because they come from animals, and there are all sorts of social and cultural reasons that some people are opposed to eating animals, that’s why. Why these people got to make the rules for the rest of us is a story for a different day.

Scientists voiced a number of valid concerns about the wisdom of telling Americans to eat less meat in 1977, many of which are still valid today:  over 40% of Americans, mostly females,  have inadequate protein intake.  But that complicates the narrative, doesn’t it?

As if that were not radical enough — previous committees had pussyfooted with such euphemisms as “choose lean meats to reduce saturated fat” — this committee insisted on an additional reason beyond health: environmental considerations.

 The result? Uproar.

Why have an uproar about a group of nutrition scientists (for the rigors of nutrition science, see below) making declarations about environmental issues? Perhaps next year, we can have the EPA make dietary recommendations.

Arguments like the ones over the Dietary Guidelines, fueled by lobbyists, politicians and agenda-driven groups, make diet advice seem maddeningly inconsistent, but the fundamentals haven’t changed much at all.

Sigh.  “Fundamentals”? Really?  Which fundamentals would you be talking about now?  The “fundamentals” of 1955 when more than half of our calories came from meat, eggs, milk, cream, fats and oils? Oh, and adult diabetes was virtually unheard of.

eat like your grandmother

 

It’s time to take back the process, so we’re going rogue and issuing our own Dietary Guidelines, untainted by industry lobbying, unrestricted by partisan politics. Here, in six easy steps, is our advice for the new year: what we think dietary guidelines ought to say.

Really?  Untainted by industry lobbying? Because wheat and vegetable oil interests never lobby–only Evil Meat.  That’s why the bottom of Marion Nestle’s beloved Food Pyramid ended up being ALL MEAT. Wait?  No?  Nevermind.

1. Eat more plants. You heard it from your grandmother. You heard it from Michael Pollan. Now you hear it from us: Eat your vegetables. Add fruits, beans and whole grains, and the wide-ranging plant category should make up most of your diet. Variety is the key. Plants offer us such an astonishing range of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, buds and seeds that there is bound to be something even the most jaded vegetable skeptic can love.

It’s just so simple.  Eat more plants. The biggest increase in calories during the rise in obesity and diabetes in America came from flour, cereal, and vegetable oils.  That’s right.  Plants.

Food supply changes calories

As for your grandmother (or great-grandmother), she ate at least 10% of her calories from vegetables and fruit, and so should you (see above).

2.  Don’t eat more calories than you need. Although on any given day it’s hard to tell whether you’re doing that, over the long term, your scale is a sure-fire indicator. If the pounds are going up, eat less.

It’s just so simple.  Don’t eat more calories than you need, whatever that means.  You can’t really tell when you’ve overeaten–until after the fact–at which point you should eat less.  If you’re hungry when you “eat less,” tough luck.  Suck it up, you wuss, you’ve already had more calories than you “need.”

Let’s pause here for the good news. If you follow our first two guidelines, you can stop worrying. Everything else is fine-tuning, and you have plenty of leeway.

That was the “good news”?

3. Eat less junk. “And what’s junk?” we hear you asking. We have faith that you know exactly what junk is. It’s foods with lots of calories, plenty of sugar and salt, and not nearly enough nutritional value. It’s soda and sugary drinks. It’s highly processed, packaged foods designed to be irresistible. It’s fast food. You know it when you see it. When you do, don’t eat too much of it.

It’s just so simple.  Eat less “junk.”  And since we know that it’s really mostly minorities and poor people who eat all the “junk” food, we should start by eliminating all the  poor people by giving them more money so they don’t go around being poor.  After that we should encourage a massive influx of people of color into the U.S. so minorities won’t be minorities anymore and will therefore stop eating junk food.  Problem solved.

4.  Eat a variety of foods you enjoy. There is research on the health implications of just about any food you can think of. Some — such as fish — may be good for you. You should eat others — such as meat and refined grains — in smaller amounts. The evidence for most foods is so inconsistent that you should never force yourself to eat them if you don’t want to, or deny yourself if you do. If you love junk foods, you get to eat them, too (in moderation, of course). You have bought yourself that wiggle room by making sure the bulk of your diet is plants and by not eating more than you need.

It’s just so simple.  And by plants you mean flour, cereal, and vegetable oil, right?  And by “not eating more than you need” you mean, well, you don’t know what you mean and neither do we.

This is an appropriate place to talk about a phrase that has been thrown around a lot in the Dietary Guidelines brouhaha: “science-based.”

As a journalist (Tamar) and a scientist (Marion), we’re very much in favor of science. But in this situation, the food industry’s frequent calls for “science-based” guidelines really mean, “We don’t like what you said.”

So, let me see if I understand this?  When the food industry calls for “science-based” guidelines, that’s a bad thing?  But if a bunch of (mostly) scientists call for “science-based” guidelines** that’s a good thing? This is getting a little confusing.

Arriving at truths about human nutrition isn’t easy.

But wait, you said these are “6 easy steps”?  Ooooooh.  Light bulb moment.  You’re not actually planning on telling us any “truths about human nutrition,” are you?  Ah, this is all beginning to make sense.

We can’t keep research subjects captive and feed them controlled diets for the decades it takes many health problems to play out. Nor can we feed them something until it kills them. We have to rely on animal research, short-term trials and population data, all of which have serious limitations and require interpretation — and intelligent people can come to quite different opinions about what those studies mean.

Which is why “eat some if you like it” isn’t a wishy-washy cop-out. It acknowledges science’s limitations. We do know that plants are good, and we do know that junk foods aren’t, but in between is an awful lot of uncertainty. So, eat more plants, eat less junk, and eat that in-between stuff moderately. That is exactly the advice science demands.

“We do know that plants are good.”  Which plants are you talking about? Corn, wheat, soy = plants, right?  And how do we know these plants (whichever plants you mean) are “good”?  Surely not through the vagaries of nutrition science, with all of its “serious limitations.”  You’ve just made the case that nutrition science is a poorly disciplined loudmouth whose “demands” we might very well ignore.  Oh wait. Right.  This is the part about not exactly telling us any “truths about human nutrition.”

What we eat and how we eat go hand in hand. We’ve all been there, sitting in front of a screen and finding that, all of a sudden, that bag, box or sleeve of something crunchy and tasty is all gone.

We’re so focused on what to eat that how to eat gets short shrift. So: 

5.  Find the joy in food. Eat mindfully and convivially. One of life’s great gifts is the need to eat, so don’t squander it with mindless, joyless consumption. Try to find pleasure in every meal, and share it with friends, relatives, even strangers.

Just remember that your mindful, joyful consumption should be Mostly Plants.  Thank goodness flour, cereal, and vegetable oils are Mostly Plants, so that I may mindfully and joyfully eat those Strawberry PopTarts.  It’s just so simple.

Poptarts are Mostly Plants

 

Learn to cook. The better you cook, the better you eat. There are days when cooking feels like a chore, but there are also days when you find profound satisfaction in feeding wholesome homemade food to people you love.

“Learn to cook.”  It’s just so simple.

  1. First, use your copious spare time to chillax with some Ina Garten YouTube videos.
  2. Once you “know” how to cook, assemble some easy-to-prepare menu ideas that will meld seamlessly with your work schedule, your workout schedule, your partner’s work schedule, your partner’s workout schedule, and your kids’ soccer/ trombone/tap dancing schedule.  Or maybe your two-jobs and day-care and public transportation schedule. Or any variation on the above in your oh-so-simple life.
  3. Then go shopping and buy all the stuff you need (this step requires money, just FYI). Don’t forget to take your reusable hippie bags.
  4. Carry all the stuff home in the back of your Prius, or on the bus, or if the scale is telling you that you’ve had more calories than you “need,” you can just hoof it home, fatso.
  5. Put all of your groceries away. Try to find a place where the food won’t spoil, and your kids/partner/roommate won’t eat it before it becomes dinner. Recycle your plastic bags since your forgot to use your hippie ones.
  6. At the appointed hour, begin. Chop. Stir. Sauté. All the things.
  7. Call those “people you love” to the table.
  8. Search your soul for that “profound satisfaction” you’ve been promised when the “people you love” use this opportunity to gripe about flavor, color, consistency, and smell of the lovingly prepared food that sucked up hours of your life, which they then proceed to snarf down in 7 minutes flat before bolting from the table in order to escape your nonstop bitching about what a thankless task cooking is.

[Snarky aside:  This advice about cooking?  It just applies to poor slobs like you and me.  As for Marion Nestle herself, she’d prefer not to:  “I eat out a lot and don’t cook much for myself.” ]

And foods you make at home are worlds apart from foods that manufacturers make in factories. No home kitchen ever turned out a Lunchable.

In her “home kitchen,” my mom used to make us bologna and processed cheese food sandwiches on Wonder Bread.  As a special treat, she would sometimes leave the red plastic strip on the bologna.  Extra fiber.  But, most assuredly, not a Lunchable.

If you go out in the world armed only with these guidelines, you’ll do great. Sure, there’s much more to know, if you want to know it. We’ve forged careers writing about food and nutrition, and either one of us could talk micronutrients until your eyes glaze over. But these few basics are all you need to make good food decisions. Choose foods you like — heavy on the plants, light on the junk — cook them and enjoy them.

 It really is that simple.

Simple. Simply useless.  And not exactly “rogue” either.  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines include some form of every single one of these “rogue” guidelines–including the directive to cook and eat at home, preferably with your family, whether you like them or not–even if the 2015 ones don’t.

The only truly “rogue” statement Haspel and Nestle make is in the headline, and it is one with which I concur:

Forget government guidelines.

Simple.

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*Nowadays, when I see an online nutrition article with a comment section, I get out my FATSO card & see how many comments it takes for me to score a FATSO.  FATSO is like BINGO, only renamed in honor of America’s moral panic over body size.

**But not too science-based. According to the two letters sponsored by Center for Science in the Public Interest (motto: “Transfattingforming the American diet”), the members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and a number of other nutrition-related organizations both opposed the notion that “Any new recommendations or changes to the 2010 Guidelines must be based on conclusions rated “Grade 1: Strong” by the Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) rubric.”  In other words, the scientists–not the food industry–would like to have Guidelines based on weak conclusions from a scientific field whose methodology is already pretty weak.  Nice one, scientists.

As the Calories Churn (Episode 3): The Blame Game

In the previous episode of As the Calories Churn, we explored the differences in food supply/consumption between America in 1970 and America in 2010.

We learned that there were some significant changes in those 40 years. We saw dramatic increases in vegetable oils, grain products, and poultry—the things that the 1977 Dietary Goals and the 1980 Dietary Guidelines told us to increase. We saw decreases in red meat, eggs, butter, and full-fat milk—things that our national dietary recommendations told us to decrease. Mysteriously, what didn’t seem to increase much—or at all—were SoFAS (meaning “Solid Fats and Added Sugars”) which, as far as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are concerned, are the primary culprits behind our current health crisis. (“Solid Fats” are a linguistic sleight-of-hand that lumps saturated fat from natural animal sources in with processed partially-hydrogenated vegetables oils and margarines that contain transfats; SoFAS takes the trick a step further, by being not only a dreadful acronym in terms of implying that poor health is caused by sitting on our “sofas,” but by creating an umbrella term for foods that have little in common in terms of structure, biological function or nutrition.)

Around the late 70s or early 80s, there were sudden and rapid changes in America’s food supply and food choices and similar sudden and rapid changes in our health. How these two phenomena are related remains a matter of debate. It doesn’t matter if you’re Marion Nestle and you think the problem is calories or if you’re Gary Taubes and you think the problem is carbohydrate—both of those things increased in our food supply. (Whether or not the problem is fat is an open debate; food availability data points to an increase in added fats and oil, the majority of which are, ironically enough, the “healthy” monounsaturated kind; consumption data points to a leveling off of overall fat intake and a decrease in saturated fat—not a discrepancy I can solve here.) What seems to continue to mystify people is why this changed occurred so rapidly at this specific point in our food and health history.

Personally responsible or helplessly victimized?

At one time, it was commonly thought that obesity was a matter of personal responsibility and that our collective sense of willpower took a nosedive in the 80s, but nobody could ever explain quite why. (Perhaps a giant funk swept over the nation after The Muppet Show got cancelled, and we all collectively decided to console ourselves with Little Debbie Snack Cakes and Nickelodeon?) But because this approach is essentially industry-friendly (Hey, says Big Food, we just make the stuff!) and because no one has any explanation for why nearly three-quarters of our population decided to become fat lazy gluttons all at once (my Muppet Show theory notwithstanding) or for the increase of obesity among preschool children (clearly not affected by the Muppet Show’s cancellation), public health pundits and media-appointed experts have decided that obesity is no longer a matter of personal responsibility. Instead the problem is our “obesogenic environment,” created by the Big Bad Fast Processed Fatty Salty Sugary Food Industry.

Even though it is usually understood that a balance between supply and demand creates what happens in the marketplace, Michael Pollan has argued that it is the food industry’s creation of cheap, highly-processed, nutritionally-bogus food that has caused the rapid rise in obesity. If you are a fan of Pollanomics, it seems obvious that food industry—on a whim?—made a bunch of cheap tasty food, laden with fatsugarsalt, hoping that Americans would come along and eat it. And whaddaya know? They did! Sort of like a Field of Dreams only with Taco-flavored Doritos.

As a result, obesity has become a major public health problem.

Just like it was in 1952.

Helen Lee in thought-provoking article, The Making of the Obesity Epidemic (it is even longer than one of my blog posts, but well worth the time) describes how our obesity problem looked then:

“It is clear that weight control is a major public health problem,” Dr. Lester Breslow, a leading researcher, warned at the annual meeting of the western branch of the American Public Health Association (APHA).
 At the national meeting of the APHA later that year, experts called obesity “America’s No. 1 health problem.”

The year was 1952. There was exactly one McDonald’s in all of America, an entire six-pack of Coca-Cola contained fewer ounces of soda than a single Super Big Gulp today, and less than 10 percent of the population was obese.

In the three decades that followed, the number of McDonald’s restaurants would rise to nearly 8,000 in 32 countries around the world,
sales of soda pop and junk food would explode — and yet, against the fears and predictions of public health experts, obesity in the United States hardly budged. The adult obesity rate was 13.4 percent in 1960. In 1980, it was 15 percent. If fast food was making us fatter, it wasn’t by very much.

Then, somewhat inexplicably, obesity took off.”

It is this “somewhat inexplicably” that has me awake at night gnashing my teeth.

And what is Government going to do about it?

I wonder how “inexplicable” it would be to Ms. Lee had she put these two things together:

(In case certain peoples have trouble with this concept, I’ll type this very slowly and loudly: I’m not implying that the Dietary Guidelines “caused” the rise in obesity; I am merely illustrating a temporal relationship of interest to me, and perhaps to a few billion other folks. I am also not implying that a particular change in diet “caused” the rise in obesity. My focus is on the widespread and encompassing effects that may have resulted from creating one official definition of “healthy food choices to prevent chronic disease” for the entire population.)

Right now we are hearing calls from every corner for the government to create or reform policies that will reign in industry and “slim down the nation.” Because we’d never tried that before, right?

When smoking was seen as a threat to the health of Americans, the government issued a definitive report outlining the science that found a connection between smoking and risk of chronic disease. Although there are still conspiracy theorists that believe that this has all been a Big Plot to foil the poor widdle tobacco companies, in general, the science was fairly straightforward. Cigarette smoking—amount and duration—is relatively easy to measure, and the associations between smoking and both disease and increased mortality were compelling and large enough that it was difficult to attribute them to methodological flaws.

Notice that Americans didn’t wait around for the tobacco industry to get slapped upside the head by the FDA’s David Kessler in the 1990s. Tobacco use plateaued in the 1950s as scientists began to publicize reports linking smoking and cancer. The decline in smoking in America began in earnest with the release of Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General in 1964. A public health campaign followed that shifted social norms away from considering smoking as an acceptable behavior, and smoking saw its biggest declines before litigation and sanctions against Big Tobacco  happened in the 1990s.

Been there, done that, failed miserably.

In a similar fashion, the 1977 Dietary Goals were the culmination of concerns about obesity that had begun decades before, joined by concerns about heart disease voiced by a vocal minority of scientists led by Ancel Keys. Declines in red meat, butter, whole milk and egg consumption had already begun in response to fears about cholesterol and saturated fat that originated with Keys and the American Heart Association—which used fear of fat and the heart attacks they supposedly caused as a fundraising tactic, especially among businessmen and health professionals, whom they portrayed as especially susceptible to this disease of “successful civilization and high living.”  The escalation of these fears—and declines in intake of animal foods portrayed as especially dangerous—picked up momentum when Senator George McGovern and his Select Senate Committee created the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans. It was thought that, just as we had “tackled” smoking, we could create a document advising Americans on healthy food choices and compliance would follow. But issue was a lot less straightforward.

To begin with, when smoking was at its peak, only around 40% of the population smoked. On the other hand, we expect that approximately 100% of the population eats.

In addition, the anti-smoking campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s built on a long tradition of public health messages—originating with the Temperance movement—that associated smoking with dirty habits, loose living, and moral decay. It was going to be much harder to fully convince Americans that traditional foods typically associated with robust good health, foods that the US government thought were so nutritionally important that in the recent past they had been “saved” for the troops, were now suspect and to be avoided.

Where the American public had once been told to save “wheat, meat, and fats” for the soldiers, they now had to be convinced to separate the “wheat” from the “meat and fats” and believe that one was okay and the others were not.

To do this, public health leaders and policy makers turned to science, hoping to use it just as it had been used in anti-smoking arguments. Frankly, however, nutrition science just wasn’t up to the task. Linking nutrition to chronic disease was a field of study that would be in its infancy after it grew up a bit; in 1977, it was barely embryonic. There was little definitive data to support the notion that saturated fat from whole animal foods was actually a health risk; even experts who thought that the theory that saturated fat might be linked to heart disease had merit didn’t think there was enough evidence to call for dramatic changes in American’s eating habits.

The scientists who were intent on waving the “fear of fat” flag had to rely on observational studies of populations (considered then and now to be the weakest form of evidence), in order to attempt to prove that heart disease was related to intake of saturated fat (upon closer examination, these studies did not even do that).

Nutrition epidemiology is a soft science, so soft that it is not difficult to shape it into whatever conclusions the Consistent Public Health Message requires. In large-scale observational studies, dietary habits are difficult to measure and the results of Food Frequency Questionnaires are often more a product of wishful thinking than of reality. Furthermore, the size of associations in nutrition epidemiological studies is typically small—an order of magnitude smaller than those found for smoking and risk of chronic disease.

But nutrition epidemiology had proved its utility in convincing the public of the benefits of dietary change in the 70s and since then has become the primary tool—and the biggest funding stream (this is hardly coincidental)—for cementing in place the Consistent Public Health Message to reduce saturated fat and increase grains and cereals.

There is no doubt that the dramatic dietary change that the federal government was recommending was going to require some changes from the food industry, and they appear to have responded to the increased demands for low-fat,whole grain products with enthusiasm. Public health recommendations and the food fears they engendered are (as my friend James Woodward puts it) “a mechanism for encouraging consumers to make healthy eating decisions, with the ultimate goal of improving health outcomes.” Experts like Kelly Brownell and Marion Nestle decry the tactics used by the food industry of taking food components thought to be “bad” out of products while adding in components thought to be “good,” but it was federal dietary recommendations focusing above all else on avoiding saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt that led the way for such products to be marketed as “healthy” and to become acceptable to a confused, busy, and anxious public. The result was a decrease in demand for red meat, butter, whole milk and egg, and an increase in demand for low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol, and “whole” grain products. Minimally-processed animal-based products were replaced by cheaply-made, highly-processed plant-based products, which food manufacturers could market as healthy because, according to our USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines, they were healthy.

The problem lies in the fact that—although these products contained less of the “unhealthy” stuff Americans were supposed to avoid—they also contained less of our most important nutrients, especially protein and fat-soluble vitamins. We were less likely to feel full and satisfied eating these products, and we were more likely to snack or binge—behaviors that were also fully endorsed by the food industry.

Between food industry marketing and the steady drumbeat of media messages explaining just how deadly red meat and eggs are (courtesy of population studies from Harvard, see above), Americans got the message. About 36% of the population believe that UFOs are real; only 25% believe that there’s no link between saturated fat and heart disease. We are more willing to believe that we’ve been visited by creatures from outer space than we are to believe that foods that humans have been eating ever since they became human have no harmful effects on health. But while industry has certainly taken advantage of our gullibility, they weren’t the ones who started those rumors, and they should not be shouldering all of the blame for the consequences.

Fixing it until it broke

Back in 1977, we were given a cure that didn’t work for diseases that we didn’t have. Then we spent billions in research dollars trying to get the glass slipper to fit the ugly stepsister’s foot. In the meantime, the food industry has done just what we would expect it to do, provide us with the foods that we think we should eat to be healthy and—when we feel deprived (because we are deprived)—with the foods we are hungry for.

We can blame industry, but as long as food manufacturers can take any mixture of vegetable oils and grain/cereals and tweak it with added fiber, vitamins, minerals, a little soy protein or maybe some chicken parts, some artificial sweeteners and salt substitutes, plus whatever other colors/preservatives/stabilizers/flavorizers they can get away with and still be able to get the right profile on the nutrition facts panel (which people do read), consumers–confused, busy, hungry–are going to be duped into believing what they are purchasing is “healthy” because–in fact–the government has deemed it so. And when these consumers are hungry later—which they are very likely to be—and they exercise their rights as consumers rather than their willpower, who should we blame then?

There is no way around it. Our dietary recommendations are at the heart of the problem they were created to try to reverse. Unlike the public health approach to smoking, we “fixed” obesity until it broke for real.

Why Calories Count—Fo’Shizzle

Calories are the Radical Terrorist Plot of food. We don’t really know what they are, where they are, or how to successfully avoid them, but they affect all aspects of our lives: how much we eat, how often we exercise, whether or not we feel good about ourselves (our notions of “good” and “bad” behavior frequently revolve around how many calories we’ve avoided/consumed/burned/sat on). Like the Radical Terrorist Plot thing, sometimes it means our lives can get a little weird.

We do know one thing about calories though. According to Marion Nestle,
. . . many people in the world are consuming more calories than they need and becoming overweight and obese.” Simply put, we’re fat because we eat TOO MANY CALORIES—whatever that means.


So—exactly why do calories count?


Luckily, Nutrition Expert Marion Nestle has now written a whole big book to help us understand the mysteries of calories. She very thoughtfully posted an interview of herself being interviewed about the book on her website so we could all see what she thought about her own book. But she’s such a smart person, being a Nutrition Expert and all, I was concerned that some folks would have trouble figuring out exactly what she was saying. I hope this helps clarify things.

Calories count because they are easy to understand.

According to Marion Nestle, “Calories are a convenient way to say a great deal about food, nutrition, and health.” This is true. For instance, calories can tell you a great deal about how many calories are in your food, without having to take into account anything about nutrition or health.

Marion Nestle explains that the idea behind calories is abstract, but simple: “They are a measure of the energy in food and in the body . . .” This is also true. In addition, calories are a way to measure the guilt quotient (lotsa calories) and marketability (teensyweensy amounts of calories) of food, making calories an exceptionally useful concept to both food manufacturers and those working on developing an unhealthy relationship to food.

Calories—as well as guilt and marketability—in food can be determined directly by using a bomb calorimeter, which measures the exact calorie content of food by igniting and burning a dried portion of it. In case you’re wondering, this is EXACTLY how your body measures calories too!

Marion Nestle explains that “Calories measure energy to keep bodies warm, power essential body functions, move muscles, or get stored as fat.” I would add that I don’t really know what calories do either, but if you use calories to keep your body warm, I guess my hot flashes make me “da bomb (calorimeter).” [I so crack myself up]. Hey, but then wouldn’t menopause turn us all into skinny bitches instead of fat ones?

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Calories count because calories are very confusing.

Marion Nestle explains that the reasons we haven’t been able to grasp the whole calories in-calories out thing is that “Even talking about calories is difficult. For starters, calorie counts are given in no less than five different units — calories, Calories, kilocalories, Joules, and kilojoules (along with their abbreviations cal, Cal, kcal, J, and kJ).” These concepts are so confusing to regular folks that only Nutrition Experts like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan actually KNOW how many calories people should really be eating; the rest of the country is just guessing.

And when Americans “self report” on how many calories they eat? Well, let’s just say they are “underreporting,” shall we?

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Calories count because we don’t count them.

Government-Approved Nutrition Experts—not unlike Marion Nestle—MUST make a Big Statement about the Plight of Fat Americans, oh, about every year or so (it’s in their job description). When Slender Motivated Upper-class Gainfully-employed (code name: SMUG) Americans who read the New York Times need to know why we just can’t seem to get those fat stupid Americans to stop being so fat and stupid, they can call on Nutrition Experts–not unlike Marion Nestle–who KNOW the problem is that Americans eat too many calories—whatever that means. By keeping the focus on calories in-calories out, Nutrition Experts and food writers know that they can count on Americans to continue not counting calories , just as they have not counted them for hundreds of thousands of years, thus guaranteeing job security and future book contracts all around.

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Calories count because we do count them.

According to Nutrition Expert Marion Nestle, “The U.S. diet industry is worth about $60 billion a year.” Clearly Americans are willing to shell out for just about anything if they think it will help them figure out why they can’t lose weight when they are doing everything they’ve been told to do for the past 30 years, including eating less fat, eating more carbohydrates, and exercising.

As long as Nutrition Experts can keep Americans counting calories, the food industry, the diet industry, the exercise industry, and the Nutrition Expert industry can keep counting the Benjamins. No calories in a Benjamin—it’s all fiber, baby.


A high fiber Benjamin

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Calories count because we can’t count them.

According to Nutrition Expert Marion Nestle, you can’t see, taste, or smell calories. This means calories are like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. You would have no way of knowing they even exist if there weren’t a giant academic-scientific-industrial-media complex devoted to the worship of calories and keeping them alive in our hearts and minds!


Spoiler alert: This is not the real Easter Bunny.  Like calories, the real Easter Bunny is invisible.

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Calories count because we can count them.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to keep track of your calories even though you can’t see, taste, or smell them.

Marion Nestle says that the best way to measure calories is to step on a scale. So, lessee. I stepped on the scale and I weigh 160 pounds. If I’m 55% water (hooray, no calories there!), and 4% minerals (wait, does calcium have calories?), and then 13% protein (4 calories), 24% fat (9 calories) and 4% carbohydrate (4 calories), well then, hmm multiply by and convert and carry the one and—got it!—I’m exactly 194766.884 I’m exactly 206112.371 calories.

That means if I decrease my calorie intake by 500 calories a day (this where all that helpful calorie information on the side of the box of low-fat, high-fiber, individually calorie-control portion food comes in handy) and increase my activity by 500 calories a day (which I understand I can do simply through insanity, which—according to my children—should not be much of a stretch), that means that on November 10, 2012, sometime around noon, I will disappear altogether because all my calories will be gone. See how easy that is.


Counting calories is easy with a few simple tools.

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Calories count because we should count them.

Because counting calories is sooooo easy, anybody should be able to succeed at maintaining energy balance. There are lots of ways to demonstrate to the world that YOU have the intelligence, willpower, stamina, time, money, and Fine Upstanding Moral Character to keep your calorie balance in check.

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Calories count because counting calories is the only way to keep track of how many calories are in your food.

As with most other important things in life, if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.

According to Marion Nestle, calories are derived from food. This is true of course, but only if you actually eat it. If you do decide to eat food, it’s really important to know how many calories are in your food.

This is why accurate calorie counts on everything we eat are so important! Turns out that your 500-calorie Leen Quizeen entrée may really contain—brace yourself—540 calories! With such inaccuracies in the calorie labeling of food, it’s no wonder Americans are fat.

According to Marion Nestle, this gross inaccuracy of calorie counts means that, “it works better to eat smaller portions than to try to count calories in food.” Lucky for us, food manufacturers make handy little portion-controlled packages of healthy whole grain food for us. And thoughtful Exercise Experts have given us calorie counts for every activity you can think of!


Healthy BAKED (not FRIED) whole grain portion-controlled fish-shaped food-like substance.

For example: An hour of coal mining equals 5 bags of 100-calorie whole grain goldfish, but since those food companies probably snuck in some extra calories in just to mess with us, if you’re coal mining for an hour, you should probably only eat 4 bags.

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Calories count because they are the only thing in your food worth counting.

Marion Nestle says, “Although diets with varying proportions of fat, carbohydrate, and protein may be easier for you to stick to or be more satiating, the bottom line is that if you want to reduce your body weight, you still need to consume fewer calories.” In other words, whether or not you feel full or satisfied has nothing to do with whether or not you’ll consume fewer calories. The reason we consume too many calories is because portion sizes are bigger, soda is cheaper, TV shows are more interesting, and couches are more comfortable than ever before. Plus the intelligence, moral fiber, character, and willpower of the American people are in serious decline.

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What can we do about the “calorie” problem?

According to Marion Nestle, “many groups have a stake in how calories are marketed, perceived, labeled, and promoted”—with the obvious exception of Nutrition Experts writing books about calories. They have NO dog in this fight.

Food manufacturers want Americans to eat a lot of calories, which totally explains why they sneak extra calories into our food for free without telling us.

This is why efforts to do something about obesity must focus on eating less of the foods that don’t come from food manufacturers—like eggs and meat—and focus on eating more foods that come in boxes and bags and cans that have a CALORIE count on them! Of course, Americans should also consume less soda, fast food, snacks, and other highly profitable items. That is, unless these are highly profitable items that Nutrition Experts really like! And really, it would go a long way towards solving our childhood obesity problem if we could only get calorie counts on beer for goodness sake! Darn that alcohol industry.


Thanks to lobbying efforts of the alcohol industry, there is no CALORIE label on this beer!

As Marion Nestle says, “On the societal level, we need measures to make it easier for people to eat less.” We need to work to change the food environment to one that makes it easier to eat healthfully, because—just between you and me—most Americans are just not willing to take charge of their own health.

Things YOU can do to “make the healthy choice the easy choice” for all those poor stupid fat people:

  • Support labeling laws—those poor stupid fat folks need accurate calorie counts on their movie popcorn, darn it!
  • Insist on more Government Approved Information about Nutrition (code name: GAIN)—because it’s been such smashing success so far!
  • Support controls on food advertising to children. The current childhood obesity crisis clearly demonstrates that parents can’t be trusted with complicated decisions like how to feed their children. This is where Nutrition Experts–not unlike Marion Nestle–can advise the FDA, the FCC, NASA, and NASCAR about the nutritional differences  (i.e. calorie counts) between a whole grain bagel (OK!)* and a frosted donut (Oh no you don’t!)** so parents won’t have to worry their pretty little heads about it anymore.
  • Support agricultural policies that encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables (but not eggs and pork chops) from local food systems.  Everyone knows that 90 calories of kale and kohlrabi are less fattening–and even more importantly, many times more virtuous–than the 90 calories in an egg.
  • Help create environments that encourage physical activity, like cities without public transportation. Those fat people standing in line for a bus would burn a lot more calories if they were WALKING to work!

SMUG Americans must remember: those stupid fat people are not just fat and stupid. In the face of our “obesogenic” environment, they are helpless. You need to be the change you want to see—especially in the seat next to you on an airplane.

That right, SMUG Americans, only YOU can prevent fat people.

*330 calories

**270 calories

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