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.



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 a headline grabber, 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 wide spread use.


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.


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 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 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 they 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.


  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 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.




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 you 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Daisy Zamora and Christopher Ramsden are rockstars, and

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

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


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

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

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.



*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.

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 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, 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.


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.

Make me some science I can’t refuse

In case you missed it, in a recent article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine entitled Overstatement of Results in the Nutrition and Obesity Peer-Reviewed Literature (not making this up), the authors found that a lot of papers published in the field of obesity and nutrition have, shall we say, issues.

Well–as they say down South– I never!

The authors looked at over 900 scientific articles on nutrition or obesity published either in 2001 or 2011 in leading journals. They found that about 1 in 11 include “overreaching statements of results.” 

Here’s how the authors described statements that would be coded as “overreaching”:

  • reporting an associative relationship as causal
  • making policy recommendations based on observational data that show associations only (e.g., not cause and effect)
  • inappropriately generalizing to a population not represented by the sample studied

Frankly, I am totally offended. Someone needs to let these folks know that, in nutrition epidemiology, correlation actually does equal causation.

What’s more, nutrition policy recommendations are supposed to be based on observational data. Hello? Dietary Guidelines? (Seriously. You don’t expect public health nutrition people to do actual experiments now, do you? I mean, unless you are talking about our population-wide, no-control-group, 35-year experiment with low-fat diet recommendations, but that’s different.)

And we don’t mind generalizing conclusions to Everyone in the Whole Wide World based on data from a bunch of white health care professionals born before the atom bomb because, honestly, those are the only data we really care about.

Equating correlation and causation, over-generalizing observations, and then using these results as the basis of policy is the bread (whole wheat) and butter (substitute) of nutrition epidemiology of chronic disease (aka NECD – pronounced Southern-style as “nekked”). NECD has a long proud tradition of misinterpreting results this way, and dammit, nobody is going to take that away from us.

Early NECD researchers have in the past tried to tentatively misinterpret results by obliquely implying that observed nutritional patterns might perhaps have resulted in the disease under investigation. Wusses.

In 1990, Walter Willett and JoAnn Manson came along to show us how the pros do it. These mavericks were the ones who made bold inroads into the kind of overreaching conclusions that made NECD great. Their data come from an observational study of female registered nurses from 11 states in the US, born between 1921 and 1946, who were asked to remember and report what they ate 4 whole times between 1976 and 1984, plus remember and report what they weighed when they were 18 years old. From this dataset, which is clearly comprehensive, and this population, which is practically every female in the US, Willett, Manson and company naturally conclude that “obesity is a major cause of excess morbidity and mortality from coronary heart disease among women in the United States” (emphasis mine). None of this wimpy “associated with increased risk of” bullshooey, obesity CAUSES heart disease, they tell us, CAUSES IT!!!! BWHAAAHAAAAA!!!!!!!

It is on this foundation of intrepid willingness to misinterpret data that the science of NECD was built. This is why Walter Willett is the Big Kahuna at the Harvard School of Public Health. He has demonstrated the courage to misinterpret data in innovative and comprehensive ways, publishing articles throughout his career that indicate that even small increases in BMI—including BMI levels that are currently considered “normal”–cause chronic disease.

In 1999, in what is considered a landmark article in overstatement, one with which all NECD acolytes should familiarize themselves, he states unequivocally, in a review of observational data:

“Excess body fat is a cause of cardiovascular diseases, several important cancers, and numerous other medical conditions . . . “ (my emphasis). Hmmmm. Observed associations reported as causal? Ding!

The rest of that sentence reads: ” . . . and is a growing problem in many countries.” His data is once again gathered mostly from American white health care professionals born before the atom bomb. Generalization from specific populations to the rest of the world? Ding ding.

And what should we do with this conclusion, according to Willett? “Preventing weight gain and overweight among persons with healthy weights and avoiding further weight gain among those already overweight are important public health goals.” Using observed associations to make policy recommendations? Ding ding ding. In one fell swoop, Willett dexterously manages to use all three designated methods of overstatement and misinterpretation in the nutrition epidemiology NECD toolbox, demonstrating why he is considered by most researchers to be “the ‘father’ of nutrition epidemiology.” This man overstates and misinterprets in ways that the rest of us can only dream of doing.

Sadly, some epidemiologist have failed to follow in Willett’s footsteps. In January 2013, Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the woman who first noted the remarkably rapid rise in obesity that began in the decade following the release of the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans, published results that concluded that being overweight (or even mildly obese) is associated with a lower risk of death. At no point in her article does she suggest that overweight or obesity results in increased lifespan.

The response from Harvard? Walter Willett calls Flegal’s article ” a pile of rubbish” and insists that “no one should waste their time reading it” and rightly so. Why would anyone want to hear about “associations”? What kind of nonsense is that? Obviously Flegal lacks the professionalism it takes to make the leap from observation to causation.

But that’s okay. Willett and the Harvard Family know how to deal with this sort of thing.

“Someday, and that day appears to have come, I will call upon you to ignore the work of other scientists when their results contradict my own.”

Let’s face it, in the world of NECD, you can’t just have people like Flegal refusing to infer causation from observed results, just because they don’t want to. When that sort of thing happens, well, let’s just say, if she won’t do it, the Harvard Family will have to do it for her. And so they did.

In February 2013, Willett and company convened a Harvard Family gathering to, in their words, “elucidate inaccuracies in a recent high-profile JAMA article [i.e. Flegal’s] which claimed that being overweight leads to reduced mortality” (emphasis mine). Which it didn’t–except now, voila, it does. It’s not personal, Dr. Flegal. It’s strictly science.

The Family get-together was held at the Harvard School of Public Health, a “neutral convening space” that is also ground zero for the Nurses’ Health Study I and II, the Physicians Health Study I and II, and the Health Professional Follow Up Study, three datasets that have generated many NECD articles that, unlike Flegal’s article, brilliantly illustrate the powers of misinterpreting observational data. That Flegal herself was invited, but “could not attend” tells us just how ashamed she must be of her inability to make over-reaching conclusions–or perhaps she was temporarily “incapacitated” if you know what I mean.

The webcast from the meeting show us how NECD should be done, with dazzling examples of overstatement and marvelous feats of misinterpretation.

In the world of NECD, PowerPoint arrows are a scientifically-acceptable method of establishing causation.

In her shining moment, Dr. JoAnn Manson, demonstrating that she has learned well from Willett, points to the slide above and asks: “How is it possible that overweight and obesity would cause all of these life-threatening conditions, increase their incidence, and then reduce mortality?” How indeed???

The panelists highlighted the importance of maintaining clear standards of overstatement and expressed concern that Flegal’s research could undermine future attempts of more credible researchers to misinterpret data as needed to protect the health of the public.

Because that’s what it’s all about folks: protection. Someone needs to protect the science from renegades like Flegal, and someone needs to protect the public from science.

We should be thankful that we have Willett and the Harvard Family there. They know that data like Flegal’s can only confuse the poor widdle brains of Americans. Allowing us to be exposed to such “rubbish” might lead us to the risky conclusion that perhaps overweight and mild obesity won’t cause all of us to die badly, or to the even more dangerous notion that observational data should remark only upon association, not causation. And we sure don’t want that to happen.

As Don Dr. Willett says, “It is important for people to have correct information about the relationship between health and body weight.” And when he wants us to have the correct information about the relationship between health and body weight, he’ll misinterpret it for us.

Take the science, leave the cannoli.