In the process of reading lots of books and reading articles on nutrition I keep running across the meme that what is ailing our society is the proposed “low fat” diets from the 1950s. Back then research said, and depending on whom you listen to it still does, that the secret to battling heart disease is to switch to a low-fat diet and to reduce meat consumption. As the meme goes, we as a society did all that and all that happened was we got fatter and didn’t make a dent in heart disease. If that’s truly the case, then that’s a travesty. The question is, is that what happened at all?
Let’s say for a moment that a guy, John, went to a financial adviser that told him that based on his savings profile he were in real danger of not having enough for retirement. John had been saving about five percent of each paycheck but the adviser shows that he should be saving fifteen percent. He lays out the suggestion and plan that if John saves fifteen percent he would be golden. In fact if John did this for five years he could be ahead of schedule. The two shake on it and out John goes.
Fast forward ten years later, John notices his balance sheet is nowhere near where it was supposed to be. In an agitated state he calls this supposedly knowledgeable adviser and chews out the guy since he was nowhere near on track and even further behind. John blamed the fact that the markets didn’t do what the adviser said they were going to. The adviser concedes, “Yes, the markets haven’t been performing as great recently, but that was built into the assumptions as well.” He then asks, “Were you putting in fifteen percent each check like we had planned?” John responds, “Well no, I wasn’t able to do that. I had really wanted to and started for a little while, but things just kept getting away from me.”
The adviser understands and tries to offer him a consolation, “Well five percent isn’t great but it’s a good base at least.” John gets a little quieter, “Yeah about that. I actually didn’t even make five percent each pay period. Things just kept getting away from me and it was closer to three percent.” The adviser is silent for a moment and then sets about trying to help John out. As he’s going over the plan he notices that not only is John not saving as much but his expenses are much higher than they were supposed to be too. It’s a double whammy that is leaving John in a lurch. So based on that whole story, was the problem the advice John got or the fact John didn’t follow it? Not only did he not follow it but he also added an additional problem by spending a lot more?
The same is true of this whole “the low fat diet killed us” meme. Are we consuming a lower fat diet? What was this diet supposed to look like? We were supposed to eat less meat, use less oils, eat more whole grains and fruits and vegetables. Did we do any of those? We actually did eat more fruits and vegetables, believe it or not. We unfortunately also ate more of everything else. According to this USDA report we have steadily eaten more and more calories each year, per capita, to the point that we eat 500 more calories per person than we did in 1970. We also are far more sedentary. Well that certainly takes care of figuring out how our waistlines are bulging. It must have been that darn low fat diet! Or is it?
Is the diet of the modern American anything like the recommendations that were set out decades ago or in its current form? Are we reducing meat consumption at all? Far from it, we are consuming more meat than we have in over 100 years. Are we cutting out refined carbs? Actually those are up too. We must be adding less fat to our food, since that was what the whole lower fat thing was about. Nope, while we use less butter and margarine table side we add far more fat in the cooking process. How about the grain consumption, did that track the diet at all? Grain consumption is definitely up a lot, it makes up half of the increased calorie consumption. Unfortunately we decided to ignore the advice on eating mostly whole grains and instead are going for the refined grains.
So just to keep track, we were told to eat more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, less meats and less added fats. Instead we ate more of everything. Yes grains contributed an additional 9.5 percentage points to the calorie consumption increases, but oils and fats used up another 9 percentage points. Furthermore the grains were all refined grains, which were specifically targeted as being something that should be reduced. Added sugars, something which the recommendations did not prescribe, made up another 4.7 percentage points. The only thing we are consuming less of are eggs and dairy, and most of that is from the fact that we don’t drink milk the way we used to.
We haven’t even gotten to the fact that most of these foods are now processed rather than in whole forms or other matters. Based solely on this data however it is clear that we haven’t even come close to following the dietary recommendations of the prescribed low fat diet. We aren’t even going in the direction towards what the recommendations prescribed. How then could that prescription be what is causing our obesity and heart disease problems? Therefore how can following the exact opposite of that advice on macronutrients, following a high-fat diet, be the key to reversing the problems that were supposedly caused by the original guidelines if the population as a whole haven’t been and are not following them?