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Unlearn What You Know About Food




Synopsis


BETWEEN THE TWO OF US we’ve met many thousands of people who can reel off calorie counts for hundreds of foods. They also know their total percentage of calo- ries from fat; have memorized total number of grams of protein, saturated fat, and carbs; and can recite these numbers faster than a sports fanatic can rattle off base- ball stats. Some of them can even tell you the exact amount of potassium in a pota- to. In a world in which billions of eaters have access to the Internet, information on food is easy to come by. Not all that long ago, every conscientious “dieter” had a well-thumbed paper- back in the kitchen that listed the calorie counts for everything imaginable. Then the listings got more specific. There were separate books for those who wanted to count carbs and for those who wanted to calculate protein. There were books on how to avoid fat in your diet. Next came books that listed a food’s glycemic index. And soon the books themselves were replaced by countless websites and apps for tracking and analyzing every single morsel or sip. Meanwhile, the nutrition and ingredients labels on food packages grew longer and longer—not exactly a good omen for the consumer. We have a lot of facts at our fingertips about what we eat and drink—more than at any other time in history. But has all this information really helped us? We’re still struggling with our weight and our health, diabetes is rampant, we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic, and according to a statistical update from the American Heart Association, heart disease kills almost eight hundred thousand people a year in the United States alone. Why is this happening? We have an answer. It may not be the only answer—health is, after all, a com- plex, multidetermined affair—but it’s definitely an important part of the answer. We think that one reason for our nutritional dysfunction, and the serious health consequences that have resulted, is because we’ve learned the wrong lessons from all those facts that we’ve accumulated about food. We’ve drawn incorrect or incomplete conclusions; we’ve misunderstood the science (which is often badly re- ported, overly hyped, or oversimplified by the media); we’ve listened to erroneous information from diet and health gurus; and we’ve been led to believe things that simply aren’t true. Sometimes the misinformation is deliberate (like when the facts come from the marketing departments of chemical companies), and sometimes it’s innocent (such as advice from well-meaning doctors who just don’t know much about nutrition).Either way, much of the information we’ve been “taught” has turned out to be dangerous to our well-being. Specifically, we’ve learned the wrong things about the macronutrients that make up most of our daily diets: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Now it’s time to unlearn what you know about the relationship between these three categories of food and replace it with a real, working knowledge that you can use in a practical way to help you reach your goals. The Smart Fat Solution will work for you—for life—and you’ll appreciate why once you have all the smart facts. Carbo Load As you know by now, different kinds of carbohydrates behave differently in your body. Refined carbs, such as white flour and white rice, have virtually the same ef- fect on blood sugar as white table sugar—which is to say, they send your blood sugar on the rollercoaster ride from hell, triggering a cascade of dysfunctional hor- monal and metabolic activity. Fiber-rich carbs, however, such as fresh whole veg- etables and low-sugar fruits, are a whole different story. These carbs, the kind you could have plucked or gathered if you were a Neanderthal, are a boon to people who want to lose weight. They’re equally valuable for anyone who wants to fight in- flammation, the silent promoter of nearly every degenerative disease on the planet. If we know that junky carbs are a metabolic train wreck, then how did we get to a point where they were taking up more than half of our plates? To answer this question, we need to share a little bit of U.S. history—the kind that’s known only by nutrition nerds like us. A Brief History of Dietary Disasters The 1970s had its low points. And while there are many candidates for the biggest mistake of the decade—Watergate and the AMC Gremlin come to mind—one cer- tainly has to be the first set of dietary guidelines put out by the U.S. government. “Dietary Goals for the United States,” prepared by the Select Committee on Nutri- tion and Human Needs, was very clear in recommending that Americans “increase carbohydrate consumption to account for 55 to 60 percent of the energy (caloric) intake.” This championing of carbs came at almost precisely the time in our history that dietary fat was taking a drubbing. That drubbing, which turned into a full-fledged demonization of fat in all its di- etary forms, actually started much earlier, when heart disease was rapidly becom- ing the leading cause of death in the United States. A noted, and ambitious, physi- ologist named Ancel Keys had a hunch that this emerging epidemic was somehow related to diet. (As it turns out he was right—but not in the way he believed.) Keys was a frequent visitor to Italy, where he couldn’t help but notice the robust health of the people in the Mediterranean regions, as well as their remarkably low rates of heart disease. He believed that the reason for this was that they ate rela- tively low amounts of saturated fats. To support this hypothesis, he assembled data on diet and heart disease for male residents from six countries—Japan, Italy, England/Wales, Canada, Australia, and the United States—over a one-year period (1948–1949). Sure enough, he was able to show on a graph that when the men ate a higher percentage of fat calories, they were more likely to die of heart disease. In the 1950s he presented his data to the World Health Organization and was met with quite a bit of skepticism—skepticism that actually turned out to be well- founded.

Excerpt


One of the many problems with Keys’s initial graph was that the data didn’t come from a study—it was just a carefully chosen collection. Data existed for twen- ty-two countries, but Keys chose to graph only six. In response to the lack of enthu- siasm for his hypothesis, he designed a real study, one of the biggest and most fa- mous studies in all of nutritional epidemiology. Known as the Seven Countries Study, it began in 1958 and lasted nearly twenty years. And—no surprise to any- one—Keys got exactly the results he wanted. The Seven Countries Study, which is cited more often than any other study in nutrition history, did indeed claim to prove that saturated fat is the root cause of heart disease. Except that it isn’t. Dozens of problems in the Seven Countries Study have emerged since it was first published. For one thing, findings that contradicted Keys’s hypothesis were simply ignored. (For example, saturated fat intake was equal on two Greek islands, Crete and Corfu. But the death rate from heart disease was a whopping seventeen times higher on Corfu than on Crete. That difference certainly couldn’t be explained by saturated fat intake.) For another, alternate hypotheses were not considered; could something other than saturated fat have accounted for the differences in heart disease rates? Keys dismissed alternatives to the “fat causes heart disease” theory (see, for example, the case of John Yudkin below) because he was con- vinced that his theory was right. And that’s the kiss of death for real objective science. At about the same time that Keys was promoting his theory, British physician and researcher John Yudkin was also wondering about the increase in heart disease in First World countries. But Yudkin suggested a different culprit. He pointed out in a series of papers that sugar consumption had a stronger relationship to heart disease mortality than fat did. Keys, however, ignored these inconvenient facts and instead slammed Yudkin in the press at every opportunity. Eventually, as an influential member of the nutrition advisory committee to the American Heart As- sociation, Keys managed to get his theories officially incorporated into the 1961 American Heart Association dietary guidelines. For decades, the American Heart Association has exerted a powerful influence on government health recommen- dations regarding heart disease, cholesterol, and fat consumption. The message that eating fat makes you fat—and leads you on an irreversible path to heart disease—was not lost on the American people, and the notion that fat is “bad” has become nothing less than a cultural meme. What’s interesting is that the conventional wisdom on fat in the diet was very different before Keys and the Seven Countries Study. Before Keys’s theories be- came entrenched, most doctors knew that the cause of obesity was sugar and starch, not dietary fat. William Osler, known as the father of modern medicine in North America, suggested that people should “reduce sugar and starches” to avoid obesity as early as 1892 in his classic textbook The Principles and Practice of Medicine. Dr. Richard Mackarness, who ran Britain’s first obesity and food allergy clinic, wrote in 1958 that carbohydrates were the culprit in weight gain in his book Eat Fat and Grow Slim. But what got everyone’s attention was when President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955. This created a huge interest in what was coming to be understood as the No. 1 killer of men and women—heart disease. Eisenhower’s attack made the danger real for a lot of people, and Americans wanted answers about this new threat to their health. And they wanted them now. The government was pressured to take action and make some dietary recommendations. Waiting for more conclusive science was just not an option. In the face of such pressure, the government and numerous health organi- zations and healthcare providers fell in line behind the American Heart Association recommendations, which included Keys’s theories. Americans, who wanted to know what they could do to beat this killer, got their official answer: Avoid fat and eat lots of “complex carbohydrates.” Unfortunately, this was the wrong answer. We know now that Keys’s conclusion was incorrect. But his overall message caught on; the anti-fat revolution was born; and the high-carb, low-fat diet and life- style took hold—ultimately resulting in an epidemic of obesity, disease, and accel- erated aging that still has us in its grip. You may notice that we’re suddenly talking a lot about fat, though we started out focusing on carbs. That’s because you can’t discuss the damage that refined carbohydrates can do without talking about the role of dietary fat. After all, there are only three macronutrients—protein, fat, and carbohydrates. If you eat less of one of them, you wind up eating more of the others. In our case, we stripped beneficial smart fat from our diets and replaced it with the worst type of carbs—mostly the kind that come in a box. And we’ve been doing that for about four decades, all in the name of good health. It hasn’t worked out so well. Removing smart fat from our diets was hardly the only thing we collectively did to raise the risk of heart disease and obesity. Smoking, for instance, used to be widely accepted behavior. In fact, the emerging epidemic of heart disease was occurring at a time when even physicians routinely endorsed cigarettes. (“More doc- tors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!”) And while we puffed away, food manufacturers were beginning to add something quite deadly to our diets: trans fats. In midcentury America, the “Crisco Creep” was in full-swing, with home cooks, food manufacturers, and even the American Heart Association embracing the use of highly engineered dumb fats like margarine and hydrogenated (and partially hydrogenated) “vegetable” oils. For home cooks and dieters trying to do the right thing, these artificial fats seemed like the answer because they were increasingly presented as heart-healthy alternatives to saturated animal fats like butter and lard. For big food companies, hydrogenated fats allowed for the mass production of shelf-stable baked goods, snack foods, convenience foods, and fast food— profitable, booming business sectors that were rapidly growing in postwar Amer- ica. Trans fats were in the right place at the right time. So was high-fructose corn syrup. Though arguably no worse than regular sugar, it was spectacularly cheaper. Food manufacturers began adding it to everything, partially to compensate for how bad foods taste when you take out the fat. The wide availability and ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup partially accounts for the fact that between the 1950s and 2000, per capita consumption of caloric sweet- eners increased 39 percent to an average of a whopping 152 pounds per person per year Awas pressured to take action and make some dietary recommendations. Waiting for more conclusive science was just not an option. In the face of such pressure, the government and numerous health organi- zations and healthcare providers fell in line behind the American Heart Association recommendations, which included Keys’s theories. Americans, who wanted to know what they could do to beat this killer, got their official answer: Avoid fat and eat lots of “complex carbohydrates.” Unfortunately, this was the wrong answer. We know now that Keys’s conclusion was incorrect. But his overall message caught on; the anti-fat revolution was born; and the high-carb, low-fat diet and life- style took hold—ultimately resulting in an epidemic of obesity, disease, and accel- erated aging that still has us in its grip. You may notice that we’re suddenly talking a lot about fat, though we started out focusing on carbs. That’s because you can’t discuss the damage that refined carbohydrates can do without talking about the role of dietary fat. After all, there are only three macronutrients—protein, fat, and carbohydrates. If you eat less of one of them, you wind up eating more of the others. In our case, we stripped beneficial smart fat from our diets and replaced it with the worst type of carbs—mostly the kind that come in a box. And we’ve been doing that for about four decades, all in the name of good health. It hasn’t worked out so well. Removing smart fat from our diets was hardly the only thing we collectively did to raise the risk of heart disease and obesity. Smoking, for instance, used to be widely accepted behavior. In fact, the emerging epidemic of heart disease was occurring at a time when even physicians routinely endorsed cigarettes. (“More doc- tors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!”) And while we puffed away, food manufacturers were beginning to add something quite deadly to our diets: trans fats. In midcentury America, the “Crisco Creep” was in full-swing, with home cooks, food manufacturers, and even the American Heart Association embracing the use of highly engineered dumb fats like margarine and hydrogenated (and partially hydrogenated) “vegetable” oils. For home cooks and dieters trying to do the right thing, these artificial fats seemed like the answer because they were increasingly presented as heart-healthy alternatives to saturated animal fats like butter and lard. For big food companies, hydrogenated fats allowed for the mass production of shelf-stable baked goods, snack foods, convenience foods, and fast food— profitable, booming business sectors that were rapidly growing in postwar Amer- ica. Trans fats were in the right place at the right time. So was high-fructose corn syrup. Though arguably no worse than regular sugar, it was spectacularly cheaper. Food manufacturers began adding it to everything, partially to compensate for how bad foods taste when you take out the fat. The wide availability and ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup partially accounts for the fact that between the 1950s and 2000, per capita consumption of caloric sweet- eners increased 39 percent to an average of a whopping 152 pounds per person per