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  • Writer's picturevancevoetberg

The Sketchy History of America's Nutritional Policies

Preface: This is an extremely summarized version of the nutritional policy's history. I highly recommend reading The Big Fat Surprise written by Nina Teicholz for a detailed and exciting account of the history.

In 1961, American physiologist Ancel Keys became the foremost influential scientist in the history of nutrition. Appearing on the January cover of Time magazine, Keys, pictured as an authoritative expert with thick-framed glasses and a white lab coat, brought forth a much-needed answer to the burning question that was weighing on the hearts of the American people: what is causing so many Americans to die of heart disease?

Keys presented what came to be understood as the diet-heart hypothesis, claiming that dietary saturated fat was the culprit in causing heart disease. At the time, heart disease was the number one killer among American men and the American people were desperate for an explanation from the scientific community as to what was causing the unprecedented surge of heart disease.

With more charisma than convincing evidence, Keys hobnobbed his way to the top of nutritional policy making. The lethal combination of Keys' tenacity, vulnerable Americans, and unsolved science led way to the adoption of the diet-heart hypothesis into nearly all health organizations. Both government agencies and private groups latched onto the idea that dietary saturated fat was the enemy of health.

As the diet-heart hypothesis was implemented into American society, the science behind the diet-heart hypothesis conducted by Keys and his entourage went largely unscrutinized. And those who challenged his hypothesis was quickly chastised and disregarded by the scientific community.

The main downfall in Keys' hypothesis that scientists criticized was the lack of randomized controlled trials. In science, if your hypothesis is a causation claim (in this case saturated fat causes heart disease), it must be tested in a controlled setting. Without randomized control studies, scientists can only examine correlations and the trends of their subjects.

In this case, Keys' concepts were built largely on epidemiology or observational studies. This methodology of research is limited in the fact that it can only show an association, not causation. Interestingly, there can be strong correlations found in the most unexpected places.

For example, in Maine, researchers found that there is a strong correlation between the divorce rate and margarine consumption. These findings, as unexpected as they might be, show an association.

To know whether or not margarine consumption causes divorce would require a randomized controlled trial. The experiment would look something like this: a set of 100 married couples would eat margarine for 10 years and a different set of 100 couples would act as the control by only eating butter.

If the results showed that the divorce was significantly higher in the margarine group, it could be assumed that margarine causes divorce. Even then, this would only be the results of just one experiment. In order to say with certainty that margarine causes divorce, there would need to be multiple randomized control trials ran by various scientists. If all the studies' findings affirm that margarine indeed does causes divorce, the results would be hard to ignore.

In Keys' case, there were zero randomized control trials conducted on the potential deleterious health effects of dietary saturated fat. Still, he held firm to his findings from his observational studies. This is bad science. Presumption is the opposite of being critically minded, a trait that is essential in the pursuit of truth. Keys let the cart get ahead of the horse. His predetermined mindset disallowed him to study the subject without objectivity or bias. And unfortunately, his arrogance and influence misled the Americans in a direction far from the objective truth.

Fast forward to 2021. Here we are now with a plethora of data from dozens of randomized control trials. And the data is unequivocal. Eating saturated fat does not cause heart disease. Period. Fact. End of story.

Yet, Keys' logic remains the supreme ideology that runs nutritional policy. In the most updated version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, joint published by the USDA and the HHS, it recommends "less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2." and encourages the inclusion of polyunsaturated fatty-acid vegetable oils.

These powerful government agencies were designed to relay scientific truths to the American people. Nevertheless, their policies, at least in nutritional policy making, have been out of touch with the most relevant science. Most notably, the recommendation to replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated is a suggestion that has altered the health of Americans in a deteriorating trend.

It's important to understand that these recommendations are standards set for all Americans to achieve optimal health. Not just for men who want to avoid heart disease. If the science for the diet-heart hypothesis is lacking, the science for all Americans- men, women, and children- to restrict saturated fat is baseless.

As we know, a diet high in polyunsaturated fatty acids has has numerous disadvantageous health consequences. Still, the most influential nutritional agencies encourage the public to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat.

Without being dramatic, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines shape all facets of society.

In the public schools alone, the USDA estimates that they serve lunch that align with the guidelines to 31 million kids each day. Additionally, the little nutritional information that doctors acquire in medical school stems from the guidelines. This means that the nutritional protocol that your doctor or your kid's pediatrician recommends and prescribes is unsound advice. It's not their fault. It's the deeply flawed, outdated dietary guidelines that they're taught. A systemic ignorance to the truths of nutrition science.

Furthermore, the guidelines shape the food industry. Or should I say the food industry shapes the guidelines? The optimist in me would like to believe that these governmental agencies are uninfluenced by the food industry. However, as it often happens, the realist in me sees otherwise.

The food industry have been backers of the anti-saturated movement from its conception. In 1948, when Keys was working his way up the hierarchy of the nutrition world, the American Heart Association, a rather small and underfunded operation at the time, received 1.7 million dollars from Procter & Gamble, the makers of saturated fat-free hydrogenated vegetable oils. The considerable donation catalyzed the AHA into what it is today; one of the most powerful and influential health organizations in the world.

Interestingly, soon after the AHA received the initial donation from Procter & Gamble, it sent out its first official nutritional recommendations to all of the association's members: a dietary protocol that was said to prevent heart disease. A regimen that painted a dark picture of eggs, cheese, meat, and worst of all, butter.

Today, the interdependence between the food industry and the AHA, and the American Diabetes Association couldn't be stronger.

Science has an obligation to present unbiased, objective truth. However, the majority of the science that affirms the tenets of the diet-heart hypothesis is industry funded. As it happens, the findings of industry-funded science will almost always supports the industry's interests.

It's technically illegal for researchers to not disclose their conflicts of interests. However, the industry and organizations like the AHA and the ADA are masters of doing matters in a legal yet unethical manner.

Yes, their relationship and shared interests aren't illegal. Though, I'd argue that suppressing the truth by way of selecting science that only supports both their operations is fraudulent and unethical.

It's time that Americans know the truth. Our lives are depending on it.

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