Cholesterol Myths

I saw this linked over at Maggie’s Farm.

Fats were singled out as the major enemy.

Research results published in the mid-1900s indicated that fats in our diets posed a health hazard.

Fats were not just full of calories that made us overweight. There were indications that fats were the main reason why a wave of cardiovascular diseases washed over the industrialised countries of the West starting in the early 20th century.

Research efforts and nutritional advice focused on how dangerous fats were and toward the end of the century a healthy diet consisted low-fat foods – a message heard at the doctor’s office and hyped by all the magazines.

Simultaneously, carbohydrates, including sugar, snuck below the radar, according to Birger Svihus, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

Why were carbs viewed so long as positive for health?

Svihus thinks he has found the answer in research:

Scientists in the 1970s concluded that the human body could not convert carbohydrates into fat.

That meant you couldn’t become overweight or clog your bloodstream with fats by eating carbohydrates, whether they came from sweets or whole grain bread.

I’m often amazed by how much of the past has been forgotten. It is not just the ancient times or even the medieval times. We cannot remember what happened last week. There’s no great mystery as why the governments got the diet recommendations all wrong and it was not an honest error.

The first thing to know is the Framingham Study. From Wikipedia:

The Framingham Heart Study is a long-term, ongoing cardiovascular study on residents of the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. The study began in 1948 with 5,209 adult subjects from Framingham, and is now on its third generation of participants.[1] Prior to it almost nothing was known about the “epidemiology of hypertensive or arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease”.[2] Much of the now-common knowledge concerning heart disease, such as the effects of diet, exercise, and common medications such as aspirin, is based on this longitudinal study. It is a project of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, in collaboration with (since 1971) Boston University.[1] Various health professionals from the hospitals and universities of Greater Boston staff the project.

Initial finding from that study suggested a link between dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Thus was born the low-fat craze that has been with us for decades. Industry quickly figured out how to capitalize on this and make enormous amounts of money.

The first way was to use a waste product from food production to make a substitute for butter. That’s right. Margarine is made from waste. Food companies quickly figured out that the stuff they were throwing away could be re-purposed into “low-fat” foods. The stunning success of margarine led to a flood of low-fat stuff that is still with us.

Of course you don’t sell product without advertising and advertising is mostly about convincing people that your product is better than the alternative. If you’re in the business of selling low-fat foods, what better way than to point to government science as the reason your stuff is better?

Of course, you need to make sure the science does not change so lavishing the government and its scientists with money to keep proving the same point is a good investment. It’s not an accident that Big Food is an enthusiastic supporter of Big Government.

That may strike you as excessively cynical, but here is a long article from The Atlantic Monthly that is my source. You’ll not the date is 1989. That’s right, I recalled from memory an article from a quarter century ago and found it on-line.

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Vic P
Vic P
9 years ago

This topic is so necessary for “dieters” to understand. In order to make these low-fat “foods” more palatable, the food industry added massive amounts of sugars (mostly in the form of high fructose corn syrup). When you add the highly refined and processed carbs to the added sugars this reaks havoc on insulin levels. The inevitable result is the diabetes epidemic we are now experiencing.

9 years ago

Actually, margarine has been around a lot longer than the low-fat scare, and it’s original attraction was simply cost: a pound of margarine in 1950 was about 1/3 the price of a pound of butter. Which led to some interesting machinations -none of which would have been possible pre-FDR and war ration boards- by governmental regulatory agencies who had been captured by the dairy industry. Since margarine, in its native form, is simply white, marketing it to the consumer as a butter substitute required it the be colored with yellow food dye. The “red dye #2 scare” was just a… Read more »

9 years ago

Apparently the Atlantic did not employ editors in 1989.

9 years ago

This attitude towards animal fat comes not from science, but from the 19th century Victorian attitude toward eating meat. Some religious reformers and feminists thought eating meat made people more aggressive, particularly men. One of the social goals of the time was to make men more docile, so Seventh Day Adventism required vegetarianism, and Mormonism encouraged meat consumption to be kept to a minimum.

The extreme of this was Dr. Kellogg, who abhorred sex and thought the key to health was his cereal. It’s wacky but true, they even made a comedy about him, “The Road to Wellville”.