Why We Got Fatter During The Fat-Free Food Boom
If you want to trace Americans' fear of fat, the place to start is the U.S. Senate, during the steamy days of July 1976.
That's when Sen. George McGovern called a hearing to raise attention to the links between diet and disease.
And what was the urgency? The economy was booming, and many Americans were living high on the hog. A 1954 Capitol Hill restaurant menu offers a glimpse of what lunch looked like then: steak with claret sauce, buttered succotash and pineapple cheesecake. But soon, that prosperity began to cast a dark shadow within the halls of Congress.
"If you look at the statistics, members were dying at a rather large rate," Senate historian Don Ritchie tells us.
And there was a hint that the American diet might be to blame.
This was an era when it was not uncommon for men to drop dead of heart attacks. By our count, eight U.S. Senators died in office of heart disease during the 1960s and 1970s.
"When you have colleagues who die prematurely," says Ritchie, "that's sort of a wake-up call."
The harms of smoking were already on the radar. The new concern was the connection between diet and heart disease.
Scientists had evidence that foods with saturated fat such as eggs and meat could raise LDL cholesterol. But there were a lot of complexities that scientists didn't yet understand, and not a lot of data.
So, when Sen. McGovern, a Democrat from South Dakota, called his hearing, he summoned the likes of Nathan Pritikin, a longevity guru who believed you could reverse heart disease with diet changes. And he called as a witness a Harvard University professor who pointed to the harms of overconsumption of fat.
The hearing led to the creation of the first set of dietary guidelines for Americans.
"The thinking of the day is that you wanted to reduce fat," says science writer Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat.
He adds that once fat was fingered as the villain, the thinking was that any way Americans could get fat out of their diets would be a good thing.
"And if we did it by merely replacing milk and cheese and fatty meat with carbohydrates, with pasta and potatoes and rice," Taubes says, the theory was that we would live longer, and be thinner.
So, one of the top goals listed in the original dietary goals: eat more carbs.
"In retrospect, it's kind of amazing, but this was the thinking at the time," Taubes says.
Now, to be fair, the kinds of carbs the authors of the guidelines had in mind were whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
But this message was lost in translation. What did Americans hear? Fat is bad; carbs are good.
And the food industry saw the low-fat, high-carb mantra as an opportunity to create a whole new range of products. Fat-free frozen yogurt, fat-free muffins and cookies — the formula was: Take out the fat; add lots of sugar.
By the early '90s, foods with little or no fat were flying off the shelves. Pretzels were good (no fat); nuts were bad (loaded with fat). Baked potatoes were OK, but hold the sour cream. And salads? Sure, greens are great, but no oily salad dressing.
Lots of you told us in our survey that you remember this fat-free mania well, and that it didn't work out so well for you.
Taubes argues that it was not good for the country.
"Right around this time [when people started eating more refined grains and sugar] is when Americans starts getting fatter and fatter, and more diabetic," Taubes says.
So, in trying to address one problem — heart disease — by cutting way back on fat, many experts we talked to agreed that the original dietary goals may have helped fuel other problems, like diabetes and obesity.
"There were definitely unintended consequences of the original guidelines," Mary Flynn, a professor of medicine at Brown University, told us.
She says if you look at the results of studies where participants followed low-fat diets, there's no convincing evidence that this pattern of eating cuts the risk of disease.
"There have been a number of studies done," Flynn said, "and there's been no benefit for low-fat diets to lead to better weight loss, and there's no benefit for low-fat diets to lead to less disease."
One of those studies, published in 2006, was part of the Women's Health Initiative that included thousands of women.
It's complicated to look back over 40 years and tease out an independent effect of diet on heart disease. That's because Americans have changed many other habits. For instance, many people stopped smoking, started exercising and began taking statin medicines to control cholesterol.
But what's become clear, Flynn says, is that avoiding fat is not the key to a healthy diet.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Now, if you want to be one of those healthier people, you've likely heeded advice to limit fat in your diet, especially from food like meat, eggs and cheese. We've heard that advice for decades. But the evidence suggests fat is not quite the villain we've been told.
NPR's Allison Aubrey has the first of two stories.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you want to trace our fear of fat, Washington, D.C., is a good place to start, right at the U.S. Capitol.
DON RITCHIE: So over here is a statue of George Shoup, who was a senator from Idaho.
AUBREY: That's Senate historian Don Ritchie, and he says Shoup was a beefy guy.
RITCHIE: Yes, he protrudes. (Laughter)His belly sticks way out, beyond his waistcoat.
AUBREY: And this was considered to be...
RITCHIE: This was the epitome of success, in the late 19th century. A large man was somebody who had accomplished something.
AUBREY: And corpulence was still a sign of power in the 1950s. As we stroll past a Senate dining room, Ritchie shows me a menu printed in May 1954.
RITCHIE: We have, for instance, deep-fried Southern chicken, you know, lots of mashed potatoes with gravy.
AUBREY: There were sweetbreads, Salisbury steak, buttered succotash and pineapple cheesecake.
RITCHIE: Yes. A lot of hearty food - and this was mid-day.
AUBREY: The economy was booming, and many Americans were living high on the hog. But soon that prosperity began to cast a dark shadow within the halls of Congress.
RITCHIE: You look at the statistics, members were dying at a rather large rate.
AUBREY: This was an era when it was not uncommon for American men to drop dead of heart attacks. In the '60s and '70s, eight senators died in office of heart disease.
RITCHIE: When you have colleagues who die prematurely, that's sort of a wake-up call.
AUBREY: The harms of smoking were already on the radar, but scientists were just beginning to make connections between diet and heart disease. Sen. George McGovern, of South Dakota, decided the government should put the issue on the front burner. So, he called a hearing and summoned the likes of Nathan Pritikin, a longevity guru who believed that diet could reverse disease, and a Harvard professor who pointed to preliminary evidence that eggs and meat raised cholesterol. The message that came out of this hearing was that America's problem was the overconsumption of fat.
GARY TAUBES: The thinking of the day was that you wanted to reduce fat consumption.
AUBREY: Gary Taubes is a science writer who's written extensively on this topic. He says the hearing led to the first set of U.S. dietary guidelines. And Taubes says once fat was fingered as the villain, the thought was that any way you could get it out of the diet had to be a good thing.
TAUBES: And if we did it by merely replacing, you know, milk and cheese and fatty meat with carbohydrates - with pasta and potatoes and rice - this would make us live longer, and it would make us thinner.
AUBREY: Now, to be fair, Taubes says the kind of carbohydrates the guideline writers had in mind were whole grains, fruits and vegetables. But this message was lost in translation. What Americans heard was fat is bad, and carbs are good. And the food industry saw the low-fat, high-carb mantra as an opportunity to create a whole new range of products. Remember fat-free frozen yogurt? Or how about Snackwells?
(SOUNDBITE OF SNACKWELLS AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Excuse me. Do you make these delicious, fat-free Snackwells devils food cookies?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why, yes I do.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) You wanna tell us why we can't find them in the stores anymore?
AUBREY: Foods with little or no fat flew off the shelves. Pretzels were good; nuts were bad. Baked potatoes were fine, but hold the sour cream.
TAUBES: By the early 1990s, the whole country had effectively gone on a low-fat diet.
AUBREY: But for many Americans, a low-fat diet meant more sugar, more refined grains and more packaged foods. And what happened?
TAUBES: Right around this time is when America starts getting fatter and more diabetic.
AUBREY: And a number of experts says that in trying to address one problem - heart disease - by removing fat, the original dietary guidelines actually made things worse.
MARY FLYNN: There were definitely unintended consequences of the original guidelines.
AUBREY: That's Mary Flynn, a professor of medicine at Brown University. And she says over the last 40 years, research has shown that the fat people have been trying so hard to avoid is not the enemy it was thought to be.
FLYNN: There's been a number of studies done, and there's been no benefit for low-fat diets to lead to better weight loss, and there's no benefit for low-fat diets to lead to less disease.
AUBREY: What's clear now, she says, is that avoiding fat is not the key to a healthy diet. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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WERTHEIMER: Monday, Allison reports on why eating some fats can be good for you.
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WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.