The Men Who Made Us Fat , a brilliant BBC 2 documentary that went out last night, should be forcibly played to dieticians and other experts who for decades have urged the low fat diet as the solution to weight loss and heart protection, not to mention being comfortable with a hefty intake of sugar as part of a “healthy balanced diet”. TV reporter Jacques Peretti pulls together various strands that drove the obesity crisis.
Elements of it will be familiar to anyone who is interested in diet and weight and nutrition. On the TV-friendly science side there are body scans that can show just how much internal fat your body is carrying and brain scans that show the different areas that light up when you are shown high calorie vs low calorie foods. That was followed by a user-friendly introduction to why fructose corn syrup – the universal sweetener added to every element of the Western diet – piles on the pounds by interfering with hormones that would normally tell you you’re full.
Industry spokespeople declared that the problem is not the fructose-packed food that surrounds us but that people’s failure to eat less and exercise more. But at the same time the industry was said to be: “fully committed to playing its part in public health.”
That commitment doesn’t stretch to cutting back on sugar levels in food however. The industry, while massively increasing our intake – in the UK we now consume and average of 90 pounds a year – has fiercely fought off attempts to reduce it. Two key examples I didn’t know about occurred in 1977 and 2003.
The American report that triggered the disastrous “low fat diet” health policy in 1977 actually recommended cutting back on fat and sugar and salt. The sugar industry responded by claiming there were two major myths about sugar: that consumption was increasing and that sugar was directly responsible for “death dealing maladies”. Both were then and now demonstrably untrue.
Never say: ‘Eat less’
However the pressure effectively airbrushed sugar out of the picture and all the media coverage concentrated on the need to cut back on fat to protect the heart. Over twenty five years later the industry wheeled out a heavyweight in the shape of the American Secretary of State for Health who flew to Geneva successfully to argue against a report drawn up by the WHO that recommended reduction in sugar intake.
Just in case the Secretary wasn’t persuasive enough the US government let it be known that publishing the report could jeopardise it’s 400 million dollars annual contribution to the organisation. American interests were defined by the agricultural industry. Nutritionist Marion Nestle, who was asked to draw up a US government report on healthy eating, has described elsewhere how she was warned there was just one recommendation she couldn’t make – eat less.
Prominent among the men who made us fat is Ancel Keys – the food scientists who influenced the 1977 committee with authoritative charts showing that countries that ate more fat had more heart disease (depending on which countries you choose it is also possible to prove the opposite). What I didn’t know was that he was the creator of the famous K-rations used by WWII Allied troops that were packed with sugar because they were designed to deliver lots of calories.
Time to apologise
Standing up to the fat makers was UK scientist Dr John Yudkin who warned way back in the seventies about the dangers of sugar with his book ‘Pure White and Deadly’. One of his pupils, Richard Bruckdorfer emeritus professor at University College London, described how his views were rubbished by many of the professional medical and nutritional societies (what chance of a posthumous apology?).
He was discredited on the grounds that there wasn’t enough data to establish his claims. ‘Lack of evidence’ is regularly wielded as a handy weapon to dismiss attacks on orthodoxy but it’s very rarely followed by a move to gather some. “You could say the obesity crisis was the result of our ignoring Yudkin” commented Bruckdorfer. Peretti doesn’t make this point, there’s a strong case to be made that the low fat diet always had a pretty shaky evidence base.
I’ve just returned from the American Diabetes Association conference – 14,000+ delegates and thousands of scientific presentations. Although all clinicians utter a formulaic reference to the importance of diet and lifestyle to prevent diabetes, barely a handful of studies looked at what worked. All reccommended following a low-fat diet and, although I may have missed it, there was barely a word about the huge pressure your liver is subjected to when you are awash with fructose and what that does to your chances of diabetes.
Two more parts of ‘The men who made us fat’ to come. Watch it.