The dramatic rise in U.S. obesity rates is prompting medical professionals to reject the federal government’s dietary guidelines.
For decades, federal agencies have advised Americans to limit fat intake and calories as the way to control obesity and heart disease, yet Americans are more obese than ever.
Among adults aged 20 years or more, severe obesity, defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 40 or higher, nearly doubled from 4.7 percent in 1999-2020 to 9.2 percent in 2017-18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Obesity, defined as a BMI of 30 or higher, jumped from 30.5 percent to 42.4 percent.
Heart disease is down, but the decline appears to be more closely linked to a reduction in the number of cigarette smokers than to dietary changes.
Food Pyramid Knocked
The longstanding dietary advice from the federal government has harmed public health, says John C. Goodman, president of the Goodman Institute for Public Policy Research and copublisher of Health Care News.
“For many years, federal agencies encouraged Americans to eat a diet low in fat, but high in carbohydrates,” said Goodman. “This advice was accompanied by food pyramids and other literature—even though there was very little scientific evidence to support any of it. We now know the advice was wrong. Instead of helping us stay trim and slim, the government’s advice was contributing to an epidemic of obesity.”
Fewer Carbs, Healthy Fat
The Nutrition Coalition, a nonprofit group of medical practitioners and consumers, supports “Low Carb Healthy Fat (LCHF)” diets and is using research to press for reform of the federal recommendations.
The coalition’s list of “healthy” fats includes foods high in Omega 3, monosaturated fats, and conjugated linoleic fatty acids (CLA), including certain types of beef, wild game, and some grains. Federal dietary advice led to the obesity epidemic, says Nina Teicholz, a member of the board of directors of The Nutrition Coalition.
“Americans have followed the guidelines, according to the best available government data, which has resulted in a 30 percent increase in carbohydrate consumption in America over recent decades,” said Teicholz.
The suggested limit for carbohydrate consumption is way too high, says Teicholz.
“The dietary guidelines advise consuming less than 50 percent of calories as carbohydrates, which many experts consider to be excessive for metabolic health,” says Teicholz. “There is a large quantity of high-quality, rigorous clinical trial data showing that carbohydrate restriction can ameliorate if not reverse pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, blood pressure, and other metabolic conditions.”
The claims for low fat intake, reduced obesity, and improved heart health can be traced to a controversial “energy balance” theory of weight gain (and loss) popularized by Louis Newburgh of the University of Michigan in the 1930s.
Then, the Seven Countries Study (SCS) by Ancel Keys, initiated in 1956 and first published in 1978, examined the effects of different dietary fatty acids on serum cholesterol levels, attributing high consumption of saturated fats to increased heart disease risk. The SCS is the basis for the so-called Mediterranean diet.
The SCS was criticized by Jacob Yerushalmy and Herman E. Hilleboe, who said Keys cherry-picked seven countries out of the 21 for which data were available and analysis of the full dataset reduced the link between fat intake and heart disease to a “tenuous correlation.”
Endocrinologist Robert Lustig said Keys failed to separate out consumption of trans-fat, which peaked in the 1960s. In addition, although Keys said sucrose and saturated fat were intercorrelated, he didn’t perform the sucrose half of his multivariate correlation analysis, said Lustig. The results Keys found for Japan and Italy could be explained by lower consumption of saturated fat or sugar, said Lustig.
Despite the scientific controversy, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, led by Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), used the SCS findings to advocate specific dietary goals for Americans, in the two-volume “McGovern Report,” titled Dietary Goals for the United States (1977).
Kevin Stone (email@example.com) writes from Arlington, Texas
Gregory Rehmke, “Did the Government Make Us Fat?” Brief Analysis No, 142, The Goodman Institute for Public Policy, February 24, 2022.