Everyone’s a nutrition expert these days. Wherever you turn, you’ll find a legion of pundits lining up to tell you what to eat, from your co-worker to your latest Internet guru. Then there are the official experts. They have all got something to say — and it’s all different.
Why not just trust the experts? Why are we even having this conversation?
Because people are not convinced that they can trust official dietary advice. In theory, these guidelines are unbiased, impartial and evidence based. In reality, they are a morass of bias, partiality and powerful commercial interests.
In the US, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly the American Dietetic Association, is the country’s largest organisation of nutrition professionals, mainly registered dietitians. It exists ostensibly “..to reach a wider consumer audience with healthy eating messages.” But firmly embedded in its core is the food industry.
Some of those registered dietitians have left AND to join Dietitians for Professional Integrity, founded in 2013 by dietitian Andy Bellatti, in opposition to the Academy’s “long-standing and consistent alignment with purveyors of highly processed, minimally nutritious foods and beverages.”
That alignment includes partnerships and sponsorships established over 25 years with the likes of McDonalds, Coca Cola (who have since been forced to end their sponsorship), Kellogg’s and PepsiCo, among others. That alignment may also explain why the Academy is keen on promoting the “everything in moderation” and “all foods fit” line rather than criticising heavily processed, junk food.
The UK equivalent of the AND is the British Dietetic Association (BDA). The BDA states, more bluntly than perhaps intended, that “Working with commercial organisations is important to The British Dietetic Association”.
Those organisations include the sugar industry. The British Medical Journal has described the links between public health scientists and the sugar industry as an extensive network, in which these members “receive funding from the very companies whose products are widely held to be responsible for the obesity crisis”.
The rise of Homo Expertus
There is a curious inconsistency between the foods that formed the basis of the human diet for around two and a half million years, and the foods that modern day experts urge us to eat now. Those natural foods that ensured the survival of the Homo genus throughout the entire Palaeolithic era and its various ice ages, giving rise to modern Homo sapiens, are the ones that we should avoid, because they are killing us.
That’s according to Homo expertus, a species of human that emerged in the 1960s, clutching a clipboard and telling us that for the entire history of humanity we’d been doing it all wrong.
First, they came for fat
Fat fed us well throughout the evolution of humanity but is now the enemy of health. The prevailing wisdom since the 1960s — that saturated fat causes heart disease and that we should place carbohydrates, in the form of grains (a relatively novel food), at the centre of our diets — is based on the theory of one man. That man was Ancel Benjamin Keys, an American biologist and pathologist who, in 1952 presented his “diet-heart hypothesis”.
Keys noted that people in Mediterranean countries had much lower rates of heart disease than Americans, and Americans ate a lot of fat.
As evidence of his theory, Keys launched, in 1956, his Seven Countries Study, based on the diets, habits and physical measurements of middle-aged men from Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Finland, America, the Netherlands and Japan. The results were published by the American Heart Association (AHA) in 1970 and showed that a high consumption of saturated fat was associated with greater risk of having a heart attack.
What Keys failed to mention was that he was particularly selective about which countries he included in the group of seven; he excluded data from other countries that didn’t support his theory. As Nina Teicholz, author of the bestselling book The Big Fat Surprise, points out, had Keys included data from, for example, Germany, France and Switzerland, he would have obtained rather different results. In fact, his hypothesis would have vanished.
Nevertheless, from then, and on the basis of Keys’s theory alone, the AHA recommended that saturated fat should be replaced with vegetable oils made from corn or soya beans. As luck would have it, these were the very same oils that from the 1960s were being produced on an industrial scale.
.. then they put sugar on a pedestal
Fat may have been damned, by Keys and the AHA, but sugar was given a clean bill of health. Keys had no truck with anyone suggesting that sugar was the real culprit behind heart disease.
The sugar industry was on a high, and nobody was going to stand in its way. Sugar gave you energy, and best of all didn’t contain any fat. It was virtually essential to life.
To make sure that everyone got the message, the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease, and instead position saturated fat as the villain, as disclosed by historical documents released and published in 2016.
Carbs are king
Bizarrely, the official advice given in most industrialized countries today is to consume a diet that is the polar opposite of the one on which we evolved. We are to base our diet on carbohydrates and cut down on meat. Better still, cut it out completely. No advice is offered on how we are to alter human biology and our ancient genome to accommodate this new diet.
In March 2016, Public Health England launched its revised Eatwell Guide, the most recent incarnation of guidelines that began life as the “Balance of Good Health” in 1994.
The Eatwell Guide is virtually identical to the US food pyramid, introduced in 1992, which became MyPlate in 2011, making more or less the same suggestions but with a different representation.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that MyPlate and the Eatwell Guide look like they were created in honour of the food industry. Indeed, as obesity researcher and author, Dr Zoë Harcombe, observed in an editorial published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine:
The Eatwell Guide was formulated by a group appointed by Public Health England, consisting primarily of members of the food and drink industry rather than independent experts.
If you were to follow these guidelines, you would:
“Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates; choosing wholegrain versions where possible.”
Cereal grains may be relative newcomers to the human diet but they are now positioned as the most essential of all the food groups.
So how on earth did cereal grains end up at the top of the human diet foodchain?
It all began with one woman — Ellen G White, the yin to Ancel Keys’s yang.
White was the co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the 1840s. She claimed to have had over 2000 divine visions that decreed the abstinence of alcohol, tobacco, spices, tea, coffee and meat.
These new commandments for a puritanical vegetarian diet had nothing to do with animal welfare, or indeed human health. It was all about sex, especially masturbation, that most heinous of sexual activities. This was the diet would help control those “baser passions” that were so offensive to God.
White set up schools and medical centres across the US and beyond, including the Loma Linda University and Medical Center in California. She also established her famous “sanitariums”, the equivalent of a health resort today.
Naturally, products were required. The path to purification doesn’t come without a business opportunity, and in stepped fellow Adventist Dr John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg became director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, and knew just what people needed to dampen down their impure thoughts. Cornflakes.
And it was a graduate from the Battle Creek Sanitarium, and Dr Kellogg protégé, Lenna Frances Cooper, who co-founded the AND in 1917. Indeed it was Dr Kellogg who appointed Lenna as the Chief Dietitian of the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
Comment: For more on the significant influence the Seventh Day Adventists have over the dietary guidelines, see: Seventh-day Adventist Church holds massive influence in official dietary guidelines and the push towards vegetarianism
The drive for a global, plant-based diet culminated in January 2019, with the publication by the medical journal the Lancet of a report that it had commissioned, written by 37 experts from 16 countries. The Eat-Lancet report “addresses the need to feed a growing global population a healthy diet while also defining sustainable food systems that will minimise damage to our planet.”
The Eat Foundation describes itself as “a global, non-profit startup dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnerships.”
What “impatient disruption” means is anyone’s guess. But those novel partnerships include an alliance with a group called FReSH. FReSH is, predictably, a Who’s Who of the giants of the food industry, and includes PepsiCo, Unilever, Danone, Bayer (owner of Monsanto), Sygenta, Cargill, Nestle and Kellogg’s.
The focus now is not so much on godliness as on saving yourself and the planet. According to EAT’s master plan for global domination, everyone must follow a near-vegan diet. Your individual allowance is less than half an ounce of red meat, less than an ounce of white meat, an ounce of fish, and a quarter of an egg a day. Your dairy intake is limited to about 2oz cheese per day. You are, however, allowed generous amounts of sugar — much more sugar than meat, in fact, the equivalent of eight teaspoons. Butter is eliminated from the planet, but vegetable oils and the margarines manufactured from them get the green light.
Unsurprisingly, most of the experts who spent three years devising this global diet have admitted that they are not following it.
Following guidelines and getting fat
Ironically, there is no need to keep telling us to cut down on meat and eat more cereals. We already did. Since the Neolithic era, when farming began, there has been a downward trend in meat consumption which has become more pronounced since the 1970s.
The 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, US Trends in Food Availability, reveals that between 1970 and 2014, red meat consumption decreased by 28%, with overall saturated fat consumption down 27%. At the same time, salad and cooking oil consumption rose by a staggering 248%. Consumption of grains, in the form of wheat flour, rice, and products made from corn, oats and barley increased by 28%.
In the UK, dietary habits have followed a similar pattern: red meat consumption has continued to fall since the early 1970s. Butter purchases have decreased by 18% since 2015, and margarine purchases have increased by 45%.
The reason for the apparent rise in meat consumption in both the UK and US is the continuing and enormous growth in popularity of chicken, a white meat — the most popular meat consumed over the last ten years.
The proof of the pudding
“The success of any policy or intervention must be evaluated by relevant outcome measures.” (Taubes & Teicholz 2018)
If all these dietary guidelines were in any way successful, that success would translate into public health outcomes. Obviously that is not the case. Take obesity. Rates of obesity are a good general indication of the health of a nation. Despite more or less following guidelines, since 1970 the US obesity rate among adults has almost tripled. It has more than tripled among children and adolescents.
The problem is these guidelines were never evidence-based.
In her paper “Dietary fat guidelines have no evidence base; where next for public health nutrition advice”, Dr Harcombe examines the evidence for dietary guidelines issued in 1977 in the US and later in 1983 in the UK, recommending that total fat and saturated fat consumption be reduced to 30% and 10% of total energy intake, respectively. Her extensive search for evidence found nothing whatsoever.
“Dietary fat guidelines have prevailed for almost 40 years. The evidence base at the time of their introduction has been examined for the first time and found lacking. Evidence currently available provides no additional support.” (Harcombe 2017).
Where we are now
“Promoting the same dietary advice over and over again while expecting different results is indeed a kind of insanity” (Taubes & Teicholz)
It’s 2020, and it’s time to devise some new guidelines. To that end, the USDA-HHS has announced the members of the advisory committee for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The Nutrition Coalition, an organisation founded by Nina Teicholz “for dietary policy based on rigorous science” details those luminaries who were selected to be on the committee, and those who weren’t. According to the Nutrition Coalition, the USDA rejected “arguably” the world’s leading expert in evidence-based policy — the person who in fact was nominated by the entire editorial board of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Professor John Ioannidis. Instead, they voted for….
Joan Sabaté — Chair of the Nutrition Department at the Seventh Day Adventist educational institution, Loma Linda University.
We wouldn’t be having this conversation if we still had to find our own food. If there were no shops, no bars, no restaurants, we’d be out there fending for ourselves as humans once did, using skills passed down to us from generation to generation and not obsessing over what is clean, or morally edifying. But having outsourced responsibility for acquiring food to unknown others has given us the time and space for some intense navel-gazing.
No wonder you’re so confused. Natural, traditional foods = bad. Processed factory products = good.
Might I suggest that the diet that best suits us all is the one on which we evolved and to which we are genetically adapted. I call it the human diet, and you can read all about what that means in another article, You Only Need One Diet.
Eating right is not so confusing when you take Big Food out of the equation.
Maria Cross MSc – Nutritionist and nutrition science writer, specialising in diet and mental health. Subscribe to AllYouCanEat.org.uk for free brain food guide. @MariaXCross