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Mainely Tipping Points 29: A Cultural Studies Answer

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Tipping Points 29

A CULTURAL STUDIES ANSWER

In WHY WE GET FAT (2011), Gary Taubes asks a scientific question.  His answer deploys scientific data from respected scientists working with the relationship of food to human body chemistry.  To recap, overweight people develop a hormonal disorder which is caused by eating carbohydrates, especially the easily digestible, highly processed carbohydrates (white flour, sugars, grains, starchy and/or sweet vegetables, and fructose from fruits bred to be big and sweet).  This disorder causes human bodies either to trap and store food energy in fat cells, no matter the energy needs of the body, or to funnel food energy to the muscles, which makes for a lean body with lots of energy that must be exercised away.

Taubes addresses some of why the inaccurate calorie in/calorie out, or “energy,” paradigm has persisted despite a decided lack of supporting science and the existence of a growing body of contrary evidence stretching back at least sixty years.  My own discipline, Cultural Studies, would begin where Taubes often leaves off by asking who is benefitting and what structural and cultural forces are being deployed for support.   

Cultural belief systems are probably the most powerful organizing forces man has ever devised.  Taubes describes a particularly insidious cultural belief that supports the energy paradigm.  By arbitrarily deciding that obesity is not a dysfunction of the body, a path opens which allows the belief that obesity is caused by the brain —which has been culturally interpreted to be about behavior, about character, about gluttony and sloth (80-86).    

Taubes’ identifies Louis Newburgh, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, as one originator of the “head case,” or psychological, explanation for obesity.    In the 1920s, Newburgh became a nationally recognized expert on obesity, and he posited that either obese people were taught to overeat by their parents or they had a “`combination of weak will and a pleasure seeking outlook upon life’” (83). 

“Newburgh,” Taubes notes, “was preaching to a medical establishment that had been taught to revere authority figures, not question their pronouncements” (83).  Newburgh, I’d say, lived in a time when most fat people were poor people.  He was a patriarch who was preaching something that most people of his own class understood to be true:  there’s something wrong with people who are poor, and the fat ones, well, they have “perverted appetites” (82).   

Wrapped up in this psychological explanation are the intersections of class, race, and gender.  Taubes points out that the poorer one is, the fatter one is likely to be since the calories available to the poor derive from cheap carbohydrates (18).  Taubes lists many worldwide studies of poor fat populations who are, with one exception, people of color.  (The exception is Naples, Italy, right after World War II ended, when Naples was destitute.)   Within these studies, the fattest of the fat, by large percentages, are women, who, Taubes infers, are giving the best food to their families (17-32). 

Taubes demonstrates that these poor people are not lazy, that they work hard, physical jobs.  And, like the investigating scientists, Taubes concludes that both malnutrition and subnutrition coexist in these populations because traditional patterns of living have been displaced and available food is mostly highly processed carbohydrates (17-32). 

The medical community, Taubes explains, uniformly swerved in the “head case” direction until well after World War II (84).  Historically, we know that post World War II America is when industry began providing more and more processed food, particularly the highly processed vegetable oils and margarines that replaced animal fats like butter, lard, and tallow.  And, we know that obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer rates all increased.

In the 1970s, Taubes relates, the practice of “behavioral medicine” emerged and the term “eating disorder” became the preferred label, but the “head case” tenants are still intact.  The psychological eating dictates are with us today:  slow down your eating and eat only in the kitchen or at the dining room table (84).  I’d add this one:  we eat when we’re emotionally disturbed in order to nourish ourselves—rather than understanding when we’re emotionally upset, we have more trouble controlling an unsatisfying diet.  Anyway, Taubes notes that today “many, if not most, of the leading authorities on obesity are psychologists and psychiatrists, people whose expertise is meant to be in the ways of the mind, not of the body”—an outcome that ignores the chemical connections between obesity and diabetes (84). 

How is it that certain people get to be “experts” in combating obesity?  Newburgh, for instance, was a doctor of medicine.  Yet, most medical doctors study neither nutrition nor the chemical impact of foods on the human body.  So, where are medical doctors getting their information?  Like most of us, not many medical doctors have time to sit down and figure out whom among the “experts” actually has adequate credentials, is asking the right questions, has formulated solid scientific answers in an independent arena that is not tainted by either personal belief system or corporate funding, whose work has withstood ensuing peer critique, and whose results have been duplicated. 

Today, we are struggling with pronouncements from a host of medical doctors who have written very famous diet books—and made a lot of money–but whose diets often prove ineffective or, even, unhealthy when scientifically tested.  Many of these books are predicated upon the lipid hypothesis (anti-saturated fat).  Taubes uses the 1960s turn toward the belief that animal fats are bad for us and carbohydrates “heart healthy” to describe the formation of the lipid hypothesis belief system:   “…doctors and nutritionists started attacking carbohydrate-restricted diets, because they bought into an idea about heart disease that was barely even tested at the time and would fail to be confirmed once it was….They believed it though, because people they respected believed it, and those people believed it because, well, other people they respected believed it” (160-161). 

We are struggling with information from “expert” organizations like the American Dietetic Association, whose partners and sponsors, as revealed by Zoe Harcombe in THE OBESITY EPIDEMIC,  include “Coca-Cola ($31.4 billion), PepsiCo ($44.3 billion), GlaxoSmith Kline ($45.2 billion), General Mills ($14.9 billion), SoyJoy ($9.2 billion), Mars ($30 billion) and many others” (Tim Boyd, book review of Zoe Harcombe, THE OBESITY EPIDEMIC:  WHAT CAUSED IT?  HOW CAN WE STOP IT?, in “Wise Traditions,” Winter 2010, 50-52). Corporate industry funds academic departments and specific scientists and successfully obfuscates bedrock science, just as it did with tobacco and is doing with many current drugs and toxic chemicals.       

And we are struggling with a government whose agenda and regulatory mechanisms are controlled largely by industry–a government who has, regardless of dissenting bedrock science, used its authority and our tax dollars to effect vast, damaging, and unsustainable changes in our food system since World War II.  Industry has bent our government and our legal system to its will–corporations are now people, but do not have the ethical responsibilities of people–which is a potential death knoll for what remains of our democracy.      

In 1977, when Senator George McGovern’s U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs—a group operating out of belief, not science, decreed that saturated animal fat was dangerous, Dr. Mary Enig, then a graduate student of biochemistry at the University of Maryland, was so puzzled that she analyzed the report and reached the opposite conclusions.  Enig’s own work pointed to the highly-processed vegetable oils and trans fats as the likely culprits in increasing rates of cancer and heart disease.  She noted that the McGovern committee had “manipulated the data in inappropriate ways in order to obtain untruthful results.”  She published her findings, and the edible oils industry not only successfully silenced her and her colleagues, they prevented them from getting any further research money.  Though Enig and her colleagues continued their research, it wasn’t until the 1990s when European work on trans fats began to be published that Enig was vindicated (http://www.stop-trans-fat.com/mary-enig.html).  Nevertheless, deadly trans fats, often labeled “partially hydrogenated fats,” are still allowed in our foods.  

So, who is benefitting from the current energy paradigm?  In the end, no one.

Mainely Tipping Points 13: The Failure of the Low-Fat, High-Carbohydrate American Diet

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(Oops!  Read TP 12 first; it’s part of a series in the essays) 

Tipping Points 13

The Failure of the Low-Fat, High-Carbohydrate American Diet

 

 When Luise Light and her team of experts attempted to scientifically formulate the 1980 USDA Food Guide, they accepted two current dietary ideas as truth:  fat should be no more than 30 percent of the diet, and since the end of World War II, and especially in the 1960s, Americans had been experiencing “rising rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes” (13, Luise Light, WHAT TO EAT:  THE TEN THINGS YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW TO EAT WELL AND BE HEALTHY).

Current historians show us that the low-fat premise that has governed the American diet for the past fifty years sprang from belief, not science, and became part of American cultural and economic practices when the stars aligned around a constellation that included the political power of a congressional committee, media acceptance of its recommendations, and the firmly-held beliefs of a handful of people.

Science writer Gary Taubes, in his myth-exploding article “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat,” published in “Science” magazine in March 2001, questioned the idea that there ever was an epidemic of heart disease after World War II (http://www.nasw.org/awards/2001/The%20soft%20science.pdf).  When Taubes interviewed Harry Rosenberg, Director of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), Rosenberg said a heart disease epidemic never existed.  First, in 1949 the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) added arteriosclerotic heart disease as a new category under the general category of heart diseases.  Between 1948-1949, the new category appeared to raise coronary disease death rates about 20 percent for males and 35 percent for females. 

Again, In 1965, the ICD added a category for coronary heart disease, which added more deaths to the statistical data as physicians began using the new categories.  Furthermore, Rosenberg explained, by the 1950s, Americans were healthier, so more were living to be 50-year-olds who would go on to die of chronic diseases like heart disease, which physicians were now listing on death certificates under the new categories.  Taubes reports that Rosenberg said that, in actuality, risk rates of dying from a heart attack remained unchanged.

Taubes also discussed the fact that between 1989 and 1992, three independent research groups (Harvard Medical School; The University of California, San Francisco, funded by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office; and McGill University, Montreal) used computer models to work out added life expectancy for a person eating a low-fat diet that controlled saturated fats.  All three models agreed, but their conclusions have been ignored by media. 

The Harvard study showed that if a person’s total fat consumption was less than 30 percent of their daily total calories and if their saturated fat consumption was 10 percent of that 30 percent, a healthy nonsmoker might add from 3 days to 3 months of life.  The latter two studies showed net increase of life expectancy would be from three to four months.  Taubes noted that the U.S. Surgeon General’s office tried to prevent the University of California study from being published in “The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), but JAMA published it in June 1991.

The Lipid Hypothesis is the “scientific” paradigm calling for a low-fat diet.  The Lipid Hypothesis is the premise that ingested fat, especially saturated fat, raises blood cholesterol levels, and high cholesterol levels cause chronic heart disease (CHD).  Yet, many, many scientists now have argued that these cause-and-effect links have never been proven and, in fact, cannot be proven.  More recently than Taubes, Michael Pollan, in IN DEFENSE OF FOOD (2008), traces this history and current thinking on dietary fats in a section entitled “The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis” (40-50). 

So how did the Lipid Hypothesis and the low-fat paradigm get installed with scant scientific data to support it?  Biochemist Ancel Keys is a key player.  In the mid 1950s, Keys (University of Minnesota) claimed that his epidemiological Seven Countries Study showed a correlation between the consumption of dietary fat and heart disease.  But, an epidemiological study cannot control or eliminate variables, and correlation is not proved causation.  Furthermore, many now, among them Taubes and Uffe Ravnskov, claim that Keys eliminated countries whose statistics did not fit his hypotheses, like France, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and West Germany, where national populations ate 30 to 40 percent of their calories as fat and whose death rates from CHD were half that of the United States.  Nevertheless, in 1961, the American Heart Association began advocating low-fat diets for men with high cholesterol levels.

Also in the 1950s, Nathan Pritkin, was diagnosed with heart disease.  Though he had no college degree and no scientific training, Pritkin created and published a low-fat, aerobic exercise regime that sold millions of copies.  Pritkin also suffered from leukemia, and it began causing complications and pain in the early 1980s.  Pritkin committed suicide in 1985.        

In 1977, the Congressional Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by Senator George McGovern, promoted the low-fat hypothesis—despite objections by scientists expert in the field.  Taubes determines that “a handful of McGovern staffers…almost single-handedly changed nutritional policy in this country” by initiating “the process of turning the dietary fat hypothesis into dogma” (4).

In 1976, Taubes reports, after two days of testimony, this committee turned “the task of researching and writing the first `Dietary Goals for the United States’” over to Nick Mottern, a labor reporter with “no experience writing about science, nutrition, or health” (5).  Mottern relied on Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist Mark Hegsted’s low-fat beliefs.  Hegsted, unlike E. H. Ahrens, whose laboratory at the Rockefeller University in New York City was doing seminal research on fat and cholesterol metabolism, saw no risks associated with such a major change to the American diet.  Ahrens, as early as 1969, was concerned that eating less fat or changing the proportions of saturated to unsaturated fats could have profound and harmful effects on the body (3-6).  Nevertheless, the Select Committee published Mottern’s dietary guidelines. 

Next, Taube relates, Carol Tucker Foreman, a political appointee at USDA who later forms a public relations and lobbying firm whose clients have included Phillip Morris, Monsanto (bovine growth hormone), and Procter and Gamble (fake fat Olestra), hired Hegsted to produce “Using the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which supported the McGovern Committee Report.  Foreman hired Hegsted despite the fact that Philip Handler, National Academy of Sciences (NAS) President and an expert on metabolism, had told her that Mottern’s Dietary Goals were “`nonsense’ “ (6).

When NAS released its own dietary guidelines a few months later (watch your weight and everything else will be all right), the media criticized the NAS for having industry connections.  Hegsted later returned to Harvard where his research was funded by Frito-Lay.

So, a consensus was achieved, oneTaube says is “continuously reinforced by physicians, nutritionists, journalists, health organizations, and consumer advocacy groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest” (1).  And, science was “left to catch up” (7).

 Only, science never has.  And, what has emerged is that all calories are not equal and substituting carbohydrates for fat has caused weight gain and diabetes.  And, according to lipid biochemist Mary Enig, substituting highly-processed fats for time-honored, traditional fats is causing chronic heart disease.   

Pollan notes that in a 2001 review of the relevant research and report by “prominent nutrition scientists” at the Harvard School of Public Health, “just about every strut supporting the theory that dietary fat causes heart disease” was removed, except for consuming trans fats and consuming fats that alter ratios of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids (41-42).  Pollan notes the Harvard scientists stated the following in their report’s second paragraph:  “`It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences’ “ (43).    

Pollan assesses that the low-fat ideology of nutritionism has been nutrition’s “supreme test and, as now is coming clear, its most abject failure” (41).