As new scientific evidence has emerged the low fat diet has slowly fallen from favour. But the myth-makers are suggesting the whole thing was a con, born out of fraud and carried along by a conspiracy.
The origins of the low fat diet
The low fat diet had its origins in 1980 with the publication of the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The recommendation to ‘Avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol’ was intended to lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk for heart disease. Although the focus was really on lowering saturated fat, it was thought that lowering total fat intake may help prevent some cancers and obesity.
In Australia, the simpler guideline ‘Avoid eating too much fat’ was adopted to aid its communication.
Keys versus Yudkin
The low fat diet had a low key launch. Yet these humble origins are now being re-imagined as the disastrous consequences of a fight to the (professional) death of two of the great nutritionists their era – Ancel Keys and John Yudkin. As an epidemic of heart disease raged in the post-war years Yudkin pointed his finger at sugar. But Keys argued that the effect of different fats on blood cholesterol was the key mechanism affecting heart disease risk, and he won the day.
Yet Keys’ victory is now being portrayed as the fateful moment when nutrition science careered off course for four decades. Fortunately for humankind, ‘the truth’ that the problem was sugar all along has now been revealed by various journalists, lawyers, economists and B-list celebrities, all of whom seem to have made a packet in doing so.
Not content with challenging Ancel Keys’s views, the myth-makers have set out to destroy his reputation, arguing that he fudged his data – that Keys was a fraud. In contrast, Yudkin is now portrayed as a prophet, whereas he was discredited in his day.
The mythical fork in the road
Why the myth-makers need to construct this fanciful sugar or fat fork in the road is a mystery. After all, both the Australian and the American dietary guidelines published in the early 1980s discussed fat and sugar. The relevant sugar guideline in Australia was ‘Avoid eating too much sugar’ and the American guideline simply said ‘Avoid too much sugar’. And the advice to limit sugar intake has stayed in place ever since.
In contrast, as new scientific evidence about fat became available the cancer link was dismissed and recommendations steadily evolved to have more focus on fat type and less on lowering total fat. All the recent research is ignored by the myth-makers.
Mistakes were made
Certainly, mistakes were made by some of our health authorities. By the mid-90s the ‘eat less fat’ message should have been disappearing into history. However, it was given a new lease of life when obesity experts latched onto it, based on insufficient evidence which soon fell away.
According to the myth-makers, this wasn’t a policy failure. No, it was the work of the sugar barons conspiring with their operatives in academia to prop up the low fat diet to further their commercial interests!
Alternatively, maybe nutrition experts have just been gradually refining their dietary recommendations as new scientific evidence becomes available.