What's on your plate?

Politics Continues to Determine Dietary Standards – not Science

When I first wrote this article and published it on Helium (a now defunct E-Zine) no one was concerned about the effects of the human diet on climate change. Today, politicians are claiming that a plant based diet will save the planet. These politicians are woefully out of touch with the research on diet – reading only media reports. In addition, research published more than three years ago is ignored as irrelevant. I disagree. All honest science builds on previous research.

The studies reviewed in this paper are not new. They are old and ignored because they do not meet the current narrative in which “eating red meat” is destroying the planet. This is absurd.

The Science behind Low Carb Diets

One of the earliest experiments on low carb eating was conducted by a man called William Banting in the 19th century.[i] His was an experiment of one. Despite following all medical advice (to exercise more and eat and drink less) he continued to gain weight.  It was not until he eliminated alcohol, sweets, and grains from his diet (a basic low-carb diet) that he began to see weight loss. He published his remarkable results in a long letter which sold out immediately.

Medicine advocated a low or controlled carb diet up through[ii] the 1960’s until the publication of the results of an extensive controlled experiment[iii] on young WWII Conscientious Objectors.  They were confined to a locked ward for 12 months and fed a 1,000-calorie diet “to see what would happen.”  They lost a lot of weight, looked like            starving prisoners of war and ended up just lying around in their beds because they hadn’t enough energy to move.  The conclusion drawn from this research was that it was the low-fat portion of the diet that caused the weight loss. A major criticism of this research is that it did not directly test diet composition. The findings of this study proves severe calorie restriction will cause weight loss and nothing else.

In another study, Keys[iv] examined the dietary habits of peoples from seven selected countries and concluded that it was the low fat in the diet that kept people lean and heart healthy.  (Exercise was not included in the equation. Did the researchers control for calories consumption too?) And so, the low-fat theory upon which our USDA Food Pyramid is based got its start.  A major criticism of this study is that the sample size is very small and selective. Also, the data were observational and collected by a variety of other researchers. It was a good start but needed follow up experiments to test the hypothesis comparing different diets and holding calorie counts consistent.

Despite the findings from research on low carb diets in controlled in-patient metabolic wards,[v] despite the research findings by anthropologists on aboriginal populations who ate a low carb diet,[vi] despite the research findings by archaeologists[vii] who discovered that when ancient peoples changed from a high-fat low-carbohydrate diet to a grain-based diet, their health and body structures deteriorated, and despite the observations of such eminent medical missionaries as Albert Schweitzer who documented the deterioration of the health of the indigenous peoples when a Western diet[viii] was introduced (mainly sugar and flour), none of this information has influenced the current nutritional guidelines based upon the low-fat hypothesis. There seems to be a behind-closed-doors agreement that anything that favored low carb diets should be ignored in the press.  Note the lack of press coverage for Gary Taubes book Good Calories, Bad Calories that came out in 2007 examining the science behind the low fat and the low carbohydrate hypotheses.

For  over thirty years, the low-fat hypothesis has been the dominant thinking.  Few academics dared to publish anything that was contrary for fear their deviation from the “dogma” would harm their careers.  When reading some of their published findings, (as honest researchers they include their data) their conclusions are always that it is the low-fat in diets that made the difference (whether the data showed it or not).[ix]

The USDA food guidelines are very high in carbohydrates and very low in fats.  This national policy underlies all weight loss programs, diabetic treatment programs, and cardiac rehabilitation programs. It has created a nation with problems with obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease, immune disorders and a whole host of other illnesses.

The low-fat hypothesis has not received the “building of scientific evidence” that is required to support a hypothesis; yet there seems to be no forthcoming change in policy.  No one feels compelled to account for or explain the current research findings comparing low-carb diets with low-fat diets. For example, a 2007 issue of Consumer reports compared all the current popular diets to determine which was “best.”  The author interviewed the experts who made their recommendations on every diet based upon its agreement with the USDA Food Pyramid.  The more the diet deviated from this standard, the lower the rating.  Using those criteria, the Atkins diet ended up as the lowest on the scale.  In the same article, the author mentioned the Stanford study, also published in 2007, which compared 4 of the most popular diets in print with the result that the Atkins diet had the best results on weight loss and all health parameters tested. Other than mentioning the study, the author ignored it for the rest of the article and in his conclusions.

The Stanford study was rapidly followed by two other peer reviewed publications that I call “The Israeli Study” and the “Masai study.”[x]  The Israeli study was an experiment testing the differences between low fat and low carb diets (with the same result as the Stanford study) that the low carbohydrate diet out-performed the low-fat diet on all tested parameters (blood glucose, cholesterol, etc).

The Masai study was a comparison of three groups of genetically related people living in the same general area of Africa: the Masai, a pastoral group who herd cattle, and rural and urban Bantu.  The Masai eat a high-fat diet of meat and milk.  The rural Bantu are agriculturalists eating a high carbohydrate, low-fat diet.  The urban Bantu eat a high fat, high carbohydrate diet much like our own. The Masai were found to be the leanest with an obesity rate of just 3%.  Their blood values and other cardiovascular parameters (cholesterols and blood pressure) were all within normal range. The urban Bantu, in stark contrast, had the worst ratings on all parameters with the rural Bantu falling somewhere in between the other two groups.  The Masai study supports all the documented evidence provided by anthropologists and archaeologists.

Underlying the low-carb hypothesis is the fact (not a hunch or speculation) of the action of insulin in response to ingesting a high carbohydrate diet and the subsequent damage to all other systems of the body by having too much insulin too much of the time      in our systems.  Over time our systems show signs of an inflammatory disease process and eventually begin break down.  Because of our diversity, not everyone becomes obese with the body’s attempt to control excess blood sugar; some become Diabetic, some develop heart disease, and others develop high blood pressure.

The number of new books attesting to these phenomena is increasing.The science behind the low-carb diet is convincing and growing.  The science has been built from diverse fields, not just one. Testing the low-carb hypothesis against the low-fat hypothesis is a critical and pressing issue.  Knowledge is built from the accumulation of many studies, not just one.  Until large scale, nationally funded, well controlled experiments are conducted of the low-carb hypothesis compared to the low-fat hypothesis, the debate over which hypothesis is correct will continue. 

Today, our politicians are advocating a plant-based diet to “save the planet.” There is no science behind these statements – just emotionalism. They suggest eliminating “red meat” from the diet based upon no evidence whatsoever. That people listen to them and believe what they say is criminal.

Currently, each hypothesis appears to have a “cult following” and the debate rages on.

[i] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 1864.   Use Google to find the full text (66 pages).

[ii] See the 1964 USDA Food Guide and compare it to the current USDA food guide.  In 1964, the emphasis was upon protein and fat.  The current food guide emphasizes carbohydrates and more specifically “plant based foods” or the food that actually create all the dietary problems seen today. See also “Wheat Belly.”

[iii] Anselm Keys. et al.  The Biology of Human Starvation.  2 vols. 1950.

[iv] Keys, A. 1980. Seven Countries: A Multivariate Analysis of death and Coronary Heart Disease.

[v] Stefansson and Karsten Anderson participated in a controlled experiment supervised by 10 physicians and scientists in 1928 to test the efficacy of an “all meat” diet. They lived on a metabolic ward at Bellevue Hospital for 12 months under close observation.  Pp. 322-426 GCBC

[vi] Stefansson’s field work among the Inuit; pp 319-322 GCBC

[vii] Claire Cassidy’s doctoral dissertation on the Hardin Villagers as well as examination of Egyptian mummies.  See a description of her research in Protein Power:  Epilogue:  Overcoming the curse of the mummies.

[viii] The Western Diet is characterized by high sugar, grain or flour based. 95-97 GCBC

[ix] Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories. 2007

[x] The Israeli Study:  http://weightoftheevidence.blogspot.com/2008/07/two-year-dietary-trial-results-low-carb.html

The Masai Study:  Daily Energy Expenditure and Cardiovascular Risk in Masai, Rural and Urban Bantu Tanzanians