In the last post I wrote that I would explain why George Bray and his brethren in the academic obesity research world are in great measure responsible for the toxic world they all blame for the obesity epidemic. We live in a world, they say, filled with impossible to resist foods that throw us into hedonic overdrive. As long as we live in such a world, there is no hope – other than drugs, of course – for the obesity epidemic to be reversed. They may be correct. But, as I said, they are in part responsible. Let’s see why.
You can’t just go around gibbering as they do about a toxic environment without defining what it is that is toxic about it. If pressed, these folks almost always default to the position that it is the elevated levels of fat in the diet that are toxic. They will often say – as Bray did in his rebuttal to Taubes – that the ready availability of high-fat, high-sugar foods is what makes the environment toxic, but that is just a kind of code for high fat, which is what they really believe causes obesity.
The statistics show a different story however. Most food consumption data indicates that fat consumption has actually been falling or, at worst, has remained about the same. Caloric intake has been on the rise, however.
The latest NHANES data show that the average American consumes about 250 calories more per day. If fat is falling or remaining the same, and calories are increasing, those calories can come from only two sources: protein or carbohydrate. Since protein intake pretty much mirrors fat intake, it’s most likely that the increase in calories has come from an increase in carbohydrate intake. Which is what the data actually show. NHANES data confirm that this 250 calorie increase comes from carbohydrates.
So, if anything has changed in the diet over the past 40 years, it is that carbohydrate intake has increased, which is a pretty good argument to say that if the food environment has become toxic, it is the increased carbohydrate intake that has made it so.
If you look at the scientific literature and try to find a study that shows that consuming more fat causes health problems, you’re going to come away empty handed. Sure, there are a lot of studies out there showing that bad things happen when fat intake goes up, but subjects in those studies are eating a ton of carbs along with the fat. I religiously read the medical literature, and I haven’t found any studies showing a decline in health with an increase in fat without an increase in carbs or calories going along with it.
It ain’t the same with carbohydrates. The scientific literature is crawling with papers showing detrimental effects from overconsumption of carbohydrates.
It’s pretty obvious to anyone who cares to look that if there is indeed a toxic environment out there luring us all to overeat and become obese, that toxic environment is made of carbohydrate.
If this is true – and I think it is – then why are Dr. Bray and his henchmen responsible?
Easy. They encourage carb consumption by focusing the public’s attention on fat and away from carbohydrates. Bray and friends are the go-to experts driving the recommendations of various governmental agencies that ultimately drive large food manufacturers to produce products adding to the toxicity of the environment.
General Mills, Nestle, General Foods, Kellogg, and other giant food companies aren’t managed by intrinsically evil people who set out to make us all fat. These companies – just like Microsoft, IBM, Exxon and others – are in business to make an honest buck for their shareholders. Shareholders want to see growth in value and a steady income for their investments, and management wants to deliver. But these companies are constrained by what they sell.
Basically they sell calories. If you take the number of people in the United States (we’re just talking domestic production here) and multiply that number by the average caloric intake per person, you can arrive at the total number of calories consumed by the population. That’s the market for these companies.
If you are running a food company selling calories, you can grow your company in just a few ways. You can do nothing and just grow as the population grows, but all food companies can do that so you don’t achieve any advantage over the competition. You can improve your branding and merchandising and/or develop new products to try to gain a bigger market share of the calories consumed. You can buy one of your competitors.
And you can work to simply increase the average number of calories consumed by each person and therefore make the overall caloric intake of the country rise. How do you make people eat more? Simple. You make products that are convenient, tasty, inexpensive and widely available. And you make them addictive. What makes them addictive? Carbohydrates, of course. What gets the blame? Fat, of course.
These processed foods are typically a mixture of fat and sugar, which provides a taste sensation that most people seem not to be able to resist. They want more and more of it. And food companies are happy to provide it. The USDA’s School Nutrition Dietary Assessment from 2007 showed that the three products groups consumed the most in schools were candy; cookies, cakes and brownies; and soft drinks. All fat and sugar and, in the case of soft drinks, sugar alone.
All of these foods are thought of as sweets. People who crave them are often said to have a sweet tooth. Yet most academic obesity experts criticize these products because they are high in fat. In their minds, it’s the fat that’s the problem, not the sugar.
Since these academicians fill the seats of all the government panels that convene to come up with solutions to the obesity problem, the usual message is to cut the fat. So the food companies cut the fat or change the type of fat…and leave the sugar. The addictive part of the equation doesn’t change.
Lest you think this is a problem only for children in schools, I would encourage you to go to just about any office in America and take a look in the break room. You’ll find cakes and cookies and brownies and chips and all the rest of the stuff you find in schools. The problem is endemic.
And it is going to be extremely difficult to change.
I just finished one of the better books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a book that opened my eyes as to why it will be difficult to change and why Bray et al are going to make it even more difficult.
The book, titled Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat, was written by Hank Cardello, a former executive in the food industry who spent his career at General Mills, Coca Cola and other food giants. Mr. Cardello got sick and, after experiencing an epiphany about his own diet and health, realized the companies he had worked for (along with many others) were in great measure responsible for his illness.
If you are interested in finding out how the food industry drives us to overeat, you need to read this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I had no idea how the various arms of the food industry – food manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants – all work hand in hand to make us fat. The government is in there, too, always making the wrong moves and usually making the situation worse. I was always naïve enough to think that if only McDonalds or one of the other fast food giants would make some minor changes, the world would be a better place. But after reading this book, I can see why those changes are almost impossible to effect because of the structure of the industry. Who would have thought that purchasing agents are responsible for much of the problem? Yet they are trapped in the system and can’t change without creating huge problems for themselves (read: their own unemployment).
The first four fifths of the book are a brilliant expose of the food industry. It’s actually not so much of an expose as it is an accurate description of why the industry is locked into the way it is and why change is damn near impossible. The book shows why food manufacturers makes foods that make us fat, why the grocery stores are set up to beguile us into buying things we shouldn’t, and why restaurants trick us into ordering not what’s best for us, but what’s best for the restaurant’s bottom line.
The first four fifths more than justify the price of the book, which is a good thing because the last couple of chapters are pretty weak. Pretty weak, but not without their highlight moments, one of which we will soon see.
The last chapters are weak because, sadly, Mr. Cardello has bought into the idea that what really makes us fat is that we eat too many calories. In his mind, it doesn’t matter what those calories are made of, they’re all the same. Except for saturated fat, or course. He’s convinced that saturated fat will do us in. He has pretty much bought into the notion that fat and calories make us fat, and the last couple of chapters of the book are a compilation of his ideas as to how to change the food industry. He thinks that people love nasty processed food and they’re going to eat it no matter what, so why not make it lower in calories and lower in fat. Most of his ideas revolve around making smaller portion sizes and products with lower fat and calorie counts.
Why does he buy into all this? Because of Dr. Bray, among others.
Writes Mr. Cardello about a conference in which nutritional scientists sit down with food industry people to discuss how to solve the obesity problem:
It also was refreshing for me to listen to and learn from Dr. George Bray, the esteemed biomedical researcher and professor of medicine at Louisiana State Medical Center in Baton Rouge. To many insiders, he’s known as the founding father of the obesity issue. Bray is a doctor and scientist who has been practicing his craft for fifty-one years, and he still has the energy and curiosity of colleagues who are half his age. When he first began studying obesity, he was a doctor gently sounding a warning bell, but nobody was listening. The American population was about 14 percent overweight at the time. Now 30 percent of us are fat, so he said the problem has doubled since he began his work.
Now there is a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever seen one. I don’t think the author was being ironic, but it sure came out that way. And it corroborates my suspicions.
Bray truly has been a founding father of the obesity issue in ways that he probably doesn’t like. When he started working on the problem, the rate of obesity was 14 percent. After 51 years of effort on his part, the rate of obesity has more than doubled. That should tell anyone with sense enough to listen that Bray is a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.
Let’s imagine a world in which nutritional scientists actually pay attention to the growing mountain of studies showing that high-carbohydrate diets are bad and that low-carbohydrate diets do all the good things the readers of this blog know they do. Let’s imagine that these nutritional scientists make recommendations to the government to limit the advertising of carbohydrates in an effort to improve the health of the nation. Let’s imagine that people stores and restaurants started stocking and serving low-carb foods and that overweight people who were face down in the carbs were looked at with disdain. And let’s imagine that when someone suffers a heart attack or is obese, everyone says, well, he/she deserves it because he/she was a carbaholic.
If all this came to pass, public opinion would turn against high-carb consumption and my guess is that the obesity epidemic would end.
But is this all a pipe dream? Could it really happen? Not while Bray and friends are around ignoring the scientific evidence and continuing to push carbs on us all. But if these guys ever shuffle on off, there is a chance. It’s happened before.
Fifty years ago everyone and his brother smoked. It was the thing to do. When I was a kid my parents smoked and all my friends’ parents smoked. Every time I ate dinner, my mother had a cigarette going at one end of the table while my father had one going at the other. A haze of smoke always hung in our house. But I didn’t think anything of it because a haze of smoke hung in the houses of all my friends. Whenever I went someplace in the car with my parents or with the parents of my friends, the car was full of smoke. It was a way of life. As my mother – who is now a nonsmoker – never tires of telling me, back then if you didn’t smoke, you were considered some kind of freak.
If you watched TV at that time, it seemed that every show was sponsored by a cigarette company. It’s difficult to believe now how pervasive smoking and cigarette commercials were at that time. I’ve posted videos of a few of these commercials here and here. Everyone got into the act. Even the Beverly Hillbillies.
And professional athletes.
There were no nonsmoking sections in restaurants. People smoked on planes and even in theaters. If you want to get some notion of what is was like, look at a few episodes of Prime Suspect, the terrific Brit detective series starring Helen Mirren. You can almost get nicotine toxic just watching. Granted, this series was filmed in the UK, but it presents smoking the way it was so widely done in the US a generation or two ago.
Now substantially fewer people smoke, and those who do are, for the most part, apologetic about it. Now there aren’t just nonsmoking sections in restaurants, the entire restaurant is nonsmoking. People can’t smoke in office buildings, public buildings, or much of anywhere else. There are no ads for cigarettes on TV or in magazines or newspapers and there are no billboards encouraging smoking. As far as smoking is concerned, it’s a different world.
The scientific community figured out that smoking was a huge health problem. Scientists worked through the government to launch an enormous public health campaign to get people to quit smoking. It started with warnings on cigarette packages and went from there to a prohibition against advertising, first on television, then ultimately to just about everywhere else. And it has worked. Rates of smoking have plummeted, which is amazing considering how addictive nicotine is.
If this kind of scientific driven public health campaign can work to get people to give up a tremendously addictive and enjoyable habit, why wouldn’t it work to change the way people eat? I’m sure it would if it were ever initiated. But the problem is that as long as you have Bray and others telling the powers that be that the only thing causing the problem is calories and that carbs are wonderful, it never will happen.
When the public health campaign against smoking started, the only scientists who spoke out against it were those hired by the tobacco companies. And, of course, people realized that these spokesmen had a dog in the fight and pretty much ignored them.
Now we would have scientists who are not in the employ of the food industry who are telling us that carbs are good, fat is bad, and the reason we are all obese is simply that we eat too many calories and don’t exercise enough. As long as these people are spouting off, there will be no change.
Just like there were nonsmokers back then who bucked the trend (and were thought of as freaks by my mother and other smokers), there are those of us who buck the high-carb trend now (and are probably thought of as freaks by the rest of the population). We all have to rely on our own internal public health campaigns to keep us going.
I don’t know that there will ever be a public health campaign against the high-carb diet, but I know that if there is, it will work. If people can be broken from the chains of tobacco, they can certainly be weaned from carbs.
There has been a nutritional public health campaign of sorts, but unfortunately it has been misguided. Bray and others have gotten the government on board for a jihad against fat, particularly saturated fat. And, as anyone can see, the campaign has been successful. Sadly, they picked the wrong macronutrient to campaign against, as is evidenced by both the generalized fear of fat along with a doubling of the rate of obesity.
Public health campaigns do work. We’ve just got to work to get the right one.
Hat tip to Whole Health Source blog for the nutrient intake graphs
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