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Could fat be okay after all?

July 16, 2002
By Grace-Marie Turner

Evidence is mounting that the dietary recommendations promoted by the Federal government over the past two decades are a major factor in the obesity epidemic in America.

Since the publication of "Dietary Goals for the United States" in 1977, the government has been proclaiming unequivocally and with almost religious fervor that obesity is caused by the excessive consumption of fat, and that if we eat less fat, we will lose weight and live longer.

Depicted in the familiar "Food Pyramid," we were told to eat six to eleven servings a day of foods like bread, cereal, rice, and pasta and only a few servings of meat, cheese, and eggs.

That meant we were supposed to load up on high-carbohydrate foods and stay away from fats and proteins.

The trouble is that the government didn't have good science behind its recommendations. Virtually all of the long-term studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health, costing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, have failed to show that a low-fat diet was either effective in helping people keep their weight down or in reducing ailments like heart disease.

Nutrition experts are now VERY reluctantly coming to the conclusion that "the exclusive focus on adverse effects of fat may have contributed to the obesity epidemic," according to Walter Willett, chairman of Harvard's department of nutrition.

"Public health authorities told us unwittingly, but with the best of intentions, to eat precisely those foods that would make us fat, and we did," said Barry Sears, author of the best-selling diet book, "The Zone," in an interview with The New York Times.

The cover story in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine entitled "What if fat doesn't make you fat?" analyzed the intense debate between low-fat and low-carbohydrate advocates. A growing body of evidence suggests that a low-fat diet may actually be causing a chain of behaviors that not only is making us fat but making us much more susceptible to major diseases like diabetes.

The biochemistry is complex but convincing: Carbohydrates are less satisfying than fats so we crave more food. The result: "We suddenly began consuming more total calories: now up to 400 more each day since the government started recommending low-fat diets," reporter Gary Taubes writes in the Times.

"For a large percentage of the population…low-fat diets are counterproductive. They have the paradoxical effect of making people gain weight," according to Eleftheria Maratos-Flier, the director of obesity research at Harvard's prestigious Joslin Diabetes Center.

Who are the trial lawyers going to sue over this…the federal government? Not likely. But the government's prime role in promoting a diet that may be harming the health of millions of people does not bode well for those who are clamoring for further expanding its involvement in health care.

The food industry, of course, was a willing partner, spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing and advertising low-fat foods. The incentive? Calorie for calorie, refined carbohydrates like juices, bagels, cookies, and muffins, are the cheapest foods to produce and can be sold at the highest profit.

New studies which the government reluctantly has funded could turn the food industry upside-down.

Dr. Robert Atkins first popularized his low-carbohydrate diet in the 1970s in his book "Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution." He claims his diet not only is more effective in promoting weight loss but also lowers cholesterol and other health risks.

Speaking favorably of the Atkins diet has been the highest heresy for a generation of nutrition experts who have ridiculed him for encouraging dieters to eat lobster with butter, steak with béarnaise sauce, bacon and eggs - and still lose weight.

"After insisting Atkins was a quack for three decades, obesity experts are now finding it difficult to ignore the copious anecdotal evidence that his diet does just what he has claimed," the Times writes.

A growing body of research is showing with remarkable consistency that people on a low-carbohydrate diet "lost twice as much weight as the subjects on the low-fat, low-calorie diet."

Further, research suggests, heart-disease risk could actually be reduced when fat is added back into the diet and starches and refined carbohydrates are removed.

Dr. Atkins and his followers have refined the diet over the years to minimize excess fat.

Finally, Dr. Atkins may get his due. The NIH has funded a $2.5 million trial to study 360 obese people for five years to see how they do on his low carbohydrate diet. At long last, there may be an answer.

Knight Ridder News Service

Author Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a not-for-profit research organization specializing in research and education about health care issues. She can be reached at

      P.O. Box 19080
      Alexandria, VA 22320

or on the web at