Many of today’s adults grew up hearing about – and adhering to – the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, a list of nutrition and health recommendations first released by the American Heart Association in 1961 and updated every few years. At one point, there was even a “food pyramid” containing daily intake recommendations for foods such as sweets, breads, meats and vegetables. Over the years, the guidelines have undergone various tweaks and changes as dietary information and health science have grown. More recently, the “food pyramid” became “my plate,” which encourages people to fill their dinner plates with fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins in specific portion sizes. Yet, even as these guidelines have evolved, their origins have been the subject of scrutiny, particularly since the obesity rate in the United States has gone from one in seven Americans when the guidelines were first released to 42 percent of Americans qualifying as obese in 2017-2018, approaching one in two individuals nationwide.
“If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s like me, everything we were taught about nutrition came from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines,” said Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman. “In her book, ‘The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,’ author Nina Teicholz investigates the validity of decades of nutrition recommendations that emphasize reducing fat – specifically saturated fat – in the diets of Americans. She breaks down the origins of those recommendations, and the political and industry biases that may have contributed to them. Teicholz also questions if the science behind the dietary guidelines stands up to scrutiny. For instance, did the food pyramid that recommended limiting fat and eating six to 11 servings of grains per day contribute to rising obesity and health problems in the United States?” Tillman said.
“One of the key ideas in the book dates back to the 1950s when nutrition researcher Ancel Keys found a link between fat, cholesterol and heart disease,” Tillman continued. “He came up with the concept of the ‘Diet-Heart Hypothesis,’ which is basically the idea that dietary fat and cholesterol lead to high blood cholesterol, which in turn leads to increased heart disease. His nutrition studies were taken as fact at the time, but later investigation showed flaws, if not outright deception, in his studies,” Tillman explained.
Tillman says another of the key points in “The Big Fat Surprise” has to do with saturated fats. “Once saturated fats were deemed dangerous, food manufacturers turned to something even worse: hydrogenated trans fats,” she said. “These trans fats quickly became the backbone of the processed food industry. Newer research shows that trans fats are more conducive to promoting heart disease than saturated fats. And by reducing fats, many commercial food products also became higher in sugar and carbohydrate. Newer research, including a large analysis of 43 studies that was published in the journal ‘Lipids in Health and Disease’ last year found no increased risk of cardiovascular disease associated with a diet higher in saturated fat,” Tillman explained. “There is still much discussion within the scientific community about these findings and the discussion will likely continue,” she added.
“The bottom line, according to advice from this book, is that a higher-fat diet is almost assuredly healthier than one low in fat and high in sugar and processed carbohydrate,” Tillman continued. “Don’t be so scared of fat and saturated fat. Eat butter, bacon, beef, eggs and whole milk if you like them. Balance whole food sources of saturated fats in an overall diet focused on whole foods such as veggies and fruits. Limit highly processed foods, and focus on physical activity and stress management to decrease risk of heart disease,” Tillman explained.