Abundance, c. 1630/Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).
Should this allegorical lady join a weight watchers’ club? Would she look and feel happier if she counted calories? Avoided saturated fats?
The Internet can be an awesome myth creator. Broadcasting multimedia 24/7 worldwide. So that what we learn becomes part of our environment, maybe part of us, no matter how culturally remote we are from the source. And no matter what its relationship to reality. The photoshopping controversies illustrate that.
But if we use the Internet judiciously, it also makes myth busting easier than ever. Even myths announced from lecterns, proclaimed from platforms, barked from megaphones, and plastered on placards. Myths cycle faster through the system now.
Here is one recent example: It has been proclaimed for decades, a truism truer than true, that saturated fats are bad for everybody. That cheeseburger will kill us all!
I was actually waiting for recent studies to announce that just watching someone else eat a cheeseburger is bad for one’s health, on the analogy of second hand smoke. (And now there is “third hand smoke” to worry us too.)
Such campaigns create a demand for government to ban or regulate behaviour more intensively than before. And sure enough, some governments gladly oblige. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, for example, banned the Big Gulp jumbo soda from sale within the city (but his regulation was overturned on appeal). Not, of course, before an evolutionary biologist favoured the New York Times with the view that we have evolved so as to need coercion in health matters.
Well, that’s too bad for evolution then, because here’s what happened in the Deathburger case:
“Saturated fat does not cause heart disease”—or so concluded a big study published in March in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. How could this be? The very cornerstone of dietary advice for generations has been that the saturated fats in butter, cheese and red meat should be avoided because they clog our arteries. For many diet-conscious Americans, it is simply second nature to opt for chicken over sirloin, canola oil over butter.
The new study’s conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with modern nutritional science, however. The fact is, there has never been solid evidence for the idea that these fats cause disease. We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.
As columnist Mona Charen writes,
This is not just reminiscent of Woody Allen’s 1973 movie “Sleeper” — it’s nearly word for word. In the future, Allen joked, wheat germ and organic honey would kill you but “deep fat, cream pies and steak” would be regarded as health-enhancing.
Yuh. Cheez E. Burger was, as he has protested all along from his cell, wrapped!, along with Frenchy (who fried for his crimes). And the whole gang from the local greasy spoon, who were culturally disreputable anyway. The grave culinary sins committed in The Spoon’s galley had long fuelled dark hints and muttered conjectures among the righteous, who eventually banished them all in favour of organic blue bean tortilla chips and goat cheese with arugula.
But Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all his sons away, and Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn. Put another way, culture is about feelings, but science is about evidence. The whole exercise turned out to be a societal morality play around food.
One that quickly turned political:
It seems that the founding father of the saturated fat theory was a sloppy researcher. In the 1950s, Ancel Benjamin Keys studied men in the U.S., Japan and Europe and concluded that poor diet caused heart disease and other pathologies. He examined farmers living in Crete, Teicholz writes, but studied them during Lent, when they had given up meat and cheese for religious reasons. Still, Keys was apparently charismatic and convincing, and while subsequent research was mixed on the question of fats, cholesterol and disease, the whole nutritional/governmental blob had become too committed to the low-fat orthodoxy to turn back easily.
Nutrition is such an easy target for politics because we all so much need to believe that our wise choices prevent death and illness. In a recent piece in Science, a senior researcher wrote about discovering that about 40 years of government sponsored research into nutrition was fatally flawed, which he attributed to “incompetence and self-interest.” Hmmm. Maybe it’s best that these people not legislate what we eat.
Are whole foods the answer? Not necessarily. They can be a “temple of pseudoscience” too. So should we live on cheeseburgers? Of course not. We should not live on arugula either.
But the most dangerous thing to live on turns out, as always, to be illusions.
This looks like an informative vid on fats and the heart by a heart surgeon. See what you think.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.