Thursday, March 24, 2011

Historical Context, Part 4 - Dietary Goals for the United States

Probably the most influential event in the acceptance of the diet-heart hypothesis, the one that finally cemented the idea that we should all eat less fat and cholesterol, was the 1977 publication of Senator George McGovern's Dietary Goals for the United States.  This was, in McGovern's words, "the first comprehensive statement by any branch of the Federal Government on risk factors in the American diet."  In other words, until now, government had never told Americans what they should be eating.  Unfortunately, what led to the publication of these guidelines had little to do with nutritional science.

The influence of Ancel Keys on this process cannot be understated.  The man should take a large part of the credit (or blame) for convincing the country to fear fat, not just through his research but also through his influence on the American Heart Association (AHA), for which he was a board member.  As early as 1960, a full 17 years prior to the government recommendations, the AHA had begun recommending that Americans eat less saturated fat and cholesterol by avoiding red meat.  By 1970, the AHA had broadened their recommendations to all Americans (formerly they only applied to those with high cholesterol and smokers) and had begun an alliance with the vegetable oil and margarine manufacturers.  Two of these major manufacturers began distributing a "risk handbook" to doctors all over the country, touting the benefits of avoiding saturated fats and eating more polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils like corn oil.  Doctors, of course, would begin passing this information along to their patients; all it took now was to add a label to a product saying "low in saturated fat and cholesterol" and poof! it's a health food in the public eye.  This alliance between the AHA and the vegetable oil manufacturers dissolved in the early 1970's due to research showing that polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils and margarine could cause cancer in rats.  Nevertheless, the AHA was becoming more and more well-known by the public and would soon be considered a trusted source.  Today, you can find the AHA logo on such heart-healthy foods as Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms.

Another important political problem that was gaining momentum in the early 1970's was the problem of feeding the world's growing population.  The subject of famine in the third world was a constant presence in the news, where images of starving, impoverished children from all over the world were regularly shown.  A growing number of concerned individuals began blaming this world hunger on the wasteful American livestock industry.  The idea was brought to the mainstream through the popularity of a number of books, such as Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe and Appetite for Change by Warren Belasco.  According to Lappe, a 26-year-old vegetarian, the American beef industry required 20 million tons of soy and vegetable protein to produce two million tons of beef.  So, he argued, we would be doing the world's growing population a favor by bypassing this process and simply subsisting on the soy and vegetable protein ourselves.  This argument transformed meat-eating into a social issue, as well as a moral one.  Wrote Warren Belasco in Appetite for Change, "A shopper's decision at the meat counter in Gary, Indiana would affect food availability in Bombay, India."  In the eyes of these people, there wasn't enough food for everyone because the food industry was feeding it to cattle to support our meat-loving nation.  Coincidentally, this sentiment ran parallel to the AHA's stance that Americans should eat less saturated fat, especially red meat.  Just to clarify, I'm not some cold bastard who doesn't care about starving children in the third world, I'm simply trying to make the point that there were other factors at play in this whole diet-heart hypothesis deal that had nothing to do with recommending an optimal diet for health.  Besides, in 1968, before this public starvation scare even took hold, Norman Borlaug created high-yield varieties of dwarf wheat that had ended famines in India and Pakistan and averted the predicted mass starvations.  The hunger problem was already on its way to a solution.

And now we come to Senator George McGovern.  The aforementioned document, the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States, was a product of McGovern's Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, a bipartisan nonlegislative committee that had been formed in 1968 with a mandate to wipe out malnutrition in America.  In its first five years, McGovern and his colleagues were very successful in implementing federal food-assistance programs to feed the hungry in America.  But by 1977, McGovern's Senate Select Committee was in danger of being reorganized and downgraded to a subcommittee, which would operate under the Senate Committee on Agriculture.  As investigative reporter William Broad explained it in a 1979 article, the Dietary Goals constituted a last-ditch effort to save McGovern's committee from reorganization.  The committee members knew that this was primarily a political move.  Committee staff director Marshall Matz was quoted as admitting, "We really were totally naive, a bunch of kids, who just thought, Hell, we should say something on this subject before we go bankrupt."  So McGovern and his committee decided to "just pick one" and support the diet-heart hypothesis, and recommend that Americans consume less fat and cholesterol.  The committee used the "changing American diet" story for the basis of its position, stating that at the turn of the century Americans consumed less fat and more carbohydrates, and heart disease was rare (refer to part 2 of this series for more on that).  Incidentally, they also loved Ancel Keys' Seven Countries Study (boooo.).They emphasized the need to return to the diet of the past, reducing meat and fat intake in favor of grains and other carbohydrates.

Now, put yourself in George McGovern's shoes for a moment... by endorsing the low-fat diet, you're winning on so many levels.  First, you're promoting the Senate Select Committee's reputation, not to mention your reputation as a politician.  Let's not forget politicians' obligation to make themselves look good.  Second, you're promoting a diet that can feed more people, the kind of diet that a government can get behind.  And third, you're giving the American people concrete advice to follow that you believe will improve their health.  The Dietary Guidelines were a culmination of all of these factors.  The major problem with the guidelines, however, was that now the public thought the debate was over; that fat and cholesterol were killers... and the science didn't support that.  The guidelines make it seem as though the data was clear, while in reality it was anything but.  Skeptics would continue to say that more research was needed in order to offer accurate advice, but unfortunately "more research needed" isn't particularly quotable or catchy.  The key concept to understand here is that the Dietary Guidelines for the United States was not a scientific document; it was a political one.  In the last part of this Historical Context series, I'll address the actual dietary research that refutes this low-fat and cholesterol dogma, and also discuss the ginormous impact that the Dietary Guidelines had on public opinion.


  1. Interesting post. Interesting how eating meat has become an ethical and political problem. Unfortunately biggest problem in my mind is that food production, meat and vegetables, are industrially produced to create profit. Health and solving world hunger are only ever brought up in order to sway decisions of consumers not to influence companies production policies.

  2. Excellent work!

    To think so many have died because Keyes and McGovern wanted longer obituaries... and shinier careers.