'The Sugar Conspiracy' (Ian Leslie) or 'The Big Fat Surprise' (Nina Teicholz)
June 16, 2016
Ian Leslie (Twitter: @mrianleslie), the author of Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, explains why we have so many 'low fat' foods on the supermarket shelves and how this mistaken approach to dietary advice came to be entrenched.
It's a long read so I've edited it down (I see no need to paraphrase Leslie's accomplished writing) to the points I think are most important, including the disgraceful treatment of Professor John Yudkin who tried to show us the way decades ago and was beaten into submission by the anti-fat voices. Understanding how that happened and why, is to understand why you still need to question information that comes to you from the world of science and medicine.
Everybody has an agenda....
'In the past, we only had two sources of nutritional authority: our doctor and government officials. It was a system that worked well as long as the doctors and officials were informed by good science. But what happens if that cannot be relied on?
John Yudkin... was a British professor of nutrition who sounded the alarm on sugar back in 1972, in a book called Pure, White, and Deadly.
Robert Lustig is a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California who specialises in the treatment of childhood obesity. In his 90-minute talk he gave in 2009, titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth, Lustig argues forcefully that fructose, a form of sugar ubiquitous in modern diets, is a “poison” culpable for America’s obesity epidemic.
When I asked Lustig why he was the first researcher in years to focus on the dangers of sugar, he answered: “John Yudkin. They took him down so severely – so severely – that nobody wanted to attempt it on their own.”
Professor John Yudkin retired from his post at Queen Elizabeth College in 1971, to write Pure, White and Deadly. The college then reneged on a promise to allow him to continue to use its research facilities. It had hired a fully committed supporter of the fat hypothesis to replace him, and it was no longer deemed politic to have a prominent opponent of it on the premises.'
When Yudkin did publish his work, despite the obstacles he was faced with, he argued that...
'“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” wrote Yudkin, “that material would promptly be banned.” The book did well, but Yudkin paid a high price for it. Prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry to destroy his reputation, and his career never recovered. He died, in 1995, a disappointed, largely forgotten man.
John Yudkin’s scientific reputation had been all but sunk. He found himself uninvited from international conferences on nutrition. Research journals refused his papers. He was talked about by fellow scientists as an eccentric, a lone obsessive.'
Leslie explains how scientists, doctors and nutritionists would have massively improved the health of western nations if they had taken Yudkin's findings on board.
...'But it was not impossible to foresee that the vilification of fat might be an error. Energy from food comes to us in three forms: fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Since the proportion of energy we get from protein tends to stay stable, whatever our diet, a low-fat diet effectively means a high-carbohydrate diet. The most versatile and palatable carbohydrate is sugar, which John Yudkin had already circled in red. In 1974, the UK medical journal, the Lancet, sounded a warning about the possible consequences of recommending reductions in dietary fat: “The cure should not be worse than the disease.”
Many scientists, especially British ones, remained sceptical. The most prominent doubter was John Yudkin, then the UK’s leading nutritionist. When Yudkin looked at the data on heart disease, he was struck by its correlation with the consumption of sugar, not fat. He carried out a series of laboratory experiments on animals and humans, and observed, as others had before him, that sugar is processed in the liver, where it turns to fat, before entering the bloodstream.
He noted, too, that while humans have always been carnivorous, carbohydrates only became a major component of their diet 10,000 years ago, with the advent of mass agriculture. Sugar – a pure carbohydrate, with all fibre and nutrition stripped out – has been part of western diets for just 300 years; in evolutionary terms, it is as if we have, just this second, taken our first dose of it. Saturated fats, by contrast, are so intimately bound up with our evolution that they are abundantly present in breast milk. To Yudkin’s thinking, it seemed more likely to be the recent innovation, rather than the prehistoric staple, making us sick.
The British Sugar Bureau dismissed Yudkin’s claims about sugar as “emotional assertions”; the World Sugar Research Organisation called his book “science fiction”. In his prose, Yudkin is fastidiously precise and undemonstrative, as he was in person. Only occasionally does he hint at how it must have felt to have his life’s work besmirched, as when he asks the reader, “Can you wonder that one sometimes becomes quite despondent about whether it is worthwhile trying to do scientific research in matters of health?”'
Scientific research isn't always reliable:
'The rise and slow fall of cholesterol’s infamy is a case in point. After it was discovered inside the arteries of men who had suffered heart attacks, public health officials, advised by scientists, put eggs, whose yolks are rich in cholesterol, on the danger list. But it is a biological error to confuse what a person puts in their mouth with what it becomes after it is swallowed. The human body, far from being a passive vessel for whatever we choose to fill it with, is a busy chemical plant, transforming and redistributing the energy it receives. Its governing principle is homeostasis, or the maintenance of energy equilibrium (when exercise heats us up, sweat cools us down). Cholesterol, present in all of our cells, is created by the liver. Biochemists had long known that the more cholesterol you eat, the less your liver produces.
Unsurprisingly, then, repeated attempts to prove a correlation between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol failed. For the vast majority of people, eating two or three, or 25 eggs a day, does not significantly raise cholesterol levels. One of the most nutrient-dense, versatile and delicious foods we have was needlessly stigmatised. The health authorities have spent the last few years slowly backing away from this mistake, presumably in the hope that if no sudden movements are made, nobody will notice. In a sense, they have succeeded: a survey carried out in 2014 by Credit Suisse found that 54% of US doctors believe that dietary cholesterol raises blood cholesterol.'
And the evidence for saturated fat intake and heart disease?
'In 2008, researchers from Oxford University undertook a Europe-wide study of the causes of heart disease. Its data shows an inverse correlation between saturated fat and heart disease, across the continent. France, the country with the highest intake of saturated fat, has the lowest rate of heart disease; Ukraine, the country with the lowest intake of saturated fat, has the highest. When the British obesity researcher Zoë Harcombe performed an analysis of the data on cholesterol levels for 192 countries around the world, she found that lower cholesterol correlated with higher rates of death from heart disease.'
(In fact)...'Biochemists and endocrinologists are more likely to think of obesity as a hormonal disorder, triggered by the kinds of foods we started eating a lot more of when we cut back on fat: easily digestible starches and sugars. In his new book, Always Hungry, David Ludwig, an endocrinologist and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, calls this the “Insulin-Carbohydrate” model of obesity. According to this model, an excess of refined carbohydrates interferes with the self-balancing equilibrium of the metabolic system.'
However the scientific community don't like assumed truths to be overturned.
Since her book The Big Fat Surprise – Why Butter, Meat and Cheese belong in a Healthy Diet was published in 2014, Nina Teicholz 'has become an advocate for better dietary guidelines. She is on the board of the Nutrition Coalition, a body funded by the philanthropists John and Laura Arnold, the stated purpose of which is to help ensure that nutrition policy is grounded in good science.
In September last year she wrote an article for the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), which makes the case for the inadequacy of the scientific advice that underpins the Dietary Guidelines. The response of the nutrition establishment was ferocious: 173 scientists – some of whom were on the advisory panel, and many of whose work had been critiqued in Teicholz’s book – signed a letter to the BMJ, demanding it retract the piece. Publishing a rejoinder to an article is one thing; requesting its erasure is another, conventionally reserved for cases involving fraudulent data. As a consultant oncologist for the NHS, Santhanam Sundar, pointed out in a response to the letter on the BMJ website: “Scientific discussion helps to advance science. Calls for retraction, particularly from those in eminent positions, are unscientific and frankly disturbing.”'
So next time you read a headline, have a poke around behind it before you use it to inform you about something as important as what you put in your mouth.
And spare a thought for John Yudkin, who tried to help us prevent this obesity epidemic.
The full article can be found here and is well worth a read: