Dan Murphy: Deflating Another Dietary Dogma

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What’s better to eat? Bread, bagels or breakfast cereals — assuming they’re labeled with that magic phrase, “whole grain” — or a sizzling steak with (gasp!) visible fat?

Ask a dozen people in your circle of friends, family and co-workers, and I’ll bet you a steak dinner not more than one or two will go for the beef, and even those few lonely souls likely believe they should be eating less meat and more “healthy” bakery products … they’re just picking the choice they’d prefer to eat.

Other than that tag on sweaters that orders consumers to “Dry Clean Only,” there’s no other dictum Americans have embraced more firmly than the command to “Avoid saturated fat; choose whole grains instead.”

“Fat bad, grains good” has become a mantra repeated in every nutrition course schoolchildren must pass. It’s the key to the “weight loss secrets” pitched by all those self-proclaimed dietary gurus. And it’s the lead on virtually every online post discussing how and why people can better manage their personal relationships with the ongoing obesity crisis.

Thankfully, not every credible authority agrees that carbs are great and fats are harmful.

In a recent online commentary in The Wall Street Journal, author and researcher Nina Teicholz (“The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet”) challenged the conclusions of a recent study proclaiming that eating a low-carb (i.e., high-protein) diet will shorten your life.

That proposition is downright scary, and if accurate, would be bad news for me and plenty of other Americans who choose animal foods instead of carbohydrate-rich foods in their daily diets.

Turns out, there’s more to the story, and no one is better equipped to detail what’s really going on than Ms. Teicholz.

Before we continue, I’ll note that it’s journalistic practice for a writer to identify any “connections” with a source, to avoid the appearance of bias. I don’t have a relationship with her, other than unabashed admiration for her insights, her thoroughness and her writing skills, which have made her one of the most important dietary authorities alive.

She’s the best at what she does, and if that’s a conflict, so be it.

Misleading Conclusions
Consider the headline on her commentary: “Carbs, Good for You? Fat Chance! — Dietary dogma’s defenders continue to mislead the public and put Americans’ health at risk.”

Her commentary debunks the recent and widely publicized study in the Lancet Public Health journal, titled, “Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis.”

Just the linking of “carbohydrate intake” and “mortality” tells you all you need to know about the authors’ conclusions, and Teicholz pulls no punches in challenging their findings, calling them “the nutrition elite’s response to the challenge coming from a fast-growing body of evidence demonstrating the health benefits of low-carb eating.”

By way of background, Teicholz noted that for decades USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans have directed people to increase their consumption of carbohydrates and avoid eating fats. “Despite following this advice for nearly four decades, Americans are sicker and fatter than ever,” she wrote. “Such a record of failure should have discredited the nutrition establishment.”

Amen, sister.

Teicholz went on to explain that even though the study’s authors relied on data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) project, which since 1987 has observed 15,000 middle-aged people in four U.S. communities, their apparently “robust dataset” is something of an illusion.

Why? Because the ARIC relied on suspect food questionnaires. Specifically, the ARIC researches used a form listing only 66 food items. That might seem like a lot, but such questionnaires typically include as many as 200 items to ensure that respondents’ recalls are accurate.

“Popular foods such as pizza and energy bars were left out [of the ARIC form],” Teicholz wrote, “with undercounting of calories the inevitable result. ARIC calculated that participants ate only 1,500 calories a day — starvation rations for most.”

Indeed. Fifteen hundred calories is one Carl’s Jr. Guacamole Thickburger and small fries — not counting any soda drinks. In other words, a light lunch.

But wait. There’s more.

Another problem with the study was that the ARIC participants’ eating habits were tracked only twice, from 1987-89 and 1993-95, Teicholz pointed out.

“After 1995, the study’s participants were assumed to have continued eating the same diet for the next 15 years,” she wrote. “During that time the Mediterranean diet craze hit and the junk-food industry exploded, yet ARIC captured none of these effects.”

You need to read “The Big Fat Surprise” to get the full story, but the bottom line is pretty straightforward: If eating foods with fat is so bad, and eating carb-rich foods is so good, why the heck has obesity increased so dramatically, even as per-capita red meat consumption has significantly declined?

That sad statistic constitutes a clear refutation of everything we’ve been told regarding food choices.

Chew on that, people.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.