The history of a fraud




Margaret Wente ‘s column in the Globe today exposes the history of the cholesterol fad/fraud succinctly and comprehensively. After recounting the same family eating habits as mine were: 3.25% butterfat milk, marbled steak (when we could afford it), butter on toast, she writes as follows:

That was in the 1950s. Nobody was fat, except for one lone girl at school who everybody picked on. Most kids ate like horses and were skinny as rakes.

Then the experts came along and declared that all that fat was killing us. Whole milk was banished from children’s diets so that they would not develop clogged arteries and heart disease in later life. To keep our cholesterol in check, we began to ration eggs and treat butter like a toxic substance. We gave up our juicy, marbled steaks and switched to pasta. Ever since the 1960s, the authorities have told us that a healthy diet is a low-fat diet.

The results were not what they had hoped. Obesity rates soared, but heart disease did not subside. And now, a mountain of new evidence says the experts were all wrong. One Harvard study found that people who had consumed the most dairy fat were far less likely to develop heart disease. Researchers at Oxford University discovered that the biggest consumers of saturated fat in Europe – the French – also have the healthiest hearts. Last year, a major review in The BMJ, a leading medical journal, found that “saturated fats are not associated” with mortality, heart disease, strokes or Type 2 diabetes. As Ian Leslie, writing in The Guardian, puts it, “The promotion of low-fat diets was a 40-year fad, with disastrous outcomes, conceived of, authorized, and policed by nutritionists.”

The modern history of nutrition science is fraught with controversy, flawed theory, faulty research, vested interests, suppression of evidence, and vicious battles between the old guard and the insurgents. They’re still fighting. But it’s clear that a lot of what your Food Guide says is flat-out wrong.

My own physician, who is as conscientious and diligent as one could hope for, is still in the grip of the “good” cholesterol/ “bad” cholesterol paradigm. I imagine that many physicians are like him, trying to get people to have less fat in their diets. They got their marching orders decades ago from bad science that was enforced by group think. Does that remind you of a current ideological craze?

If you are interested in the story of cholesterol as a dietary ideology, you may find Nina Teicholz’ Big Fat Surprise just the ticket. If you are still eating margarine, or a “Mediterranean diet”, if you avoid butter fats for any other reason than your taste, or allergies, if you are still concerned that fat in the diet amounts to fat on your body, you are still in the grip of the cholesterol craze.

You know, dear readers, where this is going. If 97% of dietary experts agree that fat in the diet amounts to a health risk, what are you to make of the science of dietary cholesterol? The same thing as you are to make of claims that 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming.

I have written before on the long sad story of cholesterol and its analogy to anthropogenic global warming. Also here.

The analogy is precise and productive. However, in the case of global warming, we are attempting to stop a process which may not be occurring and which has much larger implications. Energy consumption is not part of our lives; it is the basis of everything we do. This is not a change of diet, in the sense of what nutrition we put into our bodies. This is a change of how we power our houses, cars, transport, elevators, buildings. It is a matter not of calories but of terajoules of energy.

Margaret Wente will not be fired for her column. By contrast, Rex Murphy had to leave the Globe and Mail in 2010 after his full scale denunciation of the AGW scare. It has now become safe to observe that dietary scientists and the economic interests it entrained (the vegetable oil industry, in particular) were entirely wrong. The different outcomes illustrate how much the cholesterol fraud has had its day. We will know when the AGW fraud is over when it is dismissed in the same terms and with the same safety as Margaret Wente, to her credit, did to cholesterol today.