Posted by on Friday, 15 June 2012

Scapegoats, Lobbyists and the Perfect Storm

Apologies for the recent flurry of posts. It's been one of those weeks! Last night I watched the first of the BBC's 3-part documentary 'The Men Who Made Us Fat' (available for the next three weeks on BBC iPlayer).

I had been eagerly awaiting the programme since reading an article in the Guardian that someone tweeted a link to (thanks Louise!).

I was not disappointed.

It makes me wonder if this is the year that people will look back on in the future as a real turning point in the public's understanding of the obesity crisis. This programme, the article and several others in the media in recent weeks are finally focussing on factors other than saturated fat when talking about problems with the modern western diet.

The programme focusses on the decisions made in the US in the 1970s which profoundly affect the current mainstream thinking on dietary health and what we eat today. Decisions which in the end seem far more based on economics and agriculture than health. I can't pretend to be any kind of expert on these things, having only a passing interest, but it was amazing for me to listen to a programe that (for once) did not just bang on about fat in the diet when talking about the western world's weight problems. Unsurprisingly Ancel Keys influence on the subject was covered. He, famously, took against saturated fat. According to the programme, on a trip to the UK in the 1950s he began to believe that saturated fat was at the root of the major health issue of the time - heart disease (cue grainy black and white pictures of toothy children scoffing fish and chips). He then set about proving his theory.

I have heard the name Ancel Keys many times before. I have seen his work vilified and passionately defended on several diabetes forums. Sadly, in the end I don't think it matters what he actually said or wrote at all. His proposals seemed to be based on a mediterranean-style diet with plenty of fresh veg and olive oil and only moderate carb intake. What happened is that when it came to the question, "What is causing all this heart disease, fat or sugar?" the incredibly powerful industry lobbyists had their scapegoat. Saturated fat became the enemy. There was no 'saturated fat' lobby. No specific industry to protect or promote. The incredibly powerful Sugar Association in the US (powerful enough it seems, to prevent the World Health Organisation from setting a maximum limit on recommended sugar consumption), and the political might of the US agricultural industry swept everything before them. The portions got bigger... The stuff we ate got sweeter (sometimes with lovely shiny 'low fat' labels)... The snacks were more relentlessly available... and our self control was, frankly, not up to it.

I'm not (quite) cynical enough believe that the soft drinks/processed food industry chose the cheaper corn syrup/glucose-fructose syrup/HFCS as sweetener of choice knowing that it turned off leptin, the chemical in your brain that tells you when you've had enough to eat. I don't think the fast food giants and food manufacturers cared about anything other than increasing their market share and selling more and increasingly refined and processed products. Having said that, it was with horrifying inevitability that the spokesperson for the US soft drinks industry said that she did not believe her industry's products had anything to do with the crisis in the western world's waistlines (despite being the single largest source of calories in the US diet).

For the last 40 years we have been told that fat is the enemy, saturated fat in particular. Carbs are good. Fat is evil. Attention is now finally veering towards sugar. And if you consider the 'Tsunami' of glucose that hits the bloodstream when eating sugary foods to be a bad thing, then perhaps it is worth reflecting that many of the things I have been told are 'starchy' and 'slow release' have proved anything but under examination from my blood glucose meter (even with the benefit of modern 'fast acting' analogue insulins to tame them).

I'm not some kind of be-sandalled ultra low carb evangelist. To be honest I have profound reservations about the extremes of viewpoint in any kind of discussion. But in a world where people with type 2 diabetes (essentially an intolerance to carbohydrate) are continually told that they must base every single meal they eat on the very substance which most rapidly raises blood glucose and threatens to fry their eyes, feet and kidneys it was refreshing to watch a programme that raised serious questions about our addiction to carbs in general and sugar in particular. At the risk of sounding like my parents - once again it seems that 'moderation' is the blindingly obvious, crushingly simple answer.

The next edition of the programme considers ballooning portion sizes. I can't wait!

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