Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California who specializes in childhood obesity, gave a 90-minute talk in 2009 titled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”, that has since been viewed more than 6 million times. The premise of his talk is that for the past few decades nutritionists have failed the general population by mistaking the culprit for obesity as saturated fat, instead of the actual “poisonous” enemy, sugar. What’s interesting about Lustig’s claims though, is that they are not new. In fact, this discovery was actually made in 1972 by British scientist, John Yudkin, who published his findings in a book called “Pure, White, and Deadly”.
How is it that for so many years this research was lost or dare we say intentionally ignored?
In it’s place the general public has religiously followed the “fat hypothesis”. This the Idea that an excess of saturated fats in the diet, from red meat, cheese, butter, and eggs, raises cholesterol, which congeals on the inside of coronary arteries, causing them to harden and narrow, until the flow of blood is staunched and the heart seizes up.
This theory was officially endorsed in 1980 when the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines, after consulting with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists. The most prominent recommendation was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol, which in turn shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. However, according to the data, not only did obesity and heart disease not decrease following the official dietary guidelines, they actually increased sharply! Until 1980, only 12-15% of Americans were obese, whereas after 1980 that number shot up to about 35% by the year 2000. Clearly, something was off with the recommended nutrition and a search for culprits has since ensued.
In her thoroughly researched book, “The Big Fat Surprise”, journalist Nina Teicholz traces the history of the suggestion that saturated fats cause heart disease, and reveals the remarkable extent to which its progress from controversial theory to accepted truth was driven, not by new evidence, but by the influence of a few powerful personalities, one in particular. It turns out that the “fat hypothesis” was first proposed by Ancel Keys, a researcher from the University of Minnesota, who was endorsed by President Eisenhower’s doctor. Together these three men provided an answer to the relatively new phenomenon of heart disease in middle-aged men in the 1920’s.
What was making us sick?
The most prominent skeptic to their claims was John Yudkin, then the UK’s leading nutritionist. When Yudkin looked at the data on heart disease, he was astounded by its correlation with the consumption of sugar, not fat. Therefore, he experimented 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 also noted 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, specifically, had been part of western diets for only 300 years. Naturally, Yudkin thought it more likely that the recent innovation, rather than the prehistoric staples such as meat and dairy, is what was making us sick.
Ancel Keys, intensely aware that Yudkin’s sugar hypothesis directly contradicted his own, an alternative to his own, set out on a sort of vendetta against Yudkin. He called Yudkin’s theory “a mountain of nonsense”, and accused him of issuing “propaganda” for the meat and dairy industries. “Yudkin and his commercial backers are not deterred by the facts,” he said. “They continue to sing the same discredited tune.” However, Yudkin never responded in kind, as his mild personality was not skilled in political back and forths. The result is that Yudkin’s research faded into the background, and was even shunned from popular knowledge. The general population continued to be mislead by Ancel Keys’ theory and a decades long obesity and heart disease epidemic swept across the nation. Thankfully, due to doctors such as Lustig, the nutrition community is finally waking up to their errors and looking to more objective and scientifically true answers.