Your Cheeseburger Is Destroying the North Pole and the Other Top Food Stories of 2014

It was a year of curveballs and surprises in the world of diet and health.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 23, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ah, Christmas is almost here—that magical time when families all across the country pause to come together, tear through a pile of presents, stuff themselves silly, then try to find something to talk about.

Once you’ve exhausted the chitchat about the weather and whatever gossipy tidbits are to be had regarding those family members who weren’t able to make it to this year’s gathering, there’s that inevitable dreaded lull, the yawning silence in which the ticktock of the mantle clock swells with Poe-like menace and you can almost hear the gerbil-wheel churning of your loved ones' thoughts as they mentally review—then dismiss—potential topics of conversation.

Who will fill this void?! Your paranoid uncle, with yet another harrumphing soliloquy about the evils of the Federal Reserve? Your hypochondriac sister-in-law, with her “I read somewhere that....” What now—cat dander has been linked to cancer? Alzheimer’s can be prevented with beet juice?

Before you resort to sneaking off to double the rum in your cup o’ eggnog, why not come prepared with your own conversational zingers? After all, 2014 provided us with some pretty wild diet- and health-related news. Yes, these sound like emails your cousin Kevin might send (e.g., “Fw: fw: fw: fw: re: fw: Why Your Toothpaste Is Killing You!”), but by golly, they’re all true.

Diet Soda Gets a Gut Check

Doctors and public health experts have long been wary of artificial sweeteners, owing to conflicting scientific evidence that shows, on the one hand, zero-calorie sugar substitutes do help people lose weight, and on the other, they don’t. Some studies have even found that people who regularly consume artificially sweetened drinks are more likely to be overweight. Why this might be so remains something of a mystery, but a team of researchers in Israel found the answer might be in our gut—specifically in the countless bacteria that call our digestive system home. In a limited study of both mice and humans, artificial sweeteners appeared to cause significant changes in gut bacteria that increased susceptibility to glucose intolerance, often a precursor to weight gain.

Saturated Fat Scores a PR Coup

Ever since Cabbage Patch Kids and the Rubik’s Cube were the holiday season’s must-have gifts, people have been struggling mightily to cut saturated fat out of their diets (or, at least, feeling guilty every time they reach for the butter). But a huge study published in March found no link between consumption of saturated fats and heart disease. That may be welcome news during a season known for lots of buttery treats, but experts caution that while saturated fats may not be as unequivocally bad for you as previously thought, there’s no evidence that they’re exactly good for you either.

Killer Christmas Cookies

Just when Santa thought he could stop worrying so much about the butter in all those midnight Christmas cookies, now he has to fret about the carbs. Six months after saturated fat got its quasi reprieve, here comes another headline-grabbing study finding that people who were randomly assigned to stick with a low-carb diet for a year ended up losing more weight—and lowering their heart attack risk—than those assigned to a low-fat diet.

About That Milk You Left Out for Santa

But surely Santa would do well to down that complimentary glass of milk, right? After all, milk protects your bones—a good thing for a guy with a penchant for sliding down chimneys. Alas, a recent study published in the journal The BMJ was just the latest in a string of research that has been steadily chipping away at milk’s once unassailable healthy reputation. Researchers found that not only does regular milk consumption appear to offer no protection against bone fractures, but it also is associated with an increased risk of death.

Your Cheeseburger Habit Is Melting the North Pole

Yep, it turns out that livestock production accounts for more global warming pollution than all our cars, trucks, cargo ships, and airplanes combined. If that surprises you, you’re not alone. A recent report by a U.K.-based think tank found that agriculture was the least likely among a number of sectors to be identified as a significant driver of climate change. So from Santa and his elves, who all would like to keep their Arctic hideaway from turning to slush, two words: Meatless Mondays.