The Diet of the 1980s May Be Why Americans Are So Fat Today
Public health in America is in decline. The culprit, according to experts, is what we’re eating, and our diets are turning deadly. “This is an epidemic that can be cured only by a massive change in lifestyle,” a leading doctor said when introducing new dietary recommendations.
We aren’t talking about obesity. Jeremiah Stamler, a cardiologist, was referring to the rash of heart attacks and heart disease that was killing American men in disconcerting numbers in the 1950s and ’60s. The massive change in lifestyle Stamler called for was to cut the amount of fat and cholesterol in the American diet. Nearly 40 years after the first federal dietary recommendations—and as a new, revised set of guidelines is about to be released—that change is looking less than successful. Many of Stamler’s contemporaries see the low-fat, low-cholesterol diet craze that eventually gripped the country as one of the primary causes of today’s obesity epidemic.
“If we reduce the amount of fat, you have to replace it with something,” Gary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat, said in a new episode of The Retro Report from The New York Times. In many instances, people turn to refined grains and sugar instead. “We put the whole country on a low-fat diet,” Taubes continued, “and lo and behold, we have an obesity epidemic.”
The scientific foundation for the low-fat, low-cholesterol diet championed by the likes of Stamler was based in large part on a study that used diet and cholesterol-lowering drugs to address cardiovascular health. Subsequent research has found no association between total fat intake and risk of heart attack or stroke.
But if cutting out fat and cholesterol did us little good, cutting calories and portion sizes might not “solve” any of our larger public health problems either. New research suggests there isn’t one ideal way to eat and that while one person will respond dramatically to a certain diet, another person might see no changes at all after eating in the same way.
“It’s not just about fat, and it’s not just about calories—it’s about the quality of the food that you eat,” said Taubes.