Train Wreck of a “Healthy Diet”

In my recent Internet browsing, I run into this NY Times article from 1985 and just couldn’t stop reading it with a sick fascination of watching a train wreck. The beginning looked vaguely familiar; then I realized it was the same article Nina Teicholz quoted in her excellent investigative work The Big Fat Surprise. The low-fat paradigm was surging high, changing the way we eat for decades and still dominating the nutritional world today. The title is “AMERICA LEANS TO A HEALTHIER DIET,” and the play of words with “leans” surely won’t get lost on anyone. Here is the beginning: 

JIMMY JOHNSON USED to wake up to the smell of bacon in the pan and coffee in the pot. ”And,” his wife, Laura, recalls, ”I’d save the bacon grease to fry the eggs.”

Now, Mr. Johnson says just a bit ruefully: ”The smells are gone from breakfast, but we’re all a lot better off for it.”

We are, aren’t we? Sarcasm mode off (or at least trying), reading further and wondering, do I even have to comment in light of everything we know today. I was going to refrain from commenting as much as possible and let the quotes speak for themselves, unless I couldn’t help it. Turned out I couldn’t more often than not. Forgive me for occasional bold font, emphasizing the most mind-boggling lines.

Only once every two or three weeks does the Johnson family – which includes 20-year-old Todd, a college student, and 14-year-old Maclaren – sit down to a breakfast of eggs. The bacon and sausage are even rarer and the saltshaker stands unused. … ”We used to go through two or three dozen eggs a week; now a dozen lasts us a week or two,” Mrs. Johnson says. ”And I rarely use bacon, only occasionally as a seasoning in recipes or a garnish on salads.”

And just what replaced these to-be-shunned eggs and bacon? You guessed it; all kinds of carbs and sugar:

At 6:30 on a typical morning in their home …, the Johnsons dined on orange juice, cantaloupe, blueberries and buckwheat pancakes, fried without grease on a nonstick griddle, and sweetened with a dab of pure maple syrup and lemon yogurt.

On busier mornings, the Johnsons breakfast on juice, fresh fruit and large bowls of a whole-grain cereal, such as shredded wheat, Grape Nuts or bran flakes, garnished with a sprinkle of granola. They rarely have coffee (juice is better, I guess -V.). On cold winter mornings, a hot cereal like cream of whole rye or oatmeal is the favorite…

May I see Johnsons’ blood panels from 1984 and 2014? Providing they ate like this for all these years, I strongly suspect the comparison won’t make their doctors smile. And, just how much sugar in those “healthy” shredded wheat, Grape Nuts and bran flakes?

They still see a room for improvement, though:

”We still eat more meat than we should,” Todd complains, and at the last family barbecue, his sister, Maclaren, fresh from a stint in wilderness camp, shunned the sausages and dined instead on bread and vegetables.

Sadly, this part turned to be true:

Everyone – from farmers, food technologists and Government regulators to supermarket managers and restaurateurs – agrees that significant changes in diet and nutrition are here to stay, and increasingly become the norm.

This next part is almost tear-inducing:

Perhaps the most telling change has been the declining consumption of red meats, the universal symbol of plenty and the nemesis of heart-healthy eaters. Beef took the sharpest cut, from a peak of 94.4 pounds per capita in 1976 to 78.8 pounds in 1983, and is still dropping…

The industry leader in gourmet frozen dinners … reports that the ”high-flying” products of the 80’s include fruit rolls and bars, bottled water, granola bars, fruit juices, frozen vegetables without sauce, fish and poultry dishes and Oriental meals.

Crying yet? No? OK, try this:

Americans are buying and eating more nutritiously among the staples as well. Along with the drop in meat consumption, healthy changes in eating habits in the two decades ending in 1982 include a per capita decline in the consumption of eggs from 326 to 263 per year; in lard, from 7.1 to 2.4 pounds; in butter, from 7.3 to 4.5 pounds; in coffee, from 11.8 to 7.5 pounds; in whole milk, from 252.4 to 133.3 pounds, and in sugar, from 97.9 to 75.2 pounds. At the same time, Americans significantly increased their consumption of low-fat milk from 32 to 100.2 pounds; of canned apple juice, from 1.1 to 7.2 pounds; of broccoli, from 0.6 to 1.5 pounds; of chicken, from 29.8 to 52.9 pounds, and of rice, from 7.4 to 11.8 pounds. More fresh fruits, potatoes, pasta and slightly more fish than even a decade ago are also being consumed.

Yay, healthy snacks!

Even snacks are taking a more nutritious turn, says MRCA Information Services, which regularly surveys eating habits in thousands of representative households nationwide. Gaining in popularity are fresh fruit, yogurt, frozen juice bars.

Food heals, in case you didn’t know:

In one of the most revolutionary food-advertising campaigns in television history, Kellogg’s has been promoting its bran cereals as cancer preventives.

And all the advertising worked its miracles:

…a novelist in her early 50’s who is hardly obese, was filling her grocery cart with greens and fruits in a Los Angeles supermarket. ”Fat,” she said, ”that is my enemy.”

And convenience, convenience of highly processed crap…

Aided and abetted by the microwave oven, instant frozen meals have found an unprecedented market… A nutritious low-fat supper:”I put a potato in the microwave… Then I top it with yogurt and herbs and, with a salad and wine, I have a perfect meal.”

Some of the new trends are frown upon in the article, and among them are some of the yogurts, toppings, frozen dinners etc. But the main reason for berating them? See for yourself:

Some of the hottest new food fashions are hardly nutritious: croissants, with 65 percent fat (compared to 2 percent in bread); many not-so-lean and salty gourmet frozen dinners; quiches loaded with fat, salt and cholesterol; fatty and salty toppings stuffed into nearly fat-free baked potatoes; upscale yogurts made with high-fat milk

It’s not all this sad, to be fair. Highly processed candy bars, cookies, and chips are being mentioned negatively as well. Yet in the very next paragraph, praises are sung to “pure fruit juices; high-fiber cereals; whole grain breads; fruits canned in juice or light syrup; soups and sauces without added salt; low-fat franks.

But wait… what about fast-food industry? There is no way they aren’t front and center of new food trends, right? Of course!

The fast-food industry has also begun to respond. In addition to salad bars and stuffed baked potatoes, Wendy’s offers a ”light-side” menu. Atlanta-based D’Lites of America features burgers with 20 percent less fat and potatoes fried in vegetable oil, rather than beef fat.

This following piece asks the right question, although contains rather puzzling passages:

WHAT EFFECT, IF any, is this new concern for nutrition having on the health of Americans? (good question! -V.) Reports from the nation’s health statisticians thus far are mixed. Deaths from cardiovascular diseases dropped 30 percent from 1972 to 1983, due at least in part to the lowering of blood cholesterol through dietary changes (this is the puzzling part, as we know how it all played out in the end -V.). But despite diet mania and reduced per capita caloric intake, average weights are up as machines continue to make human effort superfluous (huh? -V.). The decline in tooth decay has been attributed more to fluorides than to any souring of the American sweet tooth. As for cancer, which might be inhibited by reduced fats and increased fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole grains (sigh -V.), it is simply too early to tell.

Today, the whole thing reads like satire, given what happened since then to our midlines, blood sugar levels, triglycerides, and other health markers. Back to meat, butter, and eggs? Hope spring eternal. Rant over. The image in my mind though stays:


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