Why Is Nutrition So Confusing? — Part II: Changing Eating Habits During The Twentieth Century

By Alex Enescu, M.Sc. Candidate in psychiatry research | Psychiatry Department | Faculty of Medicine |McGill University.

Part I here. In the modern world, food has become a source of anxiety, identity, distrust and confusion. In our endless crusade for longevity, optimum health, better sleep, reduced levels of anxiety, improved cognitive performance, weight loss, self-fashioning, and eschatological ethics, we have become susceptible to a plurality of diets and curious eating habits. 

After President Dwight Eisenhower suffered his first major myocardial infarction (heart attack) in 1955, the event, which was immediately sensationalized by tabloid newspapers, inadvertently became a national obsession. What added fuel to the fire was the fact that journalists were quick to point out that the condition (heart attacks) appeared to have been rare, or scarcely ever reported in medical journals, at the beginning of the century. As such, the condition was presented in the journals of the period as a product of modernity i.e., due to a host of new social factors.

Within the wake of this sensationalized event, it became apparent that white, middle-aged men, were the most likely to suffer from the condition. The news quickly sent chills up the spines of elected officials — who, at that time, represented the direct embodiment of this precise demographic group. Their fears were eventually channeled into a collective national effort, which aimed to get at the root cause (aetiology) of myocardial infarctions.

Two researchers, John Yudkin and Ancel Keys, popularized the diet-heart hypothesis — a theory which posited dietary habits as the main contributing factor to cardiovascular disease (CVD). Yudkin advocated against the consumption of sugar, whereas Keys, build a persuasive case against the consumption of saturated fat. In the end, Keys won the debate with his publication of the Seven Country Study — the largest epidemiological project of the period. Keys’ study showed a strong correlation between the consumption of saturated fat, and the development of CVD.

These findings were eventually cemented in the North American imagination through the publication of the first USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) food pyramid, which encouraged citizens to replace animal products, due to their high saturated fat content, with grains, cereals and oats — or, in macronutrient terms: to replace fats with carbohydrates. Between the nineteenth-seventies and early two-thousands, fat was to become national enemy #1. Products like lard, butter, and fatty meat, which were all heavily consumed at the beginning of the twentieth century, were increasingly replaced by margarine, vegetable oils, lean cut meats, fowl, cereals, oats, and other low-fat alternatives.

Manufacturers were also quick to note the new national dietary preferences, and responded by flooding the markets with a plurality of new low-fat products. For example, Oreo (the cookie sandwich manufacturer) started producing their cookie cream with hydrogenated oils (i.e., trans-unsaturated fatty acids) instead of saturated fat. The same thing happened with Crisco, and other margarine manufacturers, who argued that hydrogenated vegetable oils cooking products were a “healthier” alternative to traditionally used lard and butter, which are predominantly composed of saturated fat.

Now, while trans fats are a completely unnatural form of adipose, and have been routinely linked to all sorts of biochemical problems, at that time, they were the only way through which vegetable oils could be made solid at room temperature. Because of this, replacing saturated fat, which is naturally solid at room temperature, with vegetable oils, meant that these new products had to rely on hydrogenation in order to maintain the texture and solidity of their counterparts. As such, one of the most significant, and unforeseen, consequence of the war on saturate fat was, the introduction of trans fats into the national diet.

Things got worse before they got any better. By the mid-nineties, nursing mothers were routinely encouraged by health-care practitioners, advertisements and dieticians, to feed their infants formula milk (vegetable oil-based milk) instead of breast milk — on the grounds that breast milk contains saturated fat. “The fight against cardiovascular disease can never start early enough”, was the general idea behind their recommendations.

Full-fat yogurts, milk, and creams were also replaced with low-fat alternatives. But the removal of fat from these products caused another unforeseen consequence i.e., removing fat from dairy products greatly affected their palpability (or, in other words, these products simply didn’t taste all that great without any saturated fat). For this reason, manufacturers had to replace dairy fat with something else. They decided to replace it with sugar — Yudkin’s worst nightmare! By the end of the twentieth century, saturated fat had been virtually eliminated from most products. However, this came with a price — the introduction of hydrogenated oils and sugar into virtually every single manufactured good. And so, within just a few decades, the American diet had changed beyond recognition. While at the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans ate a diet that was predominantly composed of fatty meat, fowl, organ meats, eggs, lard, butter, cabbage, root vegetables, legumes, corn, whole wheat and dairy, by the end of it, they found themselves eating a diet that was predominantly composed of low-fat products, such as cereals, grains and oats, and low-fat processed foods, such as low-fat dairy products, margarine, and all sorts of hydrogenated oil based sugar coated pastries.

On a macronutrient level, the late twentieth century American diet took a radical turn. In particular, whole food animal products, legumes, butter, lard, eggs and dairy, were replaced by low-fat, high-carb, hydrogenated oil processed food alternatives. In other words, saturated fat was traded in for refined carbohydrates, sugar, processed foods and trans fat.

By the start of the twenty-first century, Americans were fatter, sicker and more malnourished than ever before. CVD, diabetes and cancer reached epidemic proportions. Something had gone terribly wrong with the national diet experiment. The low-fat project had failed.

To be continued….

Banner Photo by @Coffee-king // @ pixabay

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