Updated: Aug 27, 2019
This blog post is inspired by my friend and fellow nutrition evangelist, Amber. Thanks Amber :).
The above picture was taken around 1970. What jumps out at me immediately is the absence of overweight people. I'd be willing to bet that if someone took a picture of a group like this today, it would look very different.
Why does everyone look so fit?
Some people cite a supposed increased activity level. The theory is that people didn't sit around as much back then. They walked more. They didn't binge watch "Stranger Things" on Netflix. Ok, note to self: binge watch season 3 of Stranger Things cause you heard it was freaking awesome :). Perhaps activity is a factor. But, based on my own experience and the experience of many others, you can't exercise your way out of a bad diet.
Others say that fast food was less prevalent. I think many of the fast food places we know existed in 1970, but this food option was clearly less pervasive. I think this theory is closer to the truth, although not for the reasons you might think.
My explanation (and that of many others) is tied to the consumption of highly processed foods, the vilification of fat, the USDA's guidance on nutrition, and the focus on calorie restriction as a weight management technique,
Processed food products started to appear in the early part of the 20th century. But, they really gained popularity in the 50s and 60s. Today, many people's diets are dominated by processed foods: cereal for breakfast, fast food for lunch, a frozen burrito for dinner. Sound familiar? If you want to read my thoughts about processed food, this is where you want to be:
Highly-processed foods, and carbohydrates in particular, are very detrimental to health. The king of processed carbs is sugar and it's found in just about every processed food. Processed carbs spike blood sugar which, in turn, spikes insulin. They are also highly addictive and drive us to eat to excess. This is partially because carbs don't trigger the release of hormones that make you feel satiated. Also, food scientists know how to make addictive foods; it's their job. The more of this crap you eat, the more money food corporations make. All of these carbs you eat turn into blood glucose. If you don't use the glucose for energy, it's stored. Some of it is kept in in the liver the form of glycogen, but whatever doesn't fit there is stored as body fat. Insulin facilities all of this storage. And, what's worse, when insulin levels are high, it's difficult for the body to use body fat for fuel. So, you store fat and keep it. It's like a one-way door. I covered this in great detail in an earlier blog post:
Blood sugar management is a major focus of my practice because it's the root cause of many of the chronic diseases we see in the US today.
Now, let's talk about fat. Fat became bad in the 1970's when an influential doctor with a massive ego manipulated some data in an effort to prove himself right (that fat causes heart disease). Read more about this here:
Given my engineering background and the data-driven focus of my Nutritional Therapy practice, data manipulation like this is particularly loathsome. Not only was most fat deemed unhealthy, but saturated fat became the ultimate enemy. This led to a national obsession with a low fat diet. So, remember I made reference above to hormones that create a feeling of satiety? Guess which macronutrient causes them to be released. Yes, that's right, fat :). Combine the low fat insanity with the prevalence of highly-processed carbohydrates and what do you get? You get people who are driven to eat too much and, despite this, are always hungry.
Then the government jumped in. In 1977, the low fat diet became government policy. First there was the "Food Wheel" in 1984. Then came the famous (or infamous) "Food Pyramid" in 1992. The latest incarnation of this nutritional dogma is "MyPlate", published in 2011. All of these guidelines are based on the idea that your diet should consist of mostly carbohydrates with a moderate amount of protein and limited fats and sweets. The guidelines are also oriented around the idea that weight management is just about burning more calories than you eat. The assumption is that a calorie is a calorie, regardless of what type of calorie it is. Here's a thought experiment for you. A can of Coke has 140 calories. A piece of bacon has about 40. The can of Coke has 39g of sugar while the bacon contains no sugar and essentially zero carbohydrates. Do you really think that your body will metabolize 3-4 slices of bacon in the same way it does a can of Coke? Hint: it doesn't :).
Putting this all together, here's what we have:
-An ever-increasing focus on foods of convenience which has led to massive amounts of processed foods in people's diets. Everyone's too busy to cook so they reach for a box, a can, or into the freezer.
-Dishonest science which labeled fat as evil...yes, dishonest, not just flawed or mistaken
-Government policy that turned this dishonest science into indisputable fact
-An insanely simplistic and downright dangerous view of how the body metabolizes food (calories in, calories out)
What's the result? Obesity is epidemic. In 2015, almost 40% of adults over 20 were considered obese with almost 32% being classified as overweight. Let that sink in. In the US, almost 3 of every 4 people are overweight. In the year 2000, the obesity rate was 30%. I found another stat which said that only 10% of Americans were obese in the 1950s. Type 2 diabetes is a huge health issue. In 2015, 9.4% of Americans had diabetes. That's 30 million people! Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people with diabetes tripled. Blood pressure is another casualty. One in three adults in the US has high blood pressure. There are lots of other examples I could cite, but I'll stop here.
Some people like to say that we're fat and unhealthy because we don't follow the advice we've been given. If only we ate what the government told us to eat, we'd be good. This is complete and utter nonsense. The level of sickness in this country is not because the population, at large, isn't willing to do the right thing. The nutritional paradigm is flawed and, as a result, the advice is just plain wrong. Did the US population become less inclined to worry about their diet and health in the last 50 years? I doubt it.
What's the answer? I'll sound like a broken record, I know :). Eat a diet full of nutrient-dense, whole foods. Avoid processed foods entirely if possible. Eliminate refined sugar. Eat mostly fat (high quality sources) and moderate protein. Minimize carbs and get them mostly from vegetables and low glycemic fruits (e.g. berries). Trust me, it works. It's worked for me and all of my clients. Sometimes it sort of seems like magic. But, it's not. It's science.