The corrupt history of the food pyramid

The corrupt history of the food pyramid

Updated: Apr 08, 2024Veronika Larisova

Here's a review of the Food Pyramid from Dr Paul Mason. We've included the transcription below the video.

You might think that what you're looking at here [the food pyramid] is a work of science that back in the 1970’s, scientists without vested interests, methodically reviewed the science to determine the healthiest diet. And then presented this to the public.

Unsurprisingly, this didn't actually happen.

Most of us are acutely aware that science and politics shouldn't mix and yet they're inseparable.

The fact is when we mix science with politics, we get politics and the food pyramid is a product of politics.

The backdrop to the story of the food pyramid begins in post war 1950's America, deaths from competing causes, namely war and infection had drastically reduced.

And at the same time, rates of smoking were increasing. As a result, heart disease rapidly became the leading cause of death.

And on this backdrop in 1955 President Dwight D Eisenhower suffered a heart attack.

He was out playing golf in Denver when he felt what he thought was an episode of indigestion from a hamburger. And later that night, he worked with severe chest pain.

So, his personal physician, not realizing he was having a heart attack gave him several shots of morphine and sent him back to sleep.

It was only after an ECG was performed after he awoke at 1pm the next afternoon that it was understood that he'd in fact had a heart attack.

This was major news which struck a nerve with the US population. The life of their leader, due for re-election, was on a knife's edge with heart disease, the new leading cause of death. The President and the American population was gripped by fear so, the hunt was on for the root cause of this deadly scourge.

Unfortunately, scientists of the day didn't seem to pay too much attention to Eisenhower's heavy smoking. Reported to be up to four packets a day. Indeed, this was in an age when doctors themselves promoted smoking.

Rather, the scourge of heart disease was attributed to dietary saturated fat. And if you're a plumber, this might make sense - after all, pouring fat down a sink can block a drain the rest of us.

However, realise that our physiology does not resemble that of a kitchen sink, which begs the question: How on earth do these scientists in the 1950’s come to the conclusion that saturated fat was the cause of heart disease and ancient food consumed for millennia being blamed for a modern disease?

Well, it can be traced back to research performed by the Russian Nikolai Anitschkow. It was in 1913 that he published a paper which has more than 100 years later been described as the birth of the lipid hypothesis - the theory that saturated fat can clog the arteries.

Nikolai had demonstrated that feeding rabbits an obvious herbivore lard egg yolks or pure cholesterol dissolved in sunflower oil led to increases in the rabbit's blood cholesterol levels.

And over time, arterial lesions similar to, but not identical to that of human heart disease developed. Now, there's a lot wrong with this. Rabbits shouldn't be eating lard anymore than we should be eating grass.

Nonetheless, this research planted the seed from which the diet heart hypothesis was born.

Ancel Keys' dodgy research

It was driven by this man, Ancel Keys who was almost singularly responsible for growing that seed of poor research into the twisted mess of a food pyramid that we have.

Ancel Keys
He was dogmatic, belligerent and undeniably political. Three qualities that he wielded bloody mindedly to steamroll any dissenting views. And by that, I really mean any reasonable opposition to his outlandish claims.

He repeatedly broke with the civil norms of academia to bully dissenting colleagues and almost brutally silence any opposition.

And, in the context of what was perceived to be a growing public emergency, being that of the unexplained cause of heart disease, health officials were receptive to his message.

You see, two years before Eisenhower's heart attack, Ancel Keys had published a widely criticised graph plotting the average fat consumption in various countries against heart disease.

Ancel Keys Graph
The problem was that while he had plotted the data from six countries to make his point. The study's critics pointed out that at the time, data was actually available for 22 countries.

And when the data from those 22 countries was plotted as it was in this scientific rebuttal, it resembled more of a scatter plot. That of course should have been the last we've heard of Keys' theory.

Ancel Keys Graph All Data
Inexplicably, however, he was able to establish significant influence within the American Heart Association. And by 1958 the American Heart Association with Keys now at the helm, launched the seven countries study.

Not surprisingly, he anchored the results with three countries from his six countries graph, perhaps fortelling the findings before it was eventually published in 1978.

It's also pertinent to point out that at the time, the American Heart Association was sponsored by Procter and Gamble, makers of the extremely profitable vegetable oil shortening Crisco.

And on the back of his political manoeuvring Ansel's key star continued to rise in 1961.

He fronted the cover of Time magazine in which his views featured prominently in an article vilifying saturated fat, and going so far as to claim that smoking played little role in heart disease.

Ironically, it's documented that by 1968, Key's own seven countries study indicated that cardiovascular disease was actually associated [with], and probably caused, by smoking. Although this competing information was not disclosed to the public until 1980. Well, after the horse had bolted.

Covering up evidence that fat is good for you

Still, the seven countries study didn't necessarily have to be the final word on the topic. In fact, we know epidemiological research like the seven countries study is quite weak in terms of proving causality.

Rather, experimental studies which can control for confounders provide for much stronger findings. The best quality being what we call randomised control trials.

And, before the publication of the seven countries study in 1978, a large, randomised control trial investigating the effects of reducing saturated fat was underway, known as the Minnesota Coronary Survey. This study involved more than 9,000 participants and was investigating the effect of reducing saturated fat on heart disease.

And Keys, in fact, was a co-principal investigator, one of two co-principal investigators to this study, presumably hoping that it would build his case for the elimination of saturated fats to those pesky scientists who insisted on asking for credible evidence - the nerve!

What he was not counting on, however, was that the results of this study. The Minnesota Coronary Survey did not go to plan. They didn't find saturated fat to be harmful, which perhaps explains why the first results weren't published until 1989, despite the study concluding in 1978.

The finding being that replacing animals or saturated fats with vegetable oil did not reduce the risk of heart disease. And for reasons that have never been explained, yet which seem rather obvious, Key's name was absent from the eventual publication despite him being one of two principal co-investigators.

The other principal co-investigator, Ivan Frantz, the lead author on the eventual paper, was interviewed by science journalist Gary Taubes before his death. When asked why they delayed publication of the results by 16 years he replied, “we were just so disappointed in the way they turned out”.

Clearly, this basically amounts to a cover up, the hiding of unpalatable results. Conduct that is not becoming of any true scientist.

As Richard Feynman, the famous physicist said, it doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are, if it doesn't agree with the experiment, it's wrong.

Have no doubt that honesty and transparency of these results would have seen the food pyramid dispatched before it ever existed, before it was hoisted up onto an unsuspecting public.

Of course, even the 1989 publication somewhat distorted the truth by omission. You see, the 1989 publication provided very limited, almost selective data, which precluded a proper analysis, only allowing the conclusion to be drawn that fat saturated fat didn't appear to be harmful.

Dr Christopher Ramsden is a central figure in the full truth finally coming to light. Following up on the earlier investigation by Gary Taubes, Dr Ramsden contacted the then deceased Ivan Frantz, the lead author's son Robert. And Robert, after searching through the basement of his childhood home, uncovered two ancient magnetic computer tapes containing almost 60,000 records.

After an exhaustive process of translation to modern computer language and validation of the data, the full results were finally published in 2016 in the prestigious British Medical Journal, some 38 years after the study was completed.

The ultimate conclusion being that while replacing saturated fat with vegetable oil did indeed lower cholesterol levels, it did so at the cost of any increased risk of death.

In other words, subjects who consume less saturated fat and more seed oil were more likely to die. It simply wouldn't have been possible for the food pyramid to be released had this data been available in 1978.

But while the Minnesota Coronary study was still underway, Ancel Keys continued to promote his pet theory.

And in 1977, with the US still gripped with fear of heart disease, Senator McGovern convened a select committee meeting on nutrition. And despite the lack of credible evidence, the select committee released a set of nutritional goals which vilified saturated fat.

This was of course in keeping with Keys pet theory. This report however, was not well received by the scientific community. And as a general statement, it's fair to say it was widely considered unsound by many leading experts.

Even the American Medical Association warned that the proposed diet raised the potential for harmful effects.

Unfortunately, these warnings were not heeded, and politics again entered the picture.

Politics and the development of the Food Pyramid

In his first term, Richard Nixon's government had agreed to sell millions of bushels of grain to the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, there was a particularly poor growing season which resulted in a spike in the prices of grain. So, to minimise public disquiet, the Department of Agriculture unleashed a suite of policies designed to increase grain production and they worked. Before long there were massive surpluses of grain.

About the same time, Luise Light was in charge of a team responsible for crafting the US dietary guidelines.

This process, unfortunately, was informed both by the unsound science within the dietary goals that came from the select committee, and her masters within the USDA. It seems as though the new dietary guidelines were seen as a vehicle by those within the USDA to deal with their problem of the grain surplus.

Consistent with Ansel Keys' fear of saturated fat, Light's team initially recommended to their masters within the USDA that there be a recommended daily intake of 3 to 4 servings of whole grain breads and cereals per day.

Somehow, however, this recommendation for 3 to 4 serves a day - after it went through the senior bureaucrats within the USDA - increased to an extraordinary 6 to 11 serves. An effective means to address a grain surplus, no doubt. But at what cost to public health?

One thing is certain, the introduction of these dietary guidelines in 1980 coincided with a steady increase in the diabesity epidemic.

Nowadays, in fact, only 12% of us adults can be considered metabolically healthy. Clearly, something's gone wrong.

What about in Australia?

Unfortunately, for us here down under, after these new dietary guidelines took hold in the US, the rest of the world began to get infected. Beginning with Australia.

Professor Stuart Truswell, originally from South Africa was at the time the chair of Human Nutrition at the Sydney University. He took it upon himself to develop dietary goals for Australians based on the 1977 US dietary goals. 

The problem was that Professor Truswell was somewhat unique amongst his colleagues in that he was a vocal supporter of the US dietary goals. In his own words, he provided a "rare positive independent review" against what he called "a host of critics".

And so, the stage was set already being a firm believer in the US guidelines, again by his own admission, he didn't perform his own review of the literature. Essentially, he regurgitated the US dietary goals which he had already glowingly endorsed.

This was not, as fair to say, an independent process. The fact is if he had reviewed the literature at the time, he would have discovered that even then in 1977 there was an abundance of evidence against the notion of reducing dietary saturated fat. More than 70 randomized control trials. Truswell literally turned a blind eye to the evidence.

And following publication of the first dietary guidelines in 1980, Truswell has remained a key figure in the following editions, which continue to discourage the intake of saturated fat.

The obvious reason that our current guidelines, the 2013 edition, continues to avoid the science is an open admission by the panel that they deliberately ignored it.

In the public consultation report, in response to a member of the public asking them to review the evidence on saturated fat, they responded that the request to review the evidence "was not supported by evidence".

Now this makes my head hurt. There's not enough evidence to justify looking at the evidence?

It would be a joke if the consequences weren't so serious.

And interestingly, the document from which I found this information, which is about eight years ago, seems to have now disappeared from the internet.

Have no doubt that the dietary guidelines are hugely impactful.

The principals are taught in schools, every childcare centre across the nation, they also guide, some would say direct, the food we feed to patients, prisoners and soldiers.

Check out the reduction in fat intake in Australia since the late 1970’s.

The problem is it doesn't seem to be working.

Just like the US, Australia has seen an almost inexplicable rise in diabetes. 

This is a graph of the prevalence of type two diabetes in Australia in 2020.


The question is how can we ensure that the guidelines, future guidelines consider the science?

There certainly seems to be a change of heart in some quarters. I'd like to introduce you to two experts who appear to have changed their minds.

Professor Janet King, the chair of the 2005 Diet Scientific Dietary Advisory Committee which developed the 2005 iteration of the US dietary guidelines.

And Professor Tom Brenner, a member of the 2015 dietary guidelines advisory committee.

What they have in common is that they were both authors on this 2020 review paper concluding that government limits on saturated fat are not justified by the science.

The papers specifically refers to the fact that dairy, meat and eggs are not associated with an increased risk of heart disease and should not be limited.

It also makes the point that saturated fats are an ancient food. No doubt in an attempt to highlight the paradox in blaming them for modern disease.

What about next iteration of the Australian Dietary Guidelines?

And so, ought we be more optimistic for the next iteration of the Australian dietary guidelines?

Given that a review is currently underway this year is my good friend, Dr James Muecke. Health campaigner and Australian of the Year in 2020.

And he's had concerns about the adverse health impacts of the dietary guidelines for some time. Which is why he was thrilled when the Federal Health Minister at the time, Greg Hunt publicly committed in 2021, at the conclusion of James’ televised National Press Club address, to allow James to be a part of the scientific review process for the next iteration of the Australian dietary guidelines.

Somehow though, even a public commitment from the Federal Health Minister wasn't enough. And so, our guidelines are currently under development somewhere out of public view.

I'm unfortunately borderline pessimistic about what the outcome is going to be.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope, there is currently a commonwealth inquiry into diabetes, largely as a result of lobbying by James.

There are several previous medical doctors in parliament who are sitting on this inquiry, and that presents a major opportunity. Submissions, which have already been made, are all accessible.

My personal one, if you go to this website, being number 402.

And if you feel passionate about this issue, if you've got a personal story to tell, please reach out to the committee membership whose details are available on the website.

If possible, meet with them, tell them your story.

If you have one, discuss the science through the actions of the very brave 2020 Australian of the year, Dr James Muecke, we've got a sliver of opportunity and together we might just be able to take it.

In Conclusion

Don't blame fat for what sugar did. Enjoy our range of high protein, low carb and low sugar snacks.

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