In the 1970s, “a government commission mandated that we lower fat consumption to try and reduce heart disease,” reported “60 Minutes” in 2012.
“And we did,” claimed Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School, to correspondent Sanjay Gupta.
“And guess what?” he continued. “Heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and death are skyrocketing. When you take the fat out of food, it tastes like cardboard. And the food industry knew that, so they replaced it with sugar.”
To start with, Americans never ate less fat. Today, we’re consuming roughly 20 percent more fat than we did in 1970. And while sugar consumption rose by 20 percent between 1970 and 2000, it’s now almost back to its 1970 level. What has changed most is grains (mostly white flour): consumption rose 45 percent from 1970 to 2000, and we’re still eating 30 percent more than we did in 1970.
(Incidentally, the “government commission” that Gupta referred to—a Senate Select Committee chaired by George McGovern, which issued the Dietary Goals for the United States in 1977—also urged us to eat less sugar. What’s more, contrary to what Lustig told “60 Minutes,” death rates have dropped and heart disease death rates have plummeted—not skyrocketed—since the 1970s, when adjusted for an aging population.)
So we’re not fatter because we followed advice to eat less fat. Odds are, we’re fatter because we’re eating more—more fat, more sugar, more of almost everything. The food industry has been serving us larger buns, bagels, burritos, cakes, cookies, scones, muffins, doughnuts, pizzas, soft pretzels, pancakes, paninis, wraps, soft drinks, and portions of pasta, lo mein, rice, and more.
What’s more, there’s no good evidence that the food industry ever replaced fat with sugar. Fat-free (or low-fat) ice cream, yogurt, cookies, almond milk, soy milk, pudding, and muffins, for example, have no more sugar than their full-fat versions.
Clearly, some people have assumed that they can’t get fat on fat-free foods. In one study, people ate more yogurt if it was labeled “low-fat.”
And that would be a mistake.
“Decreasing the fat content of the diet does not guarantee that you’re decreasing calories,” explains Alice H. Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston.
“If you’re going from full-fat milk to skim milk, you’re almost halving the calories. If you’re going from fatty cuts of meat to very lean cuts of meat, you’re decreasing the calories significantly. But if you’re going to eat fat-free brownies, cookies, waffles, and pancakes, it’s highly unlikely you’re saving any calories at all.”