If the latest research is any indication, sugar may have been the primary problem all along. Back in the 1980s, the FDA gave sugar a free pass based on the idea that the evidence wasn’t conclusive. While the government spent hundreds of millions trying to prove that salt and saturated fat are bad for our health, it spent virtually nothing on sugar. Had it targeted sugar then, instead of waiting for an obesity and diabetes epidemic for motivation, our entire food culture and the options that go with it might have changed as they did with low-fat and low-salt foods.
So what should we eat? The latest clinical trials suggest that all of us would benefit from fewer (if any) sugars and fewer refined grains (bread, pasta) and starchy vegetables (potatoes). This was the conventional wisdom through the mid-1960s, and then we turned the grains and starches into heart-healthy diet foods and the USDA enshrined them in the base of its famous Food Guide Pyramid as the staples of our diet. That this shift coincides with the obesity epidemic is probably not a coincidence. As for those of us who are overweight, experimental trials, the gold standard of medical evidence, suggest that diets that are severely restricted in fattening carbohydrates and rich in animal products—meat, eggs, cheese—and green leafy vegetables are arguably the best approach, if not the healthiest diet to eat. Not only does weight go down when people eat like this, but heart disease and diabetes risk factors are reduced. Ethical arguments against meat-eating are always valid; health arguments against it can no longer be defended.
If The Weight of the Nation accomplishes anything, it’s communicating the desperation of obese Americans trying to understand their condition and, even more, of lean (or relatively lean) parents trying to cope with the obesity of their offspring. Lack of will isn’t their problem. It’s the absence of advice that might actually work. If our authorities on this subject could accept that maybe their fundamental understanding of the problem needs to be rethought, we and they might begin to make progress. Clearly the conventional wisdom has failed so far. We can hold onto it only so long.