“Breakfast is Good For You” and Other Dangerous Government-Sponsored Myths
Guns don’t kill people, sugary cereal kills people.
In the future, barring dramatic changes in what we eat, there will only be two different kinds of people: diabetics and pre-diabetics. One in three Americans have diabetes or pre-diabetes, and the number is growing at around 5% per year. We are facing a massive epidemic, yet the government continues to give the same dietary advice that got us into this mess in the first place.
Terence Kealey is a professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Buckingham, who was already a skeptic of government-funded research when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2010. 15 years earlier, he had published a book called The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, arguing that government-funded science does not constitute a “public good.” Rather, science flourishes under a free market, and government tends to skew research in favor of special interests. Upon receiving his diagnosis, he doubled down on his mission to dispel bad science funded by the government, specifically targeting the nutritional guidelines that led him to develop his condition. His most recent book, Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal: Why You Should Ditch Your Morning Meal for Health and Wellbeing, which applies his insights as a biochemist and philosopher of science to show just how badly the government errs when it gives incorrect advice based on inconclusive science.
Slim, active, and seemingly healthy enough prior to his diagnosis, Kealey had no reason to question his habit of eating a breakfast of toast, orange juice, cereal, and the like. Since the late 70s, the government has published nutritional recommendations affirming this course of action. While admitting that the data was unclear, they advised Americans to follow these guidelines:
- Eat less cholesterol
- Eat less fat
- Eat less sodium
- Eat less sugar
- Eat more complex carbohydrates
Additionally, the recommendations made it clear that breakfast is an essential meal. Americans followed the advice and the epidemics of obesity and diabetes got worse. The latest science has begun to contradict the guidelines, and suggests that high-fat diets are in fact healthier, as long as you are eating the right kinds of fat and limiting consumption of carbs and sugar. Yet groups like the American Heart Association and agencies like the US Department of Agriculture continue to promote low-fat diets.
As a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Cato Institute, Kealey leans libertarian but says he’s not naturally contrarian. Instead, his conclusions about the dangers of sugary foods (especially when consumed first thing in the morning) come from his own measurements of his blood sugar level after receiving his diagnosis, and his subsequent quest for the truth about nutrition. He sat down with Caleb O. Brown for an live, #CatoConnects webinar on The Science of Nutrition and Public Choice in November of last year to talk about what the corrupted field of dietary science can tell us about how all science works.
Ansel Keys, Fat-Phobia, and the Faulty Lipid Hypothesis
The story Kealey tells is one of institutionalized error and bad incentives. In the 1950s, a University of Minnesota researcher named Ansel Keys published a study looking at seven countries’ intake of saturated fat and at those same countries incidence of heart disease. Keys found a correlation, with the U.S. having both high cholesterol from eating saturated fat, and high rates of heart disease. Within 30 years, the “lipid hypothesis,” linking lipids (i.e., fats) to heart disease became the conventional wisdom.
The science was actually much murkier, with so many confounding variables making it impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relationship. However, the government was under pressure to “do something” about heart disease, so they put the full weight of government authority behind bad science. As a result, we have made the opposite of progress over the past 50 years. The old food plate contained fairly well-rounded recommendations, instructing Americans to eat some food from each group every day:
After years of motivation research to confirm Keys’ findings, the USDA began publishing the “food pyramid” guidelines in 1992, which Kealey believes invert the truth. We would be better off getting a majority of calories from healthy fats like olive oil, and limited carbohydrates, he says.
The food pyramid guidelines are especially harmful for people who are genetically susceptible to diabetes. Diabetics have developed resistance, or insensitivity to the hormone insulin. Insulin regulates the quantity of sugar, or glucose, in the blood stream. When you eat a sugary or carbohydrate-rich meal, the pancreas secretes insulin into the bloodstream to deliver excess glucose (the energy that carbs are converted into) to the liver and muscles for storage in the form of glycogen. When liver and muscle cells are already filled with glycogen, fat cells receive a signal to store the excess energy as body fat. This storage mechanism has evolved in even the most primitive organisms to deal with the mismatch between those times when food is available and the times when energy is required. Mark Sisson, a popular blogger in the “paleo” diet community, explains what happens to diabetics, when this mechanism goes awry:
“Today when we eat too many carbohydrates, the pancreas pumps out insulin exactly as the DNA blueprint tell it to (hooray pancreas!), but if the liver and muscle cells are already filled with glycogen, those cells start to become resistant to the call of insulin. The insulin “receptor sites” on the surface of those cells start to decrease in number as well as in efficiency. The term is called “down regulation.” Since the glucose can’t get into the muscle or liver cells, it remains in the bloodstream. Now the pancreas senses there’s still too much toxic glucose in the blood, so it frantically pumps out even more insulin, which causes the insulin receptors on the surface of those cells to become even more resistant, because excess insulin is also toxic.”
Sisson approaches health from the perspective of first principles, rooted in the evolution of our genetic blueprint (our ancestors thrived on diets that were high in meat and animal fat and low in carbs, for example). Like Kealey, he is part of a growing community of citizen-scientists who are taking responsibility for their own health instead of taking the government at its word.
Kealey, however, arrived at his conclusions through personal experience. His self-measurements revealed that the recommended approach of consuming a steady supply of carbohydrates was keeping his blood sugar at dangerously high levels, and making his condition worse. Much to the surprise of his doctors, he found his insulin levels stabilizing to normal levels, when he stopped consuming sugar, started eating more fat, and limited all caloric intake in the mornings.
With nearly 2/3 of adults in America and Great Britain counting as “obese or overweight,” this is critical information, and yet the government continues to recommend that we get 60% of our calories from carbs.
“Hardly anyone has heard of insulin resistance, yet its death rate can be compared to the death rates from the bubonic plague during the Black Death years of 1346–53,” Kealy writes. He proposes firing all of the old researchers, and starting all over.
What Counts as Science?
In his article, The Case Against Public Science, for Cato Unbound, Kealey wrote the following:
“The fundamental problem that bedevils the study of the economics of science is that every contemporary actor in the story is parti pris: every contemporary actor who enters the field starts by pre-assuming that governments should fund science. Such actors are either industrialists looking for corporate welfare, or scholars looking to protect their universities’ income, or scientists (who, frankly, will look for money from any and every source — they are shameless) or economists who assume that knowledge is “non-rivalrous” and only “partially excludable” (which are posh ways of saying that copying is cheap and easy.)”
This echoes the public choice arguments made by economists like James Buchanan, who noted that people in government are subject to the forces and incentives as all other self-interested economic actors. The USDA and its researchers are largely in the pocket of “Big Agriculture.” In an article for the Journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Scott fields writes:
The market is flooded with products made from the highly subsidized crops, including sweeteners in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), fats in the form of hydrogenated fats made from soybeans, and feed for cattle and pigs. This flood, in turn, drives down the prices of fattening fare such as prepackaged snacks, ready-to-eat meals, fast food, corn-fed beef and pork, and soft drinks.
In addition to providing subsidies for corn, wheat, and soy production, the USDA provides the research and development budgets that these companies would otherwise need to fund themselves. Now, Americans are hooked on junk food loaded with sugary corn syrup, and scientists are hooked on the money for their research budgets coming from subsidized companies like ConAgra, General Mills, and Monsanto.
Kealey traces the corruption of government-funded science back to Sir Francis Bacon, who thought that Spain had become rich and powerful through research into new technologies that enabled them to discover and exploit the colonies of the West Indies. However, there is virtually no empirical evidence linking government-sponsored research to better outcomes, whether related to health or economic progress.
Adam Smith wrote about the theoretical reasons why this is the case. Industry, he said, had an incentive to produce results that could be subject to the ultimate test: the marketplace.
If the USDA stopped funding research into agriculture and nutrition, the market would incentivize companies to do their own research. As it stands, scientists “are liars … who choose facts that suit their theories, they ignore inconvenient findings, then they try to bludgeon their colleagues into agreeing with them.” It is extremely rare for a scientist to change their mind once they’ve suited the facts to their theories — the only reason that science still advances is that the old guard eventually dies. Thus we are left with Max Planck’s line that “science advances one funeral at a time.”
The Paleo-Libertarian Connection
Libertarians in particular seem to be waking up to the misinformation they’ve been fed about diet, and are getting their advice elsewhere, but we all continue to pay for the obesity and diabetes epidemics in the form of higher health care premiums (thanks to ObamaCare).
A writer for the libertarian website LewRockwell.com notes how libertarians are rejecting the government’s nutritional guidelines on the logic that government agencies driven by political motives have distorted “the spontaneous order of the academic community to the detriment of scientific progress.” He suggests that people following a paleo diet would “greatly benefit from free markets: insurance companies would offer incentives for staying healthy, and there would be no subsidies propping up harmful foods, nor regulations hindering healthy foods.”
Paleo diets blends Kealey’s low-carb, high-fat advice with additional principles of evolutionary fitness, such as intermittent fasting, shorter, high-intensity exercise, and eating meats raised on natural diets of grass rather than the corn- and soy-fed beef and pork that has been subsidized by government.
Given that the nutritional field is still under-developed and woefully distorted by special interests, there is no certain dogma to follow. Everyone must do their own research and figure out what works best based on personal experimentation. One thing is certain, though — bad nutritional advice causes great harm when it is given a privileged place by allegedly trustworthy authorities.
Read the Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to the Bob Zadek Show, a full hour of libertarian discussion with the smartest guests on radio: live, spontaneous and thoughtful. It’s the show of ideas not attitude, and your calls are welcome at (424) BOB-SHOW. Now, your host, Bob Zadek.
How Government Came to Give Dietary Advice
Bob Zadek: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Bob Zadek show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show in the country. Thank you so much for listening this bright and cheery Sunday morning. We are always the show of ideas — never the show of attitude.
This morning we dare to ask the question, “If you can’t trust government, then who can you trust?” Oh my God, what a scary thought. I’m happy to welcome to the show a very special guest, Terence Kealey. Terence is a professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Buckingham — the only private university in the UK — and he was vice chancellor there until 2014.
Terence is the author of Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal: Why You Should Ditch Your Morning Meal for Health and Wellbeing published in 2016. I daresay by merely reading the title of that book Terence has already done me a great service. He has saved me an hour of day. I no longer have to spend an hour eating the breakfast that my government has told me is essential for my life and wellbeing. I now can spend another hour in the morning working — my favorite thing — and I don’t have to waste my time forcing sweet cereal down my throat. So I have already benefited profoundly from our relationship with Terence.
Welcome to the show this morning and thank you for that gift of one hour a day more of productive life instead of eating breakfast, cereal, toast and jam.
We’re going to cover two topics. We’re going to learn how the government has been perhaps the leading contributing cause of diabetes and obesity. Rather than being the benign protector of its citizenry, the government actually has done a massive public disservice — indeed a harm. It has done so by not only intruding into the personal choice of what we eat, and how much we eat, and when we eat it, but once it has made a decision to intrude into that very personal decision, it has intruded in a way that has not been benign — that has not been merely nanny-state-ish, that is not merely annoying, but is actually harmful. So the country would have been far better off if the government had not taken that first step.
How and when did the government get involved in advising us and in some cases compelling us what to eat and what not to eat? Hasn’t is always been that way?
Terence Kealey: Well, it started because of the heart attack epidemic, which we’re beginning to forget about because it’s now declined.
But let me just confirm what you’ve said. It was in 1977, that the Federal Government for the first time issued dietary advice and what the Federal Government said was to eat more carbohydrates and less fat. If you look at the statistics, it’s very simple. After the government said that in 1977 there was a short pause and then people started in a very serious way to follow their advice. Since 1977, people in America and in the Western world have eaten more and more carbohydrates, and less and less fat. The obesity epidemic and the type II diabetes epidemic started to take off in 1980, just three years after that advice was given. Those three years were the three years in which people started to change their diet. Within three years you see the impact of the increase, the rate of increase of obesity suddenly goes up and the rates of increase with type II diabetes suddenly go up, and of course they’ve been going up ever since.
So, I think, although you can’t prove a correlation like that, the evidence is very, very strong — because it’s carbohydrates that make you fat. It’s not, ironically, fat that makes you fat. Fat doesn’t make you fat. It’s carbohydrates that make you fat.
McGovern’s Desperate Maneuver
Bob Zadek: Now, it’s important for the audience to recall that often on my show, I have observed that “correlation is not causation.” The fact that two events or circumstances happened to occur around the same time does not automatically mean that A caused B, it merely means we can observe two things happening at the same time. But as Terence said, it is pretty clear. Most thinking people of science have concluded that this is more than mere correlation. This is, in fact, causation. Is that not a fair statement?
Terence Kealey: You’re absolutely right. I mean you couldn’t be more right. Correlation is not causation. However, it is a thing we call history based on the concept that someone does something in time A, and then something happens in time B, and we assume some sort of causation, or we wouldn’t have the discipline we call history. This is history. In 1977, the Federal Government made these dietary advices. We know those dietary advices cause type II diabetes and obesity, and lo and behold, three years later type II diabetes and obesity take off. So it is only correlation in a formal sense, but it’s also history, and history is a discipline we put a lot of confidence in.
Bob Zadek: Now, the government of course is an abstraction. Just to humanize it, I believe it was Senator McGovern — some of you may recall George McGovern was a progressive in the Senate and a presidential candidate — who made the decision. It was almost comical. We often have heard the phrase, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” Tell us a bit about what was going on such that government decided somewhere around 1977, to “not just stand there but to do something.” How do they decide what exactly to do? We would hope that before the government puts the weight and majesty of its edicts before the public, it would have been sure that guidance is correct. So tell us the circumstances. How did the government come about persuading us and offering guidance with bad advice?
Terence Kealey: It is a sad story. What happened is that there was this terrible epidemic of heart attacks in America after the Second World War and to this day, by the way, we don’t really know what caused that. It wasn’t just America, it was also in western Europe and other rich countries. It was probably caused, by the way (this gets a bit complicated), by the condition of insulin resistance, or the metabolic syndrome. But forgetting that for now, no one really knew what caused it and unfortunately, as H.L. Mencken said, “For every complicated story, there is a solution that is simple and wrong.”
What the government did in 1977 under the leadership of George McGovern — don’t forget George McGovern was a deeply bruised man who had lost badly against Richard Nixon — was in fact going to lose his Senatorial reelection campaign three years later. He could sense that he needed something to help him with the American people as well as his own electorate, of course, in his own state. And he looked for something simple that could capture the interests of the American people.
He wasn’t looking for a complicated story. He was looking for something simple so he could present himself as a hero, protecting the American people from some terrible condition — in this case heart attacks. He looked at what the debates were going on in the scientific community and there was a very straightforward debate in the scientific community. On one hand, there was a professor from Minnesota called Ancel Keys, who came up with a very simple story. He said, “Look, heart attacks are caused by fat in the arteries. Therefore, if we eat less fat, that’d be less fat in the arteries. Therefore, we should avoid eating fat.”
Against Ancel Keys was an army of thoughtful, intelligent, resourceful professors of biochemistry and nutrition, and physiology and health, all of whom said very sensibly, “Look, we don’t know the cause of heart attacks, but we do know that it’s naive and simplistic to say it’s simply fat in the diet.”
What we also know — and this is a very sad story — is that Mark Hegsted, the Harvard professor who advised George McGovern, and advised the committee on the Senate committee on nutrition that he created, was being bribed secretly by the sugar producers. They gave him $50,000, which wasn’t a criminal sum of money in those days, to promote carbohydrates in general, and sugar in particular. All secret of course. This couldn’t possibly come out. So we know that even the scientific advice that McGovern and his Senate were receiving was corrupt as well as wrong.
McGovern looked at the debate in the scientific community and he said, “Here is a simple story. Fat in the diet gives you fat in the blood vessels, which gives you a heart attack. That is a story my electorate will understand, the media will understand, we can go with that.” And when he presented the select committee advice in early 1977, he was immediately challenged. And this is very interesting — he was immediately challenged by the media, even at the press conference, in which they basically said, “You just don’t have enough facts to justify this. Look at all these other scientists who say the opposite.”
And his response was very revealing. He said, “We have a crisis in America.” And that was true. A third of all Americans were dying of heart attacks — twice as many Americans were dying from heart attacks as from cancer. Now it’s very different, but in those days, a third of all Americans were dying of heart attacks.
He said, “We have a crisis on our hands. We cannot wait for all the data to come in. If we wait for all the data to come in, we will have let the American people down because they needed advice from the government. Therefore we’re going to give advice, even though we don’t have all the facts in.”
He actually said that — he didn’t make any disguise. He couldn’t. “We’re going to give advice even though we don’t have the facts.” And of course we now know he gave exactly the wrong advice, which is a very, very interesting revelation that governments can sometimes do things that are very, very stupid.
Bob Zadek: The listeners of this show and the followers of libertarian writing will recognize this principle — that we have this incredible hubris of people who are elected to public office, daring to use the weight and power of their office to impose policies where they say, “Screw the facts — the facts will come later. Facts will only complicate matters,” and sure — the facts would have made McGovern’s reelection bid more complicated, so McGovern decided — given he was on the wrong side of so many issues — he’ll be on the right side and he will run on an anti-heart attack platform. That’s kind of a winner. So McGovern, shrugging aside the facts, put the government down a path of intruding into our diet and giving us health advice, and started a process that, as Terence will explain, continues even to this day to damage the health and wellbeing of Americans.
The Trouble with Science
Bob Zadek: So, Terence, now the government is in the game if you will and now the government enjoys its role as being nutritionist-in-chief and it doesn’t stop there — it doesn’t stop with heart attacks as a single event. Now, as with everything, once they have the power and the attention and they’re in the game of nutrition, it doesn’t stop there. And not only does the nutritional advice not stop, but bad nutritional advice doesn’t stop. Now, Terence, does the bad advice continue? What happens from McGovern’s dipping his big toe into the water of nutrition?
Terence Kealey: It gets worse, and the government makes it worse because science is a surprisingly fragile activity. What we now know from the work of researchers such as [John] Ioannidis at Stanford or [Brian] Nosek in Virginia is that scientists — and this is a very distressing fact — will bend the facts they publish to meet the expectations of people who fund them — the expectations of people who might publish their papers, the expectations of the deans in the universities that might promote them. If you want to get a successful scientific career in America, you’ve got to publish — publish or perish — that’s how you’re going to get funded.
Unfortunately, because science like nutrition is such an imprecise science, it’s so easy to use bad statistics to get whatever result you want. And what we saw in 1977 is that once the Federal Government had decided that the anti-fat scientists were right and the anti-carbohydrate scientists were wrong, they put the money of the NIH and the NSF behind the anti-fat scientists. And so they then created more and more facts to support their theory because they funded only the scientists who used the statistics that they could use to produce the results that got them more publications. So the government actually corrupted science.
Let me just talk about something very visible today, which is what we’re seeing at the EPA. I am not going to defend Scott Pruitt, or even take a view on Scott Pruitt. It would be inappropriate for me, as a Brit, to comment on American politics. That would be bad manners. But I can say one thing about Scott Pruitt’s science policies, which is he saying that the EPA from now on should accept only scientific papers where all the data is available to the reader, and which is infinitely more transparent. That is currently happening in the world of science today, and there Scott Pruitt is right.
The trouble with science is, except for the very hard sciences like physics and math and chemistry, once you get to the soft sciences — the social sciences — it’s only too easy for researchers to apply statistics to get the results that they want rather than the results that reflects the truth. And that’s what the government did in nutrition. Nutrition is a very weak science. The numbers of papers in nutrition that are well-written are shockingly low. Look in the newspapers — every week, something that was dangerous last week is good this week and you know it will be dangerous next week. That speaks of a very weak science. The government made it 100 times worse by backing one horse against the other, because it sounded simple for the electorate, and therefore just took this vulnerable science and made it much worse to produce the facts they wanted.
Bob Zadek: Now we know in science the gold standard is a peer-reviewed paper — that is, a paper written by one scientist or a group of scientists and then independently reviewed by a second or even a third group of scientists to confirm the findings. That helps us lay people give the appropriate level of credibility to scientific discoveries or scientific conclusions. But here we have a system — if there is an opposite of peer review, it is a scientific paper that is reviewed for acceptability by congress. Can you imagine? And Congress doesn’t do it as scientists, they do it as people who desperately want to keep their job, so their motivation is as nasty as a motivation can be. As Terence pointed out, science is expensive and somebody has got to pay, and when government pays, the piper gets to call the tune, and the government buys its scientific facts.
“We would like to buy these scientific facts, who’s going to pay us?”
Therefore, the objectivity — the fact part — is gone forever. Is that an overstatement or is that pretty much how it works?
Terence Kealey: It’s even worse than you think. The next person who says to me — not at the other end of the phone line, but in person — that peer review is the gold standard for good science, I shall personally strangle. What people don’t understand is that scientific papers are not definitive statements. A scientific paper is like the argument made by a lawyer in court for one side or another.
Scientists are always clashing in their ideas, or you hope they’re clashing in their ideas, and trying to prove one argument against another. It’s only years later when we see all the evidence on one side and all the evidence on the other side that we can finally begin to conclude what is happening and what is not happening. All that peer review says is that one group of scientists look at another group of scientists and say, “Well, you know, they work at a good university. I met them at a conference and they seem perfectly reasonable people. There’s nothing here that’s grotesque. They haven’t said that it’s the alignment of the stars. Therefore it must be alright.”
Peer review cannot do what people think it does. You can do peer review in pure math because if you have a paper for review, you could actually sit with a piece of paper and pencil actually revisit all those calculations and see if it’s true or not. Peer review in something like epidemiology or nutrition, you haven’t got a hope. For start, you don’t have access to the raw data. This is the whole Scott Pruitt argument. You don’t have access to the raw data because these disciplines do not insist that scientists give you the raw data, so all you can do is take the word of other scientists, and that of course is a very, very vulnerable thing to do because you don’t actually know how honest or accurate they’ve been. And of course the statistics — and there’s a convention in many areas of science that everyone agrees to use poor statistics because everyone knows that papers need to be published for careers to be pursued. So peer review is not the defense the public thinks it is. Only time is that defense.
But government makes it worth funding one side against another. Let me give you an example of how scientists are dishonest sometimes in a good way. For example, everybody in the world believes there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation. Even one bit of radiation increases the chances of your getting cancer. We now know that’s not true. We now know that the scientists who said that knew it wasn’t true. They even won Nobel prizes for saying things they knew were not true. But what the scientists were trying to do at the time of the radiation scare was to stop the Americans and the Russians producing so much nuclear explosions that we really would move into very dangerous averages of radioactivity and so just scare the world into thinking the right thing, they said there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation, because the scientists knew that if they said that was such a thing as a safe dose of radiation, then the Americans would blame the Russians, and the Russians would blame the Americans, and we’d really would move into a dangerous area.
Those are scientists lying for what they think is a public good and indeed it may even have been the public good, but it makes the point you can’t trust scientists. They had their own agendas. When I look at a piece of nutrition research — and nutrition is about the worst area of science I’ve ever come across, and breakfast is one of the worst — I have learned that the only way to read that paper (particularly if it’s been peer reviewed) is to ask myself why and how are these lying bastards lying to me? The fact is peer review is no protection. Some scientists are supporting a particular scientific point of view that they want to push — like, for example, “there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation” — and they secretly know that there is and your peer reviewers secretly know there is, but they both think, “We’ve got to push this because we’ve got to stop the Russians with a nuclear tests than peer review actually simply becomes illusion.” Ultimately it’s only time and an informed general public, but the government will make it worse by backing and funding one side against another.
This is Bob Zadek. I’m spending a wonderful morning talking to Dr. Terence Kealey. We’re discussing the government’s role in advising us what to eat, including breakfast. Now, given the time of our show, I suspect most of our listeners are about to go to breakfast. Do not leave to go to breakfast until you hear what Terence has to say about breakfast — the most dangerous meal of the day. We’ll be back in 60 short seconds. Cancel your breakfast reservations until we come back after break. Please stay tuned.
Announcer: Secret Sauce: The Founder’s Original Recipe for Limited American Democracy is a new book based on the best interviews from the Bob Zadek Show — California’s longest running libertarian talk show. Bob and his guests tell the story of the Great Compromise at the Constitutional Convention and the prediction by certain founders that a dangerously powerful Federal Government Were the anti-federalists right? Is there such a thing as too much democracy? Learn more by downloading your free copy today from BobZadek.com.
Is there such a thing as too much democracy? The Founders thought so. *Secret Sauce* combines the best interviews from…www.amazon.com
Is Breakfast Dangerous?
Bob Zadek: Welcome back to The Bob Zadek show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show on all of radio. Thanks so much for listening this morning with my guest, Dr. Terence Kealey. Dr. Kealey has recently written a book *Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal: Why You Should Ditch Your Morning Meal for Health and Wellbeing.* Before we go on to discuss breakfast, Terence, our listeners are standing by waiting to see if they should cancel their breakfast reservations. I’d like to take a call from Michael. Welcome to the show this morning, and what’s on your mind?
Michael: Thanks Bob. Thanks for having an interesting subject and a well-informed guest. A problem I have with the government’s advice and with your advice, Terence, is it’s based on reductionist science. It looks at the elements in the foods, rather than at the foods themselves. It’s like saying there are 500 b-flats and so if you have 500 b-flats in your symphony, it’ll be great. Advising people to have more or less fat or more or less carbohydrates is like advising people to have more or fewer b-flats in your symphony.
Terence Kealey: Well you’re quite right too, by the way. You are quite correct. You sound like a very informed person, so I think you know what I’m about to say. What you’re describing is the so-called nutritionist error. Is that what you’re trying to get at?
Michael: I’m getting at recommending whole foods and looking at population studies. What do healthy populations eat? What foods do they eat? Not what elements and foods, how many micronutrients or phytonutrients say eat, but the whole foods, and all this research is based on this reductionism. That’s my problem.
Terence Kealey: Well, you’re quite right. Let me just say this. Quite right. And actually, if you look at what the American Heart Foundation and the other big charities are now saying, they’re now talking about the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet, i.e., they’re not going down the reductionist route. They’re going on the holistic route. Science is fundamentally reductionist. One shouldn’t despise reductionism — reductionism has being a very important aspect of science — but when it comes to diet, you do have to look holistically.
The best dietary advice these days is holistic. It’s not reductionist. It talks particularly about the Mediterranean diet, and the DASH Diet, and you are right and we are all in agreement with you. It was the government that has used this reductionist view about carbohydrates and stuff, and what we’re showing is all that’s wrong. You are quite right. You need a healthy diet, you need to look at it holistically. You need a Mediterranean diet, and you are correct.
Bob Zadek: Michael, thanks so much for your call this morning. Now Terence, your book and part of our show, given the time that I broadcast, will be devoted to the subject of breakfast. I, of course, am one of those vulnerable millions who believed what the government and my mother told me. And that is, “Don’t you dare start the day without a good breakfast.” I had my sugar-coated whatevers, and my jam on my bread. I guess I felt better for it, but maybe that wasn’t such great advice. Was it, Terence? The advice originated from government, if I’m not mistaken.
Terence Kealey: Well, here you are mistaken but you are forgiven, because government reinforced it.
Bob Zadek: It was a breakfast cereal companies.
Terence Kealey: Yeah. All your readers and listeners have to do is to go on Google scholar — not Google, because that covers everything. Google scholar: the scientific papers published in the field. Anybody can do this. Just go into Google scholar and put in breakfast and look at the people who paid for the first 10 papers on breakfast. Look at the 10 most popular recently published scientific papers on breakfast, go to the bottom of the paper, and see who funded them. I’m not going to name any of the names on the show because I don’t want to be sued by anybody, but you will discover that all the papers in the peer reviewed scientific literature telling you how important breakfast is we’re funded by the breakfast cereal manufacturers (and sometimes by the bacon or egg manufacturers), and there’s a reason for that.
We don’t believe in conspiracies — only naive people believe in conspiracies — but my God, there’s such thing as collusion. And there’s total collusion to push the idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and that you should eat it like a king, and that is the collusion in the breakfast manufacturers and, I regret to say, naive nutritionists funded by the government.
It is a wholly dangerous meal because you eat it at the time of day when your body is most naturally resistant to glucose and insulin. I’m not going through all that now. But even more dangerous, once you eat breakfast, then you get hungry at 11:00, and then you need something at 11, and then you’re hungry for lunch, and then you’re hungry in the middle of the afternoon. Breakfast precipitates — particularly if you eat carbohydrates for breakfast — hunger for the rest of the day. Whereas if you skip breakfast, you will find unless you’re very, very unlucky — the vast majority of people find they can go all the way through to lunch without feeling hungry. They wouldn’t need that midmorning snack, and of course that haven’t eaten those calories. And then they can eat their lunch, and then they can eat that dinner, they’re eating many fewer calories in a much shorter time window. Breakfast is a dangerous meal. And the only people who say otherwise of those who are funded by the cereal companies,
Bob Zadek: When I get calls on Monday from Battle Creek, Michigan, I’m going to direct them to you, Terence. I don’t want to get all the heat but your point is well taken and there’s a subtext here that I don’t want to have lost on our listeners, and that is, once again, we have advertising dressed up in the imprimatur of science. Science has now become an advertising tool and junk science at that. Once again, we have George McGovern using science to personal advantage, or junk science to personal advantage. We have business using science, or junk science, to economic advantage.
It’s so clear from what you have explained to us that scientific “facts,” can be purchased, which means consumers who are the victims of the alleged science — the alleged facts, the junk science — have a difficult task in sorting out what and who can we believe. I guess the problem all comes about with who pays for science, and you have written a lot and spoken a lot about how science is funded. Tell us your thoughts on that because it seems to be the root of the problem.
Terence Kealey: Correct. You’ve got it absolutely right. By the way, we’re all libertarians. We all believe in the market. But libertarians also know that markets often need protection against individual companies. I just wanted to get that in there. We believe in markets, of course, not individual companies and their interests.
But you’re absolutely right. The best way of understanding the problem in the sciences is the very nice phrase, “It’s technology that keeps science honest.” There’s no question, unless you’re one of those lunatics, that NASA managed to put several men on the moon. They got those rockets out there — that is technology you can trust in. Go to your garage, get in your motor car, and turn it on. That’s technology. You can trust it, and you can get into your car, and you can compare it against a Model T, and you can see that in the last 58 years, whatever it is, the technology of cars is improved. We can all judge technology. That is what keeps science honest.
Science is very, very hard to judge because the scientific papers are very hard to read for even the scientists and non-scientists. What the government has done is a catastrophe. Until 1940, all science in this country was paid for by industries or medical charities like American Heart or American Diabetes Associations. I.e., science was always paid for by people who wanted ultimately to turn it into technology, and it was that technology that kept the science honest. But after the Second World War, the Federal Government said, “No, we’re not going to do that anymore. Although it’s a model that’s made us the richest and most successful country in the world — in 1890 America became the richest country in the world, all without the government funding of science — after 1940, particularly in the 1950s, the American government said, “No. The models to follow is the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and Kaiser’s Germany, which funded lots and lots of science.
Why on earth the Federal Government thought the Kaiser’s Germany or the Soviet Union was a model to follow is really mysterious, but that was the decision they took. In 1950, the National Science Foundation was created and the American government started to fund science for the specific purpose of removing scientists away from technology — away from the market, away from the big charities and the hospitals, away from anything by which science could actually be judged by technology. Now, they said, scientists and science were to be judged only by fellow scientists through so called peer-review, which just meant that science became a corruptible and corrupted activity, by which scientists started produce data and findings that satisfied the government and their funders.
Science in isolation, which is what the Federal Government produces has gone badly wrong. Even scientists recognize this — it’s called the reproducibility crisis. Half of all papers in psychology can’t be reproduced. Half of all papers in social sciences can’t be reproduced. It’s unbelievable what’s going on in science at the moment, and this is because the government consciously uncoupled science and technology. We can all judge technology. Only a handful of specialists can judge science. By leaving science to be judged only by scientists, thanks for the Federal Government, we have corrupted science.
Bob Zadek: Of course, not only did we copy at Germany’s Kaiser in funding of science, but also in social security. But that’s a story for another day. We’ll go back to that some other time, but social security didn’t work out that great either.
Flipping the Food Pyramid
Now, going back to nutrition, I remember growing up with this food pyramid which told me at the top of the pyramid what you should eat a little bit of, and at the bottom of the pyramid was the good stuff. You worked up the pyramid to the bad stuff at the top and that was all the government was promoting it. There were cartoons. We were all taught about the pyramid in grade school. Tell us the story of the pyramid (then replaced by the plate) and was that yet another example of the government not only intruding, but intruding and giving bad advice?
Terence Kealey: Well, two things. First of all, who produced the pyramid? The Department of Agriculture. It wasn’t produced by a group of doctors. It was the Department of Agriculture, and who are the Department of Agriculture the big cheerleaders for? Farmers. The food pyramid was created to help the farming profession — to help farming lobbyists. The food pyramid is a scandal and should be. Actually, it’s quite a useful pyramid — turn it upside down and do the exact opposite of what the Department of Agriculture tell you to do. It’s actually not bad advice. You just have to say to yourself, “What is the Department of Agriculture telling me to do? That’s really helpful. Thank you very much. I’ll do the exact opposite and I’ll be fine.”
So, the food pyramid is produced by the Department of Agriculture to protect farmers. “Oh, there’s a consumer out there — well, that’s someone else’s problem. We’re the Department of Agriculture.” If you think about it there’s a shocking conflict of interests. So to answer your question, the food pyramid is a scandal. The advice it gave is completely wrong. It was very good for farmers, very bad for the consumer.
What we actually know is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet, which of course comes from the Mediterranean, is a diet low in things like red meat, low in bread, but absolutely no margarine and those horrible fake fats. One of the terrible things the Federal Government did was telling people to stop eating healthy butter and start eating unhealthy margarine. That was a pretty terrible thing that the Federal Government did — margarine is really bad for you, especially compared to butter.
But the healthiest diet of all is full of legumes and nuts, and vegetables, and fish and olive oil, very, very low in fact, on any form of processed food, and low on processed bread. That is basically the job that you need. The pyramid should be burned down. Remember, pyramids are for corpses. That’s why pyramids were invented by the ancient Egyptians — to promote the interest of corpses. We don’t want to put the interest of corpses. We don’t want the department of agriculture telling us what’s good for farmers. We actually want health for ordinary people, which means the Mediterranean diet and no processed food.
Libertarian Paternalism vs. Transparency
Bob Zadek: I’m spending a wonderful morning speaking with Terence Kealey. We are talking about the government’s intrusion into nutrition. What is good for us? What is bad for us? Is the government encouraging us to do what is bad? The government, through its own selfish motives, is increasing the occurrence of obesity — perhaps type II diabetes as well — and in general, messing us up in a pretty bad way for a pretty bad purposes.
Now, I remember it was probably a decade ago when Mayor Bloomberg was the mayor of New York City and he went out on a tear about salt. Oh my God, did he hate salt. If you served salt in a restaurant, you went to jail. You had to disclose how much salt. Everybody was encouraged not to eat salt, and shortly thereafter we had another condiment, sugar, which was in the crosshairs. Tell us about salt and sugar. Was Bloomberg a superb nutritionist in giving those mandates and imposing that very, very onerous regime upon restaurants in New York City?
Terence Kealey: Well, it’s an interesting question. Why do we not increasingly believe in the death penalty? It’s not that we don’t believe that bad people should be executed. Of course, bad people might well be executed. The trouble is that innocent people are sometimes found guilty, and so people are pulling back from the death penalty, not because they don’t believe in death penalty as such, but because they understand the courts are run by human beings. Human beings make mistakes, and sometimes innocent people get convicted.
It’s the same with salt and sugar. If we knew absolutely and for certain that these were dangerous, then of course you might reasonably have legislation. For example, we know that cyanide is very dangerous, and we would all support the restaurant regulators in saying that restaurateurs may not put cyanide in the food.
The question is, “Are salt and sugar dangerous?” The answer is we: don’t know. The best answer we can come up with, by the way, is that salt most most probably is not dangerous. The big myths of salt being dangerous have largely now been exploded, and salt was like cholesterol. People thought that salt was the cause of heart attacks and came up with apparently convincing science, which has been largely discredited. Actually, too little salt is as dangerous as too much salt. Most of us and very good at regulating our salt, so in the main salt is probably not dangerous at all.
Sugar probably is dangerous. My own personal belief is that it probably is dangerous. However, the data is very strange. We know, for example, that in countries like Australia and Britain, that incidence of consumption of sugar has gone down really quite a lot, and yet their incidence of obesity and type II diabetes continues to go up. So even sugar is actually a difficult thing to quantify. So, by making these things illegal, or by taxing them, or by regulating them, you are making decisions based on imperfect knowledge. Just like when you send someone to the death, you may well be making a mistake.
My own personal feeling is that we should leave this to consumers and restaurateurs to make up their own minds. It’s not for the government to get involved unless there was certainty, like in the case of cyanide.
Transparency, yes. If someone like Bloomberg where to say, “Look, on every menu you have to get the salt content, the sugar content, the carbohydrate content,” like when you go to the supermarket and you buy something, that’s fine. Transparency of information: fine. Transparency of regulation in the absence of certainty: well, you’re going to be making mistakes and who wants mistakes?
Bob Zadek: My only comment on transparency is, there is a difficulty. First of all, there is a cost that is passed along to the consumer and to in effect force a consumer to pay for something that is utterly useless is transparency in a bad way. It comes up with GMOs — a fight we’re having today. Your native continent, western Europe, has bad feelings about GMOs — genetically modified organisms — and western Europe as a whole is fearful of GMOs based upon no science whatever. Indeed, any science there is says that GMOs are benign, but they help productivity, and they help feed the world — things of that nature. So, as in Europe I believe there is a movement in the United States to disclose GMO modified foods. Of course, foods have been modified for thousands of years, but put that silly issue aside. So to some degree, disclosures are not free, and may be harmful in the sense that it imposes a cost that nobody benefits from.
Terence Kealey: Let me just say about GMOs, it’s insane. I mean, it’s ridiculous. The form of anti-GMO feeling in western Europe is a form of anti-science. It’s a way of saying we no longer trust the food companies. America has got this, right. America got other things wrong as well, but in that area basically you and I aren’t going to disagree.
You could argue there was a cost and perhaps in a completely free market, individuals will say, “Well I want to go to restaurant A rather than restaurant B because they’ll give me the ingredients, and I’m prepared to pay an extra dollar for my dinner for the cost of that.” And actually, if you think about the quality of food advice we received over the last 50 years, then it would be perfectly rational to say, “Actually, I don’t want the information, because I don’t know what’s good and bad for me, and the very fact that you’ve got the information for, say, sugar implies that sugar is bad, and that implication may in fact be false.” I completely respect your point of view.
Speaking for myself, I personally will be prepared to pay an extra dollar to the restaurant that gives the information, but if you were to say it’s not for the government to pose it as a central diktat and fiat, I would respect your point of view. I think the market would then give me the sort of restaurant that I would want and I respect your point of view. After all, we’re both libertarians.
Bob Zadek: I think yesterday a new regulation came into effect requiring all restaurants to disclose the calorie content on printed menus, and of course the pizza industry is insane over this requirement because when you order a pizza there are maybe 11 million combinations of pizza you can have. They have to calculate the calorie content for each of those 11 million pizza orders. So, we have this issue about calorie content which seems kind of benign.
Why not be told the calorie content of the triple bacon cheeseburger you’re going to order? Well and good, except I believe that the evidence seems to be that restaurants disclosing calorie content it has no effect on consumer choice. The consumer consumes the same foods they would have consumed without the information about calorie content. And that is an industry wide, quite inexpensive disclosure.
Terence Kealey: Yes. Well, I’m very happy to take your point of view that we can intuitively look at the benefits of these decisions and work out that they are not empirically valuable. I can also take your point of view that we’re both libertarians, and that we believe the individual customers can be trusted to make decisions, and we could leave it to markets. But I also believe in transparency and sometimes if fellow libertarians could agree on all these different principles — and they’re mutually exclusive, you can’t have all of these principles all happily working together — and libertarians, we are the only really civilized people, we can agree to, differ as friends.
We’re not actually different you and I because I don’t know the answer to these things. All I’m saying is that I would be interested to hear the argument that there should be transparency. Certainly in science there has to be transparency, and I’m very happy to be told I’m wrong. But unlike you, I think I’m more interested in the argument before dismissing it. We’re both libertarians and we both basically agree on the same premises. We might just have different emphases one way or another.
“Don’t believe anything you’re told by government or industry.”
Bob Zadek: The challenge you have, Terence, as we have a minute left: what’s the big change you would advocate, to fix all of the evils we have covered in our hour together this morning? You’ll have about a minute to solve huge problems. What’s your message to our listeners?
Terence Kealey: My message with nutrition has to be “Don’t believe anything you’re told by government or industry.” It’s actually — it’s very difficult, this — look at the populations that seem to live longest and healthiest. They seem to be around the Mediterranean. Go for the classic, traditional… look at what Ancel Keys himself did. This man gave us such terrible advice. What did he do in his life? He lived to be 101. Why is that? He emigrated to Italy and he ate a Mediterranean diet until he was 101. He didn’t even follow his own advice, so don’t do what Ancel Keys said, do what he did. Go and live just south of Naples in a lovely, warm climate.
Bob Zadek: We are running out of time. Have a good Sunday and enjoy your breakfast. This is Bob Zadek — I’ll be back next Sunday. Thanks for listening.