We Don’t Know What To Eat

Why can’t science solve our most basic question of survival?

Thomas Goetz

--

Photo by Conrad Baker.

Growing up in Minnesota in the 1980s, my family’s kitchen was a scullery for healthy, common sense, midwestern eating. Children of a physician father and a nurse mother, my siblings and I were fed low-fat, low-salt, sensible portions of roast chicken and boiled potatoes, wild rice casserole, very well-cooked vegetables — and woefully deprived of fast food, Hostess snacks, and soft drinks (we called it ‘pop’).

And no butter for us; we ate margarine. Fleischmann’s margarine, to be precise. Every morning my dad would make a big stack of toast slathered with the stuff. And when I got home from school, I’d spread it on a stack of Carr’s table crackers as an after school snack. I’d guess we ate about a carton of margarine — 4 sticks — a week.

That carton was part of a massive amount of margarine consumed in the US. In 1983, Americans ate 2.3 billion pounds of margarine — twice as much as butter. We were all told it was better than butter — no saturated fats, no cholesterol. Much healthier.

It was all wrong.

Margarine of the day may not have had saturated fats, but it was packed with trans fats, an even more dangerous villain that packs the double whammy of raising LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) and lowering HDL cholesterol (the good stuff). In the early 1990s, a wave of studies began to hint at the danger; trans fats were directly correlated with higher rates of heart disease and many cancers. A backlash ensued, and by 2006, the US required transfats labeling. In 2014 the Food and Drug Administration outlawed them altogether.

Today, we can’t believe how stupid we all were (except if you were in one of those cavalier families that stuck with butter all along).

The science over transfats marked a shift in the way Americans think about health and nutrition, and brought us into an era of regular contradictions and, often, confusion. Before transfats, a conventional wisdom emerged around nutrition and disease. Out of observational studies such as Framingham emerged an understanding that diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol and salt were associated with higher rates of high blood pressure and heart disease. The simple conclusion was…

--

--

Thomas Goetz

Co-founder of Iodine, former executive editor of Wired, friend of data, writer of books. Latest: The Remedy.