Low-Fat Diets Aren't Going To Die

Low-fat diets are dead, at least according to one writer. The problem: we've been hearing this for at least ten years, and they still haven't actually died.

Kristin Wartman opens her recent Huffington Post piece with the line, "The low-fat trend finally appears to be on its way out." She quotes a number of scientists and journalists, all echoing the message that fat — even saturated fat — may not be unhealthy, and that the real dietary health risks come from refined carbs. She also notes that this message isn't new — it's been advanced in both mainstream and scientific media since the early aughts (or before). We did a quick search of the Times archives to determine just how long the death knell of low-fat diets has been blaring.

1999

In an article titled, "Low Fat's Lowered Expectations; Procter & Gamble Overestimates America's Olestra Craving," Dana Cannedy wrote,

Olestra did rack up decent numbers last year, but the company grossly overestimated the size of the market, which already appears to be tapering off. Part of the problem was that regulatory approval was so long in coming that the fickle cycle of consumer taste had edged away from low-fat food.

Remember Olestra? Yeah, even back when that shit was in the news, low-fat was supposedly on the way out.

2002

In a lengthy Times Magazine piece (which Wartman mentions), Gary Taubes wrote,

Over the past five years, however, there has been a subtle shift in the scientific consensus. It used to be that even considering the possibility of the alternative hypothesis, let alone researching it, was tantamount to quackery by association. Now a small but growing minority of establishment researchers have come to take seriously what the low-carb-diet doctors have been saying all along.

He concluded with his own fear of questioning low-fat dogma, even in the face of evidence — "I have even lost considerable weight with relative ease by giving up carbohydrates on my test diet, and yet I can look down at my eggs and sausage and still imagine the imminent onset of heart disease and obesity, the latter assuredly to be caused by some bizarre rebound phenomena the likes of which science has not yet begun to describe."

2006

Gina Kolata reported on a study so large it was termed "the Rolls-Royce of studies," which found "those assigned to a low-fat diet had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer, heart attacks and strokes as those who ate whatever they pleased." Also, women assigned to a low-fat diet didn't lose weight (though they didn't also didn't get diabetes at higher rates, as some low-carb aficionados thought they would).

2007

In a review of Taubes's book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, John Tierney wrote that "the notion that fatty foods shorten your life began as a hypothesis based on dubious assumptions and data; when scientists tried to confirm it they failed repeatedly." He called the widespread embrace of low-fat diets an example of an "informational cascade," wherein "one person after another assumes that the rest can't all be wrong."

2008

Tierney became a tireless critic of low-fat dogma — in 2008 he wrote about another study questioning low-fat diets for weight loss. Paraphrasing Taubes, he called the study "perhaps the best news yet about saturated fat." A few weeks later, he gave Dean Ornish, a supporter of (some) low-fat diets the chance to respond. Ornish said, "The diet wars are almost over." Yeah, right.

2011

In a Recipes for Health column (also mentioned by Wartman), Martha Rose Shulman wrote, "At the recent Worlds of Healthy Flavors conference, sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America, two prominent researchers called for an end to the use of the term 'low-fat.'" Also:

As most of us now know, it is the type of fat that matters most to health. [...] Scientists have been saying as much for years. But somehow we remain preoccupied with low-fat foods and diets, which are often high in sugar, refined flour and other simple carbohydrates, as well as in sodium, as salt is often added to low-fat foods to improve the flavor.

At least as far as the Times is concerned, the conventional wisdom for some time has been this: low-fat diets aren't really that good for you, but people keep acting like they are. Why is this? Most of the authors above advance some variant of the "informational cascade" hypothesis: low-fat eating has been recommended for so long, and by so many people, that even "the Rolls Royce of studies" hasn't been enough to really turn public opinion against it.

This is certainly part of the story, but it's not all of it. Insofar as there's any consensus on How We Should Eat, it seems to follow Michael Pollan's formula: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." But a plant-based diet made up of whole foods, while good for veggie farmers, isn't necessarily good for the food conglomerates that have invested big money in producing low-fat alternatives to previously high-fat convenience foods. Despite the supposed "end of low-fat," these foods remain ubiquitous — a quick search of Safeway.com yielded up low-fat cottage cheese, waffles, ice cream, drinkable yogurt, graham crackers, granola, mozzarella balls, salad dressing, cookies, tuna salad, and Pop Tarts, among other items. Wartman writes, "Americans are confused about nutrition and disease and it's only getting more complex with corporations claiming to make healthier foods" — and making something low-fat is an easy way for manufacturers to make it seem healthy. Unless food companies drastically reorganize themselves to provide minimally processed food, they're going to keep selling low-fat as the path to health. And a lot of us are going to keep buying.

A Big Fat Debate [Huffington Post]