You see, telling overweight people to eat less and exercise more might send them fleeing for the hills, so the diet book authors and womens magazines searched valiantly for some aspect of eating to blame, some way of telling people they can stuff their faces — and still lose weight. They found such a culprit in fat. It seemed to make sense: the fat you eat becomes the fat you wear. And there even seemed to be some science behind it.
And so a fad was launched. In part the attack on fat is justified because of its extra energy-carrying capacity. After all, a gram of fat does have nine calories compared to only four for carbohydrates and protein. Reducing fat intake to reduce calories can be a major factor in weight control. But the centerpiece of the attack against Demon Fat is that even on a calorie-for-calorie basis, there is something especially bad about those calories coming from fat.
"Your body does not manufacture fat," states Susan Powter authoritatively in Stop the Insanity! Rather, ". . . it comes from the end of your fork." If you avoid fat, she says, "You can eat whatever you want, whenever you want it, and however much of it you want. "
Meanwhile The Fat Attack Plan, authored by the same team who wrote that two-million-selling The Fat Counter, asserts that "you dont have to count calories. All you have to do is learn to identify foods containing fat and eat less of them [emphasis in original]."
The Fat Attack Plan gives the green light to eating sugared cereals: "you may be surprised to learn that our answer is `No, sugared cereals wont make you fat. Not the ones without fat, that is."
"Calories do not count," writes Debra Waterhouse in her best selling 1993 Outsmarting the Female Fat Cell. "What counts is how you eat those calories and where they come from: carbohydrates, protein, or fat."
Some in the popular media have also bought into the calories-dont-count, only-fat-does thesis, letting it guide their reporting. In 1995 the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., monitored three months of news coverage from 37 different local and national news outlets to see how they covered issues of food safety and nutrition. The center found that fat consumption attracted twice as much coverage as any other nutritional topic. The media warned against fat consumption four times as often as the over-consumption of calories.
But at least as important as anything the media have done has been the governments proclamation, in a 1990 report endorsed by a coalition of 38 federal agencies, that we should reduce fat in our diet to 30% or less of total calories. That fat is especially detrimental to weight control is also incorporated into the labeling that the Food and Drug Administration requires on virtually all food products. Right next to where youre given the number of calories, youre told which calories come from fat. The label also incorporates the 30%-of-calories-from-fat recommendation.
Has this bombardment affected American eating and shopping habits? A joint Food Marketing Institute and Prevention magazine survey in 1996 found that 72% of those polled made decisions to buy food based on the fat content listed on the label, while only 9% treated calories the same way. In fact, sodium content was rated as more important than calories. An American Dietetic Association survey in 1992 found that many people believe fat should be completely eliminated from the diet. Yet that action would prove suicidal since a small amount of fat is needed to absorb certain vitamins and carry out other bodily functions.
All this Demon Fat propaganda is false. It has changed our eating habits for the worse, devastating our diets and causing scales across the country to creak and groan and beg for mercy under added weight.
A Myth Takes Hold
The history of blaming dietary fat for bodily fat goes back to the turn of the century, when it was wrongly hypothesized that dietary fat passed unchanged through the digestive tract directly to become body fat. But it wasnt until 1989 that it swept the imagination of the American public. That year saw the publication of The T-Factor Diet, written by Martin Katahn, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University.
"YOU CANT GET FAT EXCEPT BY EATING FAT!" exclaims Katahn in The T-Factor Diet in the obnoxious way pitchmen like to put things in all capitals. "You are not going to be cutting calories or counting them," he says. "Except for fat, you are going to be eating just about as much of everything as you want."
Still later he insists, again all in capitals, that magical line that almost automatically leads to best-sellerdom: "FORGET ABOUT CALORIES!" But a funny thing happens later in the book. In a chapter in which he propounds an especially speedy system of weight-loss called the "Quick Melt", he offers a diet that provides "approximately 1,000 calories for a woman, and 1,500 for a man." But wait a second. Didnt he tell us that "only fat makes you fat" and that we can "forget about calories"?
So how come suddenly were counting calories, and not just fat ones, but all calories? Is it true that only fat makes you fat, or do calories count? The answer, as we shall see, is that ultimately all that counts is calories, and that fat-free food will not make you fat free.
Katahns thesis was based on two different formulas that began in the medical journals and should have stayed there. Both appear to be scientifically valid, but simply have no relevance to weight loss. One, dietary fat converts more efficiently to body fat than does carbohydrate or protein. Two, carbohydrates, whatever the conversion ratio, rarely become body fat in any case. Rather, they are almost always burned off immediately as fuel.
If you think about it a moment — which, alas, no one ever does — you see that the second formula cancels out the first. It doesnt really matter that carbohydrates convert less efficiently to body fat, since the conversion rarely takes place at all. Thus we can forget the first part of the formula entirely.
But what about the second part? It turns out that in everyday life, its not very important either. What this all means is that the body has priorities. It prefers to get its energy from carbohydrates and store fat as fat. But if you are gaining weight because youre eating too many calories, even if the number of calories from fat is relatively small, the excess dietary fat will all convert to body fat, rather than any of it being burned off as fuel.
Indeed, if you really eat to excess, even much of the extra carbohydrates will become fat, too. On the other hand, if youre already overweight, you can be eating virtually no fat and still not lose weight because your body isnt involved in making new body fat, just maintaining the fat thats already there.
So how do you lose that body fat? Simple. You either cut your calories or increase your energy expenditure. If your daily intake of calories is too small, your system is forced to convert the fat you eat into fuel, just as it converts the carbohydrates. Your body doesnt want to use fat for fuel. But by restricting your energy intake (your calories), you restrict its options. Your body must burn off not only the fat youre consuming but the fat youre carrying around. So the low-fat diet gurus have it absolutely backward. Calories arent irrelevant; ultimately, theyre all that matters.
The scientist whose work was so crucial to Katahn and remains so to the low-fat faddists is a soft-spoken professor of biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts named Jean-Pierre Flatt, M.D. He is the person who came up with the formula for the cost in carbohydrate and fat burning. Katahn specifically cites Flatts work.
When I contacted Flatt by phone, it was, truth be known, to pick a fight. Imagine how I felt when I found out the poor man agreed completely with my own findings and had no idea of the misconceptions and deception to which his work has led. "Anybody who eats more calories than he burns is going to gain weight," he told me. "If somebody eats 4,000 calories and burns 2,000, they will retain more of the fat they eat. "
No Clinical Evidence
In all fairness, it must be said that diet gurus arent the only ones who have bought into the low-fat myth. Some medical researchers have as well. But a look at some of the same studies these scientists invoke — along with studies they sometimes ignore because they dont fit with preconceptions — shows that for weight control purposes, yes, all calories are alike.
A few of these studies have been retrospective, looking back at what subjects have eaten, and they seem to find that fatter people eat more fat. But these studies suffer from "recall bias," meaning the researcher is dependent on what the subjects claim to have eaten. Recall is notoriously inaccurate for measuring what people have eaten. The only reliable way of measuring is to do so at the time theyre actually eating.
The methodology is fairly simple. You take two or more groups of people and feed them the same amount of calories. But you vary the amount of fat from which those calories are coming. Then you compare the high-fat eaters with the low-fat eaters and see if there are any differences.
Of these studies, I have found only a few that might lead to the interpretation that eating less fat as a percentage of calories translates into less fat on the body. All show only slight differences, and in each case the reduction in fat intake was drastic. Had it been a mere 33% to 30% reduction, such as the government is trying to get us to make, the differences wouldnt have shown up at all.
Further, none of this difference may have been due to different levels of fat consumed. The complicating factor is that decreasing fat intake almost necessarily means increasing fiber intake. The only study that recorded this difference gave the low-fat subjects almost twice the fiber as the high-fat ones. Considering the weight-loss benefits of fiber, this may completely account for the difference between the two groups.
Most of the studies on fat content show that persons eating a high-fat diet lost as much body fat as, or even more than, those on the low-fat one. One study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1996, compared obese Swiss patients on diets in which 26% of the calories came from fat (45% from carbohydrates) with those on diets in which 53% of the calories came from fat (15% from carbohydrates).
In both groups, total calories were limited to 1,000. If the low-fat myth were no myth, those 53 percenters should have been rolling their way onto the scales. Instead both groups lost the same amount of weight in the same amount of time. The authors concluded it was only the caloric reduction that caused weight and fat loss.
A study at Rockefeller University in New York determined its subjects caloric needs, which was given to patients in a liquid formula. But the formulas had differing amounts of fat, ranging from zero all the way up to 70% of total calories. The result? Once again there was simply no difference between subjects. "Metabolically, the difference between conversion of fat or any other food is so minute as to be largely irrelevant to dieters," said the chief author of the study, as reported in The New York Times. "A calorie is a calorie," he added.
Lawrence Kushi and some researchers at Harvard University undertook a survey of non-American data and found no substantiation for the belief that fewer fat calories mean less body fat. "In Europe," they wrote, "southern populations with lower fat intakes display more obesity than do northern populations with higher fat intakes. In China, where fat intake ranges from 5% to 25% of calories, there also has been found no association between percent of calories from fat and body weight."
"The studies are clear," says Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Its a myth that its just the fat in your diet that makes you fat. As far as body fat goes, it doesnt make any difference where your calories come from."
Despite diet-guru assertions to the contrary, the federal governments own data show fat consumption — as a percentage of calorie consumption — is declining. The Department of Agriculture has determined that as of the years 1994 to 1996, fat comprised about 33% of total calories in the American diet. This showed a continuing decrease from 34% in 1989 to 1991 and 40% in 1977 to 1978. Thus at the same time our consumption of fat as a percentage of calories was dropping — just as the government was telling us it must — our waistlines were exploding.
Fat consumption dropped 17.5% as obesity increased by 25%. A longer look at fat consumption appeared in a medical journal, comprising studies dating back to the 1920s, showing that even though were fatter than ever before, were actually getting fewer of our calories from fat.
The Fattening Low-Fat Craze
The low-fat craze is just that. Scientifically its utterly bankrupt. But oh, what a craze it is! And until the common knowledge catches up with the science, the food industry will do everything in its power to flood our taste buds and pack our growing bellies with engineered low-fat foods.
It does so with the encouragement of the government. The Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2000 publication urges that by the millennium there should be an increase to "at least 5,000 brand items [in] the availability of processed food products that are reduced in fat and saturated fat."
Its impossible to walk down any food aisle without seeing banners proclaiming: LOW FAT! REDUCED FAT! NO FAT! FAT FREE! LITE! AS ALWAYS, FAT FREE! and a dozen other variations. As one network news correspondent put it: "In a world fighting fat, fat-free has become the battle cry." You can even find fruit drinks advertising themselves as fat free, as if a substance comprising nothing but water, sugar, artificial flavoring, and artificial color could possibly have fat in it.
Grocery sales of all low-fat foods amounted to $18 billion in 1993, and have been estimated to grow to $30 billion by 1997. The aforementioned Food Marketing Institute-Prevention Magazine survey asked shoppers about nine types of food engineered to be lower in fat, ranging from salad dressing to cake. It found that for each category, Americans were eating more of the low-fat items in 1996 than in the year before.
Much of this growth has been in the snack food industry. The Snack Food Association reported in 1995 that nearly every company in the $15-billion industry is working on low-fat or reduced-fat products. That category produced less than 5% of the industrys total sales in 1994 but is expected to grow to a third of the market by 2000, according to the association.
No label is more associated with the low-fat fad than Nabiscos SnackWells line of low-fat and fat-free cookies and other snacks. Although it didnt even exist before 1992, by 1996 it was producing an amazing $600 million annually in revenues. "Ive never seen anything like it in the industry," proclaimed a Ray Verdon, president of Nabisco Foods, about the SnackWells line. In those four short years, SnackWells became Americas most popular cookie.
When SnackWells Devils Food Cookie Cakes first appeared, demand was so high that Nabisco had to ration them out to stores. Womens groups formed to scout out the cookies, fights erupted in the stores over the boxes, and grocery store managers kept the snacks under lock and key. These cookies are hardly noncaloric, with 100 calories in a measly little ounce. But people are convinced that if the cakes have no fat they cant possibly make you fat, so they eat away.
Meanwhile, Hershey somehow manages to pawn off chocolate syrup as a health food. "Because its virtually fat free, you can really pour it on," says one of its advertisements. Yes, and with 100 calories in just two tablespoons, you can virtually feel your pants ripping at the seams as you do so. Similarly, Hersheys premixed chocolate milk is sold in 15.5-ounce bottles that state in bold letters: "99% fat free." That small bottle of fat-free drink delivers 240 nice low-fat calories, so the wide-mouth bottle enables you to down more than a tenth of a days calories in a matter of seconds.
Of course, the food industry rakes in megabucks from people thinking they can eat twice as much as they did before and not worry about gaining weight. But while industry counts its money, health professionals are horrified.
"I think the greatest myth is that fat-free means calorie-free and that means I can eat all I want," says Robert Kushner, director of the University of Chicago Nutrition and Weight Control Clinic. "If people only pay attention to fat, they will drift to fat-free products that are high in calories."
"While people who want to drop weight have decreased dietary fat, theyve also become volume eaters, giving in to a second or even a third bagel because theyre using no-fat cream cheese," says registered dietitian Cathy Nonas, director of the Theodore Van Itallie Center for Weight Control at St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan.
"I have so many people who come to me and say, Im eating only healthy food. Ive really cut out the fat, and I still cant lose weight," says Colleen Pierre, a Baltimore registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Because we think only fat counts, we think that if food has no fat in it, its okay to eat all you want."
Laboratory tests, as well as anecdotes, provide evidence that people eat more when told what theyre eating is low in fat. In one test, 17 volunteers were given meals consisting of a variety of low-fat, low-calorie foods. When the subjects were told the meals were low fat and low calorie, they pigged out. When told they were eating high-fat and high-calorie foods, they carefully restricted what they ate. And these were persons who were selected because they hadnt dieted in at least the previous six months.
Dieters would presumably fare much worse because they are always looking for an excuse to eat. A 1996 survey found a third of shoppers admitting that they felt it was OK to eat more of a food because it was low in fat or had no fat. My guess is most of the other two-thirds fibbed.
Aside from the pig-out factor, there are other problems with this increased intake of low-fat foods. One is that, as we have seen, low-fat or no-fat may be extremely high in calories. A fat-free eight-ounce glass of grape drink has a whopping 200 calories in it and can be downed in seconds. Many of the new foods engineered to be low fat or fat free have as many or almost as many calories as they replace. This is partly because the fat was only a small component anyway. Reduce a small part by a small part, and you really dont have much reduction. Further, manufacturers often pump up the sugar content to make up for the taste lost from the shortening.
"People are basically substituting sugar for fat," says Marion Nestle, head of the New York University Department of Nutrition. "As people focused on eliminating fat, food marketers came up with fat-free substitutes. But the substitutes they provided were equally as fattening."
SnackWells Devils Food Cookie Cakes lists three of its first four ingredients as sugar. Thus, one calorically dense ingredient is simply swapped for another. Here are a few examples in which fat-free means little in calorie reduction:
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