Everywhere we look people are telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat to protect our health.
However, it is important to realize that not all health advice has been right, and the current obesity epidemic is a testament to that.
Some studies say one thing, others say another.
This article uses eleven graphs to show how misguided nutrition advice might be fueling obesity and disease.
Note: These are correlations and so they shouldn’t be taken as high-level evidence. However, they do hint that we might have a few things wrong.
1) Animal Fat Consumption Fell as the Obesity Epidemic Started
“Lower your intake of artery-clogging saturated fat.”
It is safe to say most people have heard—or read—-this line before. However, this dietary trend of reducing animal fat was born out of fear rather than hard science.
Suspected of being a key causational factor in obesity and heart disease, health authorities would urge the public to reduce their dietary fat intake.
As a result, consumption of foods like beef, bacon, pork belly, lard and beef tallow fell into decline.
We replaced these traditional sources of saturated fat with industrially processed vegetable oils. Pushed as a healthier proposition, these new cooking oils became prevalent throughout the food industry.
The question is; if animal fat is so inherently fattening, why has obesity exploded as animal fat consumption fell?
Obesity in America has been on an upward spiral for decades, with the percentage of Americans who are obese increasing year-on-year. CDC statistics say that the US obesity rate is now 37.9% in adults (1).
Further, a wide range of recent studies shows that saturated fat consumption has no association with cardiovascular disease and that low-carb diets are slightly better for weight loss than low-fat (2, 3, 4, 5).
2) A High-Fat Diet Reduces Blood Pressure
What can we do to lower blood pressure?
I’ve heard countless stories of doctors telling patients to reduce the amount of fat they eat.
But is this the solution and is there any science behind the advice?
Interestingly, if we look at studies it seems that the very opposite may be the case;
- A diet supplying 50% of energy as fat and 30% as carbohydrate had a superior impact on lowering blood pressure compared to a diet with 50% of energy as carbohydrate (6).
- Data “gives pause to the standard advice of a low fat/high carbohydrate diet.” Low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets lead to lower blood pressure and improved arterial function (7).
- Sugar and fructose raise blood pressure following consumption. Additionally, they cause salt retention which can also contribute to higher blood pressure (8).
Just as fat didn’t lead to the obesity epidemic, it doesn’t uniquely cause high blood pressure either. This appears to be a common mistruth.
3) Added Sugar Consumption is Too High in Children
One of the key factors in the obesity epidemic has been the continuous rise in sugar consumption.
In fact, the amount of sugar in our diets has increased by 30% over the past three decades alone (9).
The chart above shows the daily sugar intake for children between the age of 2 and 19, over the years 2005-2008.
Shockingly, males between the age of 6 and 11 consumed 442 calories of added sugar per day.
For an idea of just how much this is, 442 calories equate to about 110 grams of sugar per day (or 22.5 teaspoons).
How Much Sugar a Day is Safe?
At present, the recommended sugar intake for a child is set at 25 grams (6 teaspoons) by the World Health Organization and American Heart Association (10).
However, it is always better to aim lower because there is no essential need for added sugar in our diets.
It must be remembered that children already get plenty of sugar from other sources too, such as fresh fruit.
4) People Are Eating Out Rather Than Cooking Homemade Food
Good old-fashioned homemade food is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
As we can see in this graph, almost all food was prepared at home in 1960. On the other hand, fast forward to 2014 and about half of all food we eat is away from home.
Overall, this is one of the most unhealthy dietary trends that almost certainly contributes to the obesity epidemic.
One of the easiest ways to be healthy is by preparing nutritious dinners at home. In contrast to home cooking, eating out allows us no choice in the ingredients we consume.
For example, some of the most common restaurant ingredients are soybean oil, sugar, and various other additives. As a result, regularly eating out away from home raises the risk for various dietary related diseases (14, 15).
Cooking and deciding what to make for dinner doesn’t have to be difficult; ask the family what they want. Or take turns to make dinner if the situation allows.
If finding time to cook at home truly is difficult, then research healthy places to eat. It is even possible to find healthy-ish fast food choices.
5) Higher Cholesterol Means a Lower Risk of CVD Mortality
The topic of cholesterol is always controversial, as are the topics that surround it such as cardiovascular disease and statins.
Historically, conventional thought dictated that ‘high cholesterol’ and LDL cholesterol are bad, and that HDL cholesterol is good.
However, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) are not even cholesterol; they are just carriers of it.
Imagine LDL and HDL as a boat and cholesterol as the passenger.
LDL takes beneficial nutrients, including cholesterol, to all the cells in our body. HDL has the job of removing any excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and taking it to the liver for elimination.
Key Point: LDL and HDL cholesterol are both essential for our health.
Further, as the heart disease statistics in the above chart show, high cholesterol isn’t necessarily bad;
- Several studies show that higher cholesterol levels are actually protective against—or unrelated to—cardiovascular mortality (16, 17).
- Research scientists now believe the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol is out of date, and that it is a sub-optimal heart disease risk factor (18).
- In studies with real human participants, the ratio of triglycerides to HDL is the most predictive risk factor for cardiovascular disease (19, 20).
6) Prevalence of Obesity in Children and Adolescents is Rising
Childhood obesity is quickly increasing in prevalence and stands at 17% in the US as of 2014 (21).
There are many dangerous consequences of childhood obesity, such as type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome.
Apparently a “balanced life” is what we need to beat bulging waistlines. At least that is what some studies (usually sponsored by food companies!) preach; that we need to burn more than we eat to maintain a healthy weight.
However, others feel we are just eating the wrong things, and the modern diet contains too many processed foods like grains, sugar and vegetable oils.
In fact, if you look at the graph above, you will see that obesity was consistently low until 1980.
Is it just a coincidence that the very first US dietary guidelines were published that year?
Maybe and maybe not.
These guidelines told us to restrict fat intake, replace saturated fat with vegetable oils, and base meals around starchy foods.
As a result, all foods designed for children became low-fat (and therefore replaced the fat with sugar), and childhood obesity took off.
Due to poor diets, obesity is now the greatest risk to the health of a young child.
7) Consumption of Red Meat is Down and White Meat is Up, Potentially Leading to Nutrient Deficiencies
The overall dietary trends on meat show that consumption is growing—but only for poultry.
On the other hand, red meat intake has been slowly declining since the 1970s. The reasons why are two-fold;
- People have a fear of saturated fat
- Some epidemiological studies suggest that red meat might be a carcinogen
One of the problems that avoidance of red meat brings is potential nutrient deficiencies (22).
When it comes to red meat versus white meat, steak offers far more nutrition than a chicken breast can.
In other words, red meat is one of the most nutrient-dense options in our food chain.
And the truth is, we should be encouraging people to eat foods like beef, pork and lamb.
Nutrition investigative journalist Nina Teicholz says it well in this video:
Red meat is not bad for you.
8) People Are Drinking Too Many Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and sugary milkshakes play a massive role in the worsening obesity epidemic.
If you look at Coca-Cola nutrition facts, you’ll be shocked to see that there are 39 grams of sugar in coke – approximately ten teaspoons of sugar in just one can.
Given this, we may as well call it liquid sugar.
As shown in the graph above, we can see that;
- 25% of people are consuming more than one can of cola per day.
- Approximately 10% of people are drinking more than two cans daily.
- 5% of people drink more than four cans per day
When a single can has almost double the recommended daily intake of sugar, it’s easy to see where we are going wrong.
Unfortunately, these carbonated beverages are causing problems all over the world.
Notably, studies show they play a key role in the development of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and chronic kidney disease. Worse still, they are associated with accelerated cell aging (23, 24, 25).
9) Omega-6 Vegetable Oil Intake Has Tripled
Due to the misplaced fear of saturated fat, health authorities often tell us to eat “heart healthy” vegetable oils.
As the graph shows, we are eating so many grams of fat from vegetable oil each day, with the most frequent offenders being soybean oil and canola.
Surprisingly, what used to be little over 10 grams per day is now somewhere between 35 and 40 grams.
Isn’t Omega-6 Essential For Our Health?
It is true that omega-6 fatty acids are essential to our health – but we can get them in the amount we need from real foods. Problems occur when we consume surplus amounts.
In fact, excessive amounts of these polyunsaturated vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory.
Further still, these vegetable oils are extremely prone to oxidization. Given this, heating them can generate carcinogens and cause free radical damage in the body, potentially leading to diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer (26, 27).
Consuming too much omega-6 also creates an imbalance with omega-3. No matter how many anti-inflammatory omega-3 foods someone eats, they won’t be helpful if the person is consuming massive amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6.
The diet trend of emphasizing unsaturated vegetable oils may play a part in the obesity epidemic too, with studies suggesting that soybean oil is “more obesogenic and diabetogenic than fructose” (28).
10) High Salt Diets Have Little Impact on Blood Pressure and Going Too Low Can Be Dangerous
It is easy to see dietary advice advocating a reduction in salt.
In the first place, excessive salt intake may cause high blood pressure and increase cardiovascular risk (29).
However, there is a difference between high salt intake and excessive. As you can see in the graph, increasing the amount of salt each day only has a little impact on blood pressure.
Compared to blood pressure on a daily salt intake of 5 grams, there is little change at 10 grams per day.
It is also worth noting that the lines in the graph on the left are the mean result.
If we look at all the individual (dots) cases, then some people have very high blood pressure on a low salt diet. In contrast, others have a very low blood pressure despite eating around 15-20 grams of salt per day.
How Much Sodium is Too Much?
According to the American Heart Association, the recommended daily sodium intake is no more than 2,400mg sodium, and less than 1,500mg is desirable (30).
This amount works out to 6 grams of salt being the upper limit, and less than 3.75g being desirable.
Therefore, in the face of constant advice to lower salt and eat low-salt foods, it is important to get the balance right.
My outlook is this; if we have no sensitivities to salt, we shouldn’t worry about counting grams of salt and we should just enjoy our food.
Providing we aren’t eating processed foods every day, then liberally salting meals won’t put us anywhere near the danger zone.
11) Food Industry Marketing and Advertising Spend Focuses on Junk Food
Finally, the messages we send through advertising and marketing are predominantly pushing junk food.
As you can see, advertising spend concentrates around beverages, restaurant foods (McDonald’s being the biggest spender), and breakfast cereals.
In other words, the majority of marketing money goes on promoting food rich in those three ingredients of destruction; sugar, refined grains and vegetable oil.
Despite being unhealthy, low in nutrients, and relatively addictive, these foods are all profitable.
This precedent is never truer than when we look at the food advertisements aimed at children. Fast food promotions with colorful characters and free toys are everywhere — and it is the same with cereal commercials.
We wonder why there is an obesity epidemic in children, but isn’t it obvious given the type of food we promote to them?
At the end of the day, dietary trends need to change for the better, and that can only happen if we promote fresh whole foods.
All the graphs in this article present trends and observations, and they are not proof that the dietary advice we hear is wrong.
However, the majority of dietary guidance bases itself on such trends and observations, and these graphs do show that this “evidence” is conflicted.
Personally, I don’t believe we should tell every person to follow the same diet with exact grams of each nutrient.
We would all be a little healthier if we just eat fresh foods from the land, farms, and oceans.
Isn’t that what we all used to do?