The Flaws In the Food Pyramid On 'Stuff You Should Know'

On this episode of Stuff You Should Know, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant look at the “war on fat” that started happening in America in the 1980s. That’s when the FDA released the “food pyramid,” showing that fats and sweets should be the least-consumed items in our diets. Low-fat and fat-free foods, touted as heart-healthy, became hugely popular. But though we’ve been cutting fats for decades, our rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease have only risen, sometimes astronomically. So what gives? Turns out, the FDA’s food pyramid was based on a single study conducted by Dr. Ansel Keys, who was trying to prove that the Mediterranean diet was the healthiest for our bodies. This study has been widely criticized in recent years for a number of reasons. The guys go over it all to help us uncover what’s truly best for our bodies, and what was just one guy’s attempt to sell a cookbook.

Dr. Keys started his study back in the 1950s, when “men were falling over dead from smoking all the time and eating steaks and martinis for lunch.” A friend of his who lived in Southern Italy told him no one there had a heart attack. So Keys thought if Americans ate more like Italians, we would have fewer heart attacks. He looked at the diets and rates of heart disease in 22 countries and found the data was “all over the place.” So he cherry-picked the data that corroborated his theory the best, using it to fund the Seven Countries Study, which involved the U.S., Japan, Finland, South Africa, Italy, and Greece. For 25 years, he would track “cohorts” of men in all seven countries, tracking what they ate and their heart health. Diets differed widely: In East Finland, loggers ate chunks of meat suspended in fat for lunch; in Japan, fish was consumed nearly every day; in Italy and Greece, bread and pasta ruled the plate. Keys was so sure his hypothesis would be proven correct that within two years of starting his study, he published a cookbook about the Mediterranean diet, touting its health benefits. 

In the 1980s, he concluded that saturated fats were the culprit to bad heart health, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seized on it in a big way, creating the food pyramid. Unfortunately, the food pyramid failed to differentiate between bad fats, like saturated fats found in processed foods, and good fats found in olive oil, avocados, and fish that actually have a lot of health benefits. As a result, we cut fat entirely out of the equation. Fat gives food its flavor, though, so companies started adding a lot more high-fructose corn syrup to their fat-free foods to make them taste better. But as it turns out, the combination of saturated fats and sugar is probably what’s really causing the skyrocketing rates of chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity in our country. While Keys isn’t totally to blame for that, his flawed study is directly responsible for the dietary changes that led to these outcomes. Listen to the episode to find out just what was wrong with his methodology, and the number of other factors that can contribute to heart health, on Stuff You Should Know.

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