Dietary Fat, McDonald’s French Fries, and Science Evolving

Written By Claire C

Gary Taubes and Malcolm Gladwell dive deep into dietary fat and the poor-quality science that led to the decline in Gladwell’s favorite order at McDonald’s.

The Soft Science of Dietary Fat

  • In 1988 U.S. Surgeon General’s Office aimed to write a report on the dangers of dietary fat 
    • In 1999, the project report was killed with the explanation that the subject matter was “too complicated”
    • The report was started with the conclusion already decided, but the scientific evidence behind this conclusion didn’t hold up
  • In the past few decades, avoiding dietary fat has become synonymous with being healthy
    • This notion is based on the fact that fat elevates blood cholesterol levels
    • Reduced-fat foods has become a major industry 
    • Encouraged by the Food Pyramid, which recommends fats be eaten sparingly
  • However, research has yet to prove a solid link between fat consumption and health
    • Those not already at high risk for CVD won’t necessarily increase their risk by consuming saturated fats
    • Healthy individuals can’t significantly improve their lifespan by eating less fat
  • Despite this mixed evidence, many Americans are plagued by a fear of fat 
    • Politicans, the press, and the public settled on dietary fat policy before the science was there to back it up

McDonald’s Broke My Heart

  • Gladwell wanted to discover why McDonald’s changed their fry recipe back in 1990
  • Went to a food research and development lab 
    • Did a taste test of the old vs new fries
    • Included people who had never eaten the old recipe 
    • All participants enjoyed the old recipe significantly more 
  • Discusses the story of Phil Sokolof, a famous businessman who suffered a heart attack at a young age due to high cholesterol 
    • He believed his condition was due to his high-fat diet
    • Begins heavily campaigning against saturated fats
    • Lobbies the big food companies to remove certain ingredients from their products 
    • Went after McDonald’s with a full page ad for cooking their fries in beef fat 
  • McDonald’s then announced they would switch their fry recipe
    • Other fast food giants followed suit 

The Basement Tapes

  • In this episode, Gladwell focuses on the findings of Robert Frantz whose father, Ivan, was a researcher at the University of Minnesota 
  • The podcast specifically focuses on Ivan’s work with the National Institute of Health
    • Was known as the National Diet Heart Study 
    • Wanted to see if there was a relationship between diet, cholesterol, and heart disease
    • This was a controlled study that focused on people within an institution rather than the general population
      • Allowed Ivan to control exactly what the patients were eating 
  • The results of the study showed that:
    • Patients on the low-fat diet did end up with lower cholesterol 
    • But the patients on that diet didn’t live any longer 
  • The paper wasn’t published for 15 years, at which point it was vague 
    • He then put a box with all the data in his basement
  • Then, Christopher Ramsden, a researcher at the NIH called Robert Frantz with the goal of recovering Ivan’s data
    • Ramsden is focused on the effects of low-fat replacements 

Other Fasting Flamingo Resources You May Enjoy:

  • Eat, Fast, Live Longer
    • In this BBC documentary, journalist Michael Mosley searches for the key to increasing his lifespan through his diet.  After failing to reach his goals using traditional methods of staying healthy, he analyzes various diets meant to improve longevity before he discovers the powers of intermittent fasting.
  • Vinegar (Acetic Acid) Intake on Glucose Metabolism: A Narrative Review
    • Although research is still ongoing, the data provided shows promise in allowing for more freedom to have carbs!  In this article published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, authors reviewed current and ongoing research related to these therapeutic effects of vinegar (also known as acetic acid). 
  • How Fasting Can Help You Lose Weight, Live Longer, and Think Clearer
    • In this video, Tom Bilyeu compiles important moments from his interviews with 6 fasting experts.  Throughout these discussions, the experts cover everything from the benefits of fasting to the safety considerations fasters should make.  

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