The Low-Fat Lie: How the Sugar Lobby Painted Fat as America’s Dietary Enemy
When you were growing up you were probably taught to avoid fats. Low fat was touted as the healthier option for dairy and other delights. Before long, fat became synonymous with unhealthy. A whole generation was taught to avoid fat, but never told to focus on their sugar intake.
Now, we hear about the dangers of sugar more often. However, these dangers are not a new scientific discovery. In fact, the association between sugar intake and heart disease was known as early as the 1950s. Despite that, the sugar industry was able to put the focus on fats through powerful lobbying efforts that dictated public policy and individual nutrition choices for decades.
Controlling the Message
In 2016, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine found that the sugar industry tightly controlled the messages around the health consequences of sugars and fats. After scientists realized in the 1950s that sugar intake was associated with heart disease, the sugar industry began a group called the Sugar Research Foundation to disprove those claims.
The Sugar Research Foundation funded studies that blamed fat for heart disease and downplayed the role of sugar. Those studies were published in major medical journals. But the fact that the sugar industry was financing these studies was never disclosed. With science supposedly on their side, the sugar industry continued to push the negative associations of fat while downplaying the health risk of sugar.
“Our findings suggest the industry-sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of [sugar] while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in [heart disease],” study authors wrote in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The Wrong Culprit
Eating either sugar or fat in excess can have negative health consequences. However, we now know that the dangers of fat have been overstated while the dangers of sugars have been downplayed.
“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the JAMA Internal Medicine paper, told The New York Times.
At the same, many low-fat products contain more sugar than full-fat products, analysis has shown. Many consumers spent decades choosing low-fat products and falsely believing they were making a healthier choice.
What We Know Now
The JAMA Internal Medicine study published last year was the first proof that the sugar industry had manipulated public opinions on the health of fat and sugar. However, scientists and the public have become more aware of the dangers of sugar and more accepting of the health benefits of fat.
Studies have shown that low-fat diets are less effective than higher fat diets for helping people lose weight and keep it off. Another study showed that people crave sugar more than they crave fats. The study authors noted that because sugar has more of a pull for many people, public policy seeking to improve health outcomes should focus on reducing sugar consumption, not fat consumption.
Undoing a lifetime of learning about what is healthy and what isn’t can be tough. However, realizing that sugar has a multitude of negative health impacts can help you have a healthier future.