At some point in time or another, we’ve all heard that a low-fat diet is the best way to prevent heart disease.
For years, nutritionists and doctors promoted low-fat diets as the healthiest way to lose weight and prevent heart disease, but where did that idea come from?
You may be surprised to learn that the low-fat trend has been around for over five decades and is a result of some pretty questionable research reviews.
Where did it start?
In the November 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, an article was published that examined internal documents and correlation from the Sugar Research Foundation (now called the Sugar Association).
The authors of this article found correspondence and evidence of payment to Harvard researchers to examine the compiling evidence that linked sugar to coronary heart disease.
In their article, these researchers document the details behind the original literature review published in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine that claimed that it was not sugar (despite many studies revealing a link between sugar and heart disease), but saturated fat, that was the crucial reason for America’s high and increasing rate of heart disease.
Unfortunately, the authors were not able to correspond with the executives from the Sugar Research Foundation or the Harvard researchers who are mentioned in these documents as they have all passed away. Even so, according to the internal documents, below are some of the details that have been learned about this sneaky operation.
The documents, found by Cristin Kearns from the University of California at San Francisco, found that the plan to shift the attention from sugar began in 1964.
John Hickson, an executive in the sugar industry and vice president of Sugar Research Foundation, began discussing the need for a plan to change the public opinion of sugar through industry-funded research and legislation.
This discussion came about as a result of the increasing studies that were finding solid connections between sugar and heart disease.
During the time that these studies were being published, other studies investigating fat and cholesterol as the main culprits for heart disease were also being published.
Wanting to focus the attention on anything other than condemning sugar studies, Mr. Hickson suggested that the Sugar Research Foundation be part of industry-funded research in order to “publish the data and refute our detractors.”
To do this, he contacted Harvard researchers and scientists Dr. Mark Hegsted and Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, Harvard’s Nutrition Department chair at the time.
Hickson made it clear to the Harvard scientists that he wanted a literature review published that would diminish negative views of sugar while pointing to another source—fats and cholesterol—as the main cause of heart disease.
It would be extremely beneficial to the sugar industry if they could convince the public that fats were unhealthy because when you remove fats from food, those foods lose their palatable taste.
If you replace the fat with sugar, the food becomes tasty again, and according to some studies, addictive, as sugar has been shown to be more addictive than cocaine.
SRF paid the researchers an equivalent of almost $50,000 in today’s money to review articles that were specifically selected by Hickson and SRF executives.
Hegsted and Stare made it clear in their correspondence that they were “well aware of [Hickson’s] particular interest” and would do their best to align their review with that interest. As a result, they held the articles condemning sugar and the articles condemning fats and cholesterol to different standards.
When examining the studies naming sugar as the main culprit for heart disease, the researchers would claim that the studies were flawed in certain ways; when examining studies conducted in a similar manner, but questioning saturated fats, the researchers would praise the format of the study.
The literature review took longer than intended due to the continued release of studies calling sugar into question which required numerous alterations to the article.
After several rough drafts were submitted to Hickson and his team at SRF for approval, it was published in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
This review article became an influential paper that was cited to promote the need for low-fat diets.
Writing literature reviews that favor one idea or another is not necessarily an issue as it can provide legitimate questions about research studies, but several events made this particular review questionable.
First, when the article was published, there was no disclosure that it was funded by the Sugar Research Foundation.
Even though NEMJ did not require conflicts of interest to be disclosed until 1984, hiding the fact that this article was industry-funded calls its integrity into question.
It also was not until recently (in the last year) that the correspondence documents were found and examined making it seem like the Sugar Association may have wanted to hide this information for as long as possible.
As mentioned previously, holding similar studies (with different outcomes) to different standards reveals the researchers’ already biased approach to the studies.
Finally, after the article was published in November that examined the documents from over 50 years ago, the response from the Sugar Association was disappointing, to say the least.
While they acknowledged that the SRF “should have exercised greater transparency”, they attacked the researchers who examined the documents and JAMA, brushed off the lack of integrity as acceptable because it was “not the norm” back then, and claim that disapproving of industry-funded research is “not only unfortunate, but a disservice…”
Industry-funded research can provide valid questions, however, the highest amount of integrity must be maintained during the process.
In the situation of the literature review published in 1967, it is clear that integrity was not a top priority. This is seen even more clearly by the fact that Dr. Hegsted, who became the head of nutrition at the USDA, helped to draft dietary guidelines recommended by the federal government.
He used his governmental position and relationship with the sugar industry executives to influence government nutrition legislation.
Is this a common issue?
This specific and long-lasting incident of the negative influence of industry-sponsored research is not the only example.
In 2015, Coca-Cola payed millions of dollars in research in an effort to minimize any connection between their sugar-filled drinks and current obesity trends.
In June 2016, a trade association that represented three major candy companies funded a research study that claimed that children who ate more candy weighed less overall than those who didn’t.
These are simply two examples of numerous published studies that are funded by specific companies who have a vested interest in a positive outcome of the research.
Funding research studies that may be beneficial to that company is not necessarily a bad thing, but the concern is that companies will pick and choose certain outcomes to be published, thus not giving a full and accurate picture of the actual research.
What does this mean for the sugar vs fat debate?
Both current and older research have implicated sugar as the major factor in developing heart disease.
When the sugar industry used their financial means to influence the research studies, fats were called into question, but what needs to be realized is that the body requires fats in order to function at an optimal level.
Sugar is necessary to a certain degree in the body, but not in the amounts that are typically consumed in a Western diet.
Heart disease is prevalent in the United States because the amount of sugar consumed is excessive.
Fats have been falsely implicated as the culprit for far too long, allowing for the consumption of sugar to increase by replacing fats in low-fat and no-fat foods.
It is only when sugars and fats are consumed in their necessary amounts, sugar consumption being lowered and fat consumption increasing, that heart disease will begin to decline.
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About the Author:
Emma Deangela is the best selling author of The Alkaline Diet Program and 80/20 Fat Loss. She has helped over tens of thousands of men and women to lose weight and transform their health with sound nutrition advice. Learn how you can lose weight fast – How to lose weight by adding these alkaline foods.
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