In her published articles, numerous interviews and a groundbreaking book “The Obesity Epidemic” (among several other well-received titles), British researcher and nutritionist Zoe Harcombe has crafted a bold and compelling explanation of how millions of people across the developed world have become obese in just the last generation or two.
It’s a serious problem. Consider these facts:
- Fully two-thirds of the populations of the UK, the USA and other western countries are overweight.
- Our collective activity levels haven’t changed appreciably in decades, even as we pile on the weight.
- Our intake of dietary fat and saturated fat has declined measurably, even as we all seem to be getting fatter and fatter.
To these set of facts, Harcombe posits the key question: “Why?”
Zoe Harcombe Why have millions of people become dangerously obese? Why can’t a strategy of “eat less/exercise more” counteract our growing collective girth? Why isn’t the obsession with low-fat and fat-free foods keeping us slim and trim? And why are kids and teens suddenly battling weight problems, even as we revamp school lunches, badger parents to restrict their children’s screen time and invest enormous resources in getting kids to be active with sports and recreation?
In this exclusive interview with Vance Online Networks Contributing Editor Dan Murphy, Harcombe explains how—and why—the Western world got to be so overweight.
Q). You noted that “official dietary recommendations” from government and medical authorities changed dramatically in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with an emphasis on eating less red meat and substituting “starchy foods”—though in fairness, the goal was to choose whole grains, fruits and vegetables—to replace all that saturated fat in meat. How did that happen?
Harcombe: It emanated from a single study by American physician Ancel Keys: The Seven Countries Study—Finland, Greece, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, United States and the former Yugoslavia—which was published in Circulation in 1970. In that report, Keys observed a relationship between saturated fat in the diet, cholesterol levels and coronary heart disease, and he concluded that diets high in saturated fat caused heart disease via cholesterol.
In 1977, Sen. George S. McGovern, then-chairman of the Senate Nutrition Committee, was introducing new dietary recommendations. At that time, the Seven Countries Study offered the most comprehensive data available. Although there were dissenting voices at the time, they didn’t have a 14-year study to offer counter-evidence. Opponents of McGovern’s plan could have torn apart the Seven Countries Study, but either they didn’t or they did and were ignored, and McGovern announced new “Dietary Goals for the United States” and the rest, as they say, is history.