Interview: British expert on causes of obesity

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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.

Q). Since Keys’ Seven Countries Study apparently persuaded a lot of nutritional experts, what was wrong with his research?

Harcombe: A lot. Keys’ entire thesis was founded on an incorrect assumption.

First of all, cholesterol does not cause heart disease. Cholesterol, along with protein, phospholipids and triglycerides—the four substances found in all lipoproteins—are present in damaged arteries, but the lipoproteins are there to repair that damage. Cholesterol does not cause arterial damage, any more than police cause crime, even though they’re always right there at the scene.

Since dietary cholesterol is “not guilty,” there’s no logic for going after dietary fat. The only foods that contain cholesterol are animal foods, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and they all contain dietary fat. To increase cholesterol during his experiments, Keys had to feed people animal foods. That’s the only way he could increase the intake of dietary cholesterol. He then concluded that this dietary change had no impact on blood cholesterol levels. Therefore, he exonerated animal foods back in the 1950s! I’m not aware of anyone else who has spotted this fundamental error in logic: Cholesterol—and thus dietary fat—doesn’t cause heart disease.

Q). What else was wrong with this study?

Harcombe: The fact that Keys didn’t know fats from carbs. In his study, cake and ice cream were counted as saturated fat, even though they’re predominantly carbohydrates. Keys also assumed that meat and eggs are full of saturated fat—as do many dieticians even today. But meat and eggs contain more unsaturated than saturated fat. Even lard has more unsaturated than saturated fat. Nutritional ignorance is at the heart of most of our current and badly flawed dietary advice.

The bottom line is that the Seven Countries Study data do not support Keys’ conclusions that cholesterol and dietary fat cause heart disease. It’s refined carbohydrates that are the problem, since eating them triggers an insulin response in the body that leads directly to enhanced storage of those calories as bodily fat.

Now, it’s unrealistic to expect people to grasp the complexities of carbohydrate metabolism, the role of insulin in fat storage and utilization, or even the notion that dietary protein and fat are handled differently than carbs in human digestion. But the “solution” to the obesity epidemic has been distilled down to a mantra of “Do More/Eat Less.” Cut down on the calories consumed and increase calories burned with exercise. That’s about as simplistic as it gets.

Q). But the concept of “eat less and exercise more” seems logical—you take in fewer calories, you burn up additional calories and you lose weight, right? Yet you’re suggesting it doesn’t work?

Harcombe: The simplicity of “eat less/do more” makes this platitude compelling, but look at the evidence: If it were working, why has obesity skyrocketed? The ultimate naiveté in weight loss is thinking that the body magically gives up fat when faced with a calorie deficit, because you ate less and exercised more. That’s not correct.

When you eat less, the body tries to get you to eat more. It sends out messages: A rumbly tummy, food cravings, light headedness, inability to concentrate, irritability. You respond to these signals, and sooner or later, you give in and eat. Then you feel better—those nasty hunger symptoms disappear—and you learn to respond to attempts to eat less by eating more. At the same time as it’s trying to get you to eat more, the body tries to get you to do less when you’re eating less. You can’t be bothered to go out with friends, let alone go to the gym. You become lethargic and tired. Less energy in means less energy out, not more weight lost.

The same thing happens if you try to exercise more: The body tries to get you to eat more to provide the additional fuel you need. That’s just the physiological response to trying to eat less and do more.

Q). So you’re suggesting that reducing calories consumed and increasing calories used up in exercise doesn’t work?

Harcombe: Yes, and here’s the problem: People trying to eat less eat the wrong things—they shun fat and choose carbs instead. Yet fat is the most versatile macronutrient. It can be used for energy, and it can be used for metabolic repair. Carbs can only be used for energy.

In fact, for a moderately active person, 75% of one’s daily energy requirement is for repairing cells, building bone density and fighting infection—ie, running the body. The body needs fat and protein to do this. Only 25% of daily calorie needs are for energy production, and our energy needs can be fueled by carbs, or fat or a mixture of both.

But since McGovern, the official dietary advice is to consume at least 55% of daily caloric intake as carbohydrates. Unless you’re Michael Phelps, you just don’t need that much.

Tomorrow—Part II of the interview: What we can do to solve the obesity problem (Hint: It involves livestock producers).

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Crystal    
May, 08, 2013 at 04:11 PM

There is a whole movement of folks out there who know the cholesterol myth and advocate for animal proteins being a critical part of our diet. It is based on traditional diets. I'm surprised the animal protein industry has been slow to discover their work. Check out the Weston A. Price Foundation www.westonaprice.org

OrlandoLaker    
Orlando  |  May, 08, 2013 at 10:54 PM

Sugar. There's your villain. And 4g of carbs = 1 teaspoon sugar. Why sugar? it forces your body to produce more insulin to moderate blood sugar. Carbs are actually the only macronutrient you don't need to survive.

Debbie    
Ohio  |  May, 09, 2013 at 10:04 AM

I knew when I first saw the Food Pyramid with all the grains/carbs on the bottom ("eat lots!") that I would never be skinny again!! I had managed weight with a high-protein (meat)/low-carb diet for years. However, here was "permission" to eat all the pasta/rice/cereal/etc. that I wanted . . .

Randy    
Kansas  |  May, 09, 2013 at 10:19 AM

Yes, that must be it. The entire medical community has taken its lead from Ancel Key’s study from decades ago and proceeded willy-nilly ever since. Or not. Enter the word “atherosclerosis” in pubmed.gov, and you’ll get more than 90,000 studies. “Cardiovascular disease”? 1.8 million. “Saturated fat”? Almost 400,000. “Zoe Harcombe”? Zero. Nary a study. Why? She’s a mis-guided hack who is dispensing harmful advice. She is an expert, but only in self-promotion. She claims to have “a Diploma in Diet & Nutrition and a Diploma in Clinical Weight Management”. In her biography, she mentions her favorite color, but no more detail of her supposed “expertise” other than her self-promotion. Yet she easily tosses around baseless claims to smear hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed studies, some of which took decades to complete and which were published in the world’s top medical journals, by people who have researched the causes of acute and chronic diseases, all to push her book. Regarding the Senate Nutrition Committee, chaired by George McGovern, she acknowledges that she hasn’t read the transcripts of the public hearings, but she’s ready to trash the reputations of everyone there who didn’t agree with her current view. I’d suggest “Jack Sprat’s Legacy” for an in-depth account of the history of nutrition and, in particular, the evidence behind McGovern’s position. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. She has provided none—only noise.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  May, 09, 2013 at 03:37 PM

Randy, it’s not “extraordinary” to note that at the very same time that Americans have been cutting down significantly on saturated fat – partly from eating less meat, partly because industry is raising leaner livestock – the incidence of obesity has increased exponentially. In her book “The Obesity Epidemic,” Harcombe thoroughly debunks Keys’ Seven Country Study, specifically by citing dozens of other researchers, and more importantly, by patiently exposing the flaws in his methodology and data analysis. Keep in mind that McGovern, et al, thought they were doing the right thing. If you really believe that animal fat is the problem, then you’re going to seize on a study that claims exactly that. As for the medical authorities, these are the same “experts” who not that long ago labeled being gay as a pathology; who insisted that ulcers be treated with a “bland diet;” and who ordered pregnant women to get lots of bed rest prior to delivery. The idea that physicians are the repositories of nutritional expertise is laughable. With rare exceptions, they’re the worst sources of insight—and lousy role models as far as healthy lifestyles are concerned. Ask yourself: What’s changed so drastically in the last 30 years to explain the surge of obesity? It’s not eating too much meat. It’s not eating too much fat. It’s not even a lack of exercise. The only thing that’s truly changed is the amount of refined carbs we’re now eating in the processed foods comprising so much of our collective diet. There’s your answer.

taefeeney    
May, 09, 2013 at 09:04 PM

High fructose corn syrup in absolutely everything might have SOMETHING to do with obesity.

Clare    
N.C.  |  May, 10, 2013 at 09:32 AM

Everyone here is missing the most important point of what went wrong. We all grew sloppy fat at the same time these carping public health know it alls were preaching at us about first one lamebrain diet fad then the next. The real problem we face is these same idiot know it alls are still preaching and now scolding but they are as ignorant and foolish as ever. Maybe more so. We should cut funding to these hapless fools. That would shut them up.

Martin J.    
PA  |  May, 11, 2013 at 10:54 AM

The common denominator among all these boorish self-styled pop science "nutrition experts"? A fanatic aversion to physical activity. According to them, you and I are inherently too lazy to come in out of the rain. That's why we get fat and especially why we desperately need intrusive oppressive regulations written & enforced by "nutrition experts" who obviously don't know their elitist elbow from their lazy fat you-know-what. They need to have some sense slapped into 'em.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  May, 13, 2013 at 04:39 PM

HFCS has everything to do with obesity. But don't believe me. Cut HFCS out of your diet for a month -- which means tossing probably three-quarters of the food products currently being consumed -- and then decide if you see and feel a difference. Forget the experts (and the commentators). Decide for yourself if eating a diet in which half the calories are from refined carbs is a problem.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  May, 13, 2013 at 04:44 PM

Actually, Martin, Harcombe advocates strongly for staying active and getting lots of exercise. Her notion and mine might be different, but I can assure you she's not someone who has any aversion to physical activity. The point being made about exercise and obesity, however, is that activity and exercise levels alone do not remotely explain how nearly 50% of all adult Americans have become overweight (or darn close to it) in just a single generation. Heck, there are six-month-old babies whose pediatricians are warning the parents that the child is clinically obese. How's that have anything to do with physical activity? It doesn't, of course, but it has a lot to do with baby formulas that are loaded with sweeteners.


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