Investigative journalist Nina Teicholz covers the many twists and turns of nutritional history in her book The Big Fat Surprise. One chapter explains how the health of President Dwight D. Eisenhower affected America’s nutritional future.
When Eisenhower had his heart attack in September 1955, the whole nation reeled at the news. His physician, Paul Dudley White, already knew that heart attacks were dramatically on the rise in the United States. He was a founding-member of the American Heart Association (AHA). He also felt he knew what needed to be done for the president and for the nation.
This part of The Big Fat Surprise was recently recounted by Deepak Natarajan, writer for The Wire. Dr. Paul White was a believer in the diet-heart hypothesis introduced by University of Minnesota pathologist Dr. Ancel Benjamin Keys. Keys believed, and convinced others to believe as well, that a diet rich in animal fats and cholesterol was the cause of the increasing number of heart attacks in the country.
According to Jane Black, who interviewed Teicholz for Elle magazine, the American public had not known about the statistics on heart attacks among middle aged men until their president was struck down. Now they learned that 40 percent of the deaths in that age category were from heart disease. What is going on and how can we prevent it, they wanted to know. Keys seemed to have the answers to these questions.
As President Eisenhower recovered, he had strict instructions from White: stick to a low-fat diet to prevent another heart attack. White also seemingly influenced the AHA, which enshrined Keys’ hypothesis as the group’s nutrition policy by 1961. Americans were encouraged to avoid saturated fat and cholesterol in order to prevent heart disease.
This decision by the AHA was made on extremely weak data: mainly one epidemiological study, called The Seven Countries Study, led by Ancel Keys, which purported to show a link between low saturated-fat consumption and heart disease. But this was only the sort of study that could show an association; it could not demonstrate cause and effect, and as Teicholz documents meticulously in her book, Keys’ study had numerous methodological problems—so many, that it should never have been considered reliable evidence. Still, the public wanted a solution to the heart-disease epidemic, and the AHA gave them what turned out to be false hope with a flawed answer.
Keys together with the AHA promoted this hypothesis for the next 15 years, despite no scientifically based study to support it. By 1980, the U.S. made his hypothesis official, publishing the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which promoted a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz exposes this sequence of events and many other ways that we have been misled to see fat, especially saturated fat, as a dietary villain. Teicholz’s book is a fantastic and eye-opening read!