Solveig Torvik

“If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” — Julia Child

It seems the celebrated chef Julia Child, who taught Americans French cooking, has been vindicated.

An unabashed champion of butter and other fats, Child died two days before her 92nd birthday in 2004. “Fat gives things flavor,” she said. She was cheerfully contemptuous of diet food: “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” Her assessment of American bread was unsparing: “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”

Child ignored the fear of fat — and the subsequent pious embrace of tasteless faux food — that has been a government-sponsored, national obsession for nearly four decades. Now comes the tardy acknowledgment that this fear perversely helped turn us into a nation of obese diabetics who are costing the health care system $245 billion each year.

“A low-fat, low-calorie diet doesn’t work,” says Dr. Eric Westman, director of Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic, summing up the latest dolorous news from the nutrition front.

Say what? Hello?

It’s fair to say that never have so many been so misled for so long in so vast a nutritional experiment with such appalling results. Nearly one in every 10 Americans now has Type 2 diabetes, up 166 percent since 1980, and more than one-third of Americans are obese. And for all our dieting and exercise, cardiovascular disease — the fear of which initially lured us down this path — is still the nation’s No. 1 killer, Bryan Walsh reports in “Eat Butter,” the June 23 Time magazine cover story.

Our attempt to become healthier by trading fats for carbohydrates wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. “It’s undeniable that we’ve gone down the wrong path,” physiologist Jeff Volek of the University of Connecticut told Walsh. But where, please, did we take the wrong turn?

“We just cut fat and added a whole lot of low-fat junk food that increased caloric intake,” says Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. “It was a diet of unintended consequences.” 

“The thinking went that if people reduced saturated fat, they would replace it with healthy fruits and vegetables. Well, that was naive,” admits Marion Nestle, one of the nation’s leading nutritionists. We eat 3 percent fewer vegetables now than in 1970. Americans in 2010 consumed 477 more calories a day than in 1970. Caloric intake from flour and cereal alone has gone up 42 percent since 1970; overall carbohydrate intake increased nearly 15 percent. Consumption of red meat has dropped 29 percent, butter by 8 percent and egg consumption by 21 percent.

Conned about carbs

Meanwhile, according to Walsh’s research, consumption of corn products rose by 198 percent, and our high-fructose corn syrup intake rose by an astonishing 8,853 percent. Duh, people!

Reducing fats and upping carbohydrates helped pave the path to this hellish result, nutritionists say. Carbs convert to sugar in the body. Sugar stimulates production of insulin, “which causes fat cells to go into storage overdrive, leading to weight gain,” writes Walsh.

Because more calories in storage means fewer readily available for fuel, we feel hungry, Walsh writes. Without fats and red meat we eat more, never feeling full. And, adds Duke’s Westman, “Hunger is the death knell of a weight-loss program.”

Thank the man who invented K-rations for the U.S. Army during World War II for instigating this national health crisis. The “imperious” Dr. Ancel Keys was the first to argue that high levels of cholesterol clog arteries and kill people, Walsh writes. Because eating fat raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, cutting back on fat would reduce the risk of heart attacks, Keys said, and he shut down anyone who disagreed. Now scientists know that saturated fat raises both good and bad levels of cholesterol. And that, Walsh writes, “makes saturated fats a cardio wash.”

Keys, who traveled the world in the 1950s and ’60s, reported that nations where people ate a diet low in saturated fats had lower rates of heart disease. His poorly researched findings were widely accepted, setting the stage for today’s diet debacle. But Keys conveniently omitted France and West Germany, which didn’t fit his theory. They had low rates of heart disease and high intakes of fat.

Key’s questionable studies and unquestionable dogma became so deeply entrenched that Dr. Walter Willett, now head of the department of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, says that even as late as the 1990s he couldn’t get anyone to publish his long-term study of 40,000 middle-aged men showing that replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates did not reduce the incidence of heart disease.

The takeaway? All calories are not created equal. Weight loss can be more about chemistry than number of calories. In experiments, people on low-fat diets lost less weight than those on high-fat Mediterranean or low-carb ones, Walsh reports.

But scientists also now know that there are two kinds of “bad” LDL cholesterol particles, Walsh reports. One is affected by saturated fat intake but seems harmless. The other seems affected by carb intake. The function of these particles is now under scrutiny.

While we await further instructions, adopt Child’s sage diet advice: “Everything in moderation … including moderation.”

Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.