Michelle Obama needs to meet Gary Taubes. Here we go:
FORT JACKSON, S.C. – First Lady Michelle Obama said Thursday that the military's push to turn recruits into health-conscious warriors could be a model for making people across the U.S. more focused on fitness and nutrition.
Obama, who has made battling childhood obesity one of her signature causes as first lady, visited the Army's largest training post at Fort Jackson outside Columbia to see what the Army has done, from more rigorous training drills to fat-free milk in its mess halls.
Fat-free milk? Ahhh!
Gary Taubes, author of "Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It", would love to chat with Ms. Obama about how the medical community backed the wrong pony forty years ago when they decided dietary fat was the health problem vexing America. The message the public took away was 'You won't get fat if you don't eat fat', and we can look around and see how well that worked out.
And lo these many years later, the medical establishment finds itself up a tree from which they can't gracefully climb down - rather than risk their credibility, they continue to promote dietary fat as a problem, as illustrated by the skim milk at the Army base.
But Ms. Obama needn't listen to Gary Taubes, a vastly talented science writer who has been obsessing about this topic for more than a decade. For someone with impressive establishment credentials she could turn to Dr. Walter Willett, the chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. Here is his comment from last summer on the revised 2010 USDA dietary guidelines, due out on Jan 31:
The report has made positive changes but has some shortcomings (see attachment). Positive changes: stronger recommendation to reduce sugary beverages; greater emphasis on sodium reduction; and much less emphasis on the percentage of energy from total fat, which is correctly described as not related to weight gain, obesity, or any other major health outcome.
Shortcomings: (1) Total fat is still recommended to be less than 35% of calories, and there is no basis for setting an upper limit on total fat.
If dietary fat is not the problem, fat-free milk is not the answer.
As to what the problem is, let's turn to Dr. Willett again - this is from the LA Times last December:
But a growing number of top nutritional scientists blame excessive carbohydrates — not fat — for America's ills. They say cutting carbohydrates is the key to reversing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
"Fat is not the problem," says Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases."
If a mere science writer isn't convincing (and that may be the case for people who focus on credentials rather than evidence), take it from the Harvard guy.
And let me add this - Michelle Obama is not part of the medical establishment. She ought to be much more invested in popularizing the correct message than in covering the (ever-widening) rear areas of the doctors who have been backpedaling from their own bad advice for forty years.
So where will she go from here with her "Let's Move" program? She can deliver the same old blah blah that has gotten us to our current grim predicament, or she could listen to some of the well-credentialed skeptics, host some informal hearings, commence beating the drums against carbs, let the insurgents in the medical community push their research under her aegis, and be the woman who saved America and her husband's health care plan (the estimated cost of the obesity epidemic exceeds $100 billion per year).
I am resigned to more blah blah, but here's hoping!
TO RAISE THE STAKES: I kid you not, if she actually starts seriously trumpeting a "No sugar or refined carbs" message I will vote for her husband in 2012. Unless he steps aside and asks the party to nominate her, and then she gets my vote directly. Currently she is exhorting us to make better choices (swap fruits and veggies for candy - no kidding!) and follow the USDA food pyramid. That pyramid is opaque, but it does recommend grains, half of which should be whole grains. As if - that is a mixed message that won't get through.
By way of contrast, here is the Harvard food pyramid. It's still a mixed message, but refined grains are clearly set aside at the top in the "Use Sparingly" category; refined grains are down in the foundation.
That is more clear and straddles the same problem faced by the USDA but not individuals - what a doctor might recommend for his patients may be quite different from what the Surgeon General would recommend, because the United States (and certainly the world) need wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes to find enough calories.
Now, a bit of hope for the planet - there is a possibility that fructose (found in table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, as well as sweet fruits) is the trigger for insulin resistance and the descent into obesity and diabetes. If so (IF!), that could help explain why some Asian countries that have diets high in rice but low in sugar don't have an obesity problem.
Further implications - the current cohort of overweight (and especially, obese) Americans are past the trigger point and would have to give up the list of carbs noted by Dr. Willett. However, healthy folks here and in the rest of the world would be free to eat wheat, rice and potatoes to their hearts content as long as they stayed away from sugar. That is good news for feeding the world, and perhaps for the political palatability of the low-carb solution to the obesity crisis. (Yes, the gluten protein in wheat is problematic for a lot of people for different reasons, but enough, already.)