I have for nearly 20 years now resolutely kept my politics out of my writing regarding low carb diets and health. So I need to say this without taking sides. Bear with me.
We in the US are currently in a huge, acrimonious debate about health care — the cost of it, how to pay for it, whether the government should or should not be involved, and to what degree, etc, etc. I have strong opinions on this subject, but I will not state them here. I simply wanted to point this out:
We have in this country millions upon millions of people who are sick — obese, diabetic, weak from heart disease, losing toes, legs, their eyesight, getting intractable cancers, slipping into the darkling hell that is dementia. It now appears that much of the frightening increase in these diseases is not due to people not caring about their health, not being willing to try to eat right. It is because they have been trying to “eat right.”
In 1977, the United States Senate Select Committee On Nutrition and Human Needs issued the first official dietary guidelines. They urged Americans to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol, to limit red meat, butter, and egg yolks, to substitute polyunsaturated oils for the traditional saturated fats, to use low-fat or fat-free dairy products. It recommended replacing high-fat animal foods with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, inaccurately labeled “complex carbohydrates.*” It was the first time many Americans heard the term.
The American people complied. We cut back on red meat and animal fat. Egg Beaters and egg white omelets appeared on diner menus. Commercial bakeries swapped saturated coconut and palm oils for the supposedly healthier trans-fat laden hydrogenated shortening. McDonald’s even changed their world-famous recipe for French fries, doing away with the beef tallow in which they were originally fried, switching to vegetable oils, including hydrogenated soybean oil.
Good ol’ bacon and eggs were shoved aside for bagels and bran muffins. Pasta salad with fat-free mayonnaise supplanted the old standard “diet plate” of a bunless hamburger patty, cottage cheese, and tomato slices as the dieter’s lunch.
In short, Americans really have eaten less saturated fat and cholesterol, more vegetable oils and whole grains. We have, as a result, reaped a harvest of ill-health, often devastating ill-health. The National Center for Health Statistics reports American lifespans are decreasing for the first time since 1993, when HIV deaths were peaking.
In our national discussion of health care policy, I have heard it asserted that some people just don’t want to be well. There is no question about that. No one is under the illusion that a steady diet of soda, corn dogs, and marshmallow pies will lead to good health, any more than anyone believes smoking is good for them.
But millions of Americans are sick precisely because they have tried to follow the government’s dietary guidelines. I, by way of example, whole-grain-and-beaned my way up to 200 pounds at 5’2″, with high blood pressure. It was especially terrifying to watch my health disintegrate because I was doing everything the authorities told me would safeguard my health.
Republican or Democrat, fan or foe of the Affordable Care Act, die-hard free marketeer or a believer in Medicare-for-all, part of the national conversation about health care has to be: Millions of people need care because they were trying very hard to be well.
* I appear to be the only layperson left in the United States who knows that “complex carbohydrate” does not refer to unrefined carbohydrates, but rather to starches, whether from brown rice or Pringles, with “simple carbohydrate” denoting sugars, whether from an apple or a Slurpee.