Lewis: The deadliest conspiracy theory ever
We are awash in conspiracy theories. From the bizarre, like vaccines containing microchips or the Earth being flat, to the more debated, like the reality of climate change or election fraud. Conspiracy theories are everywhere. This is a story about the deadliest conspiracy theory in our history. It started over 50 years ago and persists today.
The year was 1966 when a man named Phil Sokolof suffered a near-fatal heart attack. As a nonsmoker who exercised regularly, he looked for something to blame. He magically surmised that McDonald’s French fries, at the time fried in beef fat, were to blame. Solkolof had no scientific proof or medical skills, but that did not deter him. He had something better; very deep pockets, so he used his wealth to campaign against the fat-fried fries. In 1990, McDonald’s relented and switched to frying in vegetable oil.
Those of you that were fortunate enough to eat McDonald’s fries prior to 1990 know what I mean when I say those fries were almost a spiritual experience. They were just so good. To this day, I barely ever have French fries. I was spoiled for life.
Sokolof and others started a revolution in eliminating fat from our diets that culminated in the low-fat approach becoming the preferred approach, starting in the ’80s, for a healthy lifestyle. It was supported by food companies, physicians and even the federal government. The only problem — it wasn’t based on science and was essentially wrong.
In response to the public’s desire for more “healthy” low-fat food products, food manufacturers developed more foods using refined carbohydrates like pizza, pasta, and sugary snacks. The advertising on the products declared “fat-free,” leading people to believe it was healthier. Unfortunately, the opposite turned out to be true.
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After decades of stability, obesity rates began to skyrocket. There were all sorts of theories to explain the cause of this sudden change — one of the most widely accepted was that people had reduced their amount of physical exercise. The idea that low-fat diets could be the cause was never even considered.
Gradually, science started to have an influence. Trans fats, which McDonald’s had switched to after beef fat, were determined to be far more dangerous and effectively banned by the FDA by 2007. We also started to understand the difference between good and bad cholesterol. Unfortunately, obesity levels were still rising.
It wasn’t until the 2010s that a few scientists started to investigate the low-fat methodology. Dr. David Ludwig from Stanford published some of the most groundbreaking studies and books on the subject. His conclusion was that all calories are not equal and that the refined carbohydrates and sugars that had replaced fat in many foods dramatically increase insulin levels causing our bodies to hoard calories. His data showed that people eating low-carb (regular fat) diets would burn 325 more calories per day than those on low-fat diets. For reference, data shows that a reduction of just 250 calories per day will yield a weight loss of a half-pound per week.
Unfortunately, Dr. Ludwig’s science is just one of the hundreds of approaches to dieting in the market today, and the “low fat is healthy” dogma pervades today. Diet programs are big business, generating $33 billion a year in revenue, so chaos and lack of consistent science are rampant. Health care spending on obesity is estimated to be $147 billion per year.
Obesity has overtaken smoking as the leading cause of death in the U.S. The low-fat diet approach, adopted in the ’80s despite any scientific basis, and embraced by the medical community and the federal government is now responsible for more premature deaths than all of the tobacco companies combined.
While I understand obesity is a complex issue comprising genetics, lifestyle, access to healthy food, economics, physical activity and even sleep quality, we need to consider that all of these issues existed prior to this spike in obesity. My hope is that science will ultimately prevail, people will listen, and with an updated paradigm for nutrition, we can return (without medication) to the obesity levels of 50 years ago. To me, that is a much-preferred solution than putting 40% of our population on diet medications like Ozempic.
And McDonald’s. It’s time to bring back those fries.
Mark Lewis, a Colorado native, had a long career in technology, including serving as the CEO of several tech companies. He retired from technology last year and is now writing thriller novels. Mark and his wife, Lisa, and their two Australian Shepherds — Kismet and Cowboy, reside in Edwards.