One Large Nutritional Science Experiment

Last modified on February 13th, 2008

1977, in front of the House Agriculture Subcommittee of Domestic Marketing, talking about the recent recommendations by the USDA and Food and Nutrition Board towards a low-fat diet:

However tenuous that linkage, however disappointing the various intervention trials, it still seems prudent to propose to the American public that we not only maintain reasonable weights for our height, body structure and age, but also reduce our dietary fat intakes significantly, and keep cholesterol to a minimum. And, conceivably, you might conclude that it is proper for the federal government to so recommend.

On the other hand, you may instead argue: What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?

Mr Chairman, resolution of this dilemma turns on a value judgment. The dilemma so posed is not a scientific question; it is a question of ethics, morals, politics. Those who argue either position strongly are expression their values; they are not making scientific judgments. [Philip Handler]

That, my friends, was one of the last arguments in 1977 as to why the United States (and later the rest of North America), should not recommend a low-fat diet on the basis of so little information. Most people don’t realize that the scientific basis for such a recommendation was sketchy at best, and in many scientific studies from the time, actually led to increased mortality rates amongst participants.

But by that time the politic and economic machinery that would produce the low-fat craze had begun to turn, taking the population of North America on what is currently one of the longest, largest science experiments of all time.

I’ll write more about this over the coming days, but that’s some food for thought.