The American Paradox

Primal Fat Burner
by Nora Gedgaudas
pp. 101-103

You’ve likely heard of the “French paradox”—that, despite the French people’s high consumption of saturated fat, their rates of heart disease are lower than ours in the United States. Here in our country we’re stuck in an unfortunate situation that I call the American paradox: the more closely you follow official dietary government guidelines, the worse your health is likely to be! 11 The USDA is busy telling Americans to base their daily diets upon low-fat, starchy carbohydrates and get more exercise; meanwhile, the obesity epidemic and related health challenges continue to grow. (This paradox is global, by the way—countries such as India are seeing skyrocketing rates of diabetes, and the vegetarians of southern India have literally the world’s shortest life span.)

Trying to make sense of all this is a bit like Alice falling down a rabbit hole; everything seems upside down and nonsensical. Let’s take a brief look at the stats. According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), after decades of being subjected to government guidelines promoting a low-fat and high-carbohydrate diet, Americans show the following problems: 12

  • 68.5 percent of adults are overweight or obese; 34.9 percent are obese. (Compare this to the 1971 overweight statistic of 42 percent.)
  • 31.8 percent of children and adolescents are overweight or obese; 16.9 percent are obese.
  • 30.4 percent of low-income preschoolers are overweight or obese.

Yet another study published in May 2015 examining the impact of dietary guidelines on the health of US citizens yielded some shocking but undeniable conclusions: rates of obesity and diabetes have increased dramatically. 13 The official government dietary recommendations were intended to prevent weight problems and obesity, along with diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases. The fact that this has not happened—and that the reverse is true—is officially rationalized in a number of ways. 14 But the underlying message is that we are dumb and lazy. That’s right—the party line about why official dietary recommendations (such as from the American Heart Association and the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services) have failed is that Americans are to blame because we don’t follow the guidelines and we don’t work out enough. 15 In other words, if we’re sick, it’s our own fat, stupid fault.

This is such a persistent, morale-killing, and completely misleading message that I want to address it directly before we move on.

First, we have collectively and diligently followed the guidelines. Here’s what official guidelines recommend for our daily diets versus what we are currently doing in reality (RDA stands for Recommended Daily Allowance):

Total fat consumption. RDA says a maximum of 35 percent of calories; reality says about 34 percent. (Let’s not pat ourselves on the back, though—the number one source of those fat calories is partially hydrogenated oil from genetically modified soybeans, one of the worst things for the body!)
Saturated fats. RDA says a maximum of 10 percent saturated fat; reality says just under 11 percent (not terribly naughty or rebellious relative to established government recommendations).
Carbs. RDA says 55 to 65 percent, with 45 percent the smallest amount necessary to meet the (unfounded) “optimal dietary requirements”; reality says over 50 percent. This is more than enough to create a health-compromising, sugar-burning metabolism.
Protein. RDA says between 10 and 35 percent; reality says 15 percent.

As you can see, Americans are meeting the established dietary requirements, and we have largely eschewed our national interest in protein in favor of far more addictive carbohydrates. Isn’t it strange, then, that the predominant health messages we hear are that we eat too much animal protein and saturated fat for our own good, and that those are the things that make us overweight and cause heart-related and other health problems?

Meanwhile, FRAC looked at historical shifts and found that the consumption of fats dropped from 45 to 34 percent of total caloric intake between 1971 and 2011, while carbohydrate consumption jumped from 39 to 51 percent. In the same time, obesity has surged by over 25 percent. We have diligently increased our consumption of carbohydrates and reduced our intake of animal fat and cholesterol for over five decades, according to the rules—and we have gotten fatter. Processed foods that contain chemicals such as MSG, Frankenfoods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hydrogenated and interesterified vegetable oils, and other damaging ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup are to thank for a good part of this disaster. But the promotion of higher-carb, low-fat diets has also undeniably served to push everyone in the wrong direction. (FRAC concluded, as many scientists have, that the increased consumption of carbohydrates is what has caused the huge increase in overweight and obesity.)

3 thoughts on “The American Paradox

    • There are always many other contributing factors. I’m often pointing to those. Even among the dietary writers, lifestyle along with social and environmental conditions are regularly discussed. Nonetheless, there is other supporting evidence for the dietary interpretation. Countries like France do have relatively better health outcomes than the US, but as they’ve become modernized and Americanized they have followed the same pattern of declining health.

      On top of that, more recent research is beginning to better explain why this is the case, why health declines with a high-carb, low-fat diet, why health declines when saturated fat is replaced with vegetable oils. The mystery isn’t such a mystery any more. We now know the physiological mechanisms, at least in some cases (e.g., omega-6s are inflammatory, whereas sat fats are not and omega-3s are actively anti-inflammatory).

      This post was narrowly focused on purpose. I simply wanted to share a passage that describes that Americans are following official dietary advice, that according to this standard the American diet is far better than it was in the past. It stands out that so many major diseases have worsened precisely during the same period. That pattern appeared earlier last century. The heart disease epidemic, for example, appeared a little over a half century ago following decades of declining intake of saturated fat, as margarine became popular in the early 1900s and in reaction to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906 that caused meat consumption to decline.

      In the 1800s, Americans ate more saturated fat (in particular lard) and meat (not to mention full-fat dairy) while eating far less vegetables and carbs (and carb, especially sugar, intake was far lower even in the early 1800s compared to the later 1800s, as modern farming practices and modern trade took hold). Yet doctors from the late 1800s to the early 1900s talked about how rare were cases of heart disease, diabetes, etc. Dentists like Weston A. Price also noted how dental arch and bone structure worsened over that period as the diet changed. Yet those earlier Americans who were healthier in terms of these serious diseases (ignoring the issue of infectious diseases) weren’t living in a pleasant social democracy that offered them plentiful vacation time, free healthcare, or any other such wonderful things.

      The same would be true of hunter-gatherers. They lack all of the nice things of modern civilization. There life is ‘primitive’ and at times harsh and difficult. But what they also lack are the diseases of civilization. Then again, they also lack all the stresses of civilization as well, which would relate to what you bring up about some societies offering extensive vacations to their citizens. In a way, the entire lifestyle of hunter-gatherers is a vacation, at least during times of plenty and peace. They certainly work less and relax more in meeting basic needs of survival.

  1. By the way, I’d point out that there never was a “French Paradox”. It only seemed like a paradox because dietary ideology got in the way of the obvious.

    The French eat a ton of animal fat, but so do many Asian countries that have long lifespans (with rice typically being a small part of the Asian diet, specifically in the regions known for long life). The Mediterranean diet also traditionally included large amounts of fatty animal foods, with lard having been preferred over olive oil. Historically, what have French (and most other societies) eaten far less of than Americans (and British)? Sugar.

    This should have been obvious long ago. Even in Ancel Keys own data, sugar had a stronger correlation to heart disease than did saturated fat. And it was precisely sugar intake that had drastically increased over the prior generations, while saturated fat intake has been steadily declining since the early 1900s (total fat has remained fairly steady, though, with the unhealthy and inflammatory vegetable oils and shortening having become the main source). With this in mind, the “American Paradox” isn’t a paradox either. It’s rather simple.

    Americans have eaten more sugar than other societies for a long time. The French have eaten less. And Asians have eaten far less. Benjamin Bikman a researcher into insulin explains how insulin resistance is behind so many diseases. All of these paradoxes and plenty more add up to exceptions to the rule that are the norm. Ancel Keys was aware of this as he had looked at the data on these paradoxical countries, which is why he excluded from his research all of the countries that didn’t fit his preconceived conclusions.

    The Case Against Sugar
    by Gary Taubes
    p. 116

    “At its simplest, this focus on dietary fat—specifically from butter, eggs, dairy, and fatty meats—emerged from a concept that is now known as a nutrition transition: As populations become more affluent and more urban, more “Westernized” in their eating habits and lifestyle, they experience an increased prevalence of these chronic diseases. Almost invariably, the dietary changes include more fat consumed (and more meat) and fewer carbohydrates.

    “This isn’t always the case, however, which should have been considered a critical factor in the nutritional debates that ensued. The Inuit, for instance, pastoral populations like the Masai in Kenya, or South Pacific Islanders like those on the New Zealand protectorate of Tokelau, consumed less fat (and in some cases less meat) over the course of their relevant nutrition transitions, and yet they, too, experienced more obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (and cancer as well). These populations are the counterexamples that suggest that this dietary-fat hypothesis is wrong. The same is true of populations like the French and Swiss, who eat fat-rich and even saturated-fat-rich diets but are notably long-lived and healthy. Mainstream nutrition and chronic-disease researchers would ignore these populations entirely or invoke ad hoc explanations (the French paradox, for instance) for why their experience is not relevant.

    “That all populations, without exception, consume significantly more sugar as they become affluent and more Westernized, would occasionally be considered as a competing hypothesis, as Joslin did early in his career. Until recently, though, it would typically be rejected on the basis that (1) most influential experts believed dietary fat was the problem, and (2) carbohydrates have identical effects on the human body, whether starches or sugar, and therefore on chronic-disease states, as Joslin and Himsworth believed. By this logic, populations that ate fat-poor and carbohydrate-rich diets and had low levels of obesity and diabetes (such as the Japanese) were held up as definitive evidence that fat is the problem and sugar is harmless.”

    p. 174

    “When researchers realized that the French had relatively low rates of heart disease despite a diet that was rich in saturated fats, they wrote it off as an inexplicable “paradox,” and ignored the fact that the French traditionally consumed far less sugar than did populations—the Americans and British, most notably—in which coronary disease seemed to be a scourge. At the end of the eighteenth century, French per capita sugar consumption was less than a fifth of what it was in England. At the end of the nineteenth century, even after the beet-sugar revolution, France was still lagging far behind both the British and the Americans—thirty-three pounds for the French compared with eighty-eight for the English and sixty-six for Americans. (“ Sweetness does not seem ever to have been enshrined as a taste to be contrasted with all others in the French taste spectrum—bitter, sour, salt, hot—as it has in England and America,” wrote Sidney Mintz. “It is not necessarily a mischievous question to ask whether sugar damaged English cooking, or whether English cooking in the seventeenth century had more need of sugar than the French.”)”

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