Historical Events

McGovern’s committee listened to two days of testimony from Nick Mottern who recommended more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less meat and dairy products.

Diet and Killer Diseases

In July 1976, McGovern’s committee listened to two days of testimony on “Diet and Killer Diseases.” Mottern then spent three months researching the subject and two months writing. The most compelling evidence, Mottern believed, was the changing-American-diet story, and this became the underlying foundation of the committee’s recommendations: we should readjust our national diet to match that of the turn of the century, at least as the Department of Agriculture had guessed it to be. The less controversial recommendations of the Dietary Goals included eating less sugar and salt, and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Fat and cholesterol would be the contentious points. Here Mottern avoided the inherent ambiguities of the evidence by relying for his expertise almost exclusively on a single Harvard nutritionist, Mark Hegsted, who by his own admission was an extremist on the dietary-fat issue. Hegsted had studied the effect of fat on cholesterol levels in the early 1960s, first with animals and then, like Keys, with schizophrenic patients at a mental hospital. Hegsted had come to believe unconditionally that eating less fat would prevent heart disease, although he was aware that this conviction was not shared by other investigators working in the field. With Hegsted as his guide, Mottern perceived the dietary-fat controversy as analogous to the specious industry-sponsored “controversy” over cigarettes and lung cancer, and he equated his Dietary Goals to the surgeon e, áthe surgegeneral’s legendary 1964 report on smoking and health. To Mottern, the food industry was no different from the tobacco industry in its willingness to suppress scientific truth in the interests of greater profits. He believed that those scientists who lobbied actively against dietary fat, like Hegsted, Keys, and Stamler, were heroes. Dietary Goals was couched as a plan for the nation, but these goals obviously pertained to individual diets as well. Goal number one was to raise the consumption of carbohydrates until they constituted 55–60 percent of the calories consumed. Goal number two was to decrease fat consumption from approximately 40 percent, then the national average, to 30 percent of all calories, of which no more than a third should come from saturated fats. The report acknowledged that no evidence existed to suggest that reducing the total fat content of the diet would lower bloodcholesterol levels, but it justified its recommendation on the basis that, the lower the percentage of dense fat calories in the diet, the less likely people would be to gain weight,*14 and because other health associations—most notably the American Heart Association—were recommending 30 percent fat in diets. To achieve this low-fat goal, according to the Dietary Goals, Americans would have to eat considerably less meat and dairy products.

Gary Taubes - GCBC - 36/390 on PDF

It all started in 1977, when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs turned toward the question of diet and disease in America. With a sizable budget of nearly half a million dollars, the committee had previously dealt with issues of hunger, or undernutrition. Now the group turned to the new question of overnutrition: whether eating too much of certain foods might lead to disease. After all, what middle-aged male senator would not support an investigation into heart disease, the number one cause of death among middle-aged male senators?

So in July of that year, the committee, led by Senator George McGovern, held two days of hearings entitled “Diet Related to Killer Diseases.”I The committee staff was comprised of lawyers and former journalists who knew little more than interested laymen on the subject of fat and cholesterol and nearly nothing about the scientific controversy that had been simmering on this topic for years. McGovern himself came to the subject with a potential bias, since he had recently attended a weeklong clinic at the center founded by lifestyle guru and low-fat devotee Nathan Pritikin.

After the hearings, committee staffer Nick Mottern spearheaded the research and writing of the report. He was a conscientious progressive, a former labor reporter for the small weekly newsletter Consumer News in Washington, DC, and a crusader against corporate influence. Mottern had no background in nutrition or health, however. He was therefore woefully ill-equipped to examine the subtleties of, say, study sample size or confounding issues in epidemiology. He didn’t have the experience to know that when interpreting science, it’s always wise to seek a variety of opinions. Instead, he relied almost exclusively on Mark Hegsted, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and diet-heart stalwart. (Keys would have been a likely candidate for this role, but he had retired in 1972.) With Hegsted as his guide, Mottern recommended a diet in line with the one the AHA had been recommending, with overall fat reduced from 40 percent to 30 percent of calories, saturated fat capped at 10 percent of calories, and an increase in carbohydrates to between 55 percent and 60 percent of calories. (Mottern introduced the term “complex carbohydrates” to the nutrition lexicon, referring to whole grains, as compared to refined carbohydrates like sugar.)II

The committee ultimately adopted this view of a healthy diet, which dovetailed with Mottern’s own skeptical views of the meat, dairy, and egg industries. Mottern found them objectionable for environmental and ethical reasons (He would later run a vegetarian restaurant in upstate New York for several years). And he believed the meat industry to be wholly corrupt, having been exposed to it up close—since McGovern represented South Dakota, a big cattle-raising state, and members of the National Cattlemen’s Association often came striding through the office to meet with the senator. Mottern himself received calls from cattlemen trying to interfere with his report.

This influence by lobbyists rankled Mottern’s idealism. Perhaps because he worked on Capital Hill, he viewed the fat and cholesterol issue to be as much a political contest between competing food interests as a scientific debate about nutrition and disease. In his eyes, the controversy pitched the virtuous, AHA-endorsed low-fat diet against the debased meat and egg industries, whose “cover-up” on the fat issue was, in his mind, like Big Tobacco’s efforts to obscure negative health data on smoking. “Nick really wanted to find an enemy and make it a matter of good guy versus bad guy,” recalled Marshall Matz, general counsel of the committee. For Mottern, the choice was clear. Impressed by researchers such as Jerry Stamler, who testified on behalf of the AHA, Mottern thought that “these scientists were willing to stand up to a lot of industry money and pressure,” as he told me. “I admired them.”

The promotion of carbohydrate-based foods, such as cereals, breads, crackers, and chips, was exactly the kind of dietary advice large food companies favored, since those were the products they sold. Recommending polyunsaturated oils over saturated fats also served them well because these oils were a major ingredient of their cookies and crackers and were the principal ingredient in their margarines and shortenings. The pro-carbohydrate, anti-animal-fat orientation of Mottern’s emerging report thus suited food manufacturers just perfectly. By contrast, that report did nothing for the egg, meat, and dairy interests, despite their high-profile reputation as bogeymen about Washington. So as hard as they might have tried, their lobbying efforts clearly hadn’t been so successful.

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