"Government made a big mistake with the dietary guidelines," says Nina Teicholz, author of New York Times bestseller The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. "Given the track record that they have so far, you can really make a plausible argument that they've done more harm than good."
Consumption of meat, butter, eggs, and cheese were once encouraged as part of a healthy diet. Then in the 1950s, a Minnesota doctor named Ancel Keys put forth his diet-heart hypothesis, claiming that saturated fats raise cholesterol levels and cause heart attacks.
Keys produced landmark studies of the relationship between diet and heart disease that transformed nutrition science. He became a powerful figure in the science community. Contemporaries who publicly questioned the validity of his findings risked losing their research funding or becoming pariahs. When the U.S. adopted dietary guidelines in 1980, Keys' recommendations became enshrined in national food policy.
"We have made our policy based upon this weak kind of science called epidemiology which shows association, but not causation," Teicholz explains. "We have the situation where we just cannot reverse out of these policies that were originally based on really weak science."
Keys' flawed research is one reason Americans have been getting fatter and unhealthier for decades. Despite major advances in treatment, heart disease is still the leading cause of death for men and women.
"The really dominant view is that the dietary guidelines are good...and the reason America is fat and sick is that America has failed to follow them," Teicholz says. "That's when you start looking at the data...By every food category you can find, we have faithfully, dutifully followed the guidelines."
Today the science behind Keys' dietary findings is once again being challenged. Teicholz has launched the Nutrition Coalition, which aims to inform food policy with rigorous science.
"Our goal is educate people about how the dietary guidelines have not been successful...and to bring this alternative policy viewpoint to policy makers," says Teicholz. "More and more experts are willing to talk out about the science, and I think that will support change."