The error of our ways

I’ve just finished reading an extended article from Thursday’s Guardian. It describes how guidelines on low-fat diets arose and explains how they have been rigorously defended to the exclusion of other theories – to the detriment of health, science and some careers.

Sugar Conspiracy

Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd, under the terms of its Open Licence.

I was struck by the parallels with global warming, and pertinent quotes are pasted below.

I am sure I don’t need to spell out the analogous climate tales; the highlighting in bold below is mine. The article is well worth reading in full.

In 1972, a British scientist sounded the alarm that sugar – and not fat – was the greatest danger to our health. But his findings were ridiculed and his reputation ruined. How did the world’s top nutrition scientists get it so wrong for so long?

 Political origins

On 23 September, 1955, US President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. Rather than pretend it hadn’t happened, Eisenhower insisted on making details of his illness public. The next day, his chief physician […] cited the research of a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota, Ancel Keys.

Keys’ “diet-heart hypothesis” was that an excess of saturated fats in the diet raised cholesterol, which was deposited inside arteries narrowing them and restricting blood flow, leading to detrimental effects on the heart.  Unfortunately Keys seemed to relish the limelight and his personality may have played a large part in the erroneous path taken by all who followed.

Ancel Keys was brilliant, charismatic, and combative. A friendly colleague at the University of Minnesota described him as, “direct to the point of bluntness, critical to the point of skewering”; others were less charitable. He exuded conviction at a time when confidence was most welcome. The president, the physician and the scientist formed a reassuring chain of male authority, and the notion that fatty foods were unhealthy started to take hold with doctors, and the public.

Discrediting rivals

This was not received enthusiastically by everyone and a UK nutritionist, John Yudkin, was sceptical, having observations and data to the contrary.  He came up with an alternative “sugar hypothesis”.

Ancel Keys was intensely aware that Yudkin’s sugar hypothesis posed an alternative to his own. If Yudkin published a paper, Keys would excoriate it, and him. He called Yudkin’s theory “a mountain of nonsense”, and accused him of issuing “propaganda” for the meat and dairy industries. “Yudkin and his commercial backers are not deterred by the facts,” he said. “They continue to sing the same discredited tune.”

Yudkin seemed to be the complete opposite of Keys, a mild-mannered man, and did not respond.  Big industry (sugar) also rubbished him.  Keys on the other hand rose to considerable power and influence, as did his allies, and they then shaped the future.

From these strongholds, they directed funds to like-minded researchers, and issued authoritative advice to the nation.


In 1970 Keys and his colleagues published a huge study which supported his hypothesis, but now seems like cherry-picking since he included seven nations in Europe, leaving out France and West Germany which had relatively low rates of heart disease despite rich diets. This study, which did not exclude the possibility that the causative factor in heart disease was something other than the saturated fats, led to government guidelines.


The US Dietary Guidelines issued in the 1980s were the basis of doctors’ advice and commercial food formulations.  They there also highly  influential in the UK. However, it is now looking as if that advice was profoundly flawed and Yudkin, whose ideas were originally taken very seriously before being discredited, was right.

We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees.

Again, that sounds chillingly familiar in the climate debate.

Today, as nutritionists struggle to comprehend a health disaster they did not predict and may have precipitated, the field is undergoing a painful period of re-evaluation. It is edging away from prohibitions on cholesterol and fat, and hardening its warnings on sugar, without going so far as to perform a reverse turn. But its senior members still retain a collective instinct to malign those who challenge its tattered conventional wisdom too loudly

Recent studies on women were expected to support the benefits of a low-fat diet but found, contrary to expectations, that those eating the recommended diet were no less likely than the control group to contract cancer or heart disease.

The study’s principal researcher, unwilling to accept the implications of his own findings, remarked: “We are scratching our heads over some of these results.” A consensus quickly formed that the study – meticulously planned, lavishly funded, overseen by impressively credentialed researchers – must have been so flawed as to be meaningless. The field moved on, or rather did not.

Bigger and better studies have started to show up contrary data on cholesterol – that lower cholesterol correlates with higher rates of death from heart disease – and fat, and the subject has come under the scrutiny of a congressional review thanks largely to a journalist, who now finds herself vilified.

In September last year she wrote an article for the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), which makes the case for the inadequacy of the scientific advice that underpins the [US] Dietary Guidelines. The response of the nutrition establishment was ferocious: 173 scientists – some of whom were on the advisory panel, and many of whose work had been critiqued in Teicholz’s book – signed a letter to the BMJ, demanding it retract the piece.

The letter lists “11 errors”, which on close reading turn out to range from the trivial to the entirely specious.


Having been invited to be part of a panel at the National Food Policy conference the journalist now finds herself dis-invited, following pressure from other panelists. Again, where have we heard that before?

It’s a compelling read – do read the whole thing.

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16 Responses to The error of our ways

  1. catweazle666 says:


    Mainstream nutrition sounds like some other branch of “science”…

    Funny that…

  2. Another Ian says:


    A tribute to you “Origin ” quote

    ” Felflames
    May 1, 2016 at 2:22 am

    Feet of clay.
    The CAGW ‘gods’ crumble to dust when someone who pays attention starts to ask ask them hard questions.
    And lately there seems to be more and more people asking questions.”

    In comments at

  3. barry says:

    Hi Verity. Apologies for OT comment.

    I lurked here for a while in 2010, and browsing back to that time I came across your post on station dropout. Someone commented there,

    Other bloggers have commented on the station counts (it’s well known) but none have shown how it affects the trends reported by the various agencies. Until that is done the station counts are a sideshow.

    You replied,

    Patience, Andy, Patience!

    I did a quick search under the terms ‘station dropout,’ and though you mentioned critically in later posts, I was unable to locate one where you had done the analysis.

    I followed it up at other blogs back then. Quite a few bloggers on both sides of the debate (eg, Roy Spencer, Tamino) eventually did the analysis, and the universal finding was that station dropout had no appreciable effect on trends.

    Did you ever check to see if station dropout resulted in different trends? I’d be interested in your opinion.


    • Verity Jones says:

      I only just looked in the spam bin for comments after the current post at WUWT alerted me to a change made by WordPress.

      I did follow up. Having spent probably 1000s of hours looking at the data, you do get a sense of ‘the shape of it’. You have a real mixed bag there – well maintained stations, moves, encroaching urbanisation, land use change. The trouble is that when you do analysis you either use all the data or a selection, and that selection can take ages to get the criteria for selection right. Even then there is a concern about selection bias (and possible cherry-picking). So….

      The put-down for “there’s a problem with station drop-out” is that anomalies are used so temperature doesn’t matter. But in very cold/dry areas you get large variations in temperature and therefore large anomalies and in warm/humid areas much less so. Also the multi-decadal swings in positioning of ‘weather’ patterns (blocking highs) can affect some regions e.g. the UK:

      So… I looked at variance as a means of quantifying the magnitudes of variations at each station:

      There is a subtle effect. If I dug harder and used more sophisticated analysis it might be possible to quantify the effect, but quite honestly I don’t have the time any more.

  4. Bloke down the pub says:

    Today, as nutritionists struggle to comprehend a health disaster they did not predict and may have precipitated, the field is undergoing a painful period of re-evaluation.

    That sounds very familiar too. Often enough, we hear of legislation introduced to cut emissions and save the planet, which then turns out to have the opposite effect.

  5. Roy says:

    The response of the nutrition establishment was ferocious: 173 scientists – some of whom were on the advisory panel, and many of whose work had been critiqued in Teicholz’s book – signed a letter to the BMJ, demanding it retract the piece.

    The letter lists “11 errors”, which on close reading turn out to range from the trivial to the entirely specious.

    The reaction of the 173 “scientists” reminds me of the response of Danish greens to Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist who brought a total of three complaints against him to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), a body under Denmark’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MSTI). The charges claimed that The Skeptical Environmentalist contained deliberately misleading data and flawed conclusions. In January 2003, the DCSD released a ruling that sent a mixed message, finding the book to be scientifically dishonest through misrepresentation of scientific facts, but Lomborg himself not guilty due to his lack of expertise in the fields in question. That February, Lomborg filed a complaint against the decision with the MSTI, which had oversight over the DCSD. In December, 2003, the Ministry annulled the DCSD decision, citing procedural errors, including lack of documentation of errors in the book, and asked the DCSD to re-examine the case. In March 2004, the DCSD formally decided not to act further on the complaints, reasoning that renewed scrutiny would, in all likelihood, result in the same conclusion.

    A group of scientists published an article in 2005 in the Journal of Information Ethics, in which they concluded that most criticism against Lomborg was unjustified, and that the scientific community misused their authority to suppress Lomborg.

    Doesn’t this all sound very familiar?

    • Verity Jones says:

      I said above:

      I am sure I don’t need to spell out the analogous climate tales

      So, Roy, thank you for spelling one of them out for others.

      It is not lost on me that you have probably arrived here from Bishop Hill’s post “Still going slow”, the sentiment of which is so familiar to me, so the help in spelling out the analogies with the climate debate for readers who may be less familiar with it is much appreciated.

  6. Verity Jones says:

    All – apologies – I’ve no idea why your comments ended up in moderation. I haven’t made any changes to the settings recently.

  7. N. Wayne Liston says:

    Some of the other resonant parallels, including the involvement of Big Oil (vegetable oil, that is!) are covered in which begins back on Mark Twains 19th century Mississippi.
    The key role of the thoughtful “outsider”, (which has been central to the skeptic community) is well illustrated by Stanford engineering grad Gary Taubes curiosity about in Bad Science originates and how error cascades propogate.
    It seems Max Planck’s, “Science advances one funeral at a time.” quote may only be inaccurate in that many more funerals are necessary.

    • Verity Jones says:

      That second article is very good thank you fot the link. Yet more paralells with climate science.

      [about the Atkin’s Diet…] Americans apparently tried it by the tens of millions, while nutritionists, physicians, public- health authorities and anyone concerned with heart disease insisted it could kill them, and expressed little or no desire to find out who was right. During that period, only two groups of U.S. researchers tested the diet, or at least published their results.

  8. N. Wayne Liston says:

    We know there is a problem. The “Why” seems too simple to be true.
    ” Why, asked Altman, is so much research poor? Because “researchers feel compelled for career reasons to carry out research that they are ill equipped to perform, and nobody stops them.”
    “Climate Science” has managed to match medicines ability to stoke fear in order to produce funding. When massive amounts of money are available, urgent needs will be created to absorb it. So many of the links in this Doppelganger ring true.

  9. climanrecon says:

    This was also covered by Pierre at notrickszone, and we can add another thing to complain to the BBC about, their persistent pushing of the “low-fat” message:

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