It’s January, and if you’re anything like me that means you’re still struggling to wiggle into your jeans after overdosing on peppermint lattes and pie over the holidays. And if you’re even more like me, you’re watching your peers hit the gym and replace their burgers with fruit cups with a twinge of envy. Why does it seem so easy for everyone else to put down their burgers and join a gym?
But this isn’t particularly true. Sixty-two percent of Americans lose inspiration and return to their normal dietary habits in under six months, and over 50 percent of Americans don’t even try dieting but feel that they should. It seems fair to say that no one finds skimming back on their favorite foods easy. To me, general health advice feels like forever forgoing everything that tastes edible. I’ll testify for myself that I can’t convince my mouth to believe salad tastes any good without ranch, and I religiously agree with Ron Swanson when he said, “[Skim milk] is water that’s lying about being milk.” I take whole milk in my lattes, and feel guilty about it every time.
But if a healthy diet is so good for us, why is it that no one wants to do it? American palates seem to crave what kills us; last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1 in 4 Americans will die of heart disease. According to conventional wisdom, this is caused by our gluttonous desire for foods filled with “salt, saturated fat and cholesterol.” But despite the government pushing healthy diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol for decades and despite the fact that American fat consumption has fallen significantly in the past 30 years, our obesity rate has doubled and heart disease continues to rise. The knee-jerk reaction would be to simply do more of what we’re already doing: Exercise more, eat more vegetables and eliminate fatty foods. But what if dieting isn’t the answer? What if the reason we hate dieting isn’t because we don’t care about our health, but because the diets we’re being pushed to follow are actually unhealthy for us?
Last March, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a comprehensive meta-analysis of 72 medical studies. The paper found absolutely no link between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease. Even more shocking? Certain types of saturated fat – like the kind in milk and cheese – were actually associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
If this is true, then our ideas of healthy human diets have been horribly flawed for decades.
Americans have been pushed to believe that stocking up on fruits, vegetables and grains will make us healthier. But the science behind this claim is dubious at best. In 2006, the Women’s Health Initiative (associated with the National Institute of Health) conducted a study with 48,835 women and found that after eight years of “a dietary intervention that reduced total fat intake and increased intakes of vegetables, fruits and grains,” there was no significant reduction in risk of heart disease, stroke,or cardiovascular disease. To make matters even more interesting, many studies have even shown the opposite of what Americans have come to believe: High-fat diets may actually help prevent obesity. In 2013, the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care found that after a 12-year study of nearly 2000 men, a “high intake of dairy fat was associated with a lower risk of central obesity.” In the men who consumed a low amount of dairy fat, their rates of obesity were high.
These results are compounded by the fact that various hunter-gatherer tribes, such as the Maasai and the Inuit, have diets consisting of up to 75 percent saturated fat (compared to America’s 30 percent) and yet have the lowest rates of obesity and heart disease of any group studied.
Whatever is causing the health crisis in the United States, it isn’t our taste for fatty foods. Some scientists now believe that the real culprit has been the elimination of foods our bodies actually like and replacing them with paltry substitutes, like carbohydrates and sugar, substances unnatural to the human body. Ironically, many of our endeavors to promote healthy eating have driven us to create Frankenstein lab-foods like margarine and hydrogenated oils that have been advertised as “heart-healthy” while having been ritualistically proven to have the opposite effect, as our bodies don’t know how to process them. As shocking as it may seem, what our bodies really want – natural foods rich in fats and nutrients – may actually be the best for us after all.
That’s not to say people should forgo all dietary caution and eat whatever they want. As stated earlier, foods that were never a part of the human diet – such as carbohydrates and refined sugars – have never been shown to be beneficial, and fast food is nearly always fried in harmful hydrogenated oils. Eating a balance of nutrients along with exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. But our obsession with dieting in the way we’ve always known it needs to end. Not only does our current “healthy” structure eliminate foods from our diets that actually satisfy us, but it also drives us to turn to unhealthy alternatives that may cause the problem it tries to solve. So there’s really no need to feel guilty about choosing whole milk at Starbucks (as long as you keep the sugar low), or even choosing a hamburger over those syrupy fruit cups. It’ll taste a lot better, and it’s probably better for you anyway.
Tegan Colton is a senior English major. Reach her at email@example.com.