In this April 7, 2016, article about changing dietary recommendations and rising obesity rates, Ian Leslie resurrects the forgotten work of John Yudkin, a U.K. nutritionist who in 1972 authored a book titled Pure, White, and Deadly about the purported dangers of excess sugar consumption. Drawing parallels between this earlier research and that of contemporary anti-sugar crusader Robert Lustig, Leslie suggests that the scientific community effectively silenced Yudkin when his data came into conflict with the prevailing “fat hypothesis” backed by “brilliant, charismatic, and combative” Ancel Keys, who posited that dietary fat caused heart disease and other metabolic diseases.

As Leslie explains, “[The] sharp fluctuations in Yudkin’s stock have had little to do with the scientific method, and a lot to do with the unscientific way in which the field of nutrition has conducted itself over the years. This story, which has begun to emerge in the past decade, has been brought to public attention largely by skeptical outsiders rather than eminent nutritionists. In her painstakingly researched book, The Big Fat Surprise, the journalist Nina Teicholz traces the history of the proposition that saturated fats cause heart disease, and reveals the remarkable extent to which its progress from controversial theory to accepted truth was driven, not by new evidence, but by the influence of a few powerful personalities, one in particular.“ 

In particular, Leslie claims that Keys’ so-called Seven Countries Study—which examined health and dietary data from 12,770 men in Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Finland, Netherlands, Japan and the United States—set the tone for federal nutritional recommendations even though it only implies a correlation between high-fat diets and heart disease. Meanwhile, new research reportedly continues to cast doubt on this correlation, with recent studies showing that some countries with the highest intakes of saturated fats have the lowest rates of heart disease, while populations with lower cholesterol intakes have higher mortality rates from cardiovascular problems.

“In the last 10 years, a theory that had somehow held up unsupported for nearly half a century has been rejected by several comprehensive evidence reviews, even as it staggers on, zombie-like, in our dietary guidelines and medical advice,” writes Leslie in examining how nutritionists have reacted to research challenging the status quo. He specifically takes aim at health authorities who have criticized Teicholz, Lustig and others even as they “slowly” back away from previous advice, “presumably in the hope that if no sudden movements are made, nobody will notice.”

“By opening the gates of publishing to all, the internet has flattened hierarchies everywhere they exist. We no longer live in a world in which elites of accredited experts are able to dominate conversations about complex or contested matters. Politicians cannot rely on the aura of office to persuade, newspapers struggle to assert the superior integrity of their stories. It is not clear that this change is, overall, a boon for the public realm. But in areas where experts have a track record of getting it wrong, it is hard to see how it could be worse,” concludes Leslie. “If ever there was a case that an information democracy, even a very messy one, is preferable to an information oligarchy, then the history of nutrition advice is it. In the past, we only had two sources of nutritional authority: our doctor and government officials. It was a system that worked well as long as the doctors and officials were informed by good science. But what happens if that cannot be relied on?”