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Why We Got Fatter During the Fat-Free Food Boom

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Photo by Youtube and RetroJunk

The 1990s were rife with low-fat packaged snacks, from potato chips to cookies.

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Photo by alsis35/Flickr

These dishes rich in saturated fat — chicken a la King, curry-buttered waffles, broccoli and a peach snowball — were featured in a magazine in 1954.

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Photo by Courtesy of U.S. Senate

A 1954 menu from a Capitol Hill restaurant

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Photo by USCapitol/Flickr

George Laird Shoup was the first Governor of Idaho and later became a Senator. He died in 1904, and his statue represents corpulence as a sign of power.

If you want to trace Americans' fear of fat, the place to start is the U.S. Senate, during the steamy days of July 1976.

That's when Sen. George McGovern called a hearing to raise attention to the links between diet and disease.

And what was the urgency? After years of living high-on-the-hog, enjoying lunches of steak with claret sauce, buttered succotash and pineapple cheesecake — dishes we found on a 1954 Capitol Hill restaurant menu — prosperity began to cast a dark shadow within the halls of Congress.

"If you look a the statistics, members were dying at a rather high rate," Senate historian Don Ritchie tells us.

And there was a hint that the American diet might be to blame.

This was a time when it was not uncommon for men to drop dead of heart attacks. And by our count, eight U.S. Senators died in office of heart disease during the 1960s and 1970s.

"When you have have colleagues die, and die prematurely," says Ritchie, that's sort of a wake-up call.

The harms of smoking were already on the radar. The new concern was the connection between diet and heart disease.

Scientists had evidence that foods with saturated fat such as egg and meat could raise LDL cholesterol. But there were a lot of complexities that scientists didn't yet understand. And there was not a lot of data.

So, when Sen. McGovern, a Democrat of South Dakota, called his hearing, he summoned the likes of Nathan Pritikin, a longevity guru who believed you could reverse heart disease with diet changes. And he called as a witness a Harvard University professor who pointed to the harms of the over-consumption of fat.

The hearing led to the creation of the first set of dietary goals for Americans.

"The thinking of the day is that you wanted to reduce fat," science writer Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, says.

And, Taubes says, once fat was fingered as the villain, the thinking was that any way Americans could get fat out of their diets would be a good thing.

"And if we did it merely by replacing fatty milk, cheese and meat with carbohydrates such as pasta, potatoes and rice," Taubes says, the theory was that we would live longer, and be thinner.

So, one of the top goals listed in the original dietary goals: Eat more carbs.

"In retrospect, it's kind of amazing, but this was the thinking at the time," Taubes says.

Now to be fair, the kinds of carbs the authors of the guidelines had in mind were whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

But this message was lost in translation. What did Americans hear? Fat is bad, carbs are good.

And the food industry saw the low-fat, high-carb mantra as an opportunity to create a whole new range of products. Remember fat-free frozen yogurt, fat free muffins and cookies. The formula was this: take out the fat, add in lots of sugar.

By the early 90s, foods with little or no fat flew off the shelves. Pretzels were good (no fat), nuts were bad (loaded with fat). Baked potatoes were ok, but hold the sour cream. And salads? Sure, greens are great, but no oily salad dressing.

Lots of you told us in our survey, that you remember this fat free mania well. And that it didn't work out so well for you.

And Taubes argues, it was disastrous for the country.

"Right around this time [when people start eating more refined grains and sugar] is when Americans started getting fatter and fatter, and more diabetic" Taubes says.

So, in trying to address one problem, hearts disease by cutting way back on fat, many experts we talked to agreed that the original dietary goals may have helped fuel these problems.[diabetes and obesity]

"There were definitely unintended consequences of the original guidelines" Mary Flynn, a professor of Medicine at Brown University told us.

She says , if you look at the results of studies where participants were following low-fat diets, there's no convincing evidence that this pattern of eating cuts the risk of disease

"There have been a number of studies" Flynn told us "and there's no benefit for low-fat diets to lead to better weight loss and no benefit for low-fat diets to lead to less disease."

One, example: the results of the Women's Health Initiative study published in 2006 that included thousands of women.

It's complicated to look back over 40 years and tease out an independent effect of diet on heart disease.

And why? Americans have changed many other habits. For instance, many people stopped smoking, started exercising., and began taking statin medicines to control cholesterol.

But, what's become clear, Flynn says is that avoiding FAT is NOT the key to a healthy diet.

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