When I was in elementary school, I would get the most terrible nosebleeds. Not the kind that went away quickly, but the kind that would put me in the nurse’s office with my head tipped back, pinching my nose for an hour. While I would sit there, my neck getting sore from looking up for so long, I would look at the food pyramid poster that was just above and to the right of her desk across the room. It had a black background with the classic cartoon images of bread, rice and grains on the bottom and ice cream and snack food on the top. To the left of her desk was a door with another poster on it; bottles of soda were lined up with mounds of refined sugar in front of them, designed to scare viewers away from the beverages. I was in second grade, and a mound of sugar didn’t look half bad.

These images are just two of the many pieces of propaganda that detail the government-approved answer to an impossible question: “What should we eat?”

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are based on the latest and greatest scientific research. These guidelines not only promote specific dietary habits for individuals, but also serve as the foundations of nutrition programs ranging from national policies to the posters in a small nurse’s office in Shelburne, Vt.

The problem is that nutritional guidelines tend to act a little more like the game of “telephone” than an instruction manual. Every once in a while, a guideline is blown out of proportion and causes unintended outcomes.

One example is cholesterol. People nearly stopped eating eggs and red meat due to the impression that consuming dietary cholesterol directly caused an increase in blood cholesterol levels. Cholesterol in the body is infinitely more complicated than such a linear pathway, and this myth has been (thankfully) debunked, so put an egg on your burger and dig in. 

More problematic is how the concept of a “low-fat diet” continues to be lost in translation. For years, the guidelines have instructed Americans to choose lean meats and reduce consumption of fats. But just as the game of telephone goes, this innocent advice has turned into a different beast all together. The concept of “low-fat” has become nearly synonymous with “all-carb,” and people can’t seem to let it go. It seems to be common sense that eating fat will make you fat.

Even Regina George says, “I can’t go to Taco Bell. I’m on an all-carb diet,” and when has “Mean Girls” ever steered us wrong? The words “fat free” are everywhere, plastered on billboards and menus alike.

What isn’t spelled out as clearly, however, is what is taking the place of these fats. By avoiding fats, people instead turn to what Jane Brody of The New York Times calls “two kinds of carbohydrates, refined starches and sugars.”

Brody goes on to claim that these carbohydrates “have helped to spawn the current epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.” In her article, Brody identifies that like cholesterol, not all fats and carbohydrates are created equal. The saturated animal-based fats can be harmful if eaten in great quantity, but unsaturated fats such as olive oil actually benefit cardiovascular health.

As Frank B. Hu, a professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said in Brody’s article, “We have to get out of the fat phobia mind-set.”

Similarly, simple and complex carbs can be good for you, with the main exception being refined carbohydrates. Refined carbs are “rapidly digested and absorbed” due to the absence of fiber. According to Brody, excess consumption of these carbs “can result in insulin resistance and contribute to fatty liver disease.”

The importance of reducing rates of cardiovascular disease in the United States cannot be overstated. In 2006, the estimated health care cost of cardiovascular disease amounted to $403 billion and 26.6 million adults are currently diagnosed with heart disease, making it the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. Dietary choices are one factor, but when other factors such as sedentary lifestyle are considered, the effects become much more prominent. In regard to the fat versus carbohydrate discussion, as Brody puts it, past guidelines “have caused the pendulum to swing too far in the wrong direction.”

All-carb diets are a bust. Not that I’m advocating for Taco Bell as a healthy option, but maybe Regina George wasn’t right after all.

Grace Carey can be reached at gecarey@umich.edu.

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