Modern medicine (and doctors who practice it) is incredible at triage care. If you’re in a car accident, you’re in luck: doctors and the medical system is well set up to ensure you have a safe and healthy recovery. There are thousands of studies, clinical trials and all sorts of scientific rigor going into many of western medicine’s recommendations.
In areas like nutrition? Not so much.
I’m seeing more and more people rely on randomized clinical trials and research to make any sort of nutritional recommendation. If there’s not a randomized clinical trial (RCT, the gold standard for determining causation in a study) that points to clear evidence of harm or benefit, they refuse to believe it.
Nowhere do I see this more than when talking about vegetable oils.
I’ve talked about vegetable oils before, and my friend Jeff Nobbs has written extensively on the topic + why they’re bad for you. Between looking at the studies and thinking from 1st principles, I feel pretty damn confident that vegetable oils and their high omega-6 and linoleic acid content are absolutely harmful to humans.
Yet if you ask the average MD that’s been chirping me on Twitter, they think I’m an idiot for claiming vegetable oils are a root cause of the decades-long decline in American health.
To explain why I think they’re wrong – and why I think “experts” regularly get this stuff wrong – let’s talk about trans fats.
Today, it’s commonly known that trans fats are Bad. They’re causally linked to heart disease (the leading cause of death among Americans), and banning them is estimated to save something like 90,000 lives each year (!!). Artificial trans fats are really, really bad.
Scientists first published studies in the 1950s that pointed towards this stuff being very not good for humans. At the time, trans fats were being added to processed foods to increase shelf stability and flavor, and were marketed as a “healthy alternative” to saturated fats.
In the 60s and 70s, Dr. Fred Kummerow and other researchers had mounting evidence that trans fats were bad for you. In 1976, they presented such evidence to the FDA as part of an FDA evaluation to determine if trans fats were “generally recognized as safe”.
Despite the evidence, trans fats were given the “generally recognized as safe” designation, opening the floodgates for food companies all over the country to use trans fats in any and all products.
Not only were these products given the FDA’s blessing, but scientists working for big food companies worked hard to cast doubt on any and all anti trans fat research. From an excellent article on the history of trans fats:
In the ’80s, scientists employed by Kraft and Procter & Gamble — Dr. Thomas Applewhite and Dr. J. Edward Hunter — would routinely unpick and cast doubt on the emerging science of trans fat’s health harms, often in journal articles.
The pair would also work behind the scenes, according to investigative reporter Nina Teicholz, finding ways of getting papers that were critical of trans fats reviewed negatively in the pre-publication academic peer review process. As one colleague of Applewhite’s said, “Protecting trans fats from the taint of negative scientific findings was our charge.”
Sounds a bit like when the sugar industry paid scientists to blame fat for health issues!
Anyway – as time ticked on, evidence mounted that trans fats were harmful. In 1994 – a full 17 years after the FDA had recognized trans fats as safe, and 40 years after they were first associated with harm – the scientific advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to add trans fats to nutrition labels. A move the FDA complied with… 12 years later in 2006.
After years of mounting evidence – and after 4 years of waiting for a response to his petition to ban trans fats – in 2013 our heroic Dr. Kummerow finally sued the FDA to respond to his petition and to ban partially hydrogenated oils unless evidence could be found for their safety.
Surprise surprise – no evidence was found. 3 months after the lawsuit, the FDA announced they would no longer recognize trans fats safety. A full 37 years after recognizing them as safe for human consumption.
Let’s think about this for a second. For 60 years after the first studies indicating trans fats may cause heart disease, the FDA + scientific consensus was that trans fats were basically fine. Had you spoken up in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s about how these things might be bad for you, most scientists would have laughed you out of the room and tarred you a science-hating bumpkin. Show me the RCT, silly science skeptic!
With vegetable oils, well, unfortunately, I think the same shit is happening again. I’m seeing “experts” rely on scientific consensus and ignore studies that point towards issues with vegetable oils. These same experts don’t think from 1st principles, and won’t believe anything that doesn’t explicitly come out of a randomized controlled trial.
Nevermind that humans today are sicker than they ever have been. And nevermind that for millions of years, humans have thrived on a variety of diets, yet never has there been a diet in history so high in omega-6s.
Just thinking from 1st principles, it seems unlikely that we humans can be totally peachy consuming upwards of 30% of our calories in the form of extremely processed vegetable oils, when 100 years ago this stuff practically did not exist in the human diet. We’re consuming highly processed seed + vegetable oils in amounts never before seen in human history – why wouldn’t this have a major impact on our health?
Today, the food industry spends more than $12 billion a year funding nutrition studies (while the NIH spends only $1 billion), polluting and diluting independent research and confusing policy makers, the public, doctors and nutritionists.
In a time where most nutrition studies are funded by Big Food and Americans are sicker than ever, all I think one can do is rely on first principles to navigate through the current mess that are our sensemaking institutions. Even if that means ignoring some recommendations from credentialed experts.5