Dietary Guidelines and the Tower of Babel: why the schemes of government fail

In his fascinating article about John Yudkin published earlier this month (see my previous post), Ian Leslie tells an interesting story.

In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them, food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. In 1983, the UK government issued advice that closely followed the American example.

The most prominent recommendation of both governments was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol (this was the first time that the public had been advised to eat less of something, rather than enough of everything). Consumers dutifully obeyed. We replaced steak and sausages with pasta and rice, butter with margarine and vegetable oils, eggs with muesli, and milk with low-fat milk or orange juice. But instead of becoming healthier, we grew fatter and sicker.

Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. In the UK, the line is flat for decades until the mid-1980s, at which point it also turns towards the sky. Only 6% of Britons were obese in 1980. In the next 20 years that figure more than trebled. Today, two thirds of Britons are either obese or overweight, making this the fattest country in the EU. Type 2 diabetes, closely related to obesity, has risen in tandem in both countries.”

And Ian Leslie comments: “At best, we can conclude that the official guidelines did not achieve their objective; at worst, they led to a decades-long health catastrophe.” Or, to put it another way, they achieved exactly the opposite of what was intended.

One of the things that struck me is that these were (according to Leslie) the first dietary guidelines ever issued by the U.S. government. Apparently, before this, those with political power had not told people what they should be eating – at least, not in America.

However, if one goes back into ancient history, I know of at least one example of a government official issuing dietary recommendations for healthy eating. It is found in the first chapter of the book of Daniel. Daniel and his fellow civil servants in training were recommended by a top government official called Ashpenaz to follow a particular diet which he believed would be healthy. Daniel and some friends didn’t want to follow the diet and suggested an alternative. The government official was clearly unhappy but agreed to an empirical study under carefully controlled conditions to compare the effects of the two diets. (OK, perhaps it wasn’t quite up to the standards of modern scientific investigation, but by the standards of the sixth century B.C., I’m sure it was very rigorous.) Daniel and his friends stuck to one diet, and the other trainees followed the official government guidelines. At the end of the 10 day test, the diet followed by Daniel and his friends proved to be more effective that the officially sanctioned diet. (Interestingly, for them, ‘healthy’ included “fatter in flesh” so obesity clearly wasn’t a major worry.) History does not record that the authorities changed their advice and recommended the “Daniel Diet”, but at least Daniel and his friends were allowed to remain on it.

But the point is that just as the dietary advice of some modern governments seems to have been mistaken, the same was true in ancient times.

But this is not just about what we eat. If a government policy with regard to food can turn out to be so mistaken as to have the opposite result to the one intended, surely this could also be the case with government policies in hundreds of other areas. Indeed, one would have thought that it was easier to get dietary advice correct than to get other matters of government correct. After all, one can, in theory, do strictly controlled scientific tests to find the effect of diet and nutrition on people. Doing strictly controlled tests in matters of economic, education, or foreign policy is much, much, more difficult.

And one does not have to look very hard for examples of government policies that seem to have achieved exactly the opposite of what was intended. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the US government supported the efforts of the government of Colombia to wipe out the Medellin Cartel, who controlled much of the Colombian cocaine trade. The policy was successful in that the Medellin Cartel was destroyed. However, it didn’t end the production of cocaine in Colombia, or the importing of that cocaine into America. Indeed, the supply of Colombian cocaine on the streets of America seems to have actually increased after the destruction of the cartel.

And then there is the case of the American “War on Terrorism” launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the associated invasion of Iraq in 2003. Before the invasion, Iraq was a somewhat stable country with a secular government, with fairly good freedom of religion by Middle Eastern standards. Today, most of the Christian community has fled because of intimidation and persecution, and the country remains in a state of civil war, where suicide bombings are commonplace (they were very rare before the 2003 invasion). And of course, much of the country is controlled by Islamic State. Not only is this not what the American and British governments intended to happen – it looks remarkably like being the opposite of what was intended.

In other words, it is not just in matters of dietary advice that governments manage to achieve the opposite of what they intend; it is something that happens in many areas. And yet governments continue to pursue great schemes, confidently promising certain results, and remarkable numbers of people continue to believe them.

This remarkable self-confidence of governments brings us back to Daniel. For the king whose governing official gave dietary advice to Daniel and his friends was Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon. And Nebuchadnezzar was a man who had great confidence in his own ability to achieve things. And this comes to a head in chapter 4 of the book of Daniel (verses 29-32):

At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”

Nebuchadnezzar had a very high estimate of his own power and ability, and had no hesitation in attributing Babylon’s greatness to himself. Modern governments likewise tend to attribute things that go well to their own policies, abilities and powers, and I strongly suspect that most rulers think that if they had a few more powers, they could make things go ever better. It seems to me that not only the book of Daniel, but also the evidence of recent history, should make us question that assumption.

But there is another thing that is interesting. In the Bible, “Babylon” is more than just a great city: it is a symbol of human power. In the book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, the great world power is called Babylon, despite the fact that at the time of writing the actual city of Babylon had been in ruins for hundreds of years. But Babylon also appears right at the beginning of the Bible – under the name “Babel”. And in the Bible, both the Babylon in Daniel’s time and the Babylon in the book of Revelation look back to that earlier Babylon that we call Babel.

And so what happens to Babel is instructive. A policy is announced, with a clear objective: “they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’” The purpose of building the tower was so that they would not be scattered over the whole earth. They carried out the policy, at great effort (and, no doubt expense). And what happened? God had a look, didn’t like it, and threw them into confusion so that they couldn’t understand each other. And the final result? What happened was exactly the opposite of what they intended: God dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

The Tower of Babel is a reminder that the schemes of the leaders of nations often come to naught, and that the actual consequence of policies is sometimes the opposite of the intended consequence. As the psalmist put it (Psalm 146:3): “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”


On full cream milk, sugar, the corruption of science, and the virtue of humility

Some advice for people who are interested in finding the truth (and why I drink whole milk instead of semi-skimmed)

Over 20 years ago, I had a short conversation in a supermarket which, in a small way, was life changing. I was in what was then the Nisa shop in Aberfeldy, and was putting some milk in my shopping basket, and I looked up and saw a lady of my acquaintance. I said something rather apologetic about buying full cream milk instead of semi-skimmed, and she immediately responded by telling me that there was no reason to apologise: full cream milk was healthier than semi-skimmed.

In fact, the lady had actually written a book on the subject of diet. Her name was Maisie Steven, and the first edition of her book The Good Scots Diet had been published a few years before. “And”, she assured me, “Doctor Yellowlees thinks the same.”

Now this was interesting. A doctor who believed in using full cream milk instead of semi-skimmed? This came as a surprise. And furthermore, Doctor Yellowlees was known for taking an interest in nutrition. He was now retired, but in his many years as a GP in Aberfeldy, he had actively encouraged his patients to pursue a healthy diet, and was well known for doing so. And he had written all about it in his book,  A Doctor in the Wilderness.

So, as a result of this conversation, I bought a copy of Dr. Yellowlees’ book. And reading it did change my life, in that it changed my eating habits. Specifically, it made me cut down on anything that contained processed sugar. And one of the sources that Dr. Yellowlees quoted in his argument in favour of cutting down on sugar was a book entitled Pure, White and Deadly by John Yudkin. (I have also continued to full cream milk, though I did notice that as the years passed, semi-skimmed would increasingly becoming the standard default variety of milk. But that’s another story.)

I mention all this because of a fascinating article by Ian Leslie published in the Guardian last week. Read it and weep. It isn’t short, but it’s worth the time. Leslie tells the story of what happened to Yudkin (who was professor of nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College, London, from 1954 tot 1971) because of his views about sugar:

When, in 1957, John Yudkin first floated his hypothesis that sugar was a hazard to public health, it was taken seriously, as was its proponent. By the time Yudkin retired, 14 years later, both theory and author had been marginalised and derided. Only now is Yudkin’s work being returned, posthumously, to the scientific mainstream.”

But the criticism Yudkin faced was not just because of his views on the dangers of sugar. It was also because he questioned the link between high amounts of saturated fat in the diet and heart disease. He argued that fat in the diet (even saturated fat and cholesterol) was not the big problem.

And research has backed him up:

repeated attempts to prove a correlation between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol failed. For the vast majority of people, eating two or three, or 25 eggs a day, does not significantly raise cholesterol levels. One of the most nutrient-dense, versatile and delicious foods we have was needlessly stigmatised. The health authorities have spent the last few years slowly backing away from this mistake, presumably in the hope that if no sudden movements are made, nobody will notice. In a sense, they have succeeded: a survey carried out in 2014 by Credit Suisse found that 54% of US doctors believe that dietary cholesterol raises blood cholesterol.

That is shocking enough. But here is something even more shocking:

“The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute decided to go all in, commissioning the largest controlled trial of diets ever undertaken. . . . At the end of the trial, it was found that women on the low-fat diet were no less likely than the control group to contract cancer or heart disease. This caused much consternation. The study’s principal researcher, unwilling to accept the implications of his own findings, remarked: “We are scratching our heads over some of these results.” A consensus quickly formed that the study – meticulously planned, lavishly funded, overseen by impressively credentialed researchers – must have been so flawed as to be meaningless.”

Note the words “unwilling to accept” and “a consensus quickly formed”.

In the last 10 years, things have started to change. Studies are increasingly questioning the links between dietary fat and heart disease. Yudkin’s Pure, White and Deadly was republished after being out of print for years. And yet, according to Ian Leslie, “Many nutritionists refused to accept these conclusions. The journal that published [a study that questioned the link between a high intake of saturated fat and heart disease] prefaced it with a rebuttal . . . which implied that since [the] findings contradicted every national and international dietary recommendation, they must be flawed.” Leslie adds “The circular logic is symptomatic of a field with an unusually high propensity for ignoring evidence that does not fit its conventional wisdom. “

One of the things that I find particularly striking about the article is what it says about the scientific community and scientific knowledge.

The scientific community is made up of human beings, who sometimes use flawed logic, and who can sometimes be very unwilling to listen to anything that challenges a current consensus. As I read this, what struck me was what Ian Leslie was saying echoed things that I had read about other fields of scientific enquiry – completely unrelated to nutrition and diet.

About the same time that I read Doctor in the Wilderness, I read Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson, Professor of Law at the University of California, who looked at the evidence for the Darwinian theory of evolution. In the book, Johnson also described the reaction of the scientific community to scientists who questioned the current scientific consensus. It was very similar to the way that the nutrition science community responded to those who questioned the link between dietary fat and heart disease.

More recently, I read Andrew Montford’s The Hockey Stick Illusion which describes the reaction of the climate science community to the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick who questioned the way climate scientist Michael Mann (no relation) had analysed his data, thus throwing into doubt his conclusions.

In all three cases – the link between dietary fat and heart disease, the theory of evolution, and climate change – the same pattern emerged. A consensus was challenged, and those who challenged it faced derision, sneering, and personal attack. And in all three cases, the scientific establishment was, at the very least, complicit in that treatment.

Andrew Montford’s The Hockey Stick Illusion has a significant subtitle: “Climategate and the corruption of science.” And that is also what Philip Johnson and Ian Leslie were pointing to. Science was corrupted. As Ian Leslie says, scientific inquiry is “prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. ” As a result, scientific knowledge, even in the 21st century, is very incomplete.  And yet we think we know everything, because we compare ourselves only with  previous generations.  But in 200 years, people will, no doubt, see us as outdated and ignorant.  

And the moral of the story? Surely it is that it is that we should be suspicious of charismatic figures, cautious about accepting opinions simply because they are those of the majority (i.e. those that are currently fashionable), and willing to listen to those who are challenging prevailing orthodoxies.

Perhaps above, all, the moral is that we should be prepared to admit it when the evidence suggests that we are wrong. There is a lot to be said for open-mindedness and humility.