Programme Review – The men who made us fat

I just finished watching a new show on BBC 2 called The men who made us fat. It was part 1 of a 3 part documentary series discussing how the obesity epidemic occurred in both the United States and the United Kingdom. For more information on the program you can catch the summary below on the BBC site

The Good
The good part about the show is it went into some of the political manoeuvrings which took place both in government and the food lobby which helped create a situation where we see a lot of processed junk food on the shelves of supermarkets today. Key points included the adoption in the USA of policies designed to raise the production of corn to raise standards of living among American farmers and also to ensure the votes of rural voters during a tight election in 1972. This led to the overproduction of cheap, subsidised corn which has led to corn based products becoming ubiquitous in American food products including corn fed cattle, corn in condiments, and the inclusion of high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks. The programme makers clearly felt and argued that it was the rise in sugar consumption in general, and high fructose corn syrup in particular which was fuelling the obesity epidemic.
The programme makers also took opinions from some well known figures in health and fitness including Dr. Robert Lustig who has previously made the case against fructose consumption, and Gary Taubes, a well known author who advocates low carbohydrate diets as being superior to the type of high carbohydrate, low fat diet which the programme makers said was the result of food lobby policies. The programme makers explored in brief some of the neuroscience behind food selection showing via MRI scans that the very sight of high sugar/high fat food provokes a strong response in the brain.
Predator Nutrition Obesity 1
The programme concluded by showing how lobbying by the sugar lobby led to the acceptance within government that fat was the macronutrient that could be safely attacked by public health policy without arising the ire of the powerful groups representing the sugar lobby. In fact, by publicly castigating fat, it gave the opportunity for the food manufacturers to produce and market a range of low fat products which consumers falsely believed could not make them fat, with the fat in products often replaced with sugar to make them more palatable.
The Bad
One thing you tend to see a lot in mainstream television shows is a false dichotomy presented as fact. In this particular case, the programme appears to be one which is presenting a choice of obesity being down to fat or carbohydrate consumption and presented arguments from those who are anti-carbohydrate and, for the sake of minimal balance, presented a historical perspective on how fat came to be demonised on the basis of scientists concluding that poor heart health in the United Kingdom was attributable to our high fat diets several decades ago. Unfortunately, presenting this debate with nobody around who they interviewed to support it showed straight away that the programme intended to make sugar the villain of the piece. This continued as a theme throughout the show with only a nodding reference to overall calories being key to determining weight gain alongside patterns of exercise.
Predator Nutrition Obesity 2
My Comments
While the programme presents an interesting thesis the argument is flawed both by the lack of balance and the fact that the programme makers pay scant attention to other factors which, since the 1970′s, have made life easier for people leading to both less formal and informal physical activity. Witness the rise of remote controls, and modern household conveniences such as microwaves as factors that lower peoples’ energy output while the decline in the Uk in particular of formal exercise in school has led to a generation of unfit people.
A more honest and realistic analysis would include the above and also make the point that there is no either/or dichotomy when it comes to fats versus carbohydrates. Rather, it is not specific macronutrients that make anybody fat but overall caloric consumption per day minus caloric expenditure. The programme spent quite a bit of time talking about the evils of high fructose corn syrup but I wonder how many viewers of the programme realise that high fructose corn syrup is practically identical to normal table sugar. HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose  while table sugar (sucrose)  is 50% of each. While the programme talked a little about how fructose can more easily trigger fat deposition and inhibit the action of leptin, they ignored other evidence discussed in our article on fructose and visceral fat which showed a fructose preload decreased subsequent caloric consumption (1). Having said that we would repeat our advice to moderate fructose consumption and keep it at a maximum of 50g of fructose a day.
I guess the interesting thing is that as athletes we are most unlikely to be the kinds of individuals who would consume litres of soft drinks a day but, for those who do, it bears repeating from our piece on fructose that the kind of obese person who consumes a glut of soft drinks is more likely to consume more food the following day according to one study (2). Therefore while the programme makers should have stressed the importance of caloric balance as being fundamentally important and paid more attention to the lack of exercise rather than demonising sugars, it is worth saying that for the average obese American, an excess of fructose consumption could potentially play a role in triggering increases in appetite and play a small part to play in the obesity epidemic.
I’ll be interested to see what part 2 of this programme brings but for now I
will reserve judgement.
Author: Reggie Johal
Recommended reading
1. Monsivais Sugars and Satiety (2007) Does the type of sweetener make a difference
2. Teff KL, et al. Dietary fructose reduces circulating insulin and leptin, attenuates postprandial suppression of ghrelin, and increases triglycerides in women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004 Jun;89(6):2963-72.

© 2012, Reggie Johal. All rights reserved.

About Reggie Johal

Reggie Johal is a former Great Britain American Football player and the founder of Predator Nutrition. He has a strong background in strength and fitness coaching with articles published in Flex and other leading online and print magazines.

8 thoughts on “Programme Review – The men who made us fat

  1. I get sick of hearing about calories in vs calories out as if the body is just a calculator, it is far more complex than that. Yes they are important to use as a guideline but the composition of the intake is of primary importance. Clearly someone who consumes 2500kcal/day from lean meats and vegetables would have a better physique than someone whose diet was made up of 2500kcal/day from biscuits. Many other factors such as endocrine related factors and TEF need to be considered.

  2. Calories in vs calories out is a load of rubbish. Read Zoe Harcombe’s take on it to understand why. I eat loads of calories and I am losing weight. Carbs encourage insulin resistant people to produce excess insulin which is stored as fat, and encourages fat storage anyway. It has nothing to do with calories control. Calorie controlled diets equal starvation – eat 500 calories a day, you will lose weight. Continue to eat 500 calories less, continue to lose weight. Of course you will. This is called starvation and any idiot can do it. Some take it to an extreme. But I would suugest you try asking an anorexic if their diet is healthy.
    Just look at what happens when you STOP cutting that 500 calories but haven’t worked out exactly how your body is coping with the food you are eating. You will put all the weight back on.
    The ONLY argument for cutting calories intake is when it causes a blood glucose level spike – like if I eat too much chicken, my BG’s sometimes go up two points.

    • Mayfly – your comment on carbohydrates stimulatation of insulin production because of the sugar, this is not good for those that are insulin resistant as they over use the cells producing insulin increasing insulin resistance and the overuse of the liver trying to compensate. This will eventually finish and result in the development of type 2 diabetes.
      Calories is a very important part of weight control and loss as well as a balanced diet. Your body works on calories, and if you do not exercise and balance the calories you will gain weight. And in the same sense if you eat only 1500 calories a day but this is high fat and sugar products this is equally not going to be good for you.
      In my work I have seen patients struggling with obesity that may eat healthy, but they eat TOO much. This is because the amount of calories they are taking in, you might eat healthy and balanced but portion control is a huge part to any healthy diet.
      A low calorie diet cannot be compared to the condition of anorexia nervosa, this is a complex psychological disease that is not just about diet but in my the need for control.
      Calories is not directly linked to blood glucose levels, blood glucose is a complex mechanism of control. Spikes after food is perfectly normal, and return to normal levels can take up to 2 hours. Certain foods will cause greater increase in glucose levels because of that composition of foods, a spike due to chicken is unlikely as the high protein food wouldn’t cause a glucose spike unless it is because what you are eating it with or how it is cooked.

      Overall on this program though I would like to comment there is an obvious influence of the advertising companies have on our diets and the availability of products has a contributing factor. I did not agree with the approach of the program that is takes the responsibility of the person away from them. We are responsible for our diets and if we want to change and how we control our lives. Modern society like to pass the responsibility onto anyone else but take credit for the messes we create. Sugar is not the only problem, there are many factors that influence obesity but it is our own fault for the way society has developed an obesity epidemic. I will stress again fad diets are not sustainable or promoted by health care professionals, a healthy balanced diet and calorie intake appropriate for age and level of exercise activity is the way to lose weight gradually and a healthy way.

  3. Mayfly – Every single study bar none shows a caloric deficit is the critical requirement for losing weight. In fact, low carb versus high carb diets have been compared a few times and in every study there is no benefit in terms of weight loss when controlled for calories.

    Insulin is commonly considered to be the only mechanism by which nutrients are stored in the body but this is simply not correct. For instance, in the presence of diminished carbohydrate intake the body will very effectively store fat via the action of ASP.

    Having said that, nobody who reads this blog will advocate starving we hope and the use of strategies such as a high protein diet, liberal use of fibrous vegetables etc will go some toward easing the burden of a strict diet.

    • Except that I KNOW this not to be true! I am eating lots of fat, lots of calories and little or no carbs. Since my blood glucose levels have dropped, I have continued to lose weight. When they were high, even when I was eating virtually nothing but ‘healthy’ food, I put on weight.
      What I’m saying about starvation is that ‘controlling’ calorie intake is in effect, starving yourself. Cutting back on calories in a diet which has a wide range of protein and carbs is still going to make you cut back on carbs. Plus, no doubt *your* body works properly, so the mechanism by which you control your BG’s is the normal one. For an insulin resistant type 2 diabetic, eating carbs is simply no longer an option. Not that that is a problem for me. But I can tell you it works.

  4. Hi, does anyone know what the book was called that was mentioned at the end of the programme – something called – ‘The bad white stuff’ or something like that – all about how bad sugar is for us – thanks

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