The Dangers of Simplified Narratives

By Asta Feng

In 2016, the New York Times published an article, “How the Sugar Industry shifted Blame to Fat.”  The piece set off a firestorm when it reported on a Journal of the American Medical Association article that claimed the Sugar Association effectively paid three Harvard researchers to publish a literature review. The literature review implicated saturated fat consumption rather than sugar consumption in the development of heart disease. The New York Times article goes on to claim that the bias presented in this review helped shape government policy as one of the authors of the study, D. Mark Hegsted, eventually became the head of nutrition for the United States Department of Agriculture and helped create the precursor of the government’s dietary guidelines. The New York Times posits that Hegsted’s involvement in policy led to the low-fat diet recommendations and the increase of modern day obesity, heart disease, and diabetes rates. By constructing the narrative in this way, the New York Times article gives its readers an easy-to-swallow conclusion—Big Sugar is responsible for our increasingly unhealthy lifestyles.

While this narrative presented by the New York Times article is convenient and palatable, it is also deeply flawed due to selective reporting. The narrative presented makes it seem that Hegsted wrote an article in 1967 on behalf of the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) after receiving money from the organization.

What the narrative fails to mention is that Hegsted had started researching the question of dietary fats, sugar, and heart disease risk in 1965 through his studies conducted at the Danvers State Hospital. In the study published in 1966, Hegsted  studied 2 groups of men at the hospital with different levels of vegetable oil, eggs, butterfat, starch, sugar, and lactose in their diets and measured their serum cholesterol levels. Through his work at Danvers, Hegsted concluded that, “the carbohydrate effects on serum cholesterol are of a much smaller order of magnitude than the fat effects and manipulation of the source of dietary carbohydrate would appear to add little to the dietary regulation of blood cholesterol.”

It was only after the conclusion of this study (ironically funded by the dairy industry) that the Sugar Research Foundation approached Hegsted and other Harvard scientists to write the 1967 article in question. The narrative presented by the New York Times conveniently omits this timeline. The true story behind the push of low-fat diets is far more complicated.

So why am I even talking about narratives in a nutrition blog, especially when I’m giving one that looks like I’m trying to exonerate the sugar industry? I’m talking about narratives because stories are what we as readers perceive. Stories hold our attention; the countless numbers presented in a technical scientific article from a reputable journal just bore us.

So the next time you read a newspaper article or watch a Netflix documentary on nutrition that has a simplified narrative, take a second to pause and think. The greater danger to your health is not the conflicting research about nutrition that comes out regularly, but rather choosing to believe in a flawed narrative and dismissing emerging research that does not subscribe to that narrative. In today’s ever more growing complex society, we need to stop searching for easy answers.

Peer-reviewed by Anandita Pal

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