DRI-295 for week of 5-4-14: Put Your Faith in Markets, Not Science: The Saturated-Fat Scandal

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Put Your Faith in Markets, Not Science: The Saturated-Fat Scandal

“Saturated fat does not cause heart disease.” That was the conclusion of a study published in the March, 2014 issue of the respected medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine. It is also the opening line of an essay in the “Review” section of the Saturday-Sunday, May 3-4, 2014 issue of The Wall Street Journal. The author, Nina Teicholz, is a journalist whose decade-long research on the relationship between dietary fat and disease will appear in the publication of her book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, due for publication on May 13.

Ms. Teicholz’s article tells the revealing tale behind the demonization of saturated fat as the leading culprit behind coronary artery disease. In itself, it is a morbidly fascinating cautionary tale of a scientific scandal. But the larger significance of her story is its status as one more exhibit in the intellectual case against science and in favor of free markets.

For over a century, Americans have been beguiled by a vision of science that accompanied the progressive political movement in the early 20th century. We have been entreated to embrace science as our only bulwark against ignorance, superstition, bigotry and obscurantism. Scientists in white coats have replaced clergy as the public repository for blind trust. Scientists are seen as disinterested seekers after truth, sworn to uphold the scientific method, wedded to the laboratory.

This attitude is difficult to reconcile with the story told by Ms. Teicholz, in which “nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.” Uh-oh. Is this an aberration – or is this really the way science does business?

Faithful readers of these EconBriefs will recall a previous column that blamed the nutrition establishment for our current “epidemic” of Type II diabetes. That story is now being told to mainstream America by professional journalists. We will put Ms. Teicholz’s cautionary tale under a microscope. Then we will put it on the scales of history and weigh its evidentiary content in the balance between science and markets.

“Eating Fat Makes Us Fat” – The Triumph of Intuition Over Experience

Personality isn’t supposed to play a role in science. Only results are supposed to count, obtained via the scientific method, scrutinized and verified by peer review after being subjected to the test of falsification.

Yet the evangelist against saturated fat, Dr. Ancel Benjamin Keys of the University of Minnesota, was “formidably persuasive and, through sheer force of will, rose to the top of the nutrition world – even gracing the cover of Time Magazine – for relentlessly championing the idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol and, as a result, cause heart attacks.”

Keys was “in an excellent position to promote his idea” because he headed up a study on nutrition and heart disease. Ms. Teicholz uses the word “promote” advisedly, since his approach resembled that of P.T. Barnum more than that of Jonas Salk. Keys had to pick countries from which to examine nutrition data. He chose the ones favorable to his preconceptions – Yugoslavia, Finland and Italy. He ignored those that would have overturned his thesis – France, Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. Most outrageous of all was Keys’ research on the island of Crete.

Keys’ research subjects on Crete supposedly included relatively poor farmers who worked in the fields well into old age and whose diets were largely bereft of meat and cheese. In reality, the actual sample from which conclusions were drawn consisted of only a few dozen men rather than the initial random sample of 655. The diets were surveyed during Lent, when the men were giving up meat and cheese for religious reasons. And the research took place during the time of privation immediately after World War II, when shortages and rationing drove up prices and made meat expensive. Thus, meat was temporarily less attractive rather than traditionally shunned.

According to the precepts of science, studies should be available for replication and verification by peers. This is done to weed out bad science and discourage intellectual fraud. Sure enough, scientists reviewed Keys’ work in Crete – but they didn’t get around to it until 2002. “…By then,” Teicholz observes chillingly, “the misimpression left by his erroneous data had become international dogma.”

The snowball Dr. Keys formed gradually became an avalanche. He joined the nutrition committee of a sleepy organization called the American Heart Association. AHA was becoming prominent in proportion to the increasing prevalence of heart disease in the American population. In 1961, AHA issued the first in a long series of dietary guidelines warning against saturated fat in the diet. This attitude spread throughout the federal government to the Department of Agriculture.

Research trials using vegetable oils in cooking produced results favorable to the saturated-fat hypothesis. The controls on these studies, or rather the lack of them, made them suspect. Subjects migrated in and out of the studies, making their behavior difficult to monitor. Smokers were commingled with non-smokers, introducing a confounding causal variable. By today’s standards, the studies were shockingly lax.

“But there was no turning back: Too much institutional energy and research money had already been spent trying to prove Dr. Keys’s hypothesis. A bias in its favor had grown so strong that the idea just started to seem like common sense.” In 1977, Harvard professor Mark Hegsted’s testimony persuaded the U.S. Senate to recommend a diet low in saturated fat for the entire nation. “Important benefits could be expected, he argued. And the risks? ‘None can be identified,’ he said.”

This was the watershed moment. The imprimatur of the federal government was stamped on a scientific hypothesis that was given a blanket recommendation to the American public. That hypothesis was the product of shoddy science conducted by a fast-talking promoter. The benefits of the hypothesis were purely hypothetical. Its risks were completely overlooked.

This is exactly the sort of outcome that left-wing progressives have long ascribed to free-market capitalism. Their presumption provided the signature rationale for government regulation of private business. This sort of outcome is allegedly precluded by the safeguards implanted by the scientific method.

 

Yet this was exactly the outcome achieved by scientists themselves, operating within the government itself. And subsequently this outcome was ratified by thousands of scientists throughout the system.

The Degradation of Science

There may be readers who find this verdict too harsh. This was a one-time failure, they may feel, the result of a constellation of unforeseen and unforeseeable forces, no more typical of science than a serial killer is typical of humanity at large. Very well. Let us finish the story and bring our cautionary tale up to date by way of responding to these objections.

In the end, it will be all too clear that the saturated fat fiasco was not unforeseeable. “In fact, even back then, other scientists were warning about the diet’s unintended consequences. Today, we are dealing with the reality that these have [introduced].”

Eating less fat means eating more carbohydrates. Americans constantly face the charge of being self-indulgent, undisciplined eaters. The truth is that consumption of saturated fat has fallen by 11% since the 1970s. Meanwhile, Americans are eating 25% more carbohydrates since the 1970s. And consumption of grains has increased 50% since the 1970s.

Fat is one of the principal elements of taste in food. Remove it, and you take away much of the taste. Tasteless food does not sell well. The cheapest, easiest and most tasteful substitute for fat in food is something sweet. That means sugar in any of numerous forms: fructose, sucrose, maltose and others.

In addition to taste, fat also adds texture. This is where carbohydrates enter in other forms, such as grains and starches.

The substitution of sugars, starches and grains for fat was not condemned by the nutrition establishment. In fact, it was encouraged. Although sugar was considered basically non-nutritive – “empty calories” was the phrase most often used – it was viewed as lower in calories than fat per unit of weight. Teicholz notes that the AHA recommended “soft drinks” as a beverage snack until 1999 and “gum-drops” and “hard candies made primarily with sugar” in preference to fatty snacks as recently as 2001.

This was bad enough. But there was even more bad news in store. “The second big unintended consequence of our shift away from animal fats is that we’re now consuming more vegetable oils. Butter and lard had long been staples of the American pantry until Crisco, introduced in 1911, became the first vegetable-based fat to win wide acceptance in U.S. kitchens. Then came margarines made from vegetable oil and then just plain vegetable oil in bottles.”

Proctor & Gamble, the manufacturer of Crisco, helped raise funds for the AHA, which in turn created the image of cooking with “heart-healthy” vegetable oils. In contrast to the left-wing view of intractable, intransigent American consumers, we devote 7-8% of all calories in our foods to vegetable oils – “the biggest increase in consumption of any type of food over the past century,” according to Teicholz. In 1900, our consumption of vegetable oils was virtually non-existent.

If that sounds like a good thing to you, get ready for a shock. The earliest clinical studies – not recent research conducted by an author selling a low-carb diet, say – found that people who consumed larger amounts of vegetable oils were more prone to get cancer and gallstones. More bizarrely, they were also more likely to die in violent accidents and by suicide. Health officials still struggle to explain these results.

The earliest experiments on animals also revealed that oxidation of vegetable oils when heated by cooking produced cirrhosis of the liver and increased the likelihood of early death. For just these reasons, vegetable oils were turned into stable solids that were less vulnerable to oxidation during heating by a process called hydrogenation. If that sounds familiar, it should. Hydrogenated vegetable oils are now considered verboten due to their propensity to produce “trans fats.” Trans fats have now virtually vanished from the American food supply, but not before they the hardened vegetable oils that housed them “became the backbone of the entire food industry, used in cakes, cookies, chips, breads, frostings, fillings and frozen and fried food.”

In order to avoid the imaginary perils of saturated fat in cooking, we went to vegetable oil – which led to cancer, gallstones, brain damage and cirrhosis of the liver. In order to avoid these, we went to hydrogenated oil, which led to Trans fats. Thus, the move away from butter and lard has been a disaster. And that isn’t all…

The Asymmetry Between Men and Women

It turns out that the phoniness of the war on saturated fat isn’t the only thing that regulators and nutrition officials have been keeping from the public. The famous Framingham study on heart-disease risk factors, which formed the basis for much medical diagnosis and policy over the last four decades, uncovered an apparent asymmetry between men and women that has since been confirmed by subsequent research.

Higher levels of total cholesterol among women over the age of 50 were not associated with higher levels of heart disease. In fact, the opposite seemed to be true. Teicholz calls this result “counterintuitive,” but that is not quite true. The key lies in the content of the word “total;” many older women with higher total cholesterol also have higher levels of protective HDL, the so-called “good” cholesterol. Finding ways to reduce the “bad” components of total cholesterol (LDL, VLDL) without also reducing HDL has been a leading problem perplexing pharmaceutical companies over the years. The point is, though, that low-fat diets seem to reduce HDL disproportionately in women, which is clearly counterproductive.

But the asymmetry did not find its way into the study’s conclusions upon original publication in 1971 and only recently has it been acknowledged. “The sad irony is that women have been especially rigorous about ramping up on their fruits, vegetables and grains, but they now suffer from higher obesity rates than men, and their death rates from heart disease have reached parity.”

The Valid Science of Weight Loss and Blood-Sugar Control

The legitimate science of weight gain and loss has been slow to develop. But this development has firm foundations. It has been buttressed by the experiences of millions of Americans who are inherently intolerant of carbohydrates or have developed latest diabetic tendencies. They have been driven mad with frustration by inability to lose weight on low-fat diets and are hungry for alternatives. Teicholz rehearses the details sketchily: “The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin – a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat…Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease.” And according to Teicholz, recent research even implicates non-refined carbohydrates as culprits.

The reason why eating fat doesn’t make you fat is not actually explained by Teicholz in the Journal piece, but it is worth exploring. When we eat carbs in preference to fat, the carbs are quickly absorbed into our bloodstream. For many of us, this fast absorption causes the body’s level of blood sugar to spike upward. Human blood sugar must remain within fairly tight limits for good health. When the limit is breached on the upside, this is what triggers the release of insulin, which cures the blood-sugar problem by soaking up the glucose and storing it as fat. (This is an evolutionary response, probably linked to the scarcity of food and the need to store energy for the future.) But there remains a problem of what to do for energy, since the insulin has soaked up the blood sugar into which the carbohydrates metabolized. The body remains hungry; we eat more carbs, get fatter, and stay hungry and tired.

Reverse the above process by eating fat in preference to carbohydrates. Now the body does not store fat – even though we’re eating fat in significant amounts – because we’re burning it for energy. We’re not eating that many carbohydrates, after all, and the body is indiscriminate about where it gets its energy; it will throw whatever source is available into the furnace. Burning protein and fat for energy means that we store less fat; the stomach fills up quickly and the body burns the energy ingested in the form of food because protein and fat take longer to digest and do not trigger insulin-release and fat-storage.

Of course, it is theoretically possible to eat too much fat and protein and gain weight, just as it’s theoretically possible to lose weight on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. In each case, the level of exercise could be low or high enough to tip the balance. But it is very difficult to do each of these, which is why millions of Americans are now switching to a low-carb regime, losing weight and regulating their blood sugar for the first time.

The Reaction of Science and Government: Stonewalling and Hypocrisy

When the truth came to light – first in the 1970s and more recently with the weight-loss science associated with low-carb diets – how did scientists and nutrition officials react? Did they move quickly and decisively to reverse their earlier errors? Did they disseminate good science as rapidly as they had earlier spread bad science?

“Seeing the U.S. population grow sicker and fatter while adhering to official dietary guidelines has put nutrition authorities in an awkward position. Recently, the response of many researchers has been to blame “Big Food” for bombarding Americans with sugar-laden products. No doubt these are bad for us, but it is fair to say that the food industry has simply been responding to the dietary guidelines issued by the AHA and USDA, which have encouraged high-carbohydrate diets and until quite recently said next to nothing about the need to limit sugar.”

Ms. Teicholz has come to the nub of the comparison involving science, government and markets. Scientists and government regulators portray themselves as noble truth-seekers and watchdogs, disinterested umpires with only our best interests at heart. But Ms. Teicholz now states that these people are put “in an awkward position” by the revelation that saturated fat is not, after all, unhealthy and the cause of heart disease. A noble, disinterested truth-seeker, faced with this truth, will immediately broadcast it to safeguard the public and prevent further damage to our health. Noble truth-seekers are unconcerned with their image; they care only about truth, justice and public welfare. But the scientists, regulators and policymakers who were faced with this choice stonewalled, dissembled and hid the truth. And they did it by the dozens, in administration after administration, for decades. This is the decisive refutation of the defense that this outcome was just an exception. Dr. Ancel Keys may have been an exception, but the scientists and regulators who conspired to conceal his bad science were the rule, not exceptions. Once Keys got a foothold within the system of science and government, that system worked to perpetuate him, not to discredit him.

Notice that the first thoughts of the nutrition officials are not for their constituents, but rather for themselves and their political sponsors. Again, this is the supposed paradigm followed by private business in free markets: denial, cover-up, embarrassment and concealment of the truth. But the people who actually get away with it are the supposed seekers after truth in science and government.

Somehow, it is difficult to work any sympathy for the awkward situation faced today by nutritional officials in view of the incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, heart disease and hunger cravings suffered by the constituents whose welfare was trampled on by the system.

How Was the Truth Discovered?

The vital missing link in the saturated fat scandal as told thus far by Nina Teicholz is the route to the truth. She alludes to valid research dating back to the 1970s, but makes it clear that it was drowned by the tsunami of anti-saturated fat propaganda generated by the nutritional establishment. So how did today’s counterrevolution occur? When did the scientific community wake up and smell the coffee?

The answer is that they didn’t. They were dragged kicking and screaming to the truth by the public and the free market. The same profit-motivated, greedy, self-interested, unscientific private sector that scientists and government constantly warned us to fear and mistrust proved to be our salvation. The counterrevolution was led by a medical and nutritional renegade who founded the low-carb diet in the 1970s, Dr. Robert Atkins. It was Atkins who first preached that carbohydrates of all kinds promoted obesity and heart disease. It was Atkins who insisted that a low-carb diet was not only an ideal way to lose weight quickly but actually the right long-term maintenance diet for healthy living. And for being a pioneer, Atkins paid the typical price paid by pioneers: He was demonized, ostracized and declared unfit for civilized society. Even today, the same doctors who now prescribe his methods to their patients refuse to acknowledge him as the nutritional savior of America.

It is true that Atkins did not have all the nutritional science down pat. But we can hardly blame him for only getting some of the facts straight when the nutritional establishment got virtually all of them wrong. When one of the country’s leading cardiologists, Arthur Agatston, can nonchalantly confess in his book on the South Beach Diet that “the prevailing view of nutrition [until very recently] is wrong based on what we know now,” it is not going too far to call Atkins a hero. (Agatston’s only objection to Atkins’s diet is its high saturated-fat content – an objection that we now know to be wrong.)

And like Simmelweis and other medical heroes of the past, Atkins did not live to earn the acclaim and vindication he richly merited. But the popularity of his books and the success of his readers on the Atkins diet kept the low-carb diet alive until its validity could be established beyond question and the pernicious potential of sugar and starches could be finally proven beyond doubt.

Science and government didn’t merely fail. Together, they worked hand in glove to create the problem in the first place and perpetuate it. But the free market overcame the awesome power they wielded. Truth, justice and virtue finally emerged triumphant.

Free markets work not because their participants are noble and virtuous, but because somebody will almost always have an interest in seeing the truth exposed. In turn, that gives markets an interest in finding the truth. That interest is monetary, profit-based, self-interested; this strikes many people as ignoble and base. But it works. In contrast, the noble proclamations of disinterest and devotion to the scientific method too often give way to prejudice, politics and bandwagon-jumping in lieu of rigorous science. It happened in nutrition. It is still happening in climate science.

What Can We Believe In?

Faith is the substitution of belief for proof. The 20th century saw a gradual trend toward secular societies throughout the Western world. Faith was transferred from belief in an unseen religious order – as transmitted by its worldly representatives – to faith in science and government. As we are now learning, science and government can fulfill our hopes only when they are disciplined. Science must be restrained by the same competitive forces faced by private business.

Free markets are scarcely better understood by the public today than science. But if we are to place our faith – that is, our belief – in any institution, it should be free markets. Not science. And certainly not government.

DRI-424: The War on Big Soda

Some moments in the course of human events bear the imprint of destiny, as plain as if stamped by the USDA. Such a moment was last week’s announcement by New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg of a ban on commercial sales of high-calorie beverage servings in excess of 16 ounces.

Every public-policy proposal has virtues and drawbacks. But historic significance is often gauged more by reaction to the proposal than by its intrinsic worth. This applies to Mayor Bloomberg’s so-called “Big Soda Ban” (hereinafter, BSB) – a reference to the oversized servings at which the measure is targeted.

While the measure itself has attracted widespread reaction, it has mostly been visceral and superficial. Yet it is the BSB’s implications, rather than its literal impact, that should concern us most. They tell us how far down the road to serfdom we have come.

BSB and its Effects

On May 31, 2012, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would propose a ban on 16-ounce or larger servings of beverages containing 25 or more calories per 8 ounces of volume in restaurants, delicatessens, arenas and by street vendors. Curiously, convenience and grocery stores are exempted from the proposal. Calorie content in beverages results from adding carbohydrates in the form of various sugars, so the incidence of the ban falls on large servings of sugared drinks. Violators of the ban would face $200 fines.

The ostensible intent of the ban is to reduce the incidence of obesity among New Yorkers. The rationale apparently runs as follows: carbohydrates contain calories and large amounts of sugared drinks contain large amounts of calories – therefore, banning large servings will reduce consumption of sugared drinks, thereby lowering total calorie consumption, resulting in weight loss.

If only life were that simple. But then, if life were that simple, totalitarian countries would be the happiest and most prosperous nations.

Opposition to the Mayor’s proposal was full-throated and immediate. One vocal contingent highlighted the futility of the BSB by listing its omissions. For example, the proposal left untouched sugared beverages like fruit juices, which contain naturally occurring fructose as well as added sucrose. Milk shakes and malts were unmentioned; these contain not only sugar but high concentrations of fat, and are offered in large servings. Alcoholic drinks, which contain very high concentrations of nutritionally dubious sugars like maltose, were ignored.

Another common reaction noted the ease with which BSB could be evaded. The proposal does not prevent consumers from buying multiple smaller servings, either simultaneously or in succession. Indeed, the Mayor’s focus on restaurants and delis seems especially quixotic since the custom is to provide (one or more) free refills, thereby vitiating the need to order the larger serving in the first place. Meanwhile, convenience stores – where marketing gimmicks like Quik Trip’s “Big Gulp” were devised precisely to counter competition from fast-food and sit-down restaurants – can blithely continue supersizing their beverage offerings as before.

Recognition of BSB’s clumsiness and incompetence seems to have dulled appreciation of the pain it would inflict. One potential advantage of larger orders is economy; for example, you might well pay a lower price for one 16-ounce soda than the combined price for two 8-ounce drinks. Not any more! It is easier to make one visit to a concession stand than two – oops, too bad. The fact that some types of businesses are harmed (arenas, street vendors) relative to others (convenience stores) is more evidence of the gains and losses randomly distributed by the BSB.

Opposition to the BSB is miles wide but only inches deep. The unspoken consensus seems to be, “This plan is so confused and contradictory that it will never work.” This holds open the possibility that a better plan – perhaps more comprehensive and coercive in nature – would succeed. Few people are willing to come right out and say that Mayor Bloomberg had no right to act as he did – either because he trespassed on the sacred domain of individual choice or because he exceeded the constitutional powers granted a municipal executive.

Government as All-Purpose Problem Solver

The BSB further cements a widely shared perception of government as all-purpose problem solver, the Mr. Fix-It of First Resort. We associate this attitude with the Left. The plain truth is, however, that liberals and socialists are an underwhelming minority. Our current complacency with government intervention of all sorts could never have developed without tacit acceptance by conservatives.

The latent disposition was always there. From its earliest days, modern conservatism often deserted free trade in favor of tariffs and quotas. Anti-communism resigned the movement to the permanence of a lavish, wasteful Pentagon, fighting its way through red tape. The drug war and consequent evolution of local police toward paramilitarism were tolerated as part of a cultural pushback against the permissive Left.

Gradually, the Right discovered that big government came in downright handy in enforcing its own prejudices. That attitude emerges in support for Bloomberg, as evinced in comments like “It’s about time somebody did something about those people – I’m tired of paying high health-insurance premiums and taxes to subsidize their overeating.” A subset of the Right has given up on getting government out of health care and settled for co-opting it as their proxy nanny.

Bloomberg on Bloomberg: Grasping the Enormity of His Action

Rather than comparing Mayor Bloomberg to Huey Long, commentators have been more likely to liken him to Huey of Huey, Dewey and Louie. Reading the Mayor’s own comments on his soda ban is the surest antidote to this complacency.

“We’re not taking away anyone’s freedoms.” Exactly how does a head of government ban the sale of a popular consumption item without taking away somebody’s freedom? One suspects Mayor Bloomberg is trying to suggest that, after all, the whole issue of soft drinks is pretty trivial. But he can’t have it both ways. Elsewhere, he refers to studies showing the calorie consumption from soft drinks is a leading contributor to obesity. Now he’s trying to defuse criticism by undercutting his big point.

“It’s not something the Founding Fathers fought for.” They didn’t “fight for” soft drinks, but their writings referred specifically to the niggling, unwarranted intrusions of the British into their commerce and affairs.

“In moderation [soft drink consumption] is fine… You tend to eat all of the food in the container. If somebody put a smaller glass or plate or container in front of you, you would eat less.” By his own logic, Mayor Bloomberg would be fully justified in next limiting the physical volume of food served in restaurants, delicatessens, arenas and on street carts. Indeed, we should expect the delivery of just such limitations as soon as the BSB fails to relieve the nutritional emergency invoked to justify it. Can’t you already hear the Mayor at his press conference? “Well, the soda ban didn’t work the way we wanted to, so we had to try something stronger. When somebody puts less food in front of you, you eat less, right?”

“We’re just forcing you to think about what you’re buying.” Aside from the fact that government has no warrant or authority to force its citizens to “buy twice so they’ll think twice,” there is the implicit premise behind this claim to consider. Mayor Bloomberg’s theory of consumption – if one may so dignify his megalomaniac diktats – is that we buy and eat on impulse, so government regulators have no choice but to interdict our impulsive actions. But what makes Mayor Bloomberg – or the regulators or academicians who support him – a superior breed of human who is somehow immune to the irresistible impulses that cripple the rest of us? Come to think of it, how do we know that it isn’t Bloomberg himself who is irrationally acting on impulse? Given these comments and the surrounding analysis, that conclusion is surely indicated.

The Roots of the “Obesity Epidemic”

Mayor Bloomberg clearly understood his own action to be extreme. When the time came to justify his actions, he played the post-9/11 trump card: emergency measure. After all, we can’t just stand here and do nothing in the face of this obesity epidemic, can we?

Our reflexive deference to government has blinded us to the fact that obesity is not an epidemic. Obesity is not transmitted contagiously between individuals; it is not even an illness. It is the result of over-nutrition – too much of a good thing. Stopping an epidemic may require government coercion in order to stop the spread of contagion and administer vaccine. In contrast, government intervention in the area of obesity is not only unnecessary, it is counterproductive.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that most obesity is caused by excess caloric intake. This would make BSB a trivial exercise since a 16-ounce soda contains fewer than 300 calories. The Journal is doubly wrong. The evidence continues to accumulate that the dominant cause of obesity is blood-sugar irregularity, not caloric excess per se. Consumption of carbohydrates that are absorbed too rapidly into the bloodstream triggers the release of insulin into the bloodstream, which in turn signals the body to store fat rather than consuming it as energy. This is the condition known as Type II diabetes. Sugared sodas can be a key contributor to this disease – if you happen to suffer from it or be predisposed to it. Carbohydrates that do not contain fiber – ranging from simple sugars to white potatoes to processed breads – are culprits. Fiber, fat and protein play the beneficial role of slowing down the conversion of carbohydrates to glucose in the bloodstream.

We know all this thanks to the pioneering efforts of Robert Atkins, whose low-carbohydrate diet was introduced almost forth years ago. Atkins was demonized by the nutrition establishment and his diet was panned as unsafe. Meanwhile, the authorities – including the federal government – promoted carbohydrates as the staple of a healthy diet and our primary source of energy. But so many people lost so much weight on the Atkins diet that private researchers were forced to study it. Atkins’ grasp of the underlying science may have been uncertain, but his central principle – that it was not dietary fat consumption but rather carbohydrates that promoted obesity – was vindicated by time and testing.

The devaluation of carbohydrates has been accompanied by a revaluation of fat and protein. We now strongly suspect that low-fat diets may actually be dangerous for those who overproduce a certain type of LDL cholesterol. Protein is once again assuming its rightful place as energy source and building block of muscle. One corollary to this is that meat is no longer verboten.

Hayek on the Rule of Experts

Decades ago, Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek insisted that central governments could not successfully plan an economy, even with the aid of experts in the various industries and professions. The information necessary to coordinate supply and demand was not centralized in the hands of government or a few experts, but rather decentralized in the minds of billions of individual producers and consumers. Only a free market process could unlock it and render it effective.

The new learning on diabetes and obesity is one locus classicus of a Hayekian market process at work. An entrepreneur like Atkins refuses to swallow the conventional thinking of government nutritionists. He puts forward a new hypothesis. The establishment experts loathe it, but consumers love it. It receives the truest of all tests – the market test – and the clamor of consumers forces the reevaluation of the product by researchers.

Milton Friedman once compared the actions of government bureaucrats to that of leader ducks who fly at the head of a V-formation until they look back and notice that their followers have deserted them. Then they scramble to catch up to the formation and resume their place at the head. That is what establishment nutritionists have done. The ones outside government have adopted Atkins’ ideas, or variants of them, without giving Atkins credit for them. The ones inside government or academia are calling for government regulation of consumers’ nutritional choices before everybody becomes aware that government regulation is superfluous at best and deleterious at worst.

Another illustrative case is cancer research. For decades progress was painfully slow. Scientists began to make headway when they tumbled to the fact that cancer is not one disease but many. Even more illuminating is the fact that individuals react to the disease and respond to treatments differently. The best way to proceed is to allow each of us to craft our own therapy in partnership with our personal physician and oncologist. Instead, the federal government and FDA have persisted in imposing a “one-size-fits-all” approach on cancer patients, using tests of statistical significance to gauge the success of cancer drugs and condition their approval. The pretense that doctors treat statistical populations rather than individual patients has killed many thousands of patients prematurely. Now that effective treatments are on the horizon, the prospect of a rising death toll is triggering a veritable mutiny among the community of cancer patients and physicians.

It is not coercion and control by central governments that will overcome obesity and diabetes. Government was a principal stumbling block to enlightenment in these areas. The free market is now succeeding where government failed.

Politics vs. Markets

Mayor Bloomberg is not guided by science or free markets. Instead, he heeds the dictates of politics. In markets, individual patients and their doctors have the strongest possible incentives to find out what actually works and act upon it – patients because their happiness depends on it and doctors because their livelihood depends on it.

But incentives in politics do not lie with uncovering the truth about obesity and diabetes. Millions of Americans are losing weight and controlling their diabetes, but the measure of this success will be taken only gradually over a period of years in the medical journals and epidemiology data. By then, Mayor Bloomberg will be dead or out of politics. The truth will do him no good. He is interested only in what will win him votes in the short-term present – which means looking as busy as possible and pressing the emotional hot buttons of the electorate. And he has succeeded, judging from the numbers of people pounding their fists and yelling, “Somebody is finally DOING something about those gluttons who are getting fat on my dime!”

The Philosophy of Freedom

Commentators on BSB sometimes allude to our “freedom to choose” before dropping the subject in favor of wisecracks about “nanny Bloomberg” or diatribes against the overweight. Yet freedom should be at the heart of the debate.

Philosophers and political scientists have long argued whether freedom is a good thing for its own sake or strictly because its consequences are favorable. Or, rearranging the argument, would we value freedom so much if it did not lead to more material wealth and happiness than the alternative?

However interesting the question may be in the abstract, it is moot in the practical sense. Freedom is preferable both morally and practically. The doctrine of free will allows us to make incorrect moral choices – that is what gives morality its meaning. It surely allows us to err where only our own welfare is at stake. We are not obligated to bail out our fellow human beings out of their personal difficulties, because they would then lack the incentive necessary to pursue the good life. But we are encouraged to help those who fail through bad luck or who express sincere repentance for past misdeeds. Our voluntary choice to help others gives our decision its moral dimension.

The history of the 19th and 20th centuries is a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism, of capitalism over socialism. The positive proof lies in the victories of free trade and anti-slavery in 19th century Great Britain, the rise of U.S. capitalism, the German and Japanese economic miracles after World War II, the resurgence of the U.S. and Great Britain under Reagan and Thatcher, the rise of the Southeast Asian Tigers and the birth of economic development in India and China. The negative proof was provided by the end of communism in Soviet Russia and China, the death of fascism in German, Italy and Japan, the fall of British Socialism after World War II and the suffocation of one-party cronyism and dictatorship in Africa and South America.

In light of all this, government’s place as the default option for every choice is astonishing. Despite being wrong in theory and practice, despite an unbroken record of failure, government nevertheless continues to be tapped to handle whatever comes up. To hear Mayor Bloomberg talk, you’d swear that freedom was hopelessly incapable and government was infallible. Actually, it’s the other way round.

Steppingstones to Serfdom

As noted above, BSB seems so comically inept that it has lulled many into not taking it seriously. That is a grievous mistake, one not made by Mayor Bloomberg himself, who treats the issue with the utmost gravity. He is knowingly engaged in a step-by-step process of reducing our freedom. It began with his ban on trans fats. When nobody thought it worth their while to stop him – probably because nobody wanted to be stigmatized as being in favor of consuming a substance known to be harmful – this established a precedent that set the stage for the nextintervention, and the next and the next. As so it goes. Each new intervention sets the precedent for the next one. That is why it is always worthwhile to defend freedom, no matter how trivial the freedom being defended may seem.

Now Mayor Bloomberg is trying to stop New Yorkers from consuming soft drinks. Few consumer goods are as thoroughly American in their essence. Around the world, Coca Cola is an instantly recognizable symbol of American culture. The amount of happiness we derive from soda pop is incalculable, but palpably enormous. Arbitrarily, on the phony pretext of an epidemic, with no hope or pretense of distinguishing between those actually hurt by soft drinks and the rest, Mayor Bloomberg proposes to establish the precedent of directly meddling in his constituents’ diets.

If, as expected, the New York City Board of Health rubber-stamps the Mayor’s proposal, is there any limit to what he can do? If a city mayor can casually reduce consumer choices without any warrant or medical justification, is there any limit on what any government can do to anybody, anywhere, anytime?

The late Keynesian economist and Nobel Laureate, Paul Samuelson, of economic textbook fame, once lamented the respect accorded colleague F. A. Hayek’s cautionary polemic, The Road to Serfdom. Hayek pointedly exposed the threat to freedom posed by central economic planning and the welfare state. Where are the barbed-wire fences and concentration camps? Samuelson demanded. The West has embraced the welfare state, he maintained, but we have not lost our freedom as Hayek foresaw.

Of course, history does not repeat itself verbatim, but its great themes do recur. Samuelson died in 2009, just in time to miss seeing Mayor Bloomberg at work. From here on, Bloomberg will serve as walking rebuttal to those who doubt Hayek’s thesis.