When You Don’t Know You are a Pioneer

Some of us remember when ATMs were a new idea. I am personally not a pioneer, figuring you can always tell the pioneers by the arrows in their butts. So I was entertained by the ultimate ATM issues that were not initially anticipated. But I was satisfied, at some point, to join the ATM tribe once they worked those problems out.

Same thing when it comes to the latest and greatest iteration of i phones. Without exception there are always problems followed by multiple “updates” to resolve them. At some point I decide the pioneers have done their part and I can now join ranks to get a feature I find compelling. Or (more likely) I change when the provider stops supporting the particular version I have. I am also frugal.

Some people are just pioneers, willing to try anything new as a matter of course. But sometimes the rank and file of us are pioneers without our knowledge. The dietary guidelines are an example.

Dietary Guidelines

In an earlier post I outlined the 40 or so years since the US Congress issued dietary guidelines for the US population based on an observed association between heart disease and cholesterol/fat. Association means two things seem to happen at the same time, not that one necessarily causes the other.

There was not sufficient information or even understanding of the available information to justify official, population wide direction. The general population are all different. It was a belief that couldn’t, ultimately, stand up to the test. But they did it anyway and, unknowingly, we became pioneers in a grand experiment.

Those dietary goals advised Americans to restrict their intake of especially saturated fats by eating 8 – 12 grain and cereal servings per day, replacing butter, lard, cheese, eggs, and meat. The rise in obesity and diabetes that has become an epidemic began about the same time.

Was this an association or a cause?

Some of the long term consequences of those guidelines are:

  1. the commercial shift to “low fat” (replacing fat with sugar),
  2. jerking the public around for years about dietary cholesterol (like eggs) before finally figuring out that dietary cholesterol really doesn’t matter,
  3. the introduction of hydrogenated vegetable (seed) oils in commercial products which turned out to be trans fats (the worst kind of fat),
  4. replacing safe and stable saturated fat for frying with unstable seed oils.

Oh, did I mention skyrocketing obesity and diabetes?

Given that humans on the whole are hard to push around, I suspect the guideline implications for the whole population might have been less consequential had:

  1. the government not been able to force its implementation in any organization receiving government funding (hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, schools, etc) and organizations whose safety rules were set by a government (like restaurants),
  2. the grain and cereal policy not been so financially attractive to commercial processed food producers,
  3. treating cholesterol medically hadn’t had so much financial potential for pharmaceutical companies.


The treatment history of Alzheimer’s is another example of association vs cause.

The human brain is the most complex part of the human body and the one least understood. While population wide dietary guidelines could arrive on the population doorstep without any “approval”, medical treatment requires some proof of safety and efficacy. Proof that the treatment doesn’t have awful side effects and that it has the potential to be effective for at least some people.

Remember that association means that two things seem to happen at the same time, not that one necessarily causes the other. A lot of time and money can be consumed when the cause is unclear.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), Alzheimer’s dementia causes US society more than $216B annually, not counting the personal pain to people. Few (unfortunately) are afraid of their diet but all fear Alzheimer’s.

In 1984 researchers identified beta-amyloid plaque in Alzheimer’s patient brains and made it the primary suspect in triggering nerve cells damage. Based on that hypothesis the pharmaceutical industry has spent an estimated $2.8B and 13 years to bring a new Alzheimer’s drug for approval, a drug to reduce amyloid plaque. So if you wonder why they are so expensive, now you know. At best those drugs had minor impact.

They now know that the presence of beta-amyloid plaque is an association and not the cause. Based on a recent study, the brain cells are already crippled before the plaques fully form outside the cell, And insulin resistance is implicated.

According to Ralph A Nixon, MD, PHY and study senior investigator, “You can have impact on the brain through diet and exercise and through things of that sort that are beneficial for lowering the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and that’s pretty well documented now,”

In 2018 Pfizer dropped out of Alzheimer’s disease research, perhaps not a huge surprise considering the cost of failed drugs. Plus if a new hypothesis revolves around diet and insulin resistance, the potential for a blockbuster drug are greatly diminished.

It’s still a hypothesis, not a proven cause. But maybe we have another reason to fear a bad diet. _________________________________________________________________

Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All about the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Her books are available on Amazon, at Bob’s Food City in Mount Ida, and at the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce. Proceeds from her book benefit the Montgomery County Food Pantry. Her website is http://www.allaboutthefood.org/ She can be contacted at patsmith2@live.com, 501-605-3902. Her Facebook page is www.facebook.com/patsmithbooks. _________________________________________________________________