Over the past several decades, cognitive scientists have discovered that we all have “schemas.”
Schemas are organized clusters of knowledge you hold in your mind about a subject or event.
For instance, I couldn’t tell you how a car engine works. My “car engine schema” isn’t very sophisticated or accurate.
Compare that to a car mechanic, whose schema about a car engine is much more accurate than mine. Their knowledge and experience are far greater.
These schemas represent our conceptual and perceptual understanding of how the world works (on both a small and large scale).
When a schema becomes commonplace and widely-accepted, it creates unique opportunities for other brands and entrepreneurs to add value to the market, which you’ll see in this case study of the low-fat movement.
Content and ideas that don’t match our current schemas trigger the sensation of surprise.
Suppose you’re in Chicago holding a map of New York. You won’t get far and will likely have to use trial and error to get around.
If you’ve been trying to navigate Chicago with a map of New York your whole life, you’ll be shocked when you realize it’s the wrong map.
If I show you a separate map of Chicago to assist you, you’re now faced with a “map mismatch.”
And now the choice is yours.
You can begin experimenting and exploring with this new map to see if it’s accurate. Or you can keep your map of Chicago.
In this article, I use the term “mismatch” to explain what happens when someone acquires information or ideas that don’t match their existing schema or model.
This mismatch is why counter-intuitive ideas are a powerful mechanism for grabbing people’s attention.
Counter-intuitive ideas present us with a schema-mismatch. And if this idea also speaks to an urgent fear or desire, there’s a high chance it’ll get our attention (and investment).
If you want to create valuable content or ideas for your brand, then understanding this is crucial.
As marketers and entrepreneurs, grabbing attention is one of our most valuable assets.
So, before we dive in, I want to say that this article is not intended to be medical advice.
Nor is this article meant to “point-the-finger” and blame anyone for the events that occurred. It’s become clear that once an idea gets set in motion, it can be hard to stop it — like a snowball that builds upon itself — especially when there are conflicts of interest.
This article intends to reveal why and how most Americans adopted the low-fat diet as part of their “health schema” from a cognitive science perspective.
Specifically, I’m interested in why Americans adopted the belief that low-fat was an ideal dieting approach for preventing heart disease and losing weight. And how this schema spread.
Our Existing Schemas Position Counter-Intuitive Brands To Get Attention And Grow
Researcher Ann F. La Berge refers to the low-fat diet as an ideology, because in the 1980s, it was “the faith-inspiring and widely accepted notion that a low-fat diet was good for all Americans.”
Despite the low-fat diet becoming the leading model for ideal heart health and weight loss, Americans were still becoming obese. Ironically, this led to what many would call an obesity epidemic.
Once this “low-fat schema” took hold (with the accompanying Food Pyramid model), any dieting approach that wasn’t low-fat became counter-intuitive.
This created an environment for brands to use counter-intuitive marketing messages to get people’s attention.
Once low-fat became a widely accepted dieting approach, any brand who disagreed with this (Atkins, Keto, and Paleo, to name a few) could break this “low-fat schema” by suggesting that fats were actually good to eat.
These ideas presented people with information that didn’t match their current health schema, triggering the sensation of surprise.
This positioned brands to earn attention and growth.
So how did the low-fat movement start?
And how did this create an environment where brands could break this schema, get attention, and build profitable businesses?
This Century-Long Mindset Set The Foundation For The Low-Fat Movement
Americans already had an established dieting culture in the early 20th century — according to historian Peter Stearns.
Being skinny and slim was desirable.
The preferred approach to staying slim was to count calories. And dieters who were serious about staying slim knew that each gram of protein and carb had four calories, while fat had nine.
So it became common to associate low calories with low fat, since each gram of fat had more than twice the calories than a gram of protein or carbs.
This logic is similar to the proverbial saying, “you are what you eat.” People generally agree that if you eat fresh and organic food, then you’ll be healthier. But this logic could also be interpreted as, “If you eat fat, then you were more likely to become fat.”
This century-long mindset and preference for low calories (and low-fat to stay slim) set the foundation for the American “low-fat schema.”
So what set this schema in motion?
In the 1940s, scientists and physicians found that coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in the United States.
So they began searching for the root cause of it.
One famous researcher who strongly influenced the low-fat movement was Ancel Keys and his famous “Seven Countries Study.”
This is paramount to the history of the low-fat movement because several decades of nutrition education and policy in America were based on this study.
Keys’ suggested a strong correlation between diets high in saturated fats (and cholesterol) and an increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease.
This study led to the famous “lipid hypothesis,” claiming that fat and cholesterol were the primary causes of heart disease.
Keys promoted his research and was put on the cover of “Time” magazine.
And shortly after he promoted low-fat, in 1957, the American Heart Association (AHA) would begin proposing that Americans monitor their fat intake to reduce the chances of heart disease.
The “low-fat schema” was set in motion.
The War Between Opposing Health Schemas
There were scientists and physicians in the medical community who opposed Ancel Keys’ study.
They weren’t convinced that Keys’ research was conclusive evidence that fat was the root cause of heart disease.
One popular figure who disagreed with the lipid hypothesis was British scientist John Yudkin.
He largely opposed it because he was finding compelling connections between dietary sugar and heart disease. But he’d be continuously discredited and criticized by Keys and by the sugar industry, who profited from processed foods that were “low-fat” but higher in sucrose.
Instead of running more controlled experiments, Keys stuck with his initial hypothesis that fat was the root cause of the American health dilemma.
Anyone in the medical community who disagreed — like John Yudkin — wasn’t given much of a platform to speak.
The lengths that people went to discredit scientists and physicians who disagreed is significant. Their ability to shut-down everyone who challenged the lipid hypothesis contributed to the spread of the “low-fat schema.”
Here is one well-documented example of this scientific censoring.
In 1965 the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) funded a research project and published it in the NEJM. It explained how fat and cholesterol were the primary causes of heart disease. And it shared that sugar (or sucrose) wasn’t much of a concern.
But here’s what’s interesting.
Internal documents revealed that the SRF “sought to influence the scientific debate over the dietary causes of CHD [congenital heart disease] in the 1950s and 1960s.”
How did they do this?
Well, it was clear that Yudkin’s research was making the SRF panic (namely, the sugar industry and manufacturers of processed foods).
So they embarked on this research project to combat “negative attitudes towards sugars.” They called it Project 226.
Project 226 was a literature review researched by Mark Hegsted and Robert McGandy, overseen by Frederick Snare (who was chair of the Harvard University School of the Public Health Nutrition Department and a member of SRF’s scientific advisory board).
The SRF would eventually pay Hegsted and McGandy $6,500 (roughly $48,900 now) for “a review article of the several papers which find some special metabolic peril in sucrose and, in particular, fructose.”
Project 226 would go on to be published in the NEJM in 1967. No mention of the SRF’s funding or involvement was found in it.
There were clear conflicts of interest.
We can thank Dr. Cristin Kearns for discovering the SRF’s involvement.
She was digging through some archives and stumbled on internal documents from the 1960s revealing the SRF’s attempt to influence public opinion about sugar and fat (clearly aiming to discredit Yudkin’s sugar hypothesis).
It’s obvious who dominated the conversation regarding the cause of heart disease at the time.
This is significant because our health schema would be completely different if scientists like Yudkin weren’t discredited.
So we see how popular science created the catalyst for the “low-fat schema.”
What else contributed to the movement?
The Forces That Contributed To This Snowball Effect
The history of federal government involvement in the American diet dates all the way back to 1862.
So when popular science indicated that low-fat is enemy #1 for people’s health, the government began recommending that Americans reduce their fat consumption.
By 1977, the Federal Government was telling people to eat low-fat.
Towards the end of the 1980s, even the World Health Organization (WHO) was promoting low-fat.
And in 1992, the USDA released the famous Food Pyramid model, lending its full support to the low-fat movement.
According to academic nutritionist Marion Nestle, it was “the most widely distributed and best recognized nutrition education device ever produced in this country.”
Also, the AHA introduced a program that labeled food with a “heart-healthy” seal of approval. Food companies could pay and get this label put on their packaged foods.
Since the science at the time indicated that “low-fat” was “heart-healthy,” it fell in alignment with the current health schema (and food companies benefited).
These companies began replacing fat with sugar in their processed foods and labeled it “low-fat.”
So with Americans being educated with the Food Pyramid AND constantly seeing low-fat food being branded as “heart-healthy” in grocery stores, it’s no wonder how the low-fat schema would become deeply ingrained into American culture.
Once the lipid hypothesis became the scientific consensus and the government began encouraging Americans to monitor their fat intake, popular media would play a role in spreading content and promoting low-fat as the ideal dieting approach.
Specifically, the two most popular health sources at the time — Prevention Magazine and The New York Times — both subscribed to the lipid hypothesis and promoted low-fat diets in the 1980s.
All these forces combined to create a Snowball Effect.
As Skeptics Emerged, Brands Delivered Their Counter-Intuitive Message (And Gained Attention)
Now it’s a bit clearer how the “low-fat schema” for most Americans became commonplace.
There was always a sub-culture of scientists and physicians who disagreed with the lipid hypothesis. But towards the end of the century, more skeptics began emerging.
Some individuals would even raise concerns about the reliability of Ancel Keys’ research, questioning one of the pillar studies that set the low-fat movement into motion.
For instance, Robert H. Lustig — UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology — explains that Keys wrote in his study that sucrose and saturated fat were intercorrelated but failed to perform the sucrose half of his multivariate correlation analysis.
In other words — according to Lustig — Keys’ research is unreliable.
His medical lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth became extremely popular on YouTube, getting millions of views and having people question the low-fat diet.
As more professionals began presenting valid arguments that criticized the lipid hypothesis, this created an environment where low-carb brands and businesses could contribute to the health industry.
Many of these brands had a counter-intuitive idea: low-carb (or no-carb) was the answer for combating heart disease and weight loss.
Some notable brands are Atkins and entrepreneurs who’ve built a platform around the Paleo and Keto diet.
Many of them have grown their brands and become profitable.
They decided that a low-fat diet isn’t for everyone (themselves included).
So they proposed an idea that is counter-intuitive to someone with the “low-fat schema.” Dietary fat is not the enemy. Carbs and sugar are.
And when they share this message, they create a mismatch between their content and the audiences’ existing “low-fat schema.”
This creates the sensation of surprise, a key mechanism in grabbing someone’s attention.
And since health is an urgent and serious problem people struggle with, many were willing to invest.
Someone struggling on a low-fat diet will be compelled to click an article or watch a video that explains that “there’s another way” and that “eating fat is actually good.”
Here are the top takeaways from this case study:
- We all have schemas or models of how the world works (some more ingrained than others).
- It’s important to become aware of your audiences’ schema and how it works to get their attention.
- If you have a solution that reveals a “mismatch” within someone’s existing schema, you’ll create the sensation of surprise and get their attention.
- If you add value after getting their attention, you’ll have the ability to grow your brand and business.
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