What if everything we believe to be true about healthy eating is entirely false? That’s the troubling and fascinating premise behind investigative journalist Nina Teicholz’s new book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet ($17.89 at Books-A-Million). I spoke with Teicholz to find out more about this nine-years-in-the-making project, and yes, to ask her what she eats every day.Photo: Laura RoseAuthor Nina Teicholz
The genesis of The Big Fat Surprise all started when Teicholz wrote an article on trans fats for Gourmet magazine, which led to a desire to write a book about the topic. As she delved deeper into past research and data in nutritional science, the book took on a larger scope than just trans fats (hence the nine-year timeline) and instead covered the history of modern-day food recommendations here in America. Teicholz says that the entire foundation of how we see food in relation to heart disease is based on shaky science, failed both by good intentions (people desperate to figure how to stop the rapid increase in heart disease and other illnesses) and bad intentions (big egos and big money).
Lesson #1: It’s not our fault.
For all the media hype about how Americans are bad at choosing healthy foods, Teicholz says that all in all, Americans are actually doing a decent job following the guidelines set forth by nutrition scientists. “Since the 1970s, we have successfully increased our fruits and vegetables by 17 percent, our grains by 29 percent and reduced the amount of fat we eat from 43 percent to 33 percent of calories or less,” she writes in her book. “The share of those fats that are saturated has also declined, according to the government’s own data.”
In return, we have eaten more carbohydrates, such as grains, rice, pasta and fruit, and increased our consumption of vegetable oils. During this same period, though, our health hasn’t improved. In fact, it’s declined, with increases in obesity and diabetes. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women. We’re doing our part, so why isn’t it working?
Lesson #2: There’s no solid science backing up a low-fat, high-carb diet.
We’ve been told to cut back on red meat, eggs, cheese, cream and butter. Can you even eat a steak or hunk of cheese without feeling slightly guilty? I certainly can’t. But Teicholz has done thorough research, going back to the beginning of the “fats are bad” movement and claims that “our fear of the saturated fats in animal foods has never been based in solid science.” So here we are all gamely reaching for the pasta instead of the filet mignon, and it’s not doing us a lick of good.
Lesson #3: Blame selection bias and selective reporting.
The reality is that once early researchers locked into their theory that it was a high-fat diet causing all our health woes, it’s been nigh impossible for any other viewpoint to reach the mainstream. Scientists who disagreed with the prevailing wisdom were shut out. As Teicholz writes, there’s a “surprising lack of oxygen for alternative viewpoints.” There’s also been near-complete suppression of data that didn’t fit researchers’ desired outcomes for studies.
This most notably being the Minnesota Coronary Survey, an outgrowth of the National Diet Heart Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health. It’s the largest-ever clinical trial of the diet-heart hypothesis, a highly controlled study that began in 1968. Nine thousand men and women were fed either “traditional American foods,” with 18 percent saturated fat, or a diet containing margarine, low-fat beef and other foods that cut the amount of saturated fat consumed in half. After four-and-a-half years, there was no difference between the two groups for total mortality, cardiovascular events or cardiovascular deaths. In short, “the diet low in saturated fat had failed to show any advantage at all.” Pretty important to share with the public, right? Except the study wasn’t published for 16 years, and when it finally saw the light of day, it was buried in a journal unlikely to be read by anyone outside the field of cardiology. “We were just disappointed in the way [the study] came out,” said the scientist who didn’t publish his results earlier. Gulp.
Lesson #4: Eating low-fat foods will make you lose weight, but you’ll be constantly hungry.
When I spoke with Teicholz, she agreed that, yes, you can certainly lose weight on a low-fat diet that’s high in carbohydrates, but “you will be starving for the rest of your life,” especially if you’re a woman who will have to eat a tiny number of calories to keep shedding pounds. That’s not the case with these higher-fat foods, which don’t have the same impact on our bodies. In addition, they’re more filling, too. Science shows that people overeat like crazy when it comes to carbs but don’t when it comes to the more naturally satiating higher-fat foods, such as red meat and eggs.
Lesson #5: Go ahead, have the cheese course
After reading, researching and interviewing experts across the globe, Teicholz came to the conclusion that a higher-fat diet is healthier than one low in fat and high in carbohydrates. Eat whole-fat dairy, eggs and meat. Salad topped with bacon, egg, mushrooms and cheeseCook with butter and lard rather than vegetable oils. “Sugar, white flour and other refined carbohydrates are almost certainly the main drivers of these diseases [obesity, diabetes, heart disease],” she writes, adding that it feels counterintuitive that “a beet salad with a fruit smoothie for lunch is ultimately less healthy for your waistline and your heart than a plate of eggs fried in butter. Steak salad is preferable to a plate of hummus and crackers. And a snack of full-fat cheese is better than fruit,” but nonetheless, she says it’s the truth.
Although Teicholz wants readers to know this is a science book, not a diet book, she did answer my questions about her normal daily meals. Breakfast options include bacon, eggs, sausage and whole-fat yogurt. Lunch might be cheese, chicken salad, egg salad or tuna salad. Snacks are nuts. Dinner is some kind of meat, chicken or fish served with low-carb vegetables and greens, generally not root vegetables (which are higher in carbs). Unlike the days prior to The Big Fat Surprise, she no longer snacks on fruit all day long. Her family uses clarified butter (ghee), lard and coconut oil for cooking. Finally, she hardly eats dessert, but when she does, she says it’s far better to have full-fat ice cream instead of sorbet or fat-free ice cream, as the fat mitigates the sugar’s impact a bit. “I try very hard to stay away from bread and carbs,” she told me, adding with a laugh, “I would say the majority of the carbs I have are in red wine.”
Fascinating stuff. For anyone interested in health and nutrition, it’s this year’s can’t-miss title that already has people talking.
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