The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet
By Nina Teicholz
Simon and Schuster, 2014
Nina Teicholz has a knack for discovering long-lost research and teasing out the spoilers in what is considered accepted advice. In the first chapter of her very readable book on American dietary policy, she presents us with information none of us have heard of—but should have. Aleš Hrdlička, a physician turned anthropologist and precursor to Weston Price, studied the native Americans of the Southwest between 1889 and 1905, writing up a four hundred sixty-page report for the Smithsonian Institute. The Indians he visited consumed a diet predominantly of meat, mainly buffalo; Hrdlička observed them to be spectacularly healthy, living to a ripe old age. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, the incidence of centenarians among them was 224 per million men and 254 per million women, compared to only three and six per million among men and women in the European population. Among the elderly he met, “not one of these was either much demented or helpless.” Hrdlička noted an almost complete absence of chronic disease among the entire Indian population he observed.
Fast forward to the early 1950s, when Americans began taking a strong interest in diet and health. Most researchers believed that Americans had a pretty good diet—too high in sugar, perhaps, but otherwise rich in nutrient-dense foods like eggs, butter, cream, cheese and meat—and for the first time in history, widely available to all, not just the elite. But during this period, the hypothesis that saturated fat causes heart disease came to the fore, an invention of the villain of the piece, Ancel Keys, a biologist and pathologist at the University of Minnesota. By cherrypicking data and bullying himself to the head of prominent committees, Keys pushed forward the notion that animal fats, which had been part of diets worldwide forever, were suddenly causing heart disease and other ailments. Co-workers reported him to be brash and arrogant. When Teicholz asked a surviving colleague why Keys never studied the French, he replied that Keys didn’t like to travel in France (or Switzerland or Austria). He preferred warm countries for research gambits and international conferences and ended up owning a villa on the sun-drenched Adriatic Sea. Yet even while enjoying the local cuisine, which included fatty foods like goat cheese and proscuitto ham, he insisted that the “Mediterranean” diet was low in saturated fat. In fact, his key study only looked at the Italian diet during Lent. (He and his major collaborator, Jeremiah Stamler, were once spotted at a conference eating scrambled eggs and lots of bacon, but Keys insisted that such food was not for the masses, only for the likes of himself.)
Keys prevailed and the premise that saturated fats are bad became U.S. dietary policy. Officials promised that replacing butter and lard with margarine and cooking oils would solve our health problems—and rates of chronic illness went through the roof. If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, this policy meets the definition of insanity. When science confirmed the fact that industrial oils—whether liquid or hardened—are bad news, the bureaucrats switched gears and told us not to eat any fats at all.
The hero of Teicholz’s story is Fred Kummerow, working at the University of Illinois with independent funding but little moral support. Fred’s research—research that no one else dared to do—pointed the finger at trans fats. Mary Enig figures large as well—she is remembered for making policy hacks uncomfortable by asking pointed questions.
Now that Fred and Mary have been vindicated, and manufacturers are taking trans fats out of processed food, we are left with only liquid vegetable oils, which are arguably more toxic than trans fats (see here).
The greatest victims of this anti-saturated fat folly are women and children, who need the components of animal fats for fertility and growth. The only replacement for fats in the diet are carbs, and that’s what Americans have done. They are eating more and more cereals, bread and sugars, and obesity has followed. School lunches and food stamp programs no longer provide nourishing foods like whole milk and eggs.
In 1989, Fima Lifshitz, then a professor of pediatrics at Cornell University, published a paper describing a number of cases where a father or mother had received a diagnosis of heart disease, resulting in a drastic reduction in dietary fat in family meals—exactly the kind of dietary changeover recommended by the Diet Dictocrats. Said Lifshitz: “The overzealous application of a lowfat, low-cholesterol diet” was leading to “nutritional dwarfing,” insufficient weight gain and delayed puberty. The worst vitamin deficiencies occurred on the lowest-fat diets, even when protein intake was adequate. . . which, by the way, describes the recommendations made by some bestselling Paleo authors—high in protein but low in fat.
But very few Americans actually eat lowfat diets, even if they think they do. No, they are consuming hidden vegetables oils in processed and fried foods, and spreading “low-trans” spreads on all that bread. Industrial seed oils are to present-day America what lead pipes were to the Romans—an unrecognized poison that is killing us slowly but surely, which will wipe out our civilization unless we come to our senses. The Big Fat Surprise—well written and hard to put down—should help Americans wake up—certainly a few, and hopefully a great many—before it is too late.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2014