How the American Diet Was Ruined

Published October 15, 2014

Review of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, by Nina Teicholz, Simon & Schuster, 2014, 496 pages, $17.95, ISBN 1451624425

In her outstanding book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, investigative journalist Nina Teicholz reveals everything we thought we knew about dietary fat is wrong. She documents extensively how the low-fat nutrition advice of the past 60 years has amounted to a vast uncontrolled experiment on our nation’s entire population, with disastrous consequences for our health.

For decades, we have been told the best possible diet involves cutting back on fat, especially saturated fat, and that if we are not getting healthier or thinner it must be because we are not trying hard enough. In fact there is now undeniable proof the low-fat diet is itself the problem and the very foods we have been denying ourselves, including butter, eggs, milk, and meat, are the key to reversing the virtual epidemic of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Nine-Year Investigation

Teicholz’ nine-year investigation of this subject uncovered how the misinformation about saturated fats took hold in the scientific community and the public imagination and how recent findings have overturned these beliefs. This history demonstrates how nutrition science got it so wrong: Through a combination of ego, bias, and premature institutional consensus, overzealous researchers made dangerous misrepresentations of the evidence into a set of dietary dogmas.

Instead of animal products, we’re supposed to eat plants, according to the advice we have been living with for decades. In fact, however, plants are the least nutrient-rich foods, and animal meat is far and away the most nutritionally dense.

She quotes story after story of centuries-old cultures that thrived on diets of meat and fat alone. In Africa and Asia, explorers, colonists, and missionaries in the early 20th century were repeatedly struck by the absence of degenerative disease and cancer among isolated populations they encountered on this diet. Although life expectancy was not long, death came from the infectious diseases readily cured today by modern medicine not available then. 

Teicholz notes, “The idea that fat and particularly saturated fat are unhealthy has been so ingrained in our national conversations for so long that we tend to think of it more as ‘common sense’ than a scientific hypothesis.”

More than 60 years of bad information

The destructive campaign against animal fat began in the 1950s when Ancel Benjamin Keyes, a biologist and pathologist from the University of Minnesota, came up with the theory consumption of animal fat was the cause of heart disease. He ran numerous studies, now known to be flawed, to prove his point, including a well-funded study of seven countries where he already knew meat intake was low. That is to say, he cherry-picked his data, determined to prove his theory, and with his arrogant and highly persuasive personality he succeeded in getting the American Heart Association to adopt his theory and recommendation for a low-fat diet in 1961.

Years later, when scientists studied a random collection of the diets in 22 countries, the correlation between heart disease and animal fat Keys thought he found in his seven countries was nonexistent, soundly refuting all his earlier studies.

Teicholz methodically eviscerates Keys’ research in the manner of a spy novel. She was able to find dozens of counter studies, but as Keys’ ideas spread and were adopted by powerful institutions, anyone who challenged him faced an extremely difficult battle. Professional lives suffered, and jobs, research funding, speaking engagements, and often prestige were lost.

Teicholz also tells the complete 50-year story of how cholesterol came to be erroneously seen as the primary indicator of potential heart problems, and how it was clearly established cholesterol-laden food did not raise levels of cholesterol in the blood.

Early cover-up of science

Early on, Teicholz provides a simple tutorial on the chemical bonds which differentiate the saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that confuse most of us, and further on she explains the chemistry behind the more recent trans fat scares.

One surprising item of information is that as early as 1957 a scientist by the name of Fred Kummerow had discovered all the damage trans fats can do to the human body. Created by hydrogenating vegetable oil to make a stable compound for ease of industrial production of food and consumer use, trans fats accumulate in fat tissue. There, they supplant normal fatty acids, which are the building blocks in every cell membrane and carefully regulate everything going in and out of the cell.

Kummerow found when trans fats occupy cell membrane positions, they obstruct the normal functioning of the body. This was such a threat to the reigning paradigm, however, that he was effectively shut out of work and had difficulty publishing. This cover-up lasted almost 50 years.

Lessons from History

Teicholz documents the American diet of the 19th century in great detail, including insights from the writings of many who visited our nation from abroad, all of whom were amazed by the tremendous quantities of red meat and the absence of vegetables, when heart disease was rare. She goes on to describe the decreased consumption of red meats and fat over the last 50 years of the 20th century as the government and the American Heart Association falsely claimed an increasing intake of red meat and fats was the cause of skyrocketing rates of heart disease and diabetes.

The author describes the unfortunate negative effects of a low-fat diet on children and exposes one of the great fallacies: that breast cancer is related to a high fat diet. As far back as 1987, the epidemiologist Dr. Walter Willett at the Harvard School of Public Health had found fat consumption not to be positively linked to breast cancer. In fact, Willett found just the opposite to be true among the nearly 90,000 nurses whose health records he had followed for five years.

A fat-starved public eagerly jumped to the highly touted Mediterranean Diet, which heaped praise on olive oil and brought back to the American diet nuts, eggs, and cheese, lots of seafood and chicken, and a little red meat, Teicholz notes. She notes the “…[O]ffered a corrective to mistaken low-fat policies. It demonstrated a more relaxed attitude toward dietary fat.” 

But the greatest proof of the scam foisted on us by the purveyors of high carbohydrates in our diet is the mounting evidence described in detail in this book, that ultimately sugar is our problem because all carbohydrates, complex or otherwise, end up becoming sugar in our bodies. These sugars cause our pancreas to generate more insulin than our bodies can handle, leading to a tidal wave of problems.

The crowning blow against the low-fat, high-carb diet was a 2008 review of all studies of this diet by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. It concluded there is “no probable or convincing evidence” a high level of fat in the diet causes heart disease or cancer. Then, in 2013, after reviewing 16,000 studies an expert health advisory group in Sweden concluded a low-fat diet is an ineffective strategy for tackling either obesity or diabetes.

‘Terrible, Costly Mistake’

It is not possible to read this book without concluding our national diet was never properly, truly scientifically tested and has been a terrible, costly mistake for the American public. The author reports that these facts have been available for quite some time. As early as 2001, Frank Hu, a nutrition professor at Harvard, wrote, “It is increasingly recognized that a low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.”

With this growing pile of evidence on the table, Teicholz writes, “health authorities clearly see the need to update their advice. Yet they are understandably reluctant to reverse course too loudly on fifty years of nutrition recommendations.”

The Big Fat Surprise could well prove to be one of the most important books written in the 21st century. It has received a great deal of deserved attention, and only time will tell if the government and the food industry will ultimately relent and bring America back to a healthier diet.

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute