The final installment excerpting insights from ‘The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet’ features two key takeaways from the best-selling book.
There are literally hundreds of nuggets of wisdom to be found in the pages of Nina Teicholz’s blockbuster “The Big Fat Surprise.” Perhaps the full title itself is all you need to know, but the underlying premise of a journalistic enterprise that consumed eight years of her life is one that should be memorized, internalized, and publicized by every single person in the business of animal agriculture, meat processing and food science.
I paraphrase, but the statement is this: Animal foods — meat, milk, cheese, eggs, butter — are not unhealthy, as vegetarian believers, consumer advocates and self-proclaimed diet gurus always insist. In fact, exactly the opposite. They are essential, vital, natural foods that need to be part of one’s diet. Human physiology evolved on a diet of animal foods. Our body chemistry, our nervous system, our internal hormonal regulatory mechanisms all depend on eating complete proteins along with the saturated fat that’s naturally found in meat and dairy.
Much of her book deals (sometimes exhaustively) with the flaws in the so-called science that pro-veggie activists reflexively recite in support of everything from Meatless Mondays to all-out veganism. Unless you have a love for dissecting clinical trials and a passion for wading through the backstories of dozens of researchers who stepped onto the stage to herald a low-fat diet as the solution to what ails us — and Teicholz obviously does — reading “The Big Fat Surprise” cover-to-cover can become a big fat chore.
I won’t lie. Her book isn’t some breezy page-turner you take to the beach for light summer reading.
(Does anyone actually do that anymore?)
But her thesis is rock-solid, her conclusions are unassailable and her message is absolutely vital: We shouldn’t merely feel less guilty about meat-eating. As a society, we collectively need to re-assert the value, the primacy, the nutritional importance of animal foods — and the fat that comes with them — in our diets.
Now, that stance is sure to draw fire from people who believe in the low-fat gospel as the key to good health. So here are a couple key talking points from her book that refute such misguided thinking.
› On the power of a trendy diets to overwhelm sound science. When dietary fads take off, they’re not propelled by a bunch of white-coated researchers working for years in some laboratory. We know that. Food and culinary choices area all about taste and flavor and enjoyment.
The appeal of food is sensory, not scientific. We eat with our eyes and with our emotions, not according to a bunch of restrictions cobbled into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Yet time and again, as Teicholz so amply documents, credentialed scientists are caught up in proclaiming the revealed wisdom of removing fat calories from our daily diets on the basis of studies that have holes in the data big enough to run a cattle drive through.
The question is why?
In explaining one of the most popular recent trends, the Mediterranean Diet, with its emphasis on limiting meat and milk while pouring on the olive oil, she highlights a seemingly obvious dilemma: While condemning meat because it’s too high in fat, advocates were touting a diet that delivers more than 40 percent of total calories from fat! Double the amount we’re “supposed” to consume.
“Americans were left to make sense of conflicting advice, and so they shifted away from animal products,” she writes. “They ate more fish. They ate more nuts” And they used olive oil in quantity, yet without the health benefits that were supposed to occur, because there really wasn’t any science behind the diet. Despite obvious problems with the research on the less-meat/more olive oil prescription, the Mediterranean Diet eventually became common wisdom as a pathway to better health and well-being.
“It wouldn’t be fair to single out any one person for over-interpreting the evidence,” she writes. “Dubious citation of clinical trials simply grows to be the norm among researchers in the field. Collectively, over time, flaws recede and best results come to be emphasized, until a body of evidence that seems to justify dietary recommendations becomes etched in the historical record.”
There’s a phrase for that: It’s called human nature.
› On the validity of dietary studies concluding the meat-eating is unhealthy. There is no scarcity of research, no lack of screaming headlines and certainly no shortage of pundits and policymakers alike who believe passionately that when it comes to the optimal diet, plants are better than animals. But virtually all of the “meat causes obesity/cancer/heart disease/diabetes” argument rests on a foundation of sand.
That’s because dietary research is almost exclusively done as epidemiological studies, not scientifically controlled experiments. You can’t “make” people in some study eat only certain foods, while a control group eats differently, the way scientists can give some patients a drug, and others a placebo that looks exactly like the medication.
Epidemiology exposes patterns, it reveals associations, it tracks and quantifies outcomes after the fact. But just about every study examining risks and outcomes based on dietary variations does not prove causation. If a group of people ends up unhealthy, and they seemingly eat more meat, that doesn’t prove anything; it merely confirms an association between two variables among many.
The bottom line response to people who point to the medical study du jour “proving” that red meat causes some disease is simple: dietary studies, along with being notoriously inaccurate, don’t prove anything. Only controlled, replicable experiments that isolate a single variable prove anything. And guess what? Such experiments involving food don’t exist.
That’s worth remembering next time you’re confronted with “proof” that vegetables are healthier than meat.
â–º To purchase Nina Teicholz’s must-read best-seller “The Big Fat Surprise,” log onto Amazon.com. Barnesandnoble.com or visit your favorite bookstore. This profound work of investigative journalism belongs on the bookshelf or in the eReader of every person who cares about animal agriculture, about health and nutrition and about policymaking that proceeds from science, not politics.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.