The author of bestseller The Big Fat Surprise has a message that ought to resonate with the industry: Not only is meat important in the diet, but the fat found in meat is absolutely essential.
For those who haven’t yet read The Big Fat Surprise, by investigative journalist Nina Teicholz, I suggest you go online and order it, or head out to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy right now. Why? Because this is the most important book in decades for anyone who is involved in animal agriculture, who runs a business that deals with meat processing or who just happens to enjoy steak and burgers and pork chops and wants or be reassured that choosing a diet that has sustained virtually every society in recorded history isn’t as unhealthy as so many modern dietary “experts” claim it is.
Simply stated, the thesis of Teicholz’s research is that the scientific consensus on the nutritional impact of dietary fat — especially the saturated fat found principally in animal foods — is all wrong. The “eat less fat to avoid a heart attack” advice that’s been drummed into the American public for the last 50 years? Turns out it’s not only based on some pretty thin evidence compared with most areas of research, it has led to disastrous consequences for the nation’s health.
Her book not only supports the consumption of red meat, more importantly, her analysis of the significant, published nutrition research reveals that we need not just the protein, but the fat that comes with it — hence, the book’s title.
In other words, her book is not only an argument for being an omnivore, versus a vegetarian, it’s an endorsement of eating the fat that even many dedicated carnivores still feel guilty about consuming. If you believe the conclusion that Teicholz arrives, then the low-fat diet we’ve been urged to embrace is the cause of our national obesity crisis, and the slew of health problems accompanying it.
The foods we’ve collectively dropped from our shopping lists and moved off our dinner plates are actually creating far worse problems than the heart attacks and strokes that the nutritional establishment assured us we could eliminate if only we’d stop eating red meat, whole milk, full-fat cheese and — God forbid — butter.
There’s much more to her book, including the captivating backstory of how the emergence of an epidemic of heart disease in the post-war years led so many scientists astray. But the immediate impact as The Big Fat Surprise has climbed the best seller lists is the backlash from certain quarters of the scientific community.
In the first installment of a week-long examination of this all-important health and nutrition topic, Contributing Editor Dan Murphy spoke with author Nina Teicholz about her research, her conclusions and the reaction her blockbuster book has generated.
Q. Let me start by asking about how your argument has been received. It’s so powerfully presented in your book, but the idea that a low-fat diet is a bad idea definitely runs counter to so much of the current popular dietary advice out there.
Teicholz. Yes, there have been a number of people in the nutrition establishment that have avoided commenting on the book. But to be honest, I have yet to see a review that said, “I’m just not persuaded.” Of course, Dean Ornish, who is one of the leading proponents of an ultra-low fat diet, called it “a dangerous book” in a recent column in the AARP newsletter. Ironically, for all the attention he gets, there is virtually no evidence that his program actually works to prevent heart disease. And the American Heart Association put out a statement reiterating their insistence on a low saturated fat diet — basically, just ignore the book
Q. That’s hard to believe.
Teicholz. For a lot of scientists, it seems that they feel the best way to silence their critics is to just ignore them.
Q. Along with all the negative criticism of red meat, however, there has recently been much more of an emphasis on incorporating protein in the diet for weight loss and for better health.
Teicholz. Yes, there is some common ground there, especially when it comes to implicating carbohydrates — especially sugar — as the driver of the obesity crisis. But pointing the finger at sugar, by itself, doesn’t reverse 50 years of bad dietary advice.
Q. That’s the most astounding aspect of your book. Not only did the nutrition establishment get it wrong years ago, but now that the evidence seems overwhelming that animal foods are not the problem, they still promote cutting out saturated fat. Why?
Teicholz. Partly because of the influence of the big food manufacturers. As far back as the 1940s and 1950s, there was a big push to promote vegetable oils and margarine. The food industry helped turn the regulators into kind of captive agencies, and historically, the meat, dairy and egg industries just weren’t as powerful. The other factor is that large institutions have a difficult time reversing themselves. The low-fat diet has become ingrained, and the FDA and other agencies have simply turned it into a kind of dogma.
Q. Still, it seems that scientists, of all people, should be sensitive to the fact that the data don’t support restricting fat in the diet, as you have so eloquently detailed. Why is that?
Teicholz. It’s ironic. Scientists are supposed to be cognizant of their biases; they are supposed to actively question their hypotheses. But part of the problem is that food is not like a drug. You can’t conduct a study that controls what people actually eat the way you can control drug dosages. There are so many other variables in any dietary study. And 50 or 60 years ago, nutrition science was in its infancy. There wasn’t much historical data to build on.
Q. You make a compelling case that not only do can we eat meat, milk and eggs without feeling guilty, we actually need the saturated fat they contain to maintain optimal health. Instead of the Dietary Guidelines that downplay the value of animal foods, what is the nutrition message that American should be getting?
Teicholz. First of all, saturated fat cannot be shown to cause heart disease. People need to know that. More importantly, eating fat does not make you fat. It is an essential nutrient. And the emphasis on adding [lean] protein to one’s diet is unhealthy. We need that fat, especially the saturated fat, ideally in a 2:1 ratio of fat to protein [calories].
You need to eat protein, but you need the fat that naturally comes with it to properly absorb the vitamins, minerals and the nutrients found in animal foods. If people got that message, it would make a big difference in their health and in our public health status.
Coming tomorrow: More from Nina Teicholz’s groundbreaking book The Big Fat Surprise: How history, tradition and even common sense got pummeled in the 1960s and 1970ss, as red meat became the scapegoat for the nation’s growing epidemic of cardiovascular disease. Learn how politics trumped science.