It’s said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Turns out our current dietary road started much the same. Nina Teicholz’s thriller, The Big Fat Surprise, is a fascinating page-turner. It exposes how our country embraced a diet that was supposed to save us from heart-disease, but instead led to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other metabolic diseases.
Don’t be scared off by the book’s size (336 pages plus 62 pages of footnotes) — it is a gripping read that lays out a detailed history of how our nation’s nutrition went off the rails. That’s not to say there isn’t any science in the book. There is, and Teicholz makes it easy for the layperson to understand.
There are many moments in the book where you’ll want to bang your head against the wall and shout, “What the hell?!” Many times while reading, my husband heard me raging how we’ve been deceived — sometimes intentionally — by so-called “experts,” politicians, and nutritional busy bodies who swear they only want to help.
Lies, Damn Lies & Bad Nutrition Science
I first became aware of the problems with nutrition science reading Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat. And Teicholz rightly gives the man his due. If you had to name a single person most responsible for framing today’s round of questioning of the low-fat diet, it’s Taubes.
Teicholz picks up Taubes’ mantel, perfectly capturing researchers’ arrogance, corruption, and bullying efforts to prove saturated fat is bad. From cherry picking data to ignoring their own research findings to cutting off funding of anyone who disagrees with the Lipid Hypothesis (low-fat diet), these anti-fat
researchers zealots, with the full support of our federal government, completely altered our diet on the flimsiest of data for the worst possible results.
The (Not So) Usual Suspects
This book leaves no stone unturned. For those of you who’ve read Taubes, you’ll see some of the usual suspects – Ancel Keys, George McGovern, The American Heart Association, the USDA, a complicit news media, and Dr. Robert Atkins to name a few. But there are so many more surprises:
The Mediterranean Diet Isn’t All That
As a marketing person, I should have known better than to believe the healing wonders of that magical elixir olive oil. Turns out the olive oil industry seduced (via conference junkets to exotic locals and grant funding) researchers into accepting the wonders of the Mediterranean diet and the disease-fighting powers of “ancient” olive oil. Well kids, olive oil isn’t so ancient, at least in the context of the natural state of Man. Sure, it’s been used in rituals and soap making for thousands years, but as something we ingest? Not until the early 20th Century. It’s still good for you, don’t get me wrong…but there’s “good for you,” and then there’s the hyperbole (root word: hype) that these marketing folks were dishing out one shrimp cocktail and glass of champagne at a time…
Children & Low Fat Diets
Initially, pediatricians objected to the idea of low-fat diets for children — after all, the diet was designed for middle-aged men with heart problems. Not growing children. But with parents listening to their government and a complicit news media breathlessly parroting the “dangers” of saturated fat, the American Academy of Pediatrics succumbed to the anti-fat pressure. Kids went on a low-fat diet and became nutritionally at-risk.
Soybeans vs. Tropical Oils
Remember the big scare around coconut oil and movie theater popcorn? Well I do, and frankly movie theater popcorn never tasted the same again. Of course, no one thought the issue might be the high-carb popcorn and not the natural oil. Lead by the soybean lobby, coconut and palm oils (high in saturated fat) were targeted in the anti-fat craze. Thanks to hysteria about fat, we got rid of oils high in saturated fat and replaced them with oils (“cough” hydrogenated soybean oil “cough”) loaded with…wait for it…freaky-deaky trans fats.
Something To Fear
I learned so much from reading this book, but I have to say one chapter chilled me to the bone. Exit Trans Fats, Enter Something Worse? is more than worth the price of this book.
With the FDA going after trans fats…yet still demonizing saturated fats…food companies are replacing both with something else. And, of course, no one knows if the replacement is healthy for us.
Teicholz recounts an interview with the vice president of one of the country’s largest suppliers of edible oil. With the ban on trans fats, fast food joints are now using liquid vegetable oil. It’s made of vegetables, so its gotta be healthy, right? Ha!
‘As those oils are heated, you’re creating toxic oxidative breakdown products,’ he said. ‘One of those products is a compound called an aldehyde, which interferes with DNA. Another is formaldehyde, which is extremely toxic.’
…He went on to tell me how these heated, oxidized, oils form polymers create a ‘thick gunk’ on the bottom of the fryer and clogs up the drains. Partially hydrogenated oils (which the veggie oil replaced) were long-lasting and stable in fryers, which of course is why they were favored. And beef tallow, McDonald’s original frying fat, was even more stable.
Teicholz then confirmed, through a scientist at an industrial cleaning lab, how heated liquid vegetable oil created this “thick gunk” on the bottom of fryers. The cleaning lab, incidentally, services nearly all the major fast-food chains.
It builds up on everything. It’s like paint shellac…anywhere from a real hard, clear coating to a thick, gooey material, like a white silicone lubricant that you use on car engines, with a Crisco-type feel to it.
Lest you think staying out of fast-food joints protects you, think again. Any eatery with a fryer or that heats up oils is using this stuff, not to mention what’s replacing trans fats in packaged/processed foods from our local grocery store.
Coconut oil and lard isn’t looking so bad, now, is it?
Death By A Thousand Cuts
I love that the low-fat diet is questioned by people outside of the establishment’s “experts.” Non-nutritionists like Taubes and Teicholz are doing the legwork (something 99.9% of journalist don’t do), digging through years of research and studies, and asking the critical questions.
The response from the anti-fat zealots has been to attack rather than engage the debate.
How sad. To them, the “science is settled,” no need for discussion, they are right and saturated fat is bad. I contend that whenever you hear “the science is settled” is synonymous with “science is politicized.”
I remember hearing an interview with Penn Jillette a few years ago, and one quote always stuck with me: “I approach every disagreement with the possibility I might be wrong.”
Given the rise in obesity and diabetes, as well as a host of metabolic problems, that’s the kind of thinking we need now more than ever.
I think the reason books like The Big Fat Surprise are breaking through the clutter is simply because we’re witnessing with our own eyes how the nutrition information we’ve been fed for nearly 50 years – cut down on red meat, drink skim not whole milk, don’t eat the yolks, cut back on dairy, don’t use butter – is total bunk.
The Atkins Diet didn’t die with Dr. Atkins. Paleo/Primal diets are on the rise. Bad logic (if its called “fat” it must make you fat) is losing ground to critical thinking (Why does eating sugar and carbs cause me to get so hungry an hour later? How come exercising doesn’t help me lose weight?).
The low-fat diet, which I lived by for years as I balloon up to 325 pounds, is in its death throws. The Big Fat Surprise wonderfully lays out how this fad (and it is a fad) took hold of our common sense and strangled it in its chubby arms.
Despite all that, as good as it feels to point my considerably less-chubby finger at those researchers, government officials, food company execs, and reporters who pushed the low-fat diet, the key thing this book taught me was that I share some of the blame. My low-fat efforts weren’t working and I kept gaining weight. It never occurred to me to question press reports about the dangers of eggs, butter, bacon, dairy, salt, and red meat. I kept buying those Snackwells (diet cookies!?!), low-fat yogurt (with
sugar fruit on the bottom), Lean Cuisines, and Weight Watcher Smart Ones. I tracked my points or counted calories diligently. I walked every day. And yet I was always hungry. I craved carb-loaded foods. I ate out a lot because, hey, I usually picked the “healthy” salad (hint: they’re not so healthy).
Yet for 30+ years I never questioned what I was being told.
So I’d like to say “Thank You” to Gary Taubes for writing Why We Get Fat. You changed my life. And “Thank You” Nina Teicholz for writing The Big Fat Surprise and exposing the ugly truth about nutrition science.