'The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet' (book review)

The Big Fat Surprise book cover
© The Big Fat Surprise

Author Nina Teicholz reveals how the past sixty years of low-fat nutrition advice has amounted to a vast uncontrolled experiment with disastrous consequences for human health.

“You may be making yourself miserable three times a day without purpose.” – Edward Pinckney, The Cholesterol Controversy, 1973

Fat, especially saturated, is good for you. With this rebellious statement, author Nina Teicholz wades into a decades-long debate over whether or not eating fat results in heart disease. Her new book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet (Simon & Schuster, 2014), is an eloquent argument for why North Americans should abandon the ‘low fat, high carb’ diet that’s promoted by the official USDA Dietary Guidelines and return to an old-fashioned diet featuring animal products.

Over the ten years she spent researching her book, Teicholz interviewed top nutrition experts in the country, as well as many of the scientists who conducted the studies that remain the cornerstone of mainstream nutritional advice in the United States. She spent years reading the studies in their entirety, not just the abstracts. This effort paid off; she came across many inconsistencies, questionable methods, skewed data, and misleading conclusions. She interviewed people in the nutrition field who have been shunned for not “toeing the official line,” for daring to question whether minimizing saturated fat intake is really the best thing for human bodies.

The Big Fat Surprise reveals a world that is fraught with poor science, loads of industry money, political clout, and bloated egos pushing for specific results that always feature the demonization of fat, particularly saturated. It makes you realize quickly that the food pyramid, as we know it, has very little to do with what’s actually optimal for human health and far more to do with politics.

Teicholz explains why saturated fat is so good for our bodies. The following paragraph is a brief summary of the issues she addresses in depth throughout the book:

“The sum of the evidence against saturated fat over the past half-century amounts to this: the early trials condemning saturated fat were unsound; the epidemiological data showed no negative association; saturated fat’s effect on LDL-cholesterol (when properly measured in subfractions) is neutral; and a significant body of clinical trials over the past decade has demonstrated the absence of any negative effect of saturated fat on heart disease, obesity, or diabetes. In other words, every plank in the case against saturated fat has, upon rigorous examination, crumbled away.”

In addition, she writes at length about how our collective rejection of animal fats has resulted in a glut of vegetable oils and fat replacers, and why these pose a dangerous threat to human health.

The Big Fat Surprise is a book that will polarize many people. Teicholz is likely reviled by the nutritional elite and food industry for taking such a controversial and unpopular stance on fat. Her research is uncomfortable for the many people who have bought into the low fat myth over past decades; and her conclusion that the profusion of health problems in North America is actually linked to excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates will not be welcome news.

Her argument raises obvious ethical questions about what it means to encourage increased meat consumption at a time when we should be reducing meat intake to minimize our carbon footprints. The book does not discuss these implications, restricting itself only to the discussion of dietary fat in human health. This is troublesome, since discussions of health are inevitable tied to the environment in some way, at some point.

Teicholz does, however, offer thoughts on meat being more nutrient-dense per unit of resources consumed than fruits and vegetables, and suggests that “the greater good health enjoyed by a nation eating more meat might save on health-care costs, thereby evening out the overall ledger.” She goes on to say that, if we returned to eating tallow and lard once again, it could free up much of the agricultural land currently dedicated to growing soybean, rapeseed, cottonseed, safflower, and corn oils.

The Big Fat Surprise is a daring and beautifully written book that’s definitely worth reading, if you can handle having your nutritional knowledge turned on its head. Prepare to feel angered or betrayed.

Tags: Animals | Diet | Food Safety | Food Security | Health

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