Butter, meat, and cheese vital to healthy diet?

This article originally appeared on

BOOK REVIEW: THE BIG FAT SURPRISE : Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, by Nina Teicholz

In this outstanding book, investigative journalist Nina Teicholz reveals that everything we thought we knew about dietary fat is wrong. She documents how the low-fat nutrition advice of the past 60 years has amounted to a vast uncontrolled experiment on our entire population, with disastrous consequences for our health.

For decades, we have been told that 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 that the low fat diet is 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.

Teicholz’ nine year investigation of this subject uncovers 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 has gotten it so wrong: how overzealous researchers through a combination of ego, bias and premature institutional consensus, have allowed dangerous misrepresentations to become dietary dogma.

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

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

Teicholz tells us that “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.”

It all began in the 1950s when Ancel Benjamin Keyes, a biologist and pathologist from the University of Minnesota, came up with the theory that 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 knew that meat intake was low. He cherry picked his data, determined to prove his theory, and then with a very persuasive personality 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 that Keys thought he found in his seven countries completely disappeared.

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 became adopted by powerful institutions those who challenged him faced a difficult battle. Professional lives suffered, jobs, research funding and speaking engagements and often prestige was lost.

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

Virtually all of the data supposedly in support of a low fat diet was epidemiological data which tries to indicate relationships of variables with disease without tests or trials on a population. Essentially all the trials where diet was controlled and health outcomes measured proved the lack of a relationship between high fat and disease.

Early on, the author gives 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 explains the more recent transfat scares.

One surprising discovery was that as early as 1957 a scientist by the name of Fred Kummerow had unearthed all the damage that transfat can achieve in the human body. Created by hydrogenating vegetable oil to make a stable compound, transfats accumulate in fat tissue. There, they supplant normal fatty acids which are the building blocks in every cell membrane, carefully regulating everything going in and out of the cell.

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

Teicholz documents the American diet in the 19th century in great detail from the writings of many who visited our nation from abroad, all who 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 reduction of red meats and fat over the last 50 years of the 20th century, while the government and the American Heart Association claimed that an increasing intake of red meat and fats were the cause of skyrocketing rates of heart disease and diabetes.

The author describes the unfortunate negative impacts of a low fat diet on children and exposes one of the great fallacies that breast cancer relates 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.  Willett found just the opposite to be true among the nearly 90,000 nurses whom he had followed for five years.

The author carefully points out that a fat starved pubic readily jumped to the highly touted Mediterranean Diet that heaped praise on olive oil, brought back nuts, eggs and cheese, lots of seafood and chicken and a little red meat. Teicholz writes “This diet has been a boon in certain ways. It offered relief during a particularly austere and restrictive period of American cuisine. It offered a corrective to mistaken low-fat policies. It demonstrated a more relaxed attitude toward dietary fat.”

And even if olive oil’s health promises do not stand up, it is a relatively stable oil that does not oxidize easily and is clearly a healthier alternative to the more unstable vegetable oils. But the greatest proof of the scam foisted upon us by the 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 to the low fat, high carb diet was a 2008 review of all studies of this diet by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. It concluded that there is “ no probable or convincing evidence” that a high level of fat in the diet causes heart disease or cancer. Then in 2013 an expert health advisory group in Sweden concluded after reviewing 16,000 studies that a low-fat diet was an ineffective strategy for tackling either obesity or diabetes.

It is not possible to read this book without concluding that our national diet was never properly, truly scientifically tested and that it has been a terrible, costly mistake for the American public. And the author reports that these facts have been available for 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 says “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”.

This could well prove to be one of the most important books written in the 21st century. It has been receiving 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.