Last May, investigative journalist, Nina Teicholz was able to publish the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of work in the form of her book, The Big FAT Surprise. Having not been formerly trained in the field of nutrition, Teicholz was able to approach the decades of nutrition research serving as the guiding dietary principals for a ‘healthy’ American diet with an unbiased, fresh and unique perspective. Since the 60s, Americans were being encouraged to follow a low-fat diet to improve their overall health and decrease their risk of heart disease. Animal products in general were to be avoided for the primary reason that they contained fat, worse yet- saturated fat! Now, don’t we all know that eating fat makes humans fat? Teicholz’s objective with The Big FAT Surprise was to either confirm or disprove that dietary suggestion based on the available scientific research.
In 337 pages, Teicholz digs into decades of nutrition research centered around fat in the human diet and its overall effect on human health. Several interesting surprises surfaced on the pages of her book that caught me off guard.
(Check out this TEDxEast with Teicholz)
- The initial push-back against saturated fat (1961 by the American Heart Association (AHA)) was driven by a surprising amount of flawed scientific research driven by human egos and politics. How the initial research condemning saturated fat was never approached with a healthy degree of skepticism is surprising. Just because one influential man (Ancel Keys) was convinced that saturated fat was the primary cause of heart disease and traveled the world to find populations of people that conveniently fit his ‘diet-heart hypothesis’ doesn’t mean subsequent research can’t question those initial (and rather flawed) findings. Let science have the chance to correct itself if it can. It’s also concerning how nutrition scientists struggled to get studies funded simply because they sought to challenge this common belief that saturated fat is harmful.
- Saturated fat, as shocking as it is to consider, isn’t as harmful to human health as we were all told. Let’s look at fat ‘in general’. One simple fact of human health is we need fat. Our brains need fat, we need fat to synthesize necessary hormones, and we need fat for our bodies to store fat-soluble vitamins. Some minerals (like calcium) we also need actually can’t be absorbed by our bodies without a fat-soluble vitamin (Vitamin D in this instance). Saturated fat, primarily from animal products, actually raises your HDL cholesterol levels (the good cholesterol) and while it does also raise your LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, it doesn’t raise the small, dense subfractions of LDL considered to be harmful, only the large, light LDL subfractions which aren’t associated with heart disease. A meta-analysis (basically study of the results of many different studies to find any type of pattern) with the objective to discover the association between saturated fat and heart disease, published in 2010 in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition actually concluded that saturated fat is not associated with an increased risk for heart disease or stroke. Finally!
- What happened when the AHA suggested people avoid fats in their diet all together? One thing is for certain, Americans didn’t become healthier. We steadily decreased our red meat consumption, adhering to doctor’s orders, and we chose low-fat refined carbohydrates laced with added sugars instead. Our consumption of vegetable oils shot through the roof and interesting enough, our waistline followed the same trend. We of course didn’t reduce our incidence of heart disease or diabetes either. Let’s not overcomplicate this. The low-fat American diet, full of carbohydrates and added sugars and deep fried in polyunsaturated vegetable oils wasn’t working. We stayed away from saturated fat though, so according to the AHA and USDA Dietary Guidelines, we must have been doing something right.
Where do we go from here? What’s a general take-home message?
Disclaimer—I’m clearly not a Registered Dietitian, my years of higher education were not in the field of human nutrition, I studied animal science. These are my opinions and you can take them or leave them.
- Be open to the idea that decades of nutrition research might have been saturated (no pun intended) with a healthy dose of corrupt politics, false historical assumptions and weak science. If the USDA is charged with crafting and updating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years, using the most up-to-date nutrition research available, don’t assume they’ll get it right. The yet-to-be released 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans isn’t looking too promising at this point!
- Consider including an appropriate level of nutrient-dense animal products in your diet. Personally, I would suggest full-fat dairy and any meat you want. Eat it in moderation and get a variety in your diet. Not only will you benefit from the appropriate level of fat in your diet, but you’ll be rewarded with a healthy dose of protein and essential vitamins and minerals. (The benefits of meat are another topic for another day.)
- Second guess yourself when you choose to eat a processed carbohydrate-based anything. It might say low-fat and it might say ‘no added sugars’ but don’t forget that carbohydrates, at their most basic molecular level are indeed simple sugars- monosaccharides- and glucose is a very common one. When fat is removed from a carbohydrate-based food item, you can guarantee they’ll replace it with something you really don’t want. I’m not saying don’t eat carbohydrates at all, I’m just suggesting to put a serious limit on the processed ones.
- REALLY second guess yourself when you choose to eat a deep-fried anything! There is enough reason to believe that heating polyunsaturated fats (soybean oil, canola oil for example) to high temperatures can cause toxic oxidative products to form and in-turn, be potentially damaging to your health.
- Shift away from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Avoid cooking/baking with vegetable shortening and margarine. Store-bought baked goods, snacks, non-dairy creamers and refrigerated dough generally contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Cook with olive oil (monounsaturated fat) and bake with butter or lard instead. Yes, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are cheaper for food companies to use and help keep the cost of those Oreos to only a few bucks and they’ll also last for months and months on the shelf- another win for the company, but they also contain trans fats (no health benefits whatsoever). As long as the serving size contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats the food label can say 0 grams. That ‘zero’ grams here and there of really 0.4 or 0.45 will add up pretty quick considering most of us don’t eat an actual ‘serving size’ of anything.
If you’re at all interested in learning a little more, read the book. Again, I am no expert in this complex field of human nutrition so do your own digging and I’ll do the same. If we can all be a little more conscious of our diets, we have a great deal to gain (and I don’t mean weight either!)…how’s that for cheesy!