By Marika Sboros
For her birthday in May 2016 American journalist and author Nina Teicholz came up with a brilliant idea: buy her bestselling book, The Big Fat Surprise, as a present for someone you really love.
Better still, buy it from the Hickory Stick Book Shop, an independent US book store located in Washington Depot, Connecticut, for more than 60 years, and she’ll sign and dedicate it. That includes for yourself if you haven’t yet bought a copy.
I couldn’t think of a better investment in your or that special someone’s health and wellbeing right now.
The book was a game changer in nutrition science when it was published in May 2014. It continues to make seismic waves in medical and dietetic quarters as its second birthday rolls around.
It reveals the truly “unthinkable”:
That everything you thought you knew about dietary fats is most likely horribly wrong. It’s not really your fault. Teicholz documents with chilling scientific accuracy how 60 years of low-fat nutrition advice doctors, dietitians and health authorities have dished up has amounted to “a vast uncontrolled experiment on the entire population (in the US and many other parts of the globe), with disastrous consequences for our health”.
Former BMJ (British Medical Journal) editor Dr Richard Smith read The Big Fat Surprise as part of research for a feature he wrote and published in the BMJ in December 2014. Titled Are Some Diets Mass Murder, Smith’s article is a riveting, thought-provoking read. He begins with a quote by French-American Dr Jean Mayer, one of the “greats” of nutrition science, who said way in 1965 – in what Smith rightly describes as the “colourful language that has characterised arguments over diet”. Mayer said that prescribing a diet restricted in carbohydrates to the public was “the equivalent of mass murder”.
Smith says that having ploughed his way through five books on diet and some of the key studies to write the BMJ feature he was left with the impression that the same accusation of “mass murder” could be directed at “many players in the great diet game”. In short, he said: “Bold policies have been based on fragile science, and the long term results may be terrible.”
What do those latter sentiments have to do with Teicholz’s book? Everything, including the effects of prescribing a diet not restricted in carbohydrates to the public: after more than 40 years of high-carb, low-fat official dietary guidelines there are global epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, even dementia that is now being called type 3 diabetes because of its proven links with diet.
Smith found The Big Fat Surprise to be by far the best of the five books he read to write the BMJ feature. All he could come up with by way of negative criticism was the title, The Big Fat Surprise, subtitle Why butter, meat, and cheese belong in a healthy diet, and cover picture, which he considered “demeaning”. He was bowled over by the power of Teicholz’s “forensic demolition of the hypothesis that saturated fat is the cause of cardiovascular disease”.
Smith describes the book as “deeply disturbing in showing how overenthusiastic scientists, poor science, massive conflicts of interest, and politically driven policy makers can make deeply damaging mistakes”.
Over 40 years, Smith says he has come to recognise what he might always have known: “that science is a human activity with the error, self deception, grandiosity, bias, self interest, cruelty, fraud, and theft that is inherent in all human activities (together with some saintliness), but this book shook me.”
Other specialist reviewers have been similarly fulsome in praise of The Big Fat Surprise:
In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015, American nutrition science professor Dr Donald McNamara says it should be read by “every nutritional science professional as a guide to risks of hubris and the unquestioning belief in whatever the conventional wisdom of the day is and to the consequences of basing public policy on belief as opposed to evidence of positive, beneficial effects”.
McNamara, a fellow of the American Heart Association and the American College of Nutrition, current Director at Eggs for Health Consulting, who has done extensive research in coronary heart disease, cholesterol and lipid metabolism, doesn’t stop there.
He says all scientists should read Teicholz’s book as “an example of how limited science can become federal policy, which may, in the long run, be harmful when the basic tenets of science, skepticism, and consistent questioning are set aside to appease the powerful voices convinced that we must do something (even if we do not have the proof that that something is the right something).”
In June 2014, the Wall Street Journal described the book as “a lacerating indictment of Big Public Health”, and poses the question: “What if the government’s crusade against fat fed the spread of obesity by encouraging us to abstain from foods that satiate us efficiently?”.
The WSJ gave The Big Fat Surprise their highest accolade as one of their Top 10 NonFiction of 2014; Forbes magazine named it the Most Memorable HealthCare Book of 2014, describing it as a “ thorough, and shocking piece of investigative reporting”. The Economist rated it their Best Book of 2014. It quickly became a New York Times best seller.
US physician and low-carb, high-fat specialist Dr Michael Eades has written one of the longest, most detailed reviews of Teicholz’s book on his Protein Power website (scroll down for a link to the full review). Eades says it is the “most difficult and demanding (review)” he has ever written – for a few reasons:
Firstly, psychologically , because “I want to write a review so good it inspires everyone to buy the book immediately and read it.
“Why? Because I think it is one of the most important books on nutrition ever written. Maybe the most important. And I feel a responsibility to inspire as many people as I can to get their hands on it.”
Secondly, he says the books is “so brimming with valuable information” he was almost paralysed trying to figure out which parts to excerpt.
After he started reading it, Eades says he was “absolutely riveted”. So much so, that instead of trying to carve out time to read it, he started “carving out time from reading her book to do all the other things I needed to do. It was that good.”
Not surprisingly, Teicholz has had some detractors: critics who support conventional medical and dietetic “wisdom”, in particular the paradigms on which high-carb, low-fat eating regimens and official dietary guidelines are based, or who simply suffer from a bad case of the tall poppy syndrome.
They tried variously and failed miserably to suggest (and still do) that the book has no value because Teicholz is not a medical doctor, scientist or dietitian. That’s a ridiculous argument I hear regularly from doctors and academic dietitian professors who really should not better.
Teicholz is a Yale and Stanford graduate where she studied biology and majored in American Studies. She has a master’s degree from Oxford University in the UK and served as associate director of the Center for Globalisation and Sustainable Development at Columbia University.
Another criticism is that her book has not been “peer reviewed” – as if her critics would have you believe that all the peer-reviewed science Teicholz has very carefully referenced throughout has value only if someone they approve of and if it is published elsewhere.
There was also the libellous claim that she plagiarised the work of fellow US science journalist Gary Taubes, author of such seminal nutrition science works as Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why we Get Fat. Taubes dismissed that suggestion with the contempt it deserved. When all else failed, critics tried to discredit the book because it contained few errors. All they succeeded in proving with that is that Teicholz is human, fallible, and if and when she makes a mistake, she owns up and corrects it.
Not surprisingly, given the scope of her investigation of the nutrition science and dietetic industries, The Big Fat Surprise puts many powerful vested interest noses out of joint.
She says on that topic:
“I discovered (after having read thousands of scientific papers, attended conferences, learned the intricacies of nutrition science, and interviewed pretty much every single living nutrition expert in the United States, some several times, plus scores more oversees) that on the whole, the mistakes of nutrition science could not primarily be pinned on the nefarious interests of Big Food. The source of our misguided dietary advice was in some ways more disturbing, since it seems to have been driven by experts at some of our most trusted institutions working toward what they believed to be the public good.”
In other words, what passes for official dietary advice is more often than not the result of zealotry, passion and dogma, not science. That has always boded ill for public health.
In January 2015, Sweden’s “diet doctor”, Dr Andreas Eenfeldt, reviewed Teicholz’s book in a post on his website titled The Beginning And The End Of The Fear Of Fat. In it he says the book’s main message – that butter, meat and cheese are healthful foods – is perhaps no longer a “surprise”. However, “the story has never been as crystal clear or entertaining as in The Big Fat Surprise. I highly recommend it.”
Eades predicts in his review that within a few years, one of two things will have happened as a result of this important book: “Either Nina will be burned at the stake. Or we will all be eating our food cooked in lard, butter, beef tallow and duck fat, just as we ate it back in the days before Ancel Keys (the American physiologist and scientist who helped establish the epidemiological – and now thoroughly disproven – link between cholesterol and cardiovascular disease) came on the scene.
“We’ll eat the way we ate when a case of heart disease was an anomaly.”
Eades recommends that you buy this book now and promises that you will not be disappointed.
“Give it to every lipophobe you know who is able to read. It will change many minds,” he says.
All I can add to that is a culturally transcending “Amen”.
- Click here for a full version of Dr Michael Eades’ review of The Big Fat Surprise
- Click here for more on the Swedish Low-Carb Revolution started by Dr Andreas Eenfeldt, Sweden’s “diet doctor”
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