The Big Fat Lie We’ve Been Fed About Our Diet
Life + Money

The Big Fat Lie We’ve Been Fed About Our Diet


Be honest: That bacon, egg and cheese breakfast you scarfed down the other day was so delicious you’d love to have it for breakfast every morning. But like so many other health-conscious, weight-watching Americans, you just won’t allow yourself that indulgence. Instead, you opt for the usual low-fat, low-calorie and (oh-so-bland) oatmeal.

Now a new book, based on eight years of dogged research, echoes what more and more experts have been saying: Animal-based fats, far from being dietary demons, are actually good for us – and by eating more carbohydrates instead, we’ve been wreaking havoc on our bodies in the mistaken belief we were doing some good.

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“Not only does the best science now show that it’s a mistake to restrict fat in our diets,” says investigative journalist Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, “but our fear of saturated fats in animal foods – butter, eggs, meat – has never been based in solid science. A bias against these foods developed early on and became entrenched, though the evidence never amounted to a convincing case. And it’s since crumbled away.”

In an interview, Teicholz explained the error of our carb-centric ways. “Carbohydrates break down into glucose, triggering the release of insulin, the king of all hormones for making fat. If you have glucose in your system chronically over time, all day long, for weeks, months and years, you have insulin circulating constantly, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.”

She added, “Then there’s fructose. It’s found naturally in fruits but is also a main component in table sugar. The high-fructose corn syrup in many foods messes up your cholesterol markers. It causes the liver to make triglycerides and other lipids in the blood, which have a greater effect on your propensity to get heart disease. The combination of glucose and fructose packs a disease-promoting punch.”

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It’s not just starchy vegetables like potatoes that break down into glucose in the blood, Teicholz emphasizes. “It’s the complex carbs as well – brown rice, whole grains, quinoa, oatmeal. Sure, sugar is terrible for your health – but a high-carb diet is less healthy generally.”

All of this is fascinating for many reasons, including the fact that a new Gallup survey shows the U.S. obesity rate is now at 27.7 percent, the highest since 2008, when the firm began measuring obesity rates. Here is more of The Fiscal Times’ conversation with Teicholz about her findings on animal-based fats and their impact on our diets and health:

The Fiscal Times (TFT): Let’s be clear. You’re not suggesting we eat nothing but animal-based fats, are you? For example, we should still eat leafy green vegetables and other vitamin-rich plant products for good health.

Nina Teicholz (NT): We should balance our animal-based foods with green vegetables, cauliflower, or mushrooms – all good vegetables that are fairly low in carbohydrates. Or, have potatoes or pasta or rice if you like – just don’t make those foods the centerpiece of your meal. What we’ve been in error about is shifting our diets so dramatically away from animal foods, like meat, dairy, and cheese, and shifting a significant proportion of our calories to carbs instead. That's been a huge mistake.

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TFT: What about whole milk – are you saying we should be drinking it?

NT: Whole milk is actually better for you than non-fat milk or skim milk, for one reason: Fat is good for you. In clinical trials a higher fat diet, in general, has been shown to be healthier than a low-fat diet. So you don't want to avoid fat. In milk, the fat is what allows your body to fully digest the fat-soluble vitamins A and D and the calcium. Fat is like the spoonful of medicine that makes the vitamins go down.

TFT: What about ice cream? Where does that fall?

NT: There is some evidence showing the negative health effects of sugar are mitigated when consumed with fat. So ice cream would be healthier than sorbet. Very counterintuitive! It's also true that full-fat ice cream is lower in sugar than low-fat versions.

TFT: Given all of this, I have to ask you, how is the medical community reacting to your messages, which conflict massively with what we’ve been told and advised for so long? Have you gotten pushback?

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NT: My book has only been out a very short time so far, but I'm still surprised by the number of doctors and clinicians who feel they're ready for this message – that people should not restrict themselves on fat so much, and that a little meat in the calories they consume would be better for them. A decade ago, when I started my research, many scientists, nutritionists and others were much more closed to this. There really was no conversation – it was not uncommon for scientists to say to me, ‘I don’t want to talk about fat.’

TFT: So what changed? What shifted?

NT: A science journalist named Gary Taubes really did the seminal work in this field. Over the last decade, scientists have been doing clinical trials that have started to show how much more effective a higher fat diet is than a low-fat diet, and that has started to move people.

TFT: You haven’t mentioned cholesterol yet. Don’t those numbers still matter?

NT: Cholesterol matters but not in the way we think it does. In the 1950s, when saturated fat was first targeted, the understanding of cholesterol and heart disease was primitive – we only knew about total cholesterol, not LDL and HDL. The idea that saturated fats were bad became institutionalized at that time, but in the last 50 years or so the science of heart disease has evolved dramatically. Total cholesterol is not a predictor of heart attack or heart disease risk, it turns out, for the great majority of people, nor is LDL cholesterol. As one professor of medicine and cardiology told me, ‘LDL is a historical leftover.’

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There’s a much finer understanding now of some of the biomarkers that are better predictors of risk, such as apolipoprotein, or ApoB, and non-HDL cholesterol, and they’re not worsened by saturated fat consumption. The heart disease marker field is penetrated by pharmaceutical money. The NIH and the American Heart Association are invested in certain markers and don’t want to reverse course. Nutritional recommendations have gotten mucked up over the years by numerous conflicting interests. We now know that saturated fats are the only foods known to raise HDL cholesterol, a more reliable predictor of heart attacks than LDL.

TFT: You say unsaturated vegetable oils when heated to high temperatures are dangerous - making fried foods a different story.

NT: It's not the fried foods that are inherently unhealthy. It’s the unsaturated vegetable oils that came into our diet in the early part of the 20th century and which we’re now consuming regularly. When heated at high temperatures for long periods of time, these oils oxidize and degenerate into other products, causing inflammation and gastric damage. They’re commonly used in restaurant fryers to replace trans fats, but they haven't been tested much on humans.  

TFT: Let’s discuss calories. Don’t they still count? Are you saying we could eat 3,000 calories a day and not gain weight if we don’t eat carbs? Doesn’t all of this need to be tamed in terms of amounts eaten?

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NT: That is a question of scientific debate. There is some evidence - overfeeding experiments in the 1980s - showing that people have a hard time ‘overeating’ meat. Investigators would put stacks of pork chops in front of study subjects, and people simply couldn’t eat that many. By contrast, researchers have found people can eat huge numbers of calories when the foods are more carbohydrate-based, such as cookies, crackers and chips. One idea is that protein plus fat is more satiating, possibly because the body is getting the nutrients it needs. So by this thinking, the very nature of fat plus protein makes it hard to overeat.

Another idea is that a diet cannot fatten as long as carbohydrates are kept low, because only the carbohydrates trigger insulin. In the experiment that physician Alfred Pennington conducted, which I include in my book, 20 male executives reportedly ate 3000 calories a day but lost weight. Nearly all the trials on the Atkins diet over the past decade make no attempt to restrict calories at all, and people generally lose more weight than on low-fat, calorie restricted diets. Trials are going on now to try to pin this down more conclusively.

TFT: You came to nutrition as an outsider – and researched all of the original studies and interviewed nearly every living nutrition expert in the U.S., as well as food company executives. Grueling?

NT: That’s the only way to do this thoroughly, in a field where people basically tried to rewrite the history of science or gloss over inconvenient data points. Studies were misinterpreted or misrepresented, and there’s been a long-term bias against saturated fats that was hard to overcome.

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TFT: Boil this down for us: Best meal for breakfast, based on your research?

NH: For breakfast, instead of oatmeal or cereal, it’s better to have bacon, eggs, sausage, whole fat yogurt, not low-fat yogurt.

TFT: For lunch and dinner – best meals?

NH: For lunch, have chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad – that’s better than a sandwich or a bean salad with kale and cranberry, for example. In terms of snacks, rather than fruit, dried fruit, crackers, chips or hummus – it’s better to have cheese, nuts, and cold cuts, such as salami, for example. For dinner, at the center of your meal should be some animal food like red meat, chicken or fish. Balance that with low-carb vegetables. Of course, if you’re diabetic or obese or have heart disease, you’ll need even fewer carbs than other people.

TFT: Through it all, your unspoken message seems to be: Lose the guilt when it comes to eating fatty foods.

NH: Yes. These foods are delicious! They’re not going to make us sick or fat and they're not going to orphan our children. And stay away from sugar, white flour, and other refined carbohydrates: They’re almost certainly the main drivers of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

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