"The Big Fat Surprise" by Nina Teicholz
was actually no surprise to me at all. For when you come from a childhood riddled with fat-free cookies that taste like a sugar-laden makeup compact, and fat-free ranch dressing which somehow congeals when it lands on your palate, you can’t help but faint with delight when as an adult, you finally read the research on fat for yourself and discover (and taste) an egg yolk for the first time, rather than just the whites. Even without research, if we simply thought about which part of the egg (the white or the yolk) the chicken embryo derives its nourishment from, we can quickly see that the “yolk” is on us if we decide to throw it out.
The big takeaway within the monstrosity of research in this book? Saturated fat is not the health villain it has been deemed to be. And fats that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers cooked with - such as lard, tallow, and butter - are still the best option for optimal health.
The false and misleading accusation was initially leveled by a prominent biologist named Ancel Keys, who spent his career studying how dietary fat affected blood cholesterol. In 1958, Keys founded the Seven Countries Study, which examined the dietary patterns of countries including Greece, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Japan, and Finland. Yet, despite how pleased Keys was with the evidence, it was meager at best. Keys concluded that the countries which tended to consume the most fat had the most cases of heart disease. And he was quick to announce his findings to the world -- even landing his face on the cover of Time Magazine in 1961.
The real results? He failed to acknowledge the countries he left out of his study, where fat intake was low but heart disease was high, like Chile. And how about the countries which gobbled up enormous amounts of fat but had low heart disease statistics, like Holland and Norway? In essence, Ancel Keys cherry-picked his data to support his theory. This study gained massive attention early on, impacting low-fat dietary guidelines that the U.S. government endorsed for decades. Even today, the government still somewhat supports a low-fat diet thanks to a food science industry and food marketers that prioritize profits over consumer health.
Then there was the Mediterranean study mentioned in the book, which promoted the consumption of olive oil as its key source of health. This diet was also found to be based on flawed evidence. And, it has made me reconsider the way we are persuaded to believe - still to this day - that olive oil is actually a fat we should use with a free-flowing stream. Even the nutrition therapy training I am currently undergoing discusses the benefits of olive oil. I have my doubts, especially considering how much of the olive oil on the market is either adulterated, cut, or oxidized. When not properly made, olive oil can be highly processed. Much of what's on the market today is only fit for external use. In fact, I love how the author noted that olive oil's first intended purpose was to rub on the body, as opposed to being a dip for a crusty slice of bread. Because of this, I recommend consuming very little olive oil as part of a healthy diet, unless the source and quality are known.
After these studies led by Keys shook the American public to the core, vegetable oils were recommended in place of saturated fats. Food companies were scrambling to find a suitable substitute for oils, such as palm oil and tallow, which are highly stable oils that hold food-stuffs together and make frying a breeze. The result was hydrogenated oils. Processed trans fats, like margarine, ruled the shelves at the grocery stores, and butter was put out to pasture, so to speak. That was until the Judd study, led by Walter Willet. It’s like the part in the book where the bad guy finally gets shut down for good, and the world is saved. (Cue massive cheering and throwing hats into the air). The Judd study became known as the most famous study for the food science industry shooting themselves in the foot.
In a nutshell, the study compared four diets:
- High in olive oil
- High in trans fats (processed vegetable oils)
- Moderate in trans fats
- Saturated fats
The study revealed that the diets containing processed trans fats led to a rise in LDL (bad) cholesterol, and lowered HDL (good) cholesterol. With the help of a passionate doctor and nutrition researcher, Walter Willet, this led to the push to have trans fats removed from the food supply, and science finally won out. And for good reason...
A nutrition fact I love comes from this book. It states that processed vegetable oils (known as Omega-6 oils) compete for absorption with more essential Omega-3 oils like DHA. DHA is critical for every cell of the body, but especially the brain. Too many processed Omega-6 oils are researched to be pro-inflammatory, leading to a whole host of issues, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even diabetes.
On the other hand, Omega-3 oils are responsible for fighting inflammation and are scientifically proven to lower the risk for such health issues. So maintaining a good amount of Omega-3 intake as opposed to processed and refined oils is one of the wisest actions to take for your health. And as a parent always seeking the best nutrition for my toddler, my favorite feature of this book was about a prominent lawyer named Steven Joseph.
Joseph, a California lawyer with no interest in money, but rather on principle, filed suit against Kraft Foods North America to remove trans fats from Oreo cookies. His principle? An injunction against the sale and marketing of Oreos to children in California - a fact that, at the time, was not widely known to the general public. I remember visiting his website in 2003 after the media publicized it. Unfortunately, while I, along with hundreds of others, visited his site and cheered on his legal battle, he had to drop the lawsuit because the widespread public knowledge no longer allowed him to present his case to a judge. His efforts didn't go to waste, though - it lit a fire under Kraft Foods to remove trans fats from Oreo cookies and they did just that.
With a little logical thinking, one would certainly conclude that if you held butter in one hand and a cup of processed soybean oil in the other, the butter would definitely qualify as more nutrient-dense than the soybean oil that has been heated, treated, and genetically modified. However, if you are looking for more “exhibit A” hard evidence, then pick up a hard copy of "The Big Fat Surprise" and let it remind you of just how great it is to eat pastured animal proteins, cook your Brussels sprouts with bacon grease, and scramble the whole egg, yolk and all.