Your Facebook questions: The Big Fat Surprise – Science or science fiction?

BigFatSurprise“I just heard science journalist Nina Teicholz on CBC’s The Current talking about her book The Big Fat Surprise. She says the low fat craze over the last few decades is what has made the population fat & unhealthy, and that we should all eat more fat, including saturated. Are you familiar with her book, and what is your opinion? It’s frustrating watching the pendulum swing back and forth while trying to feed one’s family correctly for best health!” asks Enlightened Eater Facebook fan Linda Searle McCarthy.

I am indeed familiar with Nina Teicholz who now calls herself a science journalist but was previously called an investigative journalist. But apparently she, like many others who have read but not actually been trained in the area of nutrition, has become an expert.

Dr. David L. Katz, the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Childhood Obesity, in a Huffington Post piece entitled Opinion Stew talks about the abundance of so-called nutrition experts. He points out that he doesn’t think someone who has been a passenger on a plane is automatically a credible source about how to fly one or anyone who has driven over a suspension bridge necessarily knows how best to build one.

When it comes to food and health, he states, “For now, anyone who shares opinions about nutrition or weight loudly and often enough — or cleverly enough — is embraced as an authority, with no one generally even asking what if any training they’ve had … It is the least substantiated, most uninformed opinions about how to eat that will come at you with the greatest conviction. That’s your first clue that something is awry, because true expertise always allows for doubt.”

Enter so called nutrition expert, Nina Teicholz. In her interview on CBC, she certainly sounds as though she is an authority. But it seems that she has interspersed science with science fiction. She states that meat has been “the centrepiece of meals for millennia”.


Millennia? I don’t know where she is getting those facts from but having large portions of meat on a regular basis is a relatively new phenomenon – a product of an affluent society. Paleo (caveman) diet advocates (which Ms. Teicholz is) believe otherwise and promote unlimited consumption of meat as a route to good health.

But there are a number of issues when you talk about the Paleo diet. At the recent Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers conference in Boston, sponsored by the food think tank Oldways and the Whole Grains Council, Dr. Katz addressed the gathering with his presentation, “What did Paleo Man really eat, anyway?”.

Firstly Dr. Katz  pointed out that the meat-centred diet consumed by those whose lifespan was only about 40 years.  Plus they only ate lots of meat only occasionally as they first had to hunt the animal.  Daily meat consumption was not on the menu.  (I’ll have more on his presentation in a future post.)

But you don’t have to go back to the caveman times. Ms. Teicholz also says meat consumption was high 150 years ago as well. The life expectancy at that time ranged between 38 and 44 years. Ours is currently  now about 8 decades or about twice both the Paleo or that of a centary and a half ago.

Now back to Ms. Teicholz. She began researching her book when many nutrition experts were advocating low fat diets. The bounty of evidence on the Mediterranean diet, though, blew that out of the water. This traditional eating pattern is based on consuming healthy fats, a foundation of plant foods and animal proteins only as a garnish.

It is still vital, however, to keep in mind that nutrition is an evolving science. Having an open mind is key. But on the other hand, critical thinking is also part of the process so that as an expert, you can sort through the nonsense.

And nonsense is certainly what Ms. Teicholz intersperses with her facts. In her book, she explains why the Mediterranean Diet is not the healthiest. Never mind that thousands of studies point to its benefits. She blames Ancel Keys, the scientist who first discovered the health perks of the Med diet, for the food industry bringing fat-free products such as cookies and snack foods to the market. He promoted whole foods not refined and sugar-laden carb options that many people chose when avoiding fatty fare.

Instead she now focuses on a recent study which compared low carbohydrate versus low fat diets. She concluded that saturated fat was harmless. Dr. Katz, among other scholarly experts, states, “The recent Annals paper did not show that saturated fat is harmless, and it certainly didn’t show that it is beneficial.”

She also talks about needing the fat to absorb minerals. Again I am baffled by statements such as this. Simply put this claim is wrong. Yes, you do need fat to absorb fat-soluble vitamins but that is not the case with minerals?

I have no problem with the subtitle of the book, Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. Yes, they can absolutely fit in a nutritious eating plan. But to make them the centrepiece ignores the holistic approach. Healthy eating is about defending against a variety of diseases, not just heart disease.

Ms. Teicholz proudly states her family’s eating pattern: “we all eat eggs, bacon and sausage for breakfast”.

I have no problem with including high protein foods at breakfast and in fact, have been advocating them for decades. But having bacon and sausage on anything more than an occasional basis – as a treat if a person decides it’s to their liking – is certainly a wiser approach .

I’m guessing she hasn’t gotten around to researching the dietary guidelines for prevention of diseases such as cancer and diabetes yet.

Are you confused by books such as those by Nina Teicholz? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Categories: Book Review, Rosie's Rants, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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4 Comments on “Your Facebook questions: The Big Fat Surprise – Science or science fiction?”

  1. February 2, 2015 at 12:21 pm #

    Thanks for putting this book, which confuses many, in the broader perspective of nutrition research Rosie! Not sure if you’ve seen it, but there’s an excellent critical review of the book that highlights issues with cherry-picked research, and how she “shamelessly lifts other people’s material. Most notably Teicholz lifts from another popular low-carb book called Good Calories, Bad Calories (GCBC) by Gary Taubes.”

    • February 2, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

      Thanks, Sheila! The review is a great read and very comprehensive! To list all those “Cribbing Taubes Alert”s is quite a feat! Yet Nina Teicholz continues to get lots of coverage. It seems reporters know how to do that! 🙂

  2. February 3, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

    Hi Rosie, Recently I’ve heard a lot of good things about grass fed beef. What is the actual difference in grass fed versus corn feed beef. Why is one more healthy to consume than the other.

    • February 3, 2015 at 5:56 pm #

      That’s a great question, Robert! I think it deserves a longer answer than a quick reply here so I will put it into a post for Thursday. Stay tuned!

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