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Inside the fat in food – Teicholz looks at the importance of fat in the diet

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Sheridan – With dietary guidelines, nutritionists and dieticians providing advice on how and what to eat, Nina Teicholz said, “Most of America has no idea how to eat, and the messages are really confusing.” 

Listing just a few of the mixed messages provided in the media, Teicholz explained that the New York Times is emphasizing vegan, the Paleo diet is popular and USDA’s food pyramid provides conflicting advice. 

“The expert advice and what most dieticians and nutritionists agree on is that we should get most of our calories from grains, bread, potatoes, fruits and vegetables and that we should limit our consumption of meat and animal food,” she continued. “They also agree that meat is especially bad for health, and that it causes heart disease, mainly due to saturated fat content.”

With a lack of science to support their claims, Teicholz began to explore the science behind the diet and wrote her book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. The book quickly rose to the top of a number of lists, earning recognition as The Economist’s Best Book of 2014 and The Wall Street Journal’s Top 10 Nonfiction of 2014. 

Teicholz discussed her research and book at the 2015 Ranch Sustainability Forum, held May 18-20 in Sheridan. 

Nutrition research

“I used to be a meat-avoiding person, but then I took the deep dive into nutrition science,” she said. “I studied for 10 years to write my book, and I read every scientific study on the topic for the last 60 years. What I discovered was a big surprise.”

When she started, she looked into fat – the micronutrient she says dietary guidelines are most obsessed with. 

She also noted that food trends have followed dietary guidelines, which means we are eating more grains, fruits and vegetables. 

“Red meat consumption is down 17 percent in the last three years, and beef is down by 22 percent,” Teicholz explained. “We are drinking less milk, eating less butter and consuming 70 percent fewer eggs. We are following the dietary guidelines, so why are we so sick and fat?”

Start of a trend

Teicholz mentioned that the war on fat started in 1950 when the rising trend of heart disease began to cause concern.

“There were a number of explanations that people used to explain heart disease – including vitamin deficiencies, excessive stress and automobile exhaust,” she said. “There was one scientist by the name of Ancel Keys who was a biologist for University of Minnesota. His idea was that saturated fat caused heart disease.”

Keys’ diet-heart hypothesis suggested that eating saturated fat raised cholesterol, which clogged arteries and caused heart attacks. 

“He managed to get his idea implanted into the American Heart Association, and the very first nutritional guidelines in 1961 said to avoid saturated fat to prevent heart disease,” Teicholz mentioned. 

The recommendations were largely based on Keys’ seven-country study, an international study that looked at 13,000 men from seven countries, mostly in Europe but also including the U.S. and Japan. 

“He found what he hoped to find,” Teicholz explained. “It seemed that in countries where there was low consumption of saturated fat, there were also low rates of heart disease.”

Flawed study

However, Teicholz also mentioned that the study was flawed.

First, dietary samples from only 500 of the 13,000 men where collected, which does not indicate a representative sample. 

“It is also fair to say that he cherry-picked his countries,” she added, noting that a pilot study identified countries that weren’t eating meat because they had been devastated by World War II. “He didn’t use countries that ate a lot of meat and saturated fat, like Switzerland.”

Keys also looked at eating habits of countries that were consciously avoiding meat. For example, the study looked at the diet of men on the island of Crete during Lent, when they made a point to avoid meat.

“Keys’ ideas were adopted early on with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which works extremely closely with the American Heart Association,” Teicholz explained.

Ignored science

At the same time that Keys’ flawed study was being touted, other studies that were contrary to the idea that saturated fat caused heart disease were ignored, said Teicholz.

“The single most extraordinary example of selection bias – or using only science that supports a theory and ignoring evidence that doesn’t support is – is the Minnesota Coronary Survey,” Teicholz said. 

The survey looked at 9,000 men and women in mental institutions and nursing homes in 1969. Half of the participants were fed a traditional American diet of 18 percent saturated fat content, and the other half were fed only nine percent calories from saturated fat. 

“At the end of four years, they found no difference in the cardiovascular death and related illnesses,” she explained. “The results weren’t published for 16 years, and they were submitted to an obscure journal. When asked why, the author said it was because he was so disappointed in the results.”

Censored science

Soon, nutrition science began to be censored by scientists, and those scientists pursuing research that may have disproved Keys’ notions lost grants and funding. 

“George Mann was a vehement critic of Keys,” Teicholz said. “He was working for NIH and was called into the hallway by the Secretary and told that he would lose his grant. Shortly thereafter, he did.”

“Scientists started to self-censor,” she continued. “The wouldn’t speak out because they could see punishment.”

Inside fat today

However, in recent years, more research has begun to show that saturated fat might not be the problem. 

“Two big meta-analysis have concluded that saturated fat does not cause heart disease,” Teicholz said. “In fact, saturated fats are the only food that raises HDLs – the good cholesterol.”

In addition, Teicholz noted that science tends to show that restricting carbohydrates results in more weight loss, better blood glucose control and better outcomes for cardiovascular risk factors. 

“None of the studies that showed data for low-carb diets tested on thousands of people were considered in USDA’s current dietary guidelines report,” Teicholz added. 

“A higher fat diet is better for health,” she continued. “We are told to eat about 30 percent of calories from fat. A healthier amount of 40 to 50 percent.”

While Teicholz noted that her book made a big splash and re-opened the conversation on saturated fat, and she hopes that science will start to make a bigger impact because meat has a strong place in a health diet. 

“The science is on our side,” she added. “I encourage everyone to be active on this issue. In terms of nutrition science and policy, we are at a really critical juncture, and I think we will see a lot of change over the next few years.”

“Historical documents, cookbooks, logs, novels and history books all document humans who craved and adored meat,” Teicholz said. “Meat was a prized food. Remember, Abel was the shepherd, and it was Cain who tilled the vegetables.”

Dietary guidelines

According to Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, USDA’s dietary guidelines were first released in 1980 after the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition  decided to look at the issue of chronic diseases – particularly heart disease and cancer. 

“The committee asked a staffer by the name of Nick Mottern to read and summarize nutrition science,” Teicholz said. “He wrote the report himself. Mottern was a vegetarian and suspected meat was the cause of the problem. There was also a great discompfort with meat.”

In addition, Teicholz hypothesized that because red meat was associated with testosterone and virility that caused discomfort in the post-World War II era, eating red meat polarized the report. 

“The Senate Committee wrote up their report, which was translated into the dietary guidelines. They were launched in 1980,” she continued. “That is when obesity rates took off in America, and diabetes rates shot up soon after that.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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