The most talked-about aspect of Teicholz’s book is her discussion of the evidence against saturated fat. In the Fifties, a well-known American researcher, Ancel Keys, came to the conclusion that cholesterol was responsible for heart disease and, in turn, that the consumption of saturated fat, mostly from animals, was to blame for boosting cholesterol levels. Yet the evidence for these claims was shaky from the word go. So how did Keys manage to make his views the official ones?
Teicholz tells me that the answer lies in Keys’ unshakable moral certainty, which found fertile ground in a medical and scientific establishment spooked by the rapid rise of heart disease: ‘Before Keys got on the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association, it was very hesitant about jumping to any kind of conclusions while at the same time acknowledging the enormous pressure to do so, given that the entire nation was focused on heart disease. It was a terrifying epidemic. President Eisenhower was out of the Oval Office for 10 days [following a heart attack in 1955]. This was an all-consuming panic for all the people that ran the country. All the people in science, it was their colleagues who over the previous 30 years had started dropping like flies. There was tremendous public pressure to find some kind of solution. It was into that vulnerable setting that Ancel Keys stepped. It was just this perfect storm of his oversized, highly aggressive personality meeting this vulnerable time in America.’
The blame for our current dietary problems cannot mainly be placed at the door of big food corporations
Teicholz never met Keys, but she has met one of his leading supporters and apostles, Jeremiah Stamler: ‘You could see why people would just fold in their presence. It’s like being in the presence of a gale-force wind, the power that comes at you. In Jerry Stamler’s case, he’s also profane and there’s this supreme self-confidence that he brings…There was a very aggressive tenor to the whole nutrition conversation back then. It was almost like internet manners, pre-internet!’
Once the politically astute Keys had packed the nutrition committee of the AHA and got its backing for the advice to avoid saturated fat, the war on meat and dairy could begin. But a major turning point came in 1977 when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, led by Democratic senator George McGovern, held hearings on the issue. The result was a set of guidelines, Dietary Goals for the United States, which promoted the consumption of ‘complex’ carbohydrates, and reductions in the consumption of fat in general and saturated fat in particular.
By 1980, this report had been worked up into government-backed guidelines – around the same time that obesity appears to have taken off in the US. The McGovern Report inspired all the familiar diet advice around the world that we’ve had ever since, and led to major changes in what food manufacturers offered. Out went fat, though unsaturated fat and hydrogenated oils were deemed less bad than saturated fat, so vegetable oils and margarines became more popular. In came more carbohydrate and more sugar, to give those cardboard-like low-fat ‘treats’ some modicum of flavour.
Yet two recent reviews of the evidence around saturated fat - one led by Ronald Krauss, the other by Rajiv Chowdhury - suggest that saturated fat is not the villain it has been painted as. (The latter paper, in particular, sparked outrage.) As for fat in general, Teicholz tells me: ‘There was no effort until very late in the game to provide evidence for the low-fat diet. It was just assumed that that was reasonable because of the caloric benefit you would see from restricting fat.’ Yet a diet low in saturated fat is still the standard prescription. For example, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) (the UK equivalent of the AHA) still suggests consuming unsaturated fat rather than saturated fat - though at least the BHF is now suggesting that more research should be done.
This mad, mad story of the battle over fat is not actually that new, though Teicholz adds new details to it. But there is much more to Teicholz’s book than that. Three things stand out.
First, there is her discussion of the Mediterranean Diet. Although mentioned in a cookbook by Keys in the early Seventies, the idea was first actively researched by two researchers in the Eighties - one Greek, one Italian. But it was when the idea got the backing of Harvard University medical researchers that it really took off. Now, it seems like a no-brainer that the kind of food served on a balmy Italian or Greek terrace, with lashings of olive oil, plenty of fresh vegetables and a substantial side order of wine, is the healthiest way to eat. At the very least, it was a relief: olive oil was the healthy fat that you were allowed to enjoy. But in truth, the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ doesn’t bear much relation to what many Mediterraneans actually eat. Diets vary substantially across the Mediterranean countries - and even within those countries. In reality, the Mediterranean Diet is a construct, a rose-tinted version of reality tailored to the anti-meat prejudices of American researchers.
The second thing that sets The Big Fat Surprise apart is its tale of how the other major backer of the Mediterranean Diet was the olive-oil industry. Conferences, funded by the industry and organised by an American organisation called the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, would be staged in Mediterranean countries, with idyllic climates and lots of lovely, olive-oil-heavy food. Swooning researchers were literally wined and dined into going along with promoting the benefits of olive oil. But it is questionable just how traditional the consumption of olive oil really is. It certainly only became a major part of British and American diets over the past 20 years or so. Even in Greece, it seems olive oil had functions that were more ceremonial than dietary until perhaps 200 years ago. One French historian, quoted by Teicholz, says: ‘Less than 100 years ago, ordinary people in many parts of Greece ate far less oil than today.’ In any event, the notion that this is a battle between the longstanding food culture of peasant societies and an unnatural diet forced on us by big bad corporations in the West is far too black and white.
Which leads us to an important third point made by Teicholz: that the blame for our current dietary problems cannot solely, or even mainly, be placed at the door of big food corporations. Teicholz writes about how she discovered that ‘the mistakes of nutrition science could not be primarily 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 towards what they believed to be the public good.’ Once public-health bureaucracies enshrined the dogma that fat is bad for us, ‘the normally self-correcting mechanism of science, which involves constantly challenging one’s own beliefs, was disabled’.
The war on dietary fat is a terrifying example of what happens when politics and bureaucracy mixes with science: provisional conclusions become laws of nature; resources are piled into the official position, creating material as well as intellectual reasons to continue to support it; and any criticism is suppressed or dismissed. As the war on sugar gets into full swing, a reading of The Big Fat Surprise might provide some much-needed humility.
Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.
Big Fat Surprise: why butter, meat, and cheese belong in a healthy diet, by Nina Teicholz, is published by Scribe Publications. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) Fats are mostly made up of chains of carbon atoms linked to hydrogen atoms. Where all the carbon atoms are linked to at least two hydrogen atoms, the chain is said to be ‘saturated’. If one pair of carbon atoms has a ‘double bond’ to each other and has only one hydrogen bond each, the fat is ‘monounsaturated’. If more than one pair of carbon atoms has just one hydrogen link each, the chain is ‘polyunsaturated’.
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