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The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet (Nina Teicholz)
Book Review by Briana Thomas
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A friend of mine who knows I like healthy eating gave me this book to read. It’s about an inch and a half thick, and the cover pictures a plate of ribs topped with a halo…? I don’t usually read books on nutrition, expecting them to be boring, so I admit to being a bit skeptical when first diving into this one. But The Big Fat Surprise was just that – a surprise. Not only was it fresh and interesting with plenty of anecdotes, but the book is also incredibly well-researched and masterfully written. The author, Nina Teicholz, must have spent a large chunk of her life creating this book, and I’m thankful for her effort because her masterpiece taught me as much or more than a textbook while I cruised through it, pleasure-reading.
Maybe I should give a little background on myself so you know how I approached this book. I grew up without a TV or a lot of other media influences. As a family, we grew a lot of our own produce and never really got caught up in any “diets”. We’ve always eaten normally: meat of every sort, vegetables, grains, fruits, and yes, desserts – mostly homemade. I would say that I come from a fairly unbiased background in that my family never excluded any food groups and always had a well-rounded, mostly unprocessed diet full of both fats and carbs. A little less than two years ago, I became more interested in healthy eating and started following a low-glycemic eating plan called “Trim Healthy Mama”, based on the book of the same name by authors Serene Allison and Pearl Barrett. This lifestyle advocates cutting out refined sugars, flours, and other processed junk; includes all food groups; and focuses on whole foods. All meals are centered around protein. Plenty of healthy fats and slow-burning carbs are included in one’s diet on the Trim Healthy Mama plan, but not in the same meal. Your body burns carbs and fats differently as its fuel, so switching between the two fuel types causes one’s metabolism to burn well and doesn’t allow excess fuel to sit around and never get used up, thereby creating fat.
Everyone has biases created by his worldview, but I tried to read this book with an open mind. The Big Fat Surprise makes a lot of sense, a lot of common sense. The basis thrust of the book, to my understanding, is that fats, specifically saturated fats, are crucial to the proper functioning of the human body and help prevent obesity and chronic disease.
My biggest takeaways from The Big Fat Surprise are that the majority of the scientific community is horrifically biased and science today is all about politics. Unfortunately, that’s the way of the world in which we live because it’s made up of depraved individuals. I would’ve thought that science would be relatively immune to such obvious and intentional bias and scandal; after all, I learned in school that science is observation. I guess I was wrong.
I’m sure that Nina Teicholz herself is slightly biased to a certain degree, but from what I can tell by reading The Big Fat Surprise, she managed to relate her information in a fairly straightforward manner. Not totally, but almost.
According to Teicholz, the low-fat diet was largely promoted as a combatant to America’s growing heart disease problem…but the diet was promoted before it was adequately researched and later studies showed that the low-fat diet did nothing to help heart disease. In fact, test subjects on a low-fat diet were much worse off than subjects consuming copious amounts of fat.
“The WHI (Women’s Health Initiative) had been the largest and longest trial of the low-fat diet ever undertaken, and the diet simply hadn’t worked….Taken together, these trials have shown that the low-fat diet has at best proved ineffective against disease and at worst aggravated the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. The standard, AHA-prescribed low-fat diet has consistently failed to produce better results for heath than diets higher in fat.” (The Big Fat Surprise, pg. 172)
The low-fat diet was promoted by overly zealous scientists (well, Ancel Keys in particular) who based their information mostly off of weak epidemiological studies (which can only prove association) rather than controlled clinical studies (which can prove, to a certain degree, cause-and-effect relationships). Apparently quite a few scientists outside of the United States thought we were nuts for making a gung-ho diet change on so little evidence:
“The Lancet editors sometimes mocked the American obsession. Why would Americans put up with the sacrifices of a low-fat diet? They were appalled that ‘some believers long past ther prime were to be seen in public parks in shorts and [tank tops], exercising in their free time, later returning home to a meal of indescribable caloric severity [when] there is no proof that such activity offsets coronary disease.'” (The Big Fat Surprise, pg. 101)
America was into low-fat for a very long time (still is, unfortunately), and saturated fats were deemed especially harmful. So what did lard, tallow, and all the old staple fats get replaced by? Vegetable oils. Yum, yum. The Big Fat Surprise details studies done on these oils – and boy! It’s scary stuff! Hydrogenated vegetable oils are full of trans fats, which have now been discovered to be harmful; but non-hydrogenated vegetable oils aren’t really any better when being used at high heat. The book gives some gory details about what kind of substances can be found in the bottom of fast-food chain fryers that use non-hydrogenated vegetable oils for cooking…now I know why I don’t eat French fries. How about we go back to the safe fats that were used from the beginning of time? Yeah, those “horrible” saturated fats taken from animals.
The Big Fat Surprise also talks about the Mediterranean Diet, which promoted the use of olive oil as its key fat source. This diet, too, was based on flawed evidence.
“In the end, it turned out that only thirty to thirty-three men were sampled on Crete and thirty-four on Corfu. These, then, are the founding men of the Mediterranean Diet, whose meals over the course of a few weeks fifty years ago have influenced the entire course of nutrition history in the Western Hemisphere.” (The Big Fat Surprise, pg. 217)
Scary? I think so.
And I mean, come on – really? Does it even make sense to completely cut out entire food groups? Especially a food group (animal products with their saturated fats) that has been associated with wealth and health for centuries? Something just sounds wrong about that. I’m all for a common-sense approach to food. I love the following quote (which is a prime example of Teicholz’s slightly snarky, understated writing style):
“No doubt a Cretan or Calabrian peasant might find it ironic that New York socialites and Hollywood movie stars-indeed, nearly all the wealthy peoples on the planet-are now trying to replicate the diet of an improverished post-war population desparate to improve its lot.” (The Big Fat Surprise, pg. 223)
Here’s another great quote…probably my favorite from the book. Teicholz is using more dry humor here, and while she probably doesn’t mean this seriously, I wouldn’t have a hard time believing this little statistic at all. After all, being at rest in God means less stress.
” The best way to avoid a heart attack, according to the study, was to worship God, since the more men identified themselves as being religious, the lower was their risk of having a heart attack.” (The Big Fat Surprise, pg. 97)
Chronic disease, specifically heart disease, was what the low-fat diet was attempting to correct. So if fat isn’t the issue (and according to properly-conducted clinical trials described in this book, I think this is a safe assumption to make), what is? The Big Fat Surprise alludes to one culprit but doesn’t go into detail: what if sugar and refined carbohydrates are the problem? Interesting hypothesis, and I’d love to see more information on the subject. Knowing how sugar affects my body, I wouldn’t have a hard time believing it.
Page 296 of The Big Fat Surprise is basically the science behind “Trim Healthy Mama” in a nutshell, describing the body’s insulin response and how it relates to weight loss. The body cannot release its stored fat to use as fuel while insulin is elevated in the bloodstream.
“As Phinney and Volek discovered, our bodies can be viewed as the physiological equivalent of hybrid automobiles, switching back and forth between fuel sources: when we can’t burn energy from carbohydrates, we burn our fat stores instead.” (The Big Fat Surprise, pg. 304)
The Big Fat Surprise does not come right out and endorse a low-carb lifestyle, but it does seem to point in that direction. I can’t say as I agree, but I haven’t done a lot of scientific study on the subject. As I stated earlier, cutting out entire food groups doesn’t make sense to me. I have a hard time believing that one would not start lacking essential vitamins, minerals, and/or proteins if certain types of foundation foods such as grains were cut from the diet entirely. This is why the Trim Healthy Mama lifestyle makes so much sense to me: it doesn’t cut out food groups, but it does focus on foods that don’t create an uncontrolled insulin surge in the body. Sprouted and fermented grains as well as cultured dairy products are good examples of carbs that can still be insulin-friendly, and these are welcomed in the THM lifestyle.
Coming away from reading this book, I am firmly convinced that we need to take a common-sense approach to eating. God made animals for a reason: they’re meant to be eaten. Saturated fat is good for you and can actually help you lose weight and improve your overall health! Judging from personal experience, I have found this to be the case. And who wants a low-fat diet anyway? Blech.
Another note – don’t swallow everything you read, even this book. It’s a great informative read, but keep an open mind when you approach any idea. Use critical thinking skills, compare viewpoints, and don’t just swallow something hook, line, and sinker because the government or scientific organizations promote it.
Even though I already eat a lot of fats, The Big Fat Surprise convinced me that I need to focus on foundational saturated fats even more. Butter, red meat, and coconut oil? Bring it on! Olive oil’s all right as long as it’s not heated to high temperatures, but vegetable oils? Give me butter any day. And while my beloved natural peanut butter isn’t so bad, it does contain polyunsaturated fats which should be kept to a moderated part of my overall fat consumption.
The Big Fat Surprise taught me the science behind how I was already eating for the most part. The book is a great, entertaining, common sense read that I highly recommend to anyone.
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