This is a topic of discussion within the beef industry. The following article does not represent the opinion of the Beef Checkoff or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ever question whether low saturated fat diets are all they are cracked up to be? From followers of Paleo to South Beach to Atkins types of diets, there are many who believe that restrictive low saturated fat diets are unnecessary and may even have unintended consequences. Nina Teicholz, former near vegetarian/flexitarian, investigative journalist and author of a new book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” is one of those believers. We recently sat down with Nina to provide thoughts about the fat debate.
Why did you decide to write “The Big Fat Surprise”?
I had started to write a book about trans fats and quickly realized that there was a far larger mystery about dietary fats in general—which is the element in diet that American authorities have obsessed about most. Almost none of our commonly held beliefs about fat seemed to be true, and this appeared to be an almost unbelievable story. At the same time, I was writing a small restaurant review column for a paper that couldn’t afford to pay for meals, so I had to eat whatever the chef decided to send out to me. At the time, I was nearly a vegetarian and like so many Americans, on a low-fat diet. My inclination would have been to order stir-fry vegetables and a chicken breast, but I found that chefs weren’t interested in sending out those foods. Instead, they wanted to send me red meat, foie gras, pate, cream sauces—foods that I had rarely, if ever, eaten. And I found them to be rich, earthy and delicious. Plus, I lost the stubborn 10 pounds that I’d been fighting for many years, and my doctor told me that my cholesterol levels were fine. So there was a mystery, and as a journalist, I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
What process did you undergo to develop the conclusions and recommendations in the book?
I researched the science of nutrition for nearly a decade. It was important to me to go back to the original studies rather than rely upon summary review papers, because erroneous summaries of those early studies have been passed along over the years uncritically. These studies needed to be reexamined. By reading the criticisms of the scientists themselves, I learned how to dissect scientific studies and look for flaws. Beyond the science, I aimed, in my book, also to tell the story of how we got our current nutritional recommendations: who are the personalities? What were the institutions involved? I wanted to write a “nutrition thriller” about the last fifty years of nutrition science.
So do you think there are specific health benefits to saturated fat?
Yes. Saturated fats are the only known fat that raises the “good” HDL-cholesterol. And although saturated fat also raises the “bad” LDL-cholesterol, the current heart-disease science reveals that LDL-C is a relatively a poor predictor of heart disease. Better are LDL-C “subtractions” and the LDL particle number, and by these, more up-to-date biomarkers, saturated fat consumption looks just fine, if not actually positive.
Moreover, saturated fats are the only fats that are stable when used to cook at high temperatures–meaning that, unlike vegetable oils, saturated fats don’t degenerate into harmful oxidation products when heated. Fats like lard and butter are far more stable for cooking. They’re also long-lasting.
Finally, there’s some evidence to show that saturated fats are essential for lung functioning and immune-system health.
Your book discusses how nutrition science often gets “muddled” when it’s translated and applied to public health recommendations. How would you suggest we remedy this?
This is a very big question, but one remedy would be to rely less on epidemiological data, which can show only association and not causation. This type of weak science is the source of many of our flip-flopping health headlines that confuse consumers and has been at the root of most of our health advice over the past 50 years—going back to that original American Health Association (AHA) anti-saturated fat guideline in 1961. It was based only on an epidemiological study. Epidemiological studies can suggest hypotheses but not prove them. Going forward, I believe that our nutrition recommendations should only be based on evidence coming from randomized, well-controlled clinical trials, which is the type of study that can conclusively demonstrate cause and effect.
What do you believe are the unintended consequences of following a low-fat diet?
The principal unintended consequence to following official low-fat dietary guidelines is that Americans now eat more carbohydrates. We’ve reduced our saturated fat intake by 11 percent over the past 30 years while at the same time increasing carbohydrate consumption by 25 percent. In practical terms, that means we’re eating less meat and more pasta. Diets high in carbohydrates, regardless of whether they are refined or unrefined, have been shown to worsen outcomes for heart disease, diabetes and obesity, than diets higher in fat and low in carbohydrates.
How do you think this book will add to the national dialogue taking place to improve public health?
Our nutrition recommendations since the 1950s have been obsessed with dietary fat over every other element of the diet. My hope is that my book, by laying out the history and the science of this issue, will budge the nutrition conversation in a new direction.
How should people apply the recommendations/conclusions in the book?
In my opinion, based on my research, people should not be afraid to eat meat, cheese and eggs. Proteins, such as food from animals, are extremely dense in essential nutrients. Some of these nutrients, such as vitamins B12, iron and selenium, are hard if not impossible to obtain in plant foods, and the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K, are only properly absorbed when consumed with fat that naturally accompanies them. Animal foods are therefore excellent, natural packages of protein, fat and nutrients. We should not be avoiding these foods based on our long-standing fear of saturated fats, but should instead feel free to incorporate them into an overall healthy diet.