Has Fat Gotten A Bad Rap?

A new book claims so:

[The Big Fat Surprise author Nina] Teicholz describes the early academics who demonised fat and those who have kept up the crusade. Top among them was Ancel Keys, a professor at the University of Minnesota, whose work landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. He provided an answer to why middle-aged men were dropping dead from heart attacks, as well as a solution: eat less fat. Work by Keys and others propelled the American government’s first set of dietary guidelines, in 1980. Cut back on red meat, whole milk and other sources of saturated fat. The few sceptics of this theory were, for decades, marginalised.

But the vilification of fat, argues Ms Teicholz, does not stand up to closer examination. She pokes holes in famous pieces of research—the Framingham heart study, the Seven Countries study, the Los Angeles Veterans Trial, to name a few—describing methodological problems or overlooked results, until the foundations of this nutritional advice look increasingly shaky.

Mashable interviewed Teicholz, who argues that “we’ve shifted too far in the carbohydrate direction”:

Mashable: So, is the takeaway that you can eat as much bacon, butter and steak as you want?

Teicholz: It sounds extreme when you put it that way. What the science really shows is that a high-fat diet is healthier than a low-fat diet. So the takeaway for me is that it’s fine as part of that high-fat diet to eat meat, cheese, milk and eggs. I think if 40% of your diet is fat, that’s fine.

In an excerpt from her book, Teicholz claims that, for “the first 250 years of American history, even the poor in the United States could afford meat or fish for every meal”:

Ironically—or perhaps tellingly—the heart disease “epidemic” began after a period of exceptionally reduced meat eating. The publication of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s fictionalized exposé of the meatpacking industry, caused meat sales in the United States to fall by half in 1906, and they did not revive for another 20 years.

In other words, meat eating went down just before coronary disease took off. Fat intake did rise during those years, from 1909 to 1961, when heart attacks surged, but this 12 percent increase in fat consumption was not due to a rise in animal fat. It was instead owing to an increase in the supply of vegetable oils, which had recently been invented.

David Katz calls Teicholz’s arguments “nonsense.” He insists that “more meatbutter and cheese will not promote your health“:

We are flying in circles. If we had reduced our intake of meat, butter and cheese by eating more vegetables, nuts, fruits and legumes — we might be living in a Blue Zone by now. But we didn’t and we aren’t. We just started eating more starch and sugar. As we all know, America runs on Dunkin’ — tell them what they’ve won, Johnny!

So now, we can add back meat, butter and cheese (the consequences to the planet be damned, apparently) — and then what? We’ll be back where we were when we first recognized we weren’t where we wanted to be. After all, if our meaty, cheesy, buttery diets had been making us lean, healthy and happy in the first place — why ever would we have changed them?

So it’s “more meat” for the myopic, who can’t see far enough back to realize we’ve been there, done that — and it didn’t work out so well for us last time. It’s “more cheese” for the chumps who don’t recognize that the next great diet is one we’ve tried before. In fact, the title of the book by the Wall Street Journal columnist is almost shockingly like the title of Taubes’ piece in the New York Times Magazine from 12 years ago. In 12 years, our progress is nicely captured by going from a “big fat lie” to a “big fat surprise.” We fly in circles, and our kids pay the price.