The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz is a great account of how the food industry -and research- got it all wrong in the last 40 years.
And how we paid the paid the price in terms of following wrong principles.
- Fats received a wrong bad rep: but they are not all bad and some are healthy
- Low fat diet not healthy (and low fat products are not healthy)
- Eat more fats and proteins
Let’s start from the beginning:
How Fat Became The Enemy
Ancel Keys in the 1950s researched the connection between fats and heart diseases.
He found out that there was a link between how much fat people ate and how high their cholesterol. High cholesterol leads to heart diseases, which to Ancel Keys mean that high fat consumption leads to heart diseases.
He then narrowed the scope of his research.
He fed participants with saturated and unsaturated fats and then measured their cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol went up for those who had saturated fats and went down for those who ate unsaturated fats.
The obvious conclusion was that saturated fats were unhealthy while unsaturated fats were healthy.
How the Food Industry Made it Worse (partial hydrogenation)
The food industry mixed business with research.
They looked for ways to make unsaturated fats saturated. For example, they’d take vegetable oil and treat it with partial hydrogenation to saturate it just enough to make it solid.
By the late 1980s partial hydrogenation had become a staple in the industry. You could partially hydrogenated oils in margarine, chips, cookies and other processed, baked goods.
Trans Fats Byproducts
The hydrogenation process produces trans-fatty acids, which are very dangerous for our health.
As early as the 1960s some research papers pointed out to the dangers of trans fats, but they were heavily criticized by influential scientists and failed to leave a mark.
In 1994 though Joseph Judd study did namange to make an impact and call more attention to the problem of trans fats.
As people and institutions caught up to the dangers of trans fats, the food industry looked for other solutions.
Saturated fats were bad, and artificially saturating fats produced trans fats, which were even worst.
The industry started experimenting with vegetable oils then.
For example in 2007 McDonald started using vegetable oil for frying.
However, research showed that vegetable oil heated at frying temperature releases emissions that are carcinogenic to humans.
That basically means: causes cancer.
Holes in The Saturated Fats Theory
Already in the 1960s there were evidences that saturated fats weren’t as bad for the heart after all.
The Masai, a Kenian tribe eating 60 percent of the total from food high in saturated fats also proved the link between saturated fats and heart diseases wrong.
However, the study running contrary to the saturated fats narrative never received as much attention.
The Two Types of Cholesterol
One of the reasons why Key’s diet was so popular is that it was simple.
Yet it was too simple.
- LDL cholesterol
LDL cholesterol is the type of cholesterol that stick to our arteries’ walls and causes heart problems and strokes.
Saturated fats does not have a bad effect on LDL.
- HDL cholesterol
HDL cholesterol instead actively reduces the risk of strokes and heart diseases.
Increasing your consumption of HDL is more likely to bring heart benefits than is decreasing LDL, and saturated fats increase HDL.
What You Should Eat
Nina Teicholz says the Mediterranean diet is not as good as it’s cracked up to be.
It’s better than low-fat diet, but not as good as a high fat diet when it comes to weight loss or heart disease.
Still, it’s not too bad.
She is much more vocal in promoting the Atkins diet though.
Nina says that although Atkins was widely criticized when the book first came out in 1981 researchers found that the diet increased a person’s HDL-cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).
The author also seems to make the case that a combination of the Mediterranean diet with the Atkins diet is a good combination to go for.
Saturated VS Unsaturated Fats
And to finish, let’s quickly review the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats.
- Saturated Fats
Animal fats, such as butter, cheese or meat.
Chemically saturated fats are packed more closely together, which makes them solid at room temperature and more chemically stable.
- Unsaturated Fats
Olive oil or other vegetable oils are unsaturated fats.
Real Life Applications
Skip the Low Fat Options
Don’t go for the low fat options thinking they are healthy. They are industrially engineered and often far from healthy.
Don’t Fear Fat
Don’t be afraid of fats. If you want to get your fat from eggs, read meat whole-fat dairy or coconut butter, there’s no data to show that’s not perfectly safe. And likely much healthier than vegetable oils (soybean and corn oil for example).
Was There Ever a Low-Fat Epidemics (or even craze)?
The Big Fat Surprise seems to paint a picture where for decades we all thought to eat little fats. It’s true that low fat products abounded, but I don’t see the past decades as people really trying to avoid fats.
As a matter of fact, in the last decades we gorged of fats (read Salt Sugar Fat and Fast Food Nation)
Atkin’s Diet Support
The author seems to be too lenient and apologetic towards the Atkin’s diet.
The original Atkin’s diet promoted unlimited amounts of fatty meats and cheeses (newer version not written by Atkin don’t promote that).
Great Historical Account
Very very good overview on how we all came to (wrongly) see fat as the scourge of God.
Good insight on putting the different types of fat into perspective.
The Big Fat Surprise is similar in scope to Eat Fat Get Thin and seems to be part of a recent new wave of big changes in the nutrition world.
The new wave says that a healthy diet contains less carbs, little to no sugar and fats.
And with that, I am starting to get more and more convinced.
I am a guy who was duped by the “no fat craze”. In my mind indeed “fat” came to be associated with “unhealthy”.
And I am personally following the advice and eating more healthy fats and taking steps to reduce my carbs intake (sugar first and foremost).
I am not (yet) as fully convinced with the advise of freely eating saturated fats though.
The Big Fat Surprise was too lenient towards the early recommendations of the original Atkins diet for me (so far).
But I am moving in that direction as well, just want to digest more information as of now (pun intended). I will further update this section if I change my mind on that as well.