Book Review: ‘The Big Fat Surprise’ by Nina Teicholz
What if the government’s crusade against fat fed the spread of obesity by encouraging us to abstain from foods that satiate us efficiently?
from The Wall Street Journal by Trevor Butterworth (good name for this review)
But, as Ms. Teicholz observes, there was a paradox in the statistical data. At the time, the Swiss ate a lot of animal fat; so too, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Danes and the Germans. But there was no correlation with rates of heart disease. Why, Keys’s critics asked, was he ignoring this data? In 1956, armed with a massive U.S. government grant, Keys embarked on “the first multicountry epidemiological undertaking in human history” to prove his hypothesis—the “Seven Countries study,” as it came to be called. Critically, and appallingly, he excluded the “paradox” countries.
Yet when skeptics, including the National Academies of Science, weighed in on Keys’s impoverished data, and on related claims that multiplied over the succeeding years, the media attacked the skeptics, heedless of statistical reasoning. Meanwhile, the food industry—apart from the protesting cattle and dairy lobbies—happily ministered to the new dietary wisdom. Government agencies weighed in with dietary guidelines that emphasized carbs and vegetables and warned that red meat was something one could only risk eating a few times a month. And when this miserable diet, shorn of taste, wearied its adherents, as it so often did, the pharmaceutical industry stepped in, offering drugs to lower cholesterol.
As the 20th century closed, the Owl of Minerva finally stirred in the light of unavoidable evidence: None of this advice was preventing heart disease. What was left, as Ms. Teicholz adumbrates, was a monstrous thought: What if the crusade against cholesterol had fed the spread of obesity by encouraging a population to retreat from the very foods that would have satiated its hunger more efficiently than the hallowed grains and fruits and vegetables of the great dietary pyramid? What if the low-fat mantra had driven a population into feeling perpetually hungry? What if you were better off eating meat, eggs and dairy than a diet bloated in carbs and vegetable oils?
et Ms. Teicholz’s book is a lacerating indictment of Big Public Health for repeatedly putting action and policy ahead of good evidence. It would all be comical if the result was not possibly the worst dietary advice in history. And once the advice had been reified by government recommendations and research grants, it became almost impossible to change course. As Ms. Teicholz herself notes, she is not the first to point out that saturated fats have been sinned against by bogus science; and yet, the supermarket aisles are still full of low- and no-fat foods offering empty moral victories.
“The Big Fat Surprise” is more than a book about food and health or even hubris; it is a tragedy for our information age. From the very beginning, we had the statistical means to understand why things did not add up; we had a boatload of Cassandras, a chorus of warnings; but they were ignored, castigated, suppressed. We had our big fat villain, and we still do.
I wonder if there is any other area of science where weak conclusions based on questionable data deemed irrefutable by the elite can lead to bad policies defended mindlessly against skeptics. Just wondering.