Book Review: The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz

This winter I have been eating more ‘good fats’ than usual, to see if it reduced my winter tendency to get chapped lips and dry heels. It seems to have worked. In addition I’ve not had a cold for over a year, and I’m convinced this is due in part to my enhanced immune system, boosted by avocados, salmon, nuts and seeds.

As a personal trainer in London I’m constantly advising my clients that fat is not the enemy, as long as you avoid trans fats, stick to wholesome unprocessed foods, avoid junk food, and don’t go overboard with fatty foods.

To find out more about the health benefits of ‘good fats’ read The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. Nina Teicholz studied biology at Yale and Stanford, and also at Oxford University. She is an American journalist who writes for top magazines like Men’s Health.

Nina explains how saturated fat came to be demonized, largely due to flawed studies and flawed interpretation of those studies. She highlights three in particular: The Framington Heart Study, The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, and the 7 Countries Study. The pioneer of these studies was the American scientist Ancel Keys, who lived to the ripe old age of 101. He concluded that saturated fat was the primary cause of heart disease and obesity. Nina Teicholz disputes this conclusion, and sets out her arguments with the eloquence of a QC.

The impact of Ancel Keys’ conclusions was massive. The US government issued its first dietary guidelines in 1980, urging the American people to avoid saturated fat and to eat carbohydrates instead. The food industry leapt onto the ‘low fat’ bandwagon and made a fortune from low fat high sugar junk food products, and an increasing number of the American people became obese as a result.

Nina Teicholz praises the work of two nutritional scientists, Gary Taubes (author of Why We Get Fat And What to do About It), and John Yudkin (author of Pure White and Deadly) who both point to sugar and refined carbs as the culprit in our obesity epidemic. Sugar, not fat, is the biggest cause of heart disease and diabetes and cancer.

Nina encourages us to embrace red meat (full of B vitamins, zinc, iron, and highly bioavailable protein), cheese (a great source of calcium), eggs ( a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals and protein), butter from grass-fed cows (rich in fat soluble vitamins A, E, and K2 which is vital for calcium metabolism). She also encourages us to drink whole (full-fat) milk, as long as it is organic. I blogged about the benefits of organic milk just last week, and I encourage you to give it a read.

This book received glowing reviews in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and also in the BMJ. However, the mass media wrote some misleading reviews saying that we can all now eat sausages and bacon without worrying, which completely misses the point about the need to stick to healthy wholesome unprocessed foods. The WHO recently produced a report warning us to cut down on processed meats due to the cancer risk.

As a personal trainer I explain to my London clients that I’m totally in favour of eating healthy fats such as avocado, nuts & seeds, red meat, organic whole milk, but I add the proviso that you should eat these things in moderation. I think red meat is fine to eat three times a week. Pigging out on fatty foods in large quantities every day will cause you to gain excess body fat, and I think there’s a danger of the pendulum swinging too far the other way in the “fat vs carbs” debate.

Another danger of the argument that fats are good is the conclusion that some fat advocates come to: that all carbs are bad. Unless you are diabetic, it’s fine to eat unrefined complex carbs such as sweet potato, oats, quinoa, again with the proviso that you should eat these in moderation. I advise my obese personal training clients to stop eating bread and pasta, and cutting these two things from their diet has produced some great weight-loss results. But I’m dead against any zero-carbs nutrition plan.

The definition of ‘good fats’ used to be ‘unsaturated fats not saturated fats’. So polyunsaturated fats (omega 3 and omega 6) and monounsaturated fats were good and saturated fats bad.

A more balanced view, and one Nina Teicholz advocates is that ‘good fats’ are wholesome unrefined foods that contain a whole range of combinations of polyunsaturated/monounsaturated/saturated fats, and ‘bad fats’ are trans-fats, also known as hydrogenated fats, which are artificial manufactured fats produced by the food industry and harm the body. As a personal trainer I advise my clients to avoid trans-fats like the plague. They are found in biscuits, cakes, cheaper brands of chocolate, pies, and a whole range of takeaway foods.

Rather than “fat vs carbs” I’m in favour of “wholesome unprocessed foods vs refined processed foods”. I’m also strongly in favour of making vegetables a big feature of your eating habits. Sure, eat ample ‘good fats’ but I would advocate that you eat vegetables in greater quantities than any other food group.

Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London who offers online nutrition coaching to people throughout the UK.