CHICAGO — The report submitted by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) on Feb. 19 has stirred lots of debate. One of its biggest critics is Nina Teicholz, author of the New York Times bestseller The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.
Read her post-DGAC Op-Ed in the New York Times.
Her book caught the attention of the DGAC, yet they failed to acknowledge that nutrition policy on fat intake has long relied on weak epidemiological science, studies that show only association, not causation. Teicholz shows in her book that science suggests that the foods we have long been told to avoid could actually help reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
She grabs your attention in chapter one, when she cites observations dating back to the explorers Lewis and Clark showing that those who consumed fatty meat and drank milk were mostly void of disease. The fattier the meat, the better; plants were what you fed the animals.
She poses the question: How could populations eat a diet so apparently unhealthy by our contemporary standards, so dependent on the very things we blame for our own ills, and yet not suffer from the diseases that are such a burden to us today?
Her book is an enlightening read, as is her person, as we have been in communication the past week and she provided some candid responses to some very personal questions.
Nina Teicholz authored the bestselling book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Health Diet.
You spent more than nine years delving into scientific studies supporting the consumption of a low-fat diet, specifically one low in animal/saturated fat and cholesterol, and uncovered that researchers often over interpreted weak data to make dietary recommendations. Did you encounter a great deal of suppression from the scientific community when you began this project?
Nina Teicholz: “When I started in the early 2000s, the atmosphere was far more closed than it is today. Many scientists to whom I spoke in those early days were afraid to talk to me. They feared saying anything positive about dietary fat — anything contrary to the prevailing wisdom. I was surprised by this degree of fear. Sometimes, when I got off the phone, I was nearly shaking, as if I’d been investigating the mob.
Sometimes nutrition authorities made me feel as if I were nearly criminal for asking questions that challenged conventional wisdom. Now that I’ve published my book, I wouldn’t say that I have supporters, but there is a large community of people who really appreciate this work and respond to it.”
What did your family and friends think of your discoveries?
Teicholz: “Well, here’s a snapshot: nearly five years into my book, I was in the car with my husband and he asked, ‘So, you’re saying that fat isn’t bad for me? I don’t believe it.’ And this was after my talking to him nearly every day about my research! All you can conclude is that these ideas are such a major mind shift after all we’ve been told that it takes a very long time to change one’s views. My mom and dad, aunts and uncles, I think they thought my work was interesting but maybe insane. Now that the book is being taken seriously, they are a bit more credulous.”
Did the DGAC contact you during their investigations?
Teicholz: No, no one on the committee contacted me. In one of their meetings, one member talked about “all these headlines on saturated fat” and asked if they should deal with them. Those headlines were mainly in reference to my book. The committee did not, in the end, reckon with any of the new thinking on saturated fats.
The DGAC report does appear to agree with your book in terms of cholesterol intake, but it does attack red meat, even lean meat, which these days, is the majority of cuts in the marketplace. Even hamburger has leaned up. Where do you think this is coming from and why?
Teicholz: The DGAC report does lift the caps on cholesterol for the first time. The science has shown since the 1970s that dietary cholesterol does not directly translate into serum cholesterol. Nearly every other western nation has backed off caps on cholesterol for this reason, with the US being one of the last.
On saturated fats, however, the DGAC is still not reckoning with the science. It has ignored recent meta-analyses showing that saturated fats cannot be said, after all, to be linked to heart disease. The recommendation to eliminate “lean meat” from the list of healthy foods appears to be motivated by environmental concerns, even though Congress specifically instructed the DGAC not to factor in these considerations.
The evidence to support the idea that a meatless diet would be healthier is nonexistent. It could very well be dangerous to shift to a diet devoid of this nutritionally dense protein source.
Would you ever take on such a project again?
Teicholz: I didn’t go into this project thinking it would take so long and I can only imagine I would only do it again unknowingly.
So, do you eat butter, meat and cheese? And what do you think of all these whole milk yogurts entering the marketplace?
Teicholz: Yes, we eat butter, meat and cheese! They are indeed delicious. My husband is Greek so we’ve been eating full-fat Greek yogurt for many years. With cinnamon and walnuts for breakfast or desert, it always feels like a treat.