Journalist Nina Teicholz wants you to rethink everything you thought you knew about dieting. Her new book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, sets forth a new way of thinking about fat: What if the very foods we’ve been avoiding—sizzling steaks and creamy, cheesy sauces—were actually key to reversing heart disease, diabetes, and even obesity? During her nine-year investigation, Teicholz examined scientific studies, dietary recommendations, and nutrition research and concluded that more—not less—dietary fat, including saturated fat, leads to better health and wellness. We talked to Teicholz to learn more about her groundbreaking claim and its scary significance for women in particular.
Shape: What inspired you to write about this topic?
Nina Teicholz (NT): I starting writing restaurant reviews for a New York newspaper, eating whatever the chef sent out from kitchen. I usually would have ordered chicken or fish—I hadn’t eaten red meat in over a decade at that point. But chefs sent out foods like foie gras, organ meats, cream sauces—all these things that I’d never eaten. And they were delicious! I also lost weight effortlessly and my cholesterol levels were fine. This was a huge mystery I wanted to untangle. I was already writing a book on trans fats, so I realized there was a much bigger story on fats in general and how we’ve misconceived what we thought we knew.
Shape: You write in your book's introduction, “It’s possible to think of the low-fat, near-vegetarian diet of the past half-century as an uncontrolled experiment on the entire American population, significantly altering our traditional diet with unintended results.” What do you mean by that?
NT: In 1961, the American Heart Association came out with the first dietary guidelines that counseled Americans to cut back on saturated fat. And studies show that we followed that advice by increasing consumption of fruits, veggies, and grains, and reducing consumption of fats, particularly saturated fats, over the past 30 years. But when those AHA guidelines came out in 1961, a low-fat diet had never been tested on people—only a little lab data—and wasn’t tested until the late 1990s, the results of which didn’t come out until 2006. So basically we’ve been following this low-fat diet for generations without having ever properly tested it. And now science pretty definitively shows that a high-carb diet is not as healthy.
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Shape: What are some of the health consequences of a high-carb, low-fat diet?
NT: The best and most rigorous clinical trials of the past decade demonstrate that a high-carbohydrate diet has worse outcomes for health in terms of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes than a diet higher in fat. On a higher-fat diet, people lose weight, and heart disease and diabetes markers improved.
Shape: How does eating this way affect women in particular?
NT: A study published in 1971 found no connection between cholesterol and heart disease in women over 50, and since women under 50 vary rarely get heart disease, women in general shouldn’t need to worry about high cholesterol. Then in the 1990s, a researcher studied women on a rigorous low-fat diet and discovered that their HDL (good) cholesterol dropped precipitously—far more than it did for men. So it turns out the low-fat diet recommendation is particularly tragic for women, since women have worked harder to faithfully follow the low-fat guidelines. We’ve increased carbs in their diet, and now rates of obesity in women are higher than men.
Shape: But it’s going to be hard to tell women to go eat a big steak and use real butter in recipes. How do you suggest we shift our mindsets and our diets, when it feels so counterintuitive?
NT: You’re absolutely right. It is really hard for women—we are fat-phobes. Researchers tell me that women can understand cutting back on white flour, but getting women to eat fat is next to impossible. It took me a long time to eat hardboiled eggs and cheese without feeling guilty. And now I eat the bacon drippings from the pan! But there are some easier ways in, like eating cheese, whole milk, and eggs.
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Shape: What are other benefits should women to know about eating this way?
NT: It’s more satisfying—it fills you up. Researchers have found that people can overeat carbs, but it’s almost impossible to overeat steak. The reason why you’re not satiated eating carbs and you are when eating protein and fats is that you’re getting essential nutrients your body needs from those animal foods, so you feel satiated because you’re getting what you need. And your blood sugar stays more even.
Shape: You say eggs fried in butter make a better lunch than a salad and a smoothie, and a steak salad is preferable to hummus and crackers. What do you recommend eating in a day?
NT: Instead of oatmeal and lowfat yogurt (which is high in sugar), start your day with eggs, bacon, or sausage—that way you’re still burning fat as your body has been doing all night. For lunch, have a hamburger—skip the bun and fries. Or at a deli, get egg salad or tuna fish salad. And for a snack, just a big hunk of cheese and a couple handfuls of nuts instead of a piece of fruit. For dinner, you can have another hamburger if you want—it won’t increase your risk of heart disease and it won’t make you fat.
Shape: How is this different than the paleo diet?
NT: The problem with paleo proponents going back tens of thousands of years to figure out how people ate is that you’re relying on a sketchy archaeological record to do so. So let’s just go back 150 or 200 years when there were written records of what people ate. Americans used to eat three to four times more red meat 150 years ago than we do today, and consumed far more butter and more lard—before the heart disease and obesity epidemics. You don’t have to go back to the Paleolithic age to find healthy people.
Shape: Olive oil has received a great deal of praise as the best fat for heart health—but you suggest this was part of a marketing ploy by the olive oil industry. How is that?
NT: Olive oil was promoted by the International Olive Oil Council. They catapulted olive oil into the spotlight by funding research, putting on amazing scientific conventions all over the Mediterranean. Researchers wanted to be invited to those conferences—these fantastic, free vacations—and ended up publishing papers on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet and olive oil. Also, we were just coming off of the non-fat 1980s, and Americans were starved for fat. So olive oil came along like a savior—this is a safe fat you can eat. And while the Mediterranean diet is better than a low-fat diet, it’s not as good as a higher-fat diet. When tested head-to-head with a higher fat diet, it doesn’t do as well in terms of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity markets.
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Shape: Now coconut oil is in the spotlight, which is full of saturated fats. Why is it experiencing such resurgence right now?
NT: I think coconut oil has become an acceptable way to get essential saturated fat into your diet because it’s not an animal fat. It doesn’t have the negative connotations that people, especially vegetarians and vegans, have toward animal products. The other aspect is that in order to make manufactured foods, you have to have a hard fat or else your product will go rancid on the shelf. And only saturated fats are hard fats—so coconut oil is a non-animal fat that can serve that function.
Shape: Recently, some criticism has been leveled at your book, particularly that your claim that saturated fats are good for you is not substantiated. How would you respond to this?
NT: The basic argument I build throughout my book and lay out in my conclusion is that the original evidence used to condemn saturated fats was flawed. A reexamination of that evidence over the past decade has shown it to be without merit. Therefore, saturated fats should be exonerated. Moreover, a large body of rigorous clinical trials over the past decade demonstrates unequivocally that a higher fat diet is healthiest, in terms of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes outcomes.
I would argue that animal foods are healthier than plant foods for humans. They're more nutrient rich, and the nutrients in animal foods are more "bioavailable" (for instance, fat-soluble vitamins A, E, K, and D can only be absorbed with the fat that naturally comes with them in animal foods); saturated fat and cholesterol are vital for many biological functions. Also, saturated fats do not create unhealthy oxidation products at high temperatures—a problem with vegetable oils and even olive oil.
And the important matter here is the substance: History and science come together to make a compelling case for saturated fats and animal foods generally. Americans have cut back on saturated fats by 11 percent over the past 30 years, and we are clearly not progressing towards better health.