The Big Fat Surprise Book Review

The Big Fat Surprise Book Review

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Few books on nutrition have affected me emotionally as much as Nina Teicholz’ Big Fat Surprise.  I certainly wasn’t expecting it to, after all I have read probably 100 books on nutrition and none of them caused me to feel flashes of anger so powerful that I had to walk away from the book for a few minutes to catch my breath.  Before I say what triggered that, let’s get into what the book is about.

Big Fat Surprise is an investigative work detailing how the idea that saturated fats cause heart disease and how the removal of saturated fat from our diet has led to the obesity epidemic and (ironically) an increase in heart disease and other metabolic diseases.  It is the story of how one man named Ancel Keys decided to devote his life to pushing this idea, disregarding all evidence to the contrary and doing really bad science in order to support his pet theory.

The book lays out the case that Keys essentially started out with the idea that saturated fat causes heart disease and tailored everything he did is defense of that idea.  Instead of doing what scientists are supposed to do, namely starting with a hypothesis and working to disprove it, he did everything he could to show he was right, even in the face of growing evidence that he was dead wrong.

This all happened in 2 phases.  At first he would conduct studies like his 7 Country Study that showed a correlation between the amount of saturated fat eaten by a particular country and the rate of heart disease.  What we didn’t find out until years late was that he actually collected data on over 20 countries and only reported the information that supported his idea and threw out the rest.  When all data is included there is no clear correlation between saturated fat and heart disease.

The second phase was perhaps the most troubling and what caused the emotional reactions I had.  Keys would then use his out-sized influence in the field of nutrition to essentially black-ball anyone who disagreed with his hypothesis.  So for decades the clear message in the nutrition science world was that if you didn’t whole-heartedly endorse and support the idea that saturated fat caused heart disease you would have your funding cut, tenure revoked, and be dis-invited to all the big conferences in their field.  So for the latter half of the 20th Century no one could pursue any other idea in the nutrition world so people like Dr Yudkin who clearly outlined the problems with sugar were ignored.

What caused me to get so mad about the information in this book was remembering the role it played in my childhood.  My grandparents had probably never heard of Dr Keys but his ideas directly influenced how they ate.  Lots of “heart-healthy” grains, Country Crock instead of butter, Miracle Whip instead of Mayo, and plenty of low fat foods that were high in sugar.  The end result was a grandfather that I adored dying from a heart attack when I was way too young and a grandmother that died from high blood pressure a few years later.

It was clear after reading this book that if Dr Keys had just been a scientist instead of a power-crazed publicity hound, I might have had a few more years with my grandparents and I know that story has repeated itself across this nation and the entire world countless times over the last 60 years.  Thankfully, the truth has gotten out now and we know how badly Dr Keys got it all wrong.

My one problem with this book is where in years past whenever someone would ask me what book they needed to read to learn how to lose weight, my answer was always Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat but now I have to talk about both Taubes and Tiecholz because I honestly don’t know which book is more powerful for affecting someone’s health.

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