Review of “The Big Fat Surprise”

The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz; Image courtesy of

I recently finished reading “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet”. It was given to me as a gift, and I quickly finished it while traveling because the last half of the book is references to scientific literature and such. The book was also just recently reviewed in The Economist: The case for eating steak and cream.

I thought the book was a little one-sided but it appears to be well-referenced and the ideas seem logical. While I would need to check out much of the literature for myself (which unfortunately would be quite time-consuming), I think the book’s conclusions are in step with the most recent diet findings (low-fat, high-carb diets don’t work, saturated fat is neutral at worst, etc).

One of the main take-home points in this book is that heart disease did not seem to exist in the past, even among who lived to be greater than 50-60 years old. Most groups of people around the world had a diet rich in fats, with obvious exceptions like during times of war and famine. Many of our dietary recommendations came from imperfect studies- mostly epidemiological studies whose findings were not validated experimentally. Data was often collected during misleading times- such as during famine or war/post-war, during Lent, when people’s diets were not indicative of what they ate throughout most of their lives, even if these groups of people were found to have lived long, heart-disease-free lives.

Foods rich in fat are often rich in cholesterol (eggs, meat, cheese). We’ve been taught that high cholesterol is bad for our health. However, the book states that cholesterol levels (total cholesterol, LDL, HDL) have not been found to be predictive of future risk of heart disease. I remember being taught about certain genetic diseases where people have extremely high levels of LDL, for example, and thus often die of heart attacks at a relatively young age. I can thus understand how this may seem like a good reason to believe that cholesterol is linked to heart disease; this point is addressed in the book. However, these genetic disorders most likely have a different disease process than by which people normally develop heart disease, according to the book.

There is also a long section on vegetable oils- particularly, polyunsaturated fats (soybean, corn, canola, flax, sesame). For comparison, olive oil is a monounsaturated fat. These oils are often used to replace saturated fats in food (like trans fats were back in the day). These polyunsaturated fats, however, are unstable and can oxidize. When heated, they can form toxic byproducts or even turn into trans fats. My first thoughts here are: aren’t these the oils we use for frying? I have definitely consumed quite a few French fries. I have a bottle of canola oil lying around- it says on it “for high heat cooking”. I did some reading and saw a video on how canola oil is produced. Canola oil is apparently not particularly palatable in its initial form and must be heavily processed before it can be consumed. High heat is often used in the industrial process. One can purchase cold-pressed canola oil (made without use of high heat) to maybe avoid some of those issues- I will have to check if my oil is cold-pressed. Olive oil, and saturated fats, by comparison, do not have these issues, and can be heated safely.

From a common sense point of view, the removal of fat from the diet leaves a caloric gap to be filled- most often by carbohydrates. Carbohydrates/sugar have been linked to inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc. Maybe there is a reason why obesity rates have been rising despite so many people aware of and adhering to dietary recommendations? I guess now it’s time for me to buy a can of coconut oil (which is a saturated fat; other saturated fats include butter, lard, palm oil) and rediscover a love for bacon?

One thought on “Review of “The Big Fat Surprise”

  1. Pingback: Looking back at 2015’s posts | Life:Science

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