Investigative reporter Nina Teicholz turns the nutrition world on its head with her bestselling book, The Big Fat Surprise. She tells us that eating fat is actually good for us, going against what we have been hearing from the dietary establishment for over five decades. And she names Ancel Benjamin Keys as the one who started us down the low-fat diet road paved with good intentions but little scientific research.
On the MSNBC program Weekends with Alex, Teicholz told host Alex Witt that the 1950s heart disease crisis, including the 1955 heart attack of President Eisenhower, had scientists scrambling for answers to help men avoid early deaths from heart disease. Keys, a biologist and pathologist from the University of Minnesota, blamed saturated fat for the spike in heart-related deaths and set out to prove it.
In The Big Fat Surprise, Teicholz acknowledges Keys’ good intentions in working toward finding the cause of the heart-attack epidemic. He encouraged the U.S. Public Health Service to focus on prevention as a way to combat heart disease. However, his good intentions led him to the “Diet-Heart Hypothesis,” which held that saturated fats and cholesterol caused heart disease, and he never questioned that it couldn’t’ be correct, even when the evidence consistently contradicted it. His determined viewpoint made him lose objectivity on the subject and even skewed his research findings.
The most important example of this type of research was Keys’ Seven Countries Study. Teicholz discusses some issues with it in her 2014 feature article for The Independent newspaper. First, the countries Keys chose for the study were not chosen at random, according to proper scientific methods for choosing study subjects. Instead, Key chose countries that he believed would support of his hypothesis.
The second flaw that Nina Teicholz points out in the article is that Keys was only able to sample about 500 men for the study. This was not a statistically representative sample of the roughly 13,000 men total and therefore should never have been used to conclude anything about how the participants ate.
A third flaw was in Keys’ research occurred on the island of Crete, which was one of the areas he studied. One of the three times that Keys visited the island to study the inhabitants, he showed up during Lent, a time when most of the Orthodox Catholic residents were avoiding animal products. Thus, Keys undercounted the amount of saturated fats they ate, and erroneously concluded that their good health was due to their low intake of these fats.
Despite these flaws, Keys was able to convince the American Heart Association in 1961 to adopt his position that saturated fat and cholesterol caused heart disease. Experts at the National Institutes of Health were convinced as well, and eventually, the USDA issued nation-wide dietary recommendations based on Keys’ idea. This led to recommendations for a diet low in fat, including saturated fat, that have existed largely unchanged for decades.
Teicholz says that it is time for a “post-Keysian era” of new thought about nutrition and diet. The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet is analysis of the science, history, and politics, leading to the idea that eating animal fat should not be discouraged but instead embraced.