Nina Teicholz, an investigative journalist, champions the idea that saturated fat is not the harmful demon that it’s been made out to be. In her book, The Big Fat Surprise, she analyzes The Seven Countries Study, which was the study to first and most influentially demonized saturated fats. Teicholz discovers some egregious in that study. Let us read what this study was all about and how it was just a sorry mix of personal ambition, bad science, and food politics.
The Seven Countries Study was the first-ever research that gathered data from different countries to understand the behavioral and eating patterns that affect a person’s health. For his research, Keys studied close to 13,000 men from Greece, Italy, Finland, Japan, the US, Netherlands, and Yugoslavia. This study did demonstrate that heart disease resulted from poor nutrition and not an inevitable part of the aging process.
As the first large multi-country epidemiological study, The Seven Countries Study was doubtlessly groundbreaking. However, it was seriously flawed.
Ancel Benjamin Keys, a physiologist who earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge University, pioneered the study. He was concerned with the rising problem of heart disease, which had quickly risen since the late 1920s to become the leading cause of death in the US. the 34th US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower himself had a heart attack in September 1955. At about that time, Keys started proposing his ‘diet heart’ hypothesis, which proposed that saturated fat and cholesterol, by increasing serum cholesterol, caused heart disease.
Due to his persuasive personality, Keys was able to persuade others of his hypothesis—notably Paul Dudley White, who was a founding member of the American Heart Association (AHA) and who was attending to Eisenhower. At the helm of the world’s largest nutritional study, Keys had the advantage to promote his notions.
The biggest problem with the Seven Countries Study was that Keys conveniently cherry-picked only those countries that completely supported his hypothesis. In his study, he neglected to include any of the top 15 countries that showed no association between heart mortality and the consumption of saturated fats.
For instance, he did not include Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in his research because each of them had a few deaths from heart attacks although they consumed diets that were rich in saturated fats. Keys even turned a blind eye to Chile where the cardiac mortality skyrocketed in spite of eating a diet with little saturated fats.
The star subject of his study was the peasants of Crete; these islanders tilled their fields and consumed very little cheese and meat. Yet Keys visited this island when it suffered the extreme hardships of World War II; therefore, he did not get a realistic picture of the normal local diet. Nina Teicholz’s feature published in The Wall Street Journal also states that Keys made the mistake of measuring the islanders’ diet during Lent—a period when they were abstaining from cheese and meat. Because of this, Keys undercounted the islanders’ consumption of saturated fat in his study.
Impartial investigators would have noted these flaws in Keys’s study when he released the research data.
While the study continued, Keys fight against fat also continued with a book he co-wrote with his wife, Margaret. The book, Eat Well and Stay Well, was published in 1959 and became a best seller—and it clearly hammered home the message that excessively consuming saturated fats will lead to high cholesterol, which, further, will lead to heart ailments. Through this diet book, Keys was just promulgating his own hypothesis.
The final nail in the coffin of dietary fat came in 1961 when the AHA made Keys’s ‘diet heart’ hypothesis the center of its first-ever dietary guidelines. These guidelines stated that Americans should follow a diet with low levels of saturated fat to protect against heart disease.
These and many other interesting facts showing the evidential weaknesses of the Seven Countries Study are documented by Nina Teicholz in her book, The Big Fat Surprise. The book covers the journey of how fat was erroneously debased time and again by numerous nutrition experts and groundless research works.
So if you want to eat healthily, start including foodstuffs that are rich in saturated fats. If, however, you want to have in-depth understanding of how saturated fats are an important building block of our everyday diet, go through Nina Teicholz’s well-researched, insightful writings published in leading medical journals and food magazines.