Cholesterol in our diet does not increase the dangerous cholesterol that clogs our arteries and exacerbates heart disease. So says Nina Teicholz in her book The Big Fat Surprise. According to her, we have been approaching the very real problem of heart attack risk from the wrong angle for many years.
Nina Teicholz first became curious about the ideas that would appear in The Big Fat Surprise when she began eating in a whole new way as a restaurant critic sampling high fat, high cholesterol dishes that chefs would send out for her. Before this, she had been living the diet recommended by the USDA, a low-fat diet that was also low in cholesterol. After her inadvertent switch in diets, she lost ten pounds and felt better than ever.
Her own health was again questioned when she spoke to JuJu Chang on ABC’s Nightline about her book The Big Fat Surprise. Nina Teicholz agreed to have her cholesterol checked as part of the segment and found she had great numbers. Since she follows what her book states, eating a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates, this was good anecdotal evidence that she is onto something.
In her study of past research, she saw other evidence that dietary cholesterol did not cause heart disease. One example was the work of A. Gerald Shaper. Nina Teicholz discusses his findings in The Big Fat Surprise. Shaper was a South African doctor who studied the Samburu tribe of Uganda to learn the effects of their diet on their health. A Samburu man in his prime typically consumed two to seven liters of milk per day, over a pound of butterfat. When possible, he would also eat two to four pounds of meat with his milk. Saturated fat composed approximately 60 percent of the Samburu men’s diets. Not only were the tribal men healthy, they did not develop obesity or heart disease as they aged despite their fatty diet.
This finding goes directly against the recommendations that have been a part of American life since the 1950s when Ancel Benjamin Keys brought forward his diet-heart hypothesis that linked saturated fats to heart disease. Even before this, cholesterol was assumed to be a primary factor in the development of heart disease since it is a main component of atherosclerotic plaques, the accumulations that can block blood flow to the heart.
Actually, as Nina Teicholz explains in The Big Fat Surprise, cholesterol is a necessary part of all body tissues. It is the gatekeeper of the cell membranes, plays a major role in sex cell function, and is found in greatest concentration in the brain where it also acts as an antioxidant.
But many were determined that dietary cholesterol was the source of serum cholesterol, or cholesterol in the bloodstream, and in turn the cause of heart attacks. As early as the nineteenth century, this was thought to be true. Specific children with abnormally high serum cholesterol were found to be at high risk of heart disease. One of the children died of heart disease by the age of 11. By the 1940s, a genetic cause was isolated as the culprit. Their diet was not to blame at all. But this was one of the clues that made people believe that dietary cholesterol was dangerous.
The experiments of Nikolaj Anitschkow, a Russian pathologist, seemed to support the theory at first glance. In 1913, he reported that he had found that by feeding rabbits large doses of cholesterol, he could induce atherosclerotic-type lesions in them. This appeared to confirm the connection between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol. However, rabbits are naturally vegetarians and could not process cholesterol the way a carnivore or an omnivore could. When the experiment was repeated with dogs, the results did not support those of the rabbits. The dogs did not show the dramatic increase in serum cholesterol. Still, the first results were touted as proof.
Ironically Keys, the proponent of the low-fat diet, actually discredited the idea that cholesterol in food had a dramatic effect on serum cholesterol. He really wanted to believe that a connection existed but found in studies with volunteers that no matter how high an amount of cholesterol he fed them, the effect on their bloodwork was minimal. Keys determined by 1955 that no further study was necessary to rule out a negative effect.
Studies would continue to support this finding including George Mann’s observation of Masai in Kenya. Like Shaper in Uganda, he found that the Masai ate a diet of mainly milk and fatty meat with the addition of blood in the dry season. He specifically measured their heart health by EKG and their cholesterol levels, finding their serum cholesterol to be actually lower than normal.
When Nina Teicholz discussed her book The Big Fat Surprise during her appearance on Fox & Friends, she pointed out that cholesterol in eggs does not translate into serum cholesterol, and scientists have known that at least since the 1970s.
The governments of Great Britain and most nations of Europe rescinded their advisories against dietary cholesterol years ago. However, it wasn’t until fall 2014 that the U.S. committee that develops dietary advice pulled back the restrictions here on foods high in cholesterol, according to Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, in her op-ed in The New York Times.
Earlier that year, an exhaustive examination of all available information by scientists at Cambridge and Harvard and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that saturated fats do moderately raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol, but this does not, as far as the evidence showed, lead to heart disease. Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, explored their findings in her Wall Street Journal commentary, “The Last Anti-Fat Crusaders.”
By following the evidence, or sometimes the lack thereof, Nina Teicholz concludes in The Big Fat Surprise that saturated fats, cholesterol and all, are not just safe to eat; they are actually good for you.