Investigative journalist Nina Teicholz has produced a book, The Big Fat Surprise, that has readers questioning the science behind the traditional food pyramid that we all grew up with and that still dominates our thinking about food today.
Just as we look at the ancient pyramids of Egypt and wonder how they came to be, Americans wonder who decided which foods would go where on this colorful illustration about diet. Teicholz wondered that too when she, quite by accident, noted her own anecdotal evidence showing that healthy eating might be different from accepted norms.
In the introduction of The Big Fat Surprise, Teicholz describes how she unwittingly began eating a high-fat diet as a restaurant critic in New York. To her surprise (hence the title), she began losing weight instead of gaining it, and her cholesterol levels didn’t suffer at all. This apparent paradox spurred her to turn her investigative mind loose on the story of how Americans became obsessed with the low-fat diet.
What follows is the story of well-meant attempts by scientists to solve a heart disease crisis in this country by finding a villain in our diet. That villain, they decided, was fat, especially of the saturated variety. Despite a good deal of evidence among isolated cultures to the contrary, scientists such as the University of Minnesota pathologist Ancel Benjamin Keys let their passions rule their theories and put pre-determined solutions ahead of good science. Keys was fixated on the idea that fat, and especially saturated fat, caused heart disease.
The foundations of the modern food pyramid were laid upon this doubtful theory, and Americans were taught how to eat and not to eat. Only the smallest portions of that pyramid were dedicated to fats. At the very top is the small pinnacle reserved for “Foods high in fat, sugar, and salt.” We’re told not to eat these foods every day. In fact, we’re told not to eat them more than once or twice weekly. The slab just below this pinnacle is for foods like “fats, spreads, and oils.” We get a little more leniency on them. We can have them in very small amounts. That’s it for fats in the pyramid.
Teicholz exposes this prejudice against fats as scientifically inaccurate and downright dangerous. In her interview with Amy Alkon of BlogTalk Radio, Teicholz discusses the ideas that are the subtitle of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. Alkon calls the book a “master work,” and discusses at length with Teicholz how we found ourselves in this upside-down pyramid mess.
An article by Alex Berezow on the website of the American Council on Science and Health further explores the evidence in the book. Berezow pairs Teicholz with researcher Edward Archer, whom he quotes as saying that American nutrition guidelines like those that produced the food pyramid are based on “a vast collection of nearly baseless anecdotes.”
So, before you take the food pyramid at face value, pick up a copy of The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, and explore the research for yourself.