Nina Teicholz at TEDxEast: The Big Fat Surprise
Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven
Well, hello everybody.
That’s so nice of you.
So, like probably many of you,
and probably most
of the Western the world,
a decade ago, I was just totally
confused about what to eat.
And that’s kind of no surprise
because there’s a lot
of conflicting advice out there.
You’ve got Mark Bittman,
the New York Times,
telling you you should eat vegan,
at least before six;
there’s the Paleo dieters,
why are they still around?
That’s still very popular.
But it seems like the one thing
that everybody can pretty much agree upon
is that saturated fat is bad for you.
Meat is bad for you.
Saturated fats, the kind
that’s found in animal foods,
in milk, cream, cheese,
eggs, red meat, is bad for you,
and everybody agrees upon that.
And you know, that’s what we’re told.
Everybody knows these images –
one is the USDA Food Pyramid,
and the other one
is the Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid.
But you can see that grains,
that’s all the big slices at the bottom,
and animal foods
is up there at the top,
and you’re not supposed
to eat a lot of those,
and so we’re just doing
like we’re supposed to.
And so in 2003, I was assigned a story
by my editor at Gourmet magazine
to write about trans fats,
and that was a story
before they became known,
and they were put on the food label
by the FDA in 2006,
and I got a book contract out of that,
and I started researching it,
and I realized there was just
an incredible story about fats in general,
and I became kind of
obsessed with this subject,
and it’s because fat is, of course-
fat’s the macronutrient
that our dietary recommendations
have been most obsessed about.
There are basically three
macronutrients out there:
there’s protein, carbohydrates and fat.
And our recommendations
have been obsessed about fat –
non-fat, good fat, bad fat, low fat,
you know, what kind of fats should we eat,
and that’s been, for most people our age,
the story of our lifetime in eating.
And then I spent the next eight years
reading every single bit
of science out there,
and learning about this field,
learning about the politics,
or the people involved in this field,
and who are the people
who are doing the science,
and where does it all come from?
And it was kind of an amazing journey.
And one of the things that you’re-
When you have an idea
about what you’re supposed to eat,
when you have any idea in science,
it’s supposed to explain
all the observations out there.
That’s kind of a scientific term,
like it’s supposed to explain
what’s going on in the world,
like, you know, do we know who’s getting-
Why are they getting fat?
It’s supposed to explain
everything we’re seeing,
and one of the amazing things
about this journey that I went on
was that our idea
about this USDA Food Pyramid,
how to eat, really did not
explain the observations.
So, this is kind of…
I think you probably already guessed,
but I’m going to ask you a question, like,
who’s on the USDA-recommended
low-fat, high-grain diet here?
So, this woman, Fat Louisa,
was a Pima Indian in the 1930s and ’40s,
and she’s obese, and she was-
We typically think,
the idea is that we get obese
because we live
in a toxic food environment.
She’s nowhere near
a supermarket or any kind of,
like, Doritos or Cheese Curls or anything,
but she’s on a high-grain,
low-fat diet and she’s obese.
This guy over here is a Masai warrior.
This picture was taken by a physician
and researcher named George Mann,
who went there in the mid-’70s to Uganda
and studied the Masai warriors.
This guy, and all of the Masai warriors
that he studied, had very low cholesterol,
very low blood pressure
that did not rise with age,
which was amazing.
They also didn’t gain weight with age.
And they weren’t particularly active.
The older people would sit around,
basically swatting flies
and doing nothing,
and he’s on a diet of three to five
pounds of meat a day,
and what else he ate
was milk and blood, that’s it.
No fruits and vegetables –
failing grade by any nutrition today.
And George Mann, he took
600 of these Masai warriors,
and he took EKGs of them,
and he found only two incidents
of possible heart attack –
possible, out of 600 men,
and that was a finding
that was also confirmed by somebody else
another African tribe nearby.
And then he looked at some of
the Masai warriors who’d gone to Nairobi,
because he thought
maybe they were a genetic freak
and had some genetic protection.
He found the ones who moved to Nairobi
looked just like the people in Nairobi –
high cholesterol, high blood pressure,
and they were getting fat.
This guy’s not working out at the gym
and he looks amazing.
So, when you have a scientific hypothesis
that doesn’t explain your observations,
you can’t just ignore your observations,
you have to explain them,
you have to say, okay,
what’s wrong with our hypothesis?
Is there something wrong with it?
Do we have to change it?
What’s wrong with what we’re thinking
about the way that we eat
and what makes us healthy?
So the next question
that really came to mind was,
like, okay, where does
their hypothesis come from
that saturated fat, and fat at all,
is unhealthy for you?
And like any idea,
it was born in a moment in time.
There was, basically-
The first time it became
an official policy,
an official dietary
recommendation, was 1961,
the American Heart Association
came out with the very first
that’s like the gold standard
in the world of nutrition guidelines.
from the American Heart Association.
In 1961, the first guidelines:
diet low in fat, low in saturated fat
to protect against heart disease,
that’s what people should eat.
That’s the first time that was ever
recommended to the American people,
and this guy, Ancel Benjamin Keys,
who was a pathologist
at the University of Minnesota,
was kind of the powerhouse
behind that idea.
You know there are various ideas about,
like, what steers history,
if it’s economic forces, or what it is,
but in the history of nutrition,
it really is like a “great man”
theory of history.
This guy steered a tremendous amount
of nutrition history.
And his idea was this:
It’s called the Diet-Heart Hypothesis,
it was developed in the ’50s,
and the idea is if you eat saturated fat,
you raise your blood cholesterol,
in your blood – that had been shown
in some scientific lab experiments
and experiments on people
in mental hospitals,
and that would lead to a heart attack.
Just a whole chain of events here,
none of which has ever been proven,
but that was the idea
that really took hold.
It’s called the Diet-Heart Hypothesis,
and he prevailed with that idea,
and one of the reasons why
is that the nation-
it was like a moment in time in the 1940s
when there was a kind of
panic going on in the country.
There was a tremendous need
for some kind of solution.
I mean, heart disease, heart attacks
felling men in their prime,
and particularly all the men
who ran the country
– in this case Eisenhower
had his first heart attack in 1955 –
but the men who ran the country,
who did the research,
who were interested
in nutrition, everybody
– heart disease had risen out of nowhere –
there were almost no cases
of heart disease before the 19-teens,
and all of the sudden it became
this enormous public health issue,
and everybody was focused on it,
and they wanted a solution.
And so they were willing to kind of
cut corners on the science
before any idea was ever proven
because they were so afraid.
So the most important
nutrition study ever done
was done by Ancel Benjamin Keys,
and he went to-
It’s called the Seven Country Study,
and it’s like the Rosetta Stone
of nutrition studies –
everything telescopes back to this study.
And he is the first-ever study,
it’s a study where you go out
and look at people,
you ask them, you know,
“Who’s got high cholesterol?
What do you eat?”
And it observes them,
and it sees if there’s some sort
of correlation they can draw.
He went to the island-
He chose seven countries,
six in Europe and in Japan,
and he looked at what they ate,
and he looked at…
he took their EKGs and stuff,
and I showed you those two men
because the place where his-
He had already pretty much decided
that saturated fat caused heart attacks,
but the place that really
fit his theory the best
was the island of Crete.
There were long-lived people there,
a high number of centenarians,
there was hardly any heart disease,
and they didn’t eat much saturated fat,
and that fit his theory perfectly.
Because other places he went
didn’t fit his theory very well,
and there was a lot of problematic
data points in his theory,
but he loved this particular data set,
they were like his star data set
on the island of Crete.
And this is literally the study,
I mean, it’s been cited
tens of thousands of times,
because in its day, it was the only
really big study that had been done.
And so I went back,
and one of the things I did
was I went back
and I really dug into that study
because it’s been so influential,
and I found some amazing stuff,
like, I mean, first of all,
it was post-World War II Europe,
people were still, like,
devastation and poverty.
People were basically
eating a poverty diet back then,
but Keys did a lot of, you know,
there’s hardly a better word for it
than kind of saying ‘fudging the data.’
And he published it in obscure,
I had to go back to obscure places –
he really didn’t want
this data to get out.
And what I found, amongst many things,
but I’ll just mention one here,
is that these people that he had found-
He went to the island of Crete
three times for three weeks,
each one week, three times.
One of his data collection periods
was during Lent, it turns out.
So, I don’t know if you know about Lent,
but it’s a highly Greek Orthodox country,
and in Lent, you don’t eat
any animal foods –
you don’t eat any meat,
you don’t eat any dairy, you don’t eat-
So, this totally skewed his data.
Of course it’s a low-saturated-fat diet –
and he stuffed that, you know,
he was like, “Oh, well,
it was during Lent,
but we don’t think that had
any influence on the outcome,”
but of course it did.
And scientists have gone back
and analyzed this,
too late for it to make a difference,
but they went back and analyzed,
“How many people observe Lent,
and exactly what is
the difference that makes
on the saturated fat content of the food?”
And it turns out to be enormous.
So, this study that was so influential –
I mean, that is just one
of a great many number of problems,
So the data was kind of biased
from the beginning,
and this is, like, a catch-all slide
to try to encapsulate the next 25 years
of nutrition history,
that original American Heart Association
Then there was just, like,
this gigantic snowball effect.
Well, the USDA adopted it in 1978,
that was the first-ever
And it was kind of like the same group-
That’s Keys on the left in the front,
and his colleague, Jerry Stamler,
and there was kind of
this same group of people
who were on all the expert panels,
and they all reviewed each other’s papers,
and these groups
controlled all of the funding,
so if you didn’t get on this
‘cholesterol bandwagon,’ it was called,
you couldn’t get funding,
you couldn’t do research,
you couldn’t be a scientist.
And over the course of 25 years,
this Diet-Heart Hypothesis,
it became ingrained in institutions,
there was an institutional bias;
the media, there was a kind of bias
that fell into the media;
and everybody kind of
lined up behind this hypothesis.
You really couldn’t be a scientist
if you did not get on board.
And by 1986, the critics
had basically been silenced.
There were a lot of critics along the way
but you don’t hear about them anymore
because they were gone by 1986.
So I want to make it clear, I’m not-
There’s two parts to this diet –
there’s the low-fat diet,
which is to reduce fat,
so the original idea had been
that you should reduce saturated fat.
And then, because there was kind of a bias
all along about just fat in general,
because that had been Keys’ original idea,
that all fats raised cholesterol,
so he just was kind of biased against fat.
And the idea was fat had more calories
per gram than carbohydrates or proteins,
so it was just probably better
to lower fat overall,
it was just sort of thought
that was a good idea.
And for any of you who kind of
keep on top of nutrition news,
that diet was kind of on its way out,
the low-fat part of it,
but we still really believe
that saturated fat is bad for us.
But all the early studies
were really done on saturated fat,
they were really done
based on the original hypothesis
that it was saturated fat
that was bad for you.
So there were a lot of studies
that were done looking at-
not a lot, there were five or six
really important studies that were done
looking at people on a saturated fat diet
and comparing them to people
on an unsaturated fat diet.
And they were generally done
on prison populations
or people in hospitals
because you can control them.
You can’t do those kinds
of studies any more.
So these studies were all
and I’m just going to mention one of them,
a very influential study,
cited a million times, it’s called
the L.A. Veterans Association Study,
and it was done
in the L.A. Veterans Hospital,
and they followed people
for a couple of years.
The experimental group
was on a high unsaturated-fat diet,
and they had soybean oil,
they tried to replace the milk
with what was called ‘filled milk,’
a soybean-based milk.
It’s not really unlike the soy infant
formula that people give their kids today,
that kind of replacement
of animal fats with soy fats.
And they found- and this is why-
This is what kind of helped
propel along the Diet-Heart Hypothesis,
they found that heart attacks-
they did see a reduction in heart attacks,
but they saw something else,
which is that you can see
the experimental group is on the top –
those people had much
higher rates of cancer,
and in the end, there was no difference
in overall death rates.
So… so you could be-
And all these early studies
had the same results,
which is that heart attacks
may have gone down
but your overall risk of dying
didn’t go down,
and in the end,
that’s what you want to know,
like, what’s my risk of dying?
So, sure, you can spare me a heart attack,
but if I die of cancer,
what good is that to me?
And it was a really
serious issue in the time.
The National Institute of Health
had a series of expert panels
in the late ’80s,
where people got together and said,
“What are we going to do
about these findings?
They’re very worrisome.”
They couldn’t figure it out,
they basically couldn’t figure it out.
Years later, I talked to the rapporteur
of those NIH meetings,
and I said, you know, “What went on?
Like, why you never figured it out?”
And he said to me, this is, like, 19-
this is maybe 2008, and he said,
“Gee, have we still not figured that out?
That’s really worrisome.”
And it’s just been forgotten.
They don’t know
if it was the more vegetable oil,
or it was the fact that in these trials
they all did successfully
lower their cholesterol,
and maybe the lower cholesterol-
I mean, one of the populations
that nutrition researchers
have obsessed about are the Japanese,
because they have that, you know,
lots of fruits and vegetables,
or at least vegetables and rice diet,
and they have lower rates of cholesterol,
at least in kind of rural areas of Japan,
and they do have
lower rates of heart disease,
but they have astronomically
much higher rates of stroke
and other kinds
of cardiovascular problems,
so it’s just not clear
what we’re trading off here.
And all those studies
– the caveats with those studies,
it’s like a game of telephone
over the years, where you’re like,
“Oh, well, we had this success,
but we have all these caveats
that go along with that study.”
But down the line, it’s just like,
“Oh, we have this success.”
And all the other kind of information
attached to it gets lost.
Oh, I just want to say briefly
that one of the things that was kind of
propelling this hypothesis along
with Benjamin Keys
and the American Heart Association
in the beginning was, if you’re not eating
saturated fats, what are you eating?
You’re eating unsaturated fats.
And one of the things that I uncovered
was just the tremendous force
that the vegetable oil companies played
in helping along this hypothesis.
They basically launched
the American Heart Association.
The American Heart Association
was a tiny society of cardiologists.
In 1948, Proctor and Gamble,
makers of Crisco,
decided to make them the beneficiary
of this radio program.
It completely launched them
into a national organization.
They made millions of dollars,
and that was the beginning
of the AHA as we know it.
And, you know, they market their products
as ‘Doctor recommended’ healthy products
to lower your cholesterol.
So, at the end of all this
– that’s Robert Atkins
eating like a Masai warrior.
Robert Atkins was not beloved
in his day by the nutrition establishment.
This is a field
really governed by politics,
and he was not even remotely
a good politician,
and he used to just really
rub people the wrong way,
and that’s kind of one reason
he never really made it
in the nutrition establishment.
But it was also that
he didn’t have any scientific data.
He was just going on his experience
of treating tens of thousands of patients,
and there was really
nothing behind him to-
He couldn’t sort of ‘play’
in the nutrition community
because he didn’t have scientific studies.
In the last ten years,
unbeknownst to all of you
because these studies go up against
the current prevailing dogma
and therefore are not really discussed,
but there’s been a tremendous
amount of research done
by researchers who are not popular
but they have done
a tremendous amount of clinical trials,
like, very rigorous clinical trials
to basically provide
the kind of scientific evidence
that Robert Atkins lacked in his day.
And I think we are possibly
at the beginning
of a kind of paradigm shift.
There have been a number
of meetings of top nutritionists
for the very first time,
the very first time in 2011 and 2010,
coming out with consensus papers
saying maybe saturated fats
are not as bad as we thought they were;
not as bad as carbohydrates.
So, in the end, I think
the message is, like, whole fats,
those original whole fats,
like whole foods,
I think we will see possibly a return
to those kinds of foods.
Look, I’m right on time.