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Vegan Men Say What? Review of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet (Author Nina Teicholz; Published by Simon & Schuster, 2014) Part I: What I Like About the Book

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A friend of mine recently told me that he saw an author on TV promoting meat, dairy and eggs as being healthy.  He wanted to know what I thought.  At first I thought he was mistaken, but then I saw a large article in the Wall Street Journal promoting the new book of Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.  And then I saw the author in a segment on ABC’s Nightline.  Sure enough, she believes that Americans need to eat much more saturated fat by consuming animals and animal products.

The book has received tremendous press, being featured in many major print publications and on the major television networks.  Men’s publications, such as Men’s Health, seem especially interested in the topic.  Even Dr. Oz seems to have recently recanted his previous position and stated that eating saturated fat might not actually be all that bad.  If you Google the book you will find hundreds of articles and reviews—mostly favorable.

I had no response to my friend because I had not read the book.  I have been advocating a vegan diet to this friend and I felt I owed him a response.  Accordingly, I purchased the book and I read it.

Some in the vegan community may criticize me for spending money on the book.  They may also criticize me for writing about the book (especially my favorable comments).  These critics will likely dismiss the book without ever opening the first page.  I think such reaction is contrary to what veganism is about.

I have always believed that veganism is intellectually honest and based on facts.  If we simply ignore information that is contrary to our vegan belief system then our belief system is merely faith. Faith is wonderful but it belongs in religion. I want my veganism to be based on facts.  We should not be defensive when challenged with opposing facts and views.  Instead, we should welcome such challenges as an opportunity to better understand and explain our choice to eat a plant-based diet.

Accordingly, I am using my column this month to write a review of The Big Fat Surprise.  This column (review), divided into Parts I and II, is for my friend who asked about my thoughts on the author’s advice to eat more meat and dairy.  This column is also for all meat eaters who will use this book to support their diet.  And finally, this column is for vegans – so they will have a response when their friend asks them about the book.

This column is longer than usual, thus the two part division.  The book is long and packed with information and studies.  I simply cannot cover the book in a few paragraphs.  But just as I found the book interesting and I enjoyed reading it, I hope too that you will enjoy reading this review.

Even as a committed vegan, there are many things in The Big Fat Surprise that I liked.  The book reads like a thriller novel when the author exposes the American Heart Association’s complicity with “Big Food.”  As an investigative journalist, author Nina Teicholz is a talented writer and a wonderful historian.  I was captivated when reading her account of how trans fats were hoisted on Americans without any research into their health effects.  Her account of the vilification of tropical oils – coconut and palm oils – is magnificent.

However, when she crosses over from investigative journalism into giving nutritional advice, I find her advice to be logically and fundamentally flawed.  For example, the author makes a good case that for the past 40-50 years many Americans have replaced much of the saturated fat (animal fat) in their diet with unsaturated fat (vegetable oil) and trans fats (hydrogenated oils), and yet the obesity and diabetes epidemic has grown and heart disease is still killing many of us.  Accordingly, she recommends that Americans go back to eating more animal fat – meat, dairy and eggs.

This advice is merely replacing the new evil (trans fats) with the old evil (animal fat).  Heart disease was a serious problem 50 years ago in the U.S. which is why researchers started in the first place to look for a substitute for animal fat.  Clearly increasing trans fats in our diets was not the answer, but it is not logical to say that we therefore should revert to eating animal fat.  The author’s advice is fundamentally flawed because she fails to consider a third option – a plant based whole food diet.

In Part I of this review I discuss the parts of the book that I found fascinating and thoroughly enjoyed – the politics and history of dietary fat  in the U.S.  In Part II, I will turn to a discussion of the logical and fundamental flaws in the author’s advice to eat more animals and animal products.

Teicholz does a good job at the start of her book in providing a good primer on the different types of fats and their sources.  For example, saturated fats come primarily from animals and animal products. Though importantly, the tropical oils of coconut oil and palm oil are also high in saturated fat.  Polyunsaturated fats come primarily from vegetable oils (corn, soybean, peanut, canola, oil, etc.).  Monounsaturated fats come primarily from olive oil.  And then there is trans fats which is created through chemical processing (hydrogenated oils).  Anybody interested in a healthy diet needs at least a basic understanding of these different fats.

The author sets forth a riveting history of how a single man, Ancel Keys, a biologist and pathologist at the University of Minnesota, led the charge beginning in 1952 to convince America of the correlation between the consumption of saturated fats and heart disease.  With the help of the American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health (the richest source of research funds) and a Time magazine cover story, Keys’ hypothesis was institutionalized and dissenting voices were quashed.  Research funds for opposing views dried up and research on heart disease became more political than scientific.

The author convincingly shows the flaws with the studies that were relied upon to advance Keys’ hypothesis and how evidence to contrary was ignored by the scientific community because it was a death knell to professional advancement.  But perhaps more importantly, the author details how Keys and the American Heart Association promoted vegetable oils for their cholesterol-lowering properties and for heart disease prevention.

Prior to 1910, vegetable oil was virtually unknown in the U.S.  However, by 1999, it was estimated that Americans were getting approximately 8% of all their calories from vegetable oil.  And though we know them as “vegetable” oils, they are actually pressed mainly from seeds such as cottonseed, rapeseds, safflower seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and corn, as well as from soybeans.  Are you wondering, what is canola oil?  Linseed oil and rapeseed oil, in a genetically modified form, are blended to make “canola” oil.  The “can” in canola is named for its origin, Canada.

The author explains how these vegetable oils (and their polyunsaturated fat versus saturated fat) came into the U.S. food supply in two ways.  First, in bottles of salad and cooking oil with brands like Wesson and Mazola.  And second, and more commonly, as hardened oils used in Crisco, margarine, muffins, cookies, chips, crackers, breads, microwave popcorn, TV dinners, frozen pizza and frozen foods.  Anything baked or fried in a restaurant for the past 40 years has typically been made with hardened vegetable oil.  In their hardened form, these oils contain trans fat.

Vegetable oils were cheaper than animal fats and so their use was embraced by food manufacturers.  In an apparent conflict, the American Heart Association received millions of dollars in support from the companies that manufactured vegetable oils.

The author does a good job of explaining the difference between olive oil (monounsaturated fat) and vegetable oils (polyunsaturated fat).  For thousands of years the Greeks have used olive oil because of its stability and safeness at high temperatures.  On the other hand, vegetable oil oxidizes when it reacts with the air and goes bad quickly.  It also oxidizes easily at high temperatures, which is why their bottles carry warnings about overheating.  Because rancid-turning oil was not useful to food manufacturers, the ability to harden vegetable oils, through a process called hydrogenation, was an enormous discovery.

We have a chemist at Procter & Gamble to thank for inventing the hydrogenation of oil.  P&G called its product Crisco, derived from its chief ingredient, crystallized cottonseed oil.   Hydrogenated oils contains trans-fat and Crisco was the product that introduced these fats into the American food supply.  Another pioneering food item delivering hydrogenated oils to Americans was margarine.  The American Heart Association endorsed margarine as part of its “prudent diet.”  In summary, the author sets forth a compelling narrative on how Americans replaced animal fats (lard, suet, tallow, butter) with perhaps something worse from a health perspective—hydrogenated oils.

As a side note, credit must be given where credit is due, and Teicholz deserves credit for being a vocal opponent of hydrogenated oils and trans fats.  These chemically processed oils are now universally considered dangerous.  Just within the past year, the FDA has finally taken the first step to eliminate trans fat from food by making the preliminary determination that a major source of trans fats—hydrogenated oils—is not “generally recognized as safe.”

But the consensus that trans fats are dangerous hasn’t always been the case and large corporations such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland profited handsomely for decades from the use of hydrogenated oils.  Without any studies supporting the use of hydrogenated oils, these large corporations basically performed an experiment on the American people while reaping profits.

The author does a good job of making one wonder why anybody would ever listen to the American Heart Association.  AHA pamphlets told Americans to eat snacks, such as low-fat cookies, low-fat crackers and candy.  In short, the AHA told people to eat sugar to avoid fat.  This is the so-called “SnackWell” phenomenon.  The AHA put its “Heart Healthy” check mark on such food items as Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Fruity Marshmallow Krispies, and Pop-Tarts.

The author discusses the Mediterranean Diet and its history in significant detail.  This diet promotes a diet of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, but also allows seafood, poultry, yogurt, eggs and cheese.  It also introduced olive oil to Americans, which it recommends in abundance.  The author presents a very interesting read on how two scientists developed the diet in the mid 1990s in response to a decrease in Greece in the consumption of olive oil.  The Greek founder of the diet felt compelled to act when she saw olive trees being cut down and a traditional way of life disappearing.

Perhaps even more interesting is the politics behind the exporting of the Mediterranean Diet to the U.S. and its promotion to the point that it became a household word.  Researchers, food writers, and health authorities were provided free trips to Greece and Italy for conferences.  Ancel Keys was brought onto the bandwagon.  Everything, including research, was paid for with money from the olive oil industry.

The author presents a compelling case that the Mediterranean Diet is not the panacea it purports to be.  However, she acknowledges that olive oil is a relatively stable oil and is a healthier alternative to the more unstable vegetable oil for use in the home kitchen.  But because it is expensive, food manufacturers instead used hydrogenated oils.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the section on tropical oils – palm oil and coconut oil.  A lone multimillionaire, Philip Sokolof, made it his mission to stop the use of tropical oils in the U.S.  These tropical oils are very high in saturated fat.  92 percent of coconut oil is composed of saturated fats.  50-86 percent of palm oil is composed of saturated fat, depending on whether the oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit or from the kernel.  Sokolof founded a group called the National Heart Saver Association, funded by his own millions.  He ran full-page ads in major newspapers with the headline, “THE POISONING OF AMERICA!” and he said culprit was tropical oils.

At the time, many food products used tropical oils, such as Triscuit by Nabisco, Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish, Club crackers by Keebler, etc.   In response to the negative ads, food companies started replacing tropical oils in their products with the trans fat hydrogenated oils.  The American Soybean Association, representing the industry that stood to gain the most from the promotion of hydrogenated oils, joined in the crusade against tropical oils.  The vast majority of hydrogenated oils are made from soybeans.  Palm oil imported from Malaysia was terrifying to the American soybean industry because it was 15% cheaper than soybean oil and it could do everything that soybean oil could do.  Palm oil also did not require artificial hardening or hydrogenation.

Through public relations aimed at portraying tropical oils as evil saturated fats, tropical oils lost and hydrogenated oils and trans fats won.  Palm oil was virtually eliminated from American foods even though it was a rich source of vitamin E, tocopherols, and beta-carotene, which are all considered healthy in their natural form.  Palm oil also has been shown to lower total blood cholesterol, unlike other saturated fats which typically raise total cholesterol.  It also may protect against blood clots.

It is very unlikely that palm or coconut oil contributes to heart disease because they have been a dietary mainstay for largely disease-free Southeast Asian populations for thousands of years.  One study showed that Polynesians who derived nearly two thirds of their daily calories from coconut oil had no significant signs of heart disease.  In other countries were the people ate large amounts of tropical oils, such as Malaysia and the Philippines, heart disease rates were lower than in Western nations.

The author portrays Fred Kummerow, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Illinois, as the lone academic researcher in the trans-fats field for decades.  He published his first study in Science magazine in 1957.  He examined autopsy materials from 24 human subjects and found that “trans fats accumulated in tissues all over the body:  in the liver, the arteries, the fat tissue, and in the heat.”  As the author notes, fatty acids lodged in tissue are a sign that they are not being fully metabolized.

But Kummerow was no match for Big Food and the American Heart Association which had endorsed hydrogenated oils.  The AHA would not say a word about the ill health effects of hydrogenated oils for almost 40 years, long after every other major health group had warned against trans fats.

Kummerow discovered that hydrogenating an oil does not just produce trans fats, it removes four naturally occurring fatty acids from the oil and replaces them with some fifty unnatural ones.  Instead of prompting more studies, for forty years Kummerow could barely get his papers published and there was no funding.  Big Food funded biased studies to support hydrogenated oils.  It was not until 2005 that a major scientific conference was finally devoted to the discussion of trans fats.  Kummerow never gave up.  At the age of 98, in 2013, he was still publishing papers and pressuring the FDA to ban trans fats entirely.

It was not until 2006 that the FDA mandated that trans fats have their own separate line on the Nutrition Facts Panel on the back of all packaged food.  And as noted above, just last year the FDA finally started the process to propose the banning of all trans fats.

Companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels, Midland, Dow Chemical, and Unilver saw the writing on the wall back in 2006 and knew that hydrogenated oils would eventually be banned.  However, there are 42,720 packaged food products that contained partially hydrogenated oils.  What will replace the trans fats?

These companies have been trying to get out ahead of the curve years before last year’s ruling by the FDA.  One new fat that has come out of industry labs was made through a process called interesterification.  Reading about this should scare any consumer, especially because they are listed on the food label simply as “oil” or “soybean oil.”  Some companies have genetically engineered soybeans.  Some are using chemically created “fat replacers.”

Another replacement for hydrogenated oils is sunflower oil.  Sunflower seeds have recently been bred to be high in oleic fatty acid, making it stable for frying.  This oil is called NuSun.  Frito-Lay buys up most of it.

Of course, as the author notes, the problem with all these newly developed fats is that their effects have been barely studied.  Sounds like hydrogenated oils all over again.  And sadly, the FDA does not appear interested in knowing more about these new oils in baked and fried foods, billions of pounds of which are consumed by Americans each year.

Towards the end of the book, the author also provides an interesting discussion on cholesterol and a new biomarker for heart disease.  Based on recent research data, the author asserts that LDL cholesterol, sometimes called the “bad” cholesterol, is a largely unreliable predictor of heart disease risk.  Instead, the better predictor of heart disease is the type of LDL particles found in the individual.  Small and dense particles are closely related with heart disease.  However, large, light and buoyant LDL particles were not linked to high risk at all.  Accordingly, “total LDL” is not a predictor of heart disease risk.  Instead the LDL particles, known as subfractions, are a better predictor.

However, according to the author, the obsession with total LDL remains because it is the favorite biomarker of the American Heart Association, doctors understand it, the government has an entire bureaucracy committed to lowering it, and pharmaceutical companies with profitable LDL cholesterol-lowering drugs have promoted it.

As you can see, there is much I like about Teicholz’ book.  Now to Part II where I discuss the parts I don’t like . . . .  Read On 

Doug Meier is an attorney that practices in Lakewood, Colorado and writes this monthly column, Vegan Men Say What?




Author: Doug

Doug Meier is an attorney who practices in Colorado the area of insurance bad faith and legal malpractice. He became a vegetarian 13 years ago and went vegan approximately 2 years ago. He can be reached at or