Part 2: Is Everything We Think We Know About Eating Healthy Upside Down?

Yesterday, I highlighted the main points of “The Big Fat Surprise” by Nina Teicholz.  In this second installment, I’ll extrapolate what this new information means for a few of the most popular food diets and trends, give you a peek into what nutritional scientists are studying right now, and share with you how I’m personally viewing my diet in light of this emerging information.  If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you’ll be short-changing yourself of vital information by reading this post first.  (Click here to read Part 1.)

How the Most Popular Diets Measure Up to the Emerging Diet-Health Studies

Remember, the emerging information coming from the most recent published, peer-reviewed studies is that a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet where the bulk of fats come from the saturated group (mainly animal-sourced) is consistent with lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.  Some studies have also shown this diet to be associated with a lower risk of some cancers, though these associations aren’t universal and more testing needs to be done before correlations can be made.  At the same time, these studies show that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet where the bulk of fats come from the polyunsaturated group (all plant-sourced) is consistent with higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.  A few studies have also linked this diet to a higher risk of some cancers (breast cancer in 2 such studies), but more studies need to be done before a definitive correlation can be made.

High Carb, Low-Fat Diet/The Food Pyramid/MyPlate:  While those on the boards of nutrition think tanks and in the health arms of the federal government continue to tout this diet, our rates of obesity and lifestyle diseases continue to increase and these conditions are affecting our population at younger and younger ages.  Each time new nutrition recommendations are released, they have lowered the amount of acceptable dietary fat totals (and saturated fat as a subset) and animal proteins while increasing the recommendation for plant-sourced foods.  In light of the latest studies, these experts contend that the reason Americans aren’t getting slimmer and healthier isn’t because the diet their recommending is flawed but because Americans aren’t following the recommendations.  Yet, surveys and studies show this isn’t the case.  Americans, overall, have reduced their caloric intake, are eating fewer meats and more plant-sourced foods, and have reduced fat intake while increasing carbohydrate intake.  We have, in fact, dutifully followed the recommendations since the 1950s.  And although obesity rates have leveled off over the last couple of years, the overall rate is still very high and the rate among the young is increasing.

The Atkins/High-Protein, Low-Carb Diets: At first blush, it seems as though Dr Atkins was ahead of his time.  And, it is true, he attributed many of our collective ills, including his own obesity, to too many carbs in our diet.  Many in the nutrition field wanted him to be a part of the clinical studies to test this reasoning, but whether it was a matter of pride or simply not in his nature, he felt that his patients’ success stories were proof enough.  The difference here is that, rather than replace the cut carbs with animal fats, his recommendation was to replace carbs with proteins, mostly of the animal variety.  And, while increasing animal protein will invariably also increase animal fats, it isn’t the same result as increasing saturated fat specifically.  While carbs and fats can both be utilized for the body’s fuel, proteins aren’t designed to do that.  The body will burn protein (lean mass, like muscle) when no other source is available but it isn’t an efficient or healthy way to go.  Too much protein in the diet can do serious damage as well.  Kidneys are especially vulnerable.  What the most current research on saturated fats seems to tell us is Dr Atkins had it half right.

Gluten-Free/No Carb Diet: Those of you who are educated on the subject of gluten have already recognized the error in the title.  I’ve placed it there on purpose.  It has become quite evident that those avoiding or attempting to eliminate gluten by choice (not because they have an intolerance) have no idea what gluten is.  I believe most people think the words gluten and carb are interchangeable and have no idea that when they purchase a product packaged with the GF label, many times the wheat flour has been replaced with some other carb – tapioca starch, potato starch, corn meal, white rice flour – just to name a few wheat substitutes that are far inferior to the nutritional value of whole wheat flour.  Ironically, gluten itself actually isn’t even a carb – gluten is the protein portion of wheat, barley and rye flours.  People are also under the false impression that carbs are only flours and sweeteners (sugars, honey, corn syrups) and any foods that contain them.  Yes, flours and sweeteners are carbohydrates and baked items, pastas, desserts and candies contain a predominance of them and, therefore, also considered carbs.  But the following items also contain mostly carbohydrates and are, therefore, counted as carbs in our diets: potatoes, corn, rice, quinoa, faro, beans, and all fruits and vegetables.  So, unless you’ve also cut out fruits and vegetables along with grains and sweeteners, you are not on a no-carb diet.  Those in the nutrition community who believe we have too many carbs in our diet aren’t advocating an elimination of carbs.  They are advocating the elimination of plant-based polyunsaturated oils, greatly limiting the consumption of simple sugars, and the reduction of complex carbohydrates in favor of saturated fats.  Neither a truly gluten-free nor a truly no-carb diet accomplishes this.

Paleo Diet: A simple definition of the Paleo diet is the diet of the hunter-gatherer.  This is pre-agricultural revolution – no dairy, eggs, grains, or cultivated fruit or vegetables.  Limited amounts of nuts and seeds.  It is so difficult to define that many versions of the Paleo diet exist.  Eating a true Paleo diet is kind of like trying to close Pandora’s box.  In our modern society, one cannot realistically eat like a Caveman.  The meats and produce available to us don’t even begin to resemble the food they would have eaten.  It’s an interesting thought, and it gets close to the idea of a high-saturated fat, low-carb diet, but it can’t really be implemented without risking serious vitamin deficiencies.

The Mediterranean Diet: Ms Teicholz spends a lot of time debunking the myth of the Mediterranean Diet in her book, so I won’t bother to re-iterate it.  Suffice it to say there are nearly 20 countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea and they vary greatly from one another in the types and amounts of macronutrients they eat.  Even the three healthiest populations of the Mediterranean often studied and cited – France, Italy and Greece – differ from one another and internally among their own regions.  In short, there is no such thing as a single, definable Mediterranean Diet.

Vegetarian/Vegan: If you’ve been paying attention, I don’t really need to elaborate on these.  If someone were to ask me what I would predict Nina Teicholz would say about the vegetarian and vegan diets, my answer would be: they are the ultimate low-fat, high carb diets with the vegetarian diet being very unhealthy and a vegan diet the most unhealthy of all.  Would she be correct?  For her to be incorrect, a lot of really good scientists would have to have made some huge mistakes in conducting all of their clinical studies over the last 30 years.

What’s On the Horizon?

Keep an eye out for more reports on clinical studies that test various fats in the diet.  You can learn how to read reports on scientific studies with an intelligent, critical eye here.  Here are few more emerging related topics to watch for:

New information on LDL cholesterol: LDL cholesterol has always been known as the “bad” cholesterol that is linked to heart disease.  One knock on a high saturated fat diet is that it does seem to raise LDL cholesterol.  Some doctors argue that having too low HDL cholesterol is a greater indicator of heart disease risk than a high LDL and, saturated fats do raise HDL numbers as well.  But a new discovery in cholesterol study may close the door on the worry over saturated fats and LDL levels.  Scientists have learned that there are two different types of LDL molecules that are very different from one another in structure.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them structure A and structure B.  High numbers of structure A LDL molecules appear to correlate with lower risk of heart disease, while a high concentration of structure B LDL molecules appears to correlate with a higher risk of heart disease.  Those on a high saturated fat diet have more structure A (good) molecules, while those on a high unsaturated fat diet have more structure B (bad) molecules.  As these structures of LDL cholesterol are newly discovered, more studies are sure to come.

More studies on Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: A subset of dietary fats are the Omegas.  The body can’t make Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, we must get them from our diets.  And both are very important.  Omega-6 are the inflammatory-inducing fatty acids – they help our bodies to fight foreign invaders like infections.  Omega-3 fatty acids do the opposite, they help keep inflammation at bay – they are anti-inflammatories.  Omega-3s are found mostly in fish and flaxseed and in smaller amounts in other foods, mostly in proteins.  Omega-6s are found in huge amounts in plant oils and many carbohydrates.  A century ago, our diets consisted of a ratio of about 4:1 of Omega-6 fatty acids to Omega-3s.  Today the ratio is anywhere from 16:1 to 25:1 in the average American diet due to the decrease in animal fats and proteins and an increase in plant oils and carbohydrates.  Most of the studies of late have focused on the benefits of Omega 3s and how to get more in our diets.  Don’t be surprised if new studies will emerge on how to lower Omega 6s and whether or not the high concentration of Omega 6s are contributing to inflammatory diseases and conditions such as auto-immune diseases and allergies, particularly food allergies.

What’s Next for Me?

Old habits are hard to break.  For now, I’ve switched from no-fat milk to 1%.  (The experts who support the high saturated fat diet recommend whole milk – I’m just not ready for that.)  I’ve gone back to full-fat cheese.  When we finish with our tub of Smart Balance olive and canola oil spread, I’m getting whipped butter.  (I already use stick butter in baking.)  I use a mix of olive oil and butter for sautéing and roasting.  I’ll save the canola oil spray for very high heat cooking only.  Since the banning of hydrogenated oils, I’ve noticed some manufacturers have returned to using palm and coconut oils.  Whenever possible, I’ll opt for products that are made with butter, tropical oils or olive oil over any made with polyunsaturated plant oils.  But, unless one is willing to be cooking and baking all day, there’s no way to completely avoid soybean, safflower and sunflower oils – they are everywhere.  I’m trying to minimize them as much as I can.  I will increase my portions of animal proteins while reducing my portions of grains.  I don’t have any plans to reduce my produce intake.

But it’s an odd thing to go from looking at a food and knowing immediately whether it was healthy or unhealthy and whether I should have a little or a lot to not being quite sure of anything anymore.  I plug on, searching for facts and truths.  I have to.  I need to solve this riddle.  I don’t want to leave my daughters with the same faulty diet that the last generation of experts left me.


  1. Sleipne · · Reply

    I’m not an expert but I think the main difference between before and after industrial revolution is not our diet but the less of good exercise we do. Maybe the only change we should do is to replace car by bicycle or walk when we need to go somewhere. (We have tried to replace it by sport but frequent sport may be bad for articulation or even for heart disease because heartbeat is higher during sport than normal activities)

    1. No question, this is all true. There are many differences in terms of environmental factors, work and leisure, medicine, activity levels and diet pre and post industrial revolution. Which is why it is most puzzling that all our emerging post-industrial revolution ills were blamed only on diet, and a particular portion of diet at that. Thanks for your comment! -Michelle

  2. […] Workout of the Month: Cycling & Rowing (and Desk Jockeys) Part 2: Is Everything We Think We Know About Eating Healthy Upside Down? → August 19, 2014 Myth Busting Cholesterol, Diabetes, Diet, Dietary Fats, Eating Healthy, […]

  3. […] My Voice: It was extremely sobering for me to read Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.  I do my best to summarize her meticulously researched case in “Is Everything We Think We Know About Eating Healthy Upside Down” Part 1 and Part 2. […]

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