Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Big Fat Fraud

The other day, on Radio West, I heard part of an interview with Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. For a while, I was fascinated as she recounted various ways that the medical and scientific communities had latched onto ideas about fat and cholesterol, ignoring evidence contrary to those ideas.

The Big Fat Surprise

Teicholz's claim is basically that trying to reduce fat in our diet has had the opposite effect from what was intended. This concept is unsurprising to me. When trying too hard to avoid any one kind of food in our diet, it's easy to replace that thing with even less-wholesome alternatives. I remember a man in a birthing class trying to figure out a good diet for his wife, who was a "vegetarian." It turns out that while she didn't eat meat, she didn't eat any vegetables either, which basically left nothing but processed carb-rich foods on their menu. A recent study showed that a low-carb diet is actually twice as effective as a low-fat diet when trying to lose weight, adding to a mounting body of evidence that we need to stop making fat the bogeyman it has been for some time. In general, it's best to eat natural, whole foods, with as little processing as possible:  Butter is probably more healthy than margarine. Whole milk is probably more nutritious than skim milk or soy milk. Many of the things Teicholz was saying gibed with other things I'd learned. And she came across as very smart, knowledgeable, and convincing.

Pretty soon, though, the things she said stopped "ringing true." I'm not sure exactly when it was. It might have been when she started bashing on plant-based foods. "The evidence behind 'mostly plants,'" she said, "turns out to be quite thin." I may not be a nutritionist, but I'm passably familiar with nutrition science and plant-based diets in particular, and I can say with some certainty that there's a sizable body of evidence showing the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables.

Then a nagging suspicion started forming in the back of my mind as she shared her experiences with trying to set up interviews with some researchers:
I would get on the phone with researchers, and they would say, "If you're taking the Gary Taubes line, I won't even talk to you."
In my experience, when otherwise logical, well-educated people are completely unwilling to talk to someone, there's a reason behind it that's a little stronger than mere institutional bias. How did this "Gary Taubes" earn such a bad reputation in the scientific community? Did he interview researchers, and then take their statements out of context? Did he present the researchers' findings as supporting evidence for claims that they didn't actually support? Is he guilty of pseudoscience--the scientific community's equivalent of blasphemy? And if Teicholz is "taking the Gary Taubes line," then is she doing the same thing?

I remembered that some people will say what other people want to hear, because they know that other people will pay money to hear it. This is just a secular version of what the Book of Mormon calls "priestcraft." One website I stumbled upon claimed to have proof that all the health experts were wrong, and the best diet actually consists mostly of bacon and beer (no joke!), and if you send a check to such-and-such address, they'd send you more information about it. Was Teicholz's book just another incarnation of the "eat drink, and be merry, and everything will be okay" story that charlatans have been selling since time immemorial?

Just another Fad Diet Book

So when I got home, I did a simple Google search: "big fat surprise critical review." And lo, there it was: a huge two part article on a blog titled The Science of Nutrition, which tears The Big Fat Surprise to shreds. In summary:
What makes this particular book interesting is not so much that it is bad (which it is) or that it is extravagantly biased (which it also is). No, what really fascinates me about this book is that the author excessively and shamelessly lifts other people’s material. Most notably Teicholz lifts from another popular low-carb book called Good Calories, Bad Calories (GCBC) by Gary Taubes.
You probably don't have time to read through the whole thing--I didn't. But please go ahead and read a page or two, and then scroll to the bottom to see just how much content there is. You'll get a general idea of just how Nina Teicholz went about misinterpreting evidence, failing to find original sources, taking statements out of context, and so on. As the author concludes:
The issues I bring up in this review are too substantial and too numerous to be ignored. If you were to remove all of the instances where Teicholz deeply distorts a study or publication, and you were to remove all conclusions that she draws from the distortions you would be left with nothing but a pamphlet.
Every few years, it seems, a new book is published telling people about some simple change they can make that will help them lose weight and feel healthier. And every time a bunch of people rave about it, until they forget about it, and end up the same weight they were before. And the only people who really benefited were the author and publisher of the book. Meanwhile, scientific study after study confirms that the only way to consistently lose weight and keep it off is to do what experts have been saying all along: eat a variety of whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, limit how much food you eat, and get plenty of sleep and exercise. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

Some words of wisdom

Mormons believe in a code of health representing the "will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days." Revealed in 1833 to the prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord's pronouncement began:
In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation
The Lord warned against the use of alcohol, tobacco, and stimulants. It emphasized a diet rich in grains and a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, even encouraging abstinence from animal meat except when necessary.

When I became a member of the LDS church, I decided to follow this counsel more fully than most Mormons do--for about six years I was a vegetarian. I definitely experienced the blessings associated with this scripture:
 18 And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;
 19 And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;
 20 And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.
I'm still very fit, despite sitting at a computer way more than I should. But during those years after my baptism I was more healthy than at any other time in my life, and there were several times when I was amazed at how well I could "run and not be weary."

Since 1833, modern prophets have clarified, expanded on, and re-emphasized portions of this Word of Wisdom. For example, the prohibition of tobacco and alcohol has been extended to include illegal substances that didn't exist in Joseph Smith's time, and obedience to the Word of Wisdom is now a requirement to be worthy to enter the Lord's temples. We are also encouraged to use our own understanding to help keep our bodies healthy--for example, many Mormons avoid all forms of caffeine, rather than just coffee and tea.

At the same time, science has increasingly found the basic dietary guidelines from the original revelation to be good, sound advice. When I hear advice that directly contradicts counsel given by the Lord through His prophets, I'm going to choose the Lord's way. In the end, I think the Lord's wisdom will always be found to trump the knowledge of man.
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