Here is the full transcript of investigative journalist Nina Teicholz’s TEDx Talk: The Big Fat Surprise at TEDxEast conference.
Nina Teicholz – Investigative journalist
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, vegetables, fruit, 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 who’s studying 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 dietary guidelines, that’s like the gold standard in the world of nutrition guidelines. Everything flows 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, even today, 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.