This one. You can do it now; I’ll wait here. Oh, you need more encouragement? Read on.
This may be the one and only time I will shamelessly promote the work of any individual I didn’t give birth to.
Why? Because I think this actually matters (unlike so much of the other stuff I do).
Nina Teicholz’s book has been getting great publicity and stands a good chance of making the New York Times bestseller list. And with our help, she will. So let’s do it.
There is the obvious benefit that more people will read her book–books that are on the NYT bestseller list are frequently purchased by people who buy their books based on whether or not they are on the NYT bestseller list–and then maybe my future dissertation on the USDA/DHHS Dietary Guidelines will actually find a publisher one day.
But wait! There’s more. For the one low price of Teicholz’s book, you, my dear reader, will get free at no extra charge, an additional bonus offer of the chance to change the conversation about nutrition in America.
It’s an excellent book in many respects (see below), but its greatest contribution is to clearly outline the tangle of politics and personalities, funding streams and tenure tracks that has essentially shut down any substantial debate on this matter, a debate that by all rights should be taking place right now on campuses and in conference rooms across the country. She convincingly describes the headwinds that any researcher who questions the status quo is going to be fighting: lack of institutional funding, lack of collegial support, or just deafening silence. It’s not a level playing field out there, and as Eric Westman says to Teicholz, “this situation will not allow science to ‘self-correct.'”
This is exactly what I found in the Department of Nutrition at University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, and a situation that I’ve heard described repeatedly–usually in whispers, after I promise never to divulge details–particularly from other graduate students in nutrition. This is not how science is supposed to work.
Teicholz also–in a chapter entitled “How Women and Children Fare on a Low-Fat Diet”–shows us why it is so important that the debate not be silenced or ignored. Because this is not just about science, but about a world view that has placed the health concerns of adult (mostly white) males above those of women and children. This is about civil rights. Our current dietary recommendations are based on moldy datasets involving a particularly narrow demographic and applied to all Americans, regardless of age, race, gender, or cultural heritage. As if this is not bad enough, these same policies, which have remained virtually unchanged for 35 years, have failed–miserably–to improve the health of Americans of any demographic. This is a travesty of public health, and we should all be horrified and outraged.
But what should horrify us most is that, despite the biased data, despite the abysmal public health outcomes, despite the decades worth of controversy, there is no serious academic, scientific, or policy debate on this issue. Not at Harvard, not at UNC, not at Yale, not in Washington, DC. There is a refusal to even acknowledge that–in the face of all of these contradictions and confusion–a debate would be appropriate. Teicholz’s work has prompted the very same “the science is settled so let’s stopping talking about it” pushback that her book so deftly demonstrates is at the heart of the problem. The CEO of the American Heart Association acts as if just occurred to her to recently defend the world against the dangers of those who might suggest that saturated fat is okay to eat, and never mentions Teicholz’s name once. Yup. Shut down the debate and ignore the person who started it at the same time. Go AHA.
It is this “science is settled” perspective that the public should find most alarming. It doesn’t matter what part of the carb-fat-calories-whatever-whatever issues you agree or disagree with. Clearly, there is plenty of room for debate. Clearly, the science isn’t settled. But the absence of any serious discussion tells us that the experts think this whole nutritiony sciencey thing is too complicated for us to worry our pretty widdle heads about and that any real debate would confuse our very tiny brains. We should just chillax and let the experts tell us what to do. That way, we get fat and sick, they get grants and tenure, and everyone lives (more or less) happily ever after.
If you are not mad as hell already, you should be. If you read this book, you might be.
And this, dear reader, is where you can make a difference.
Teicholz’s book is not just a good book. It’s a message–to book publishers, to policymakers, to the media, to researchers, to students interested in pursuing a career in nutrition. It’s a message that says: we want this issue to be taken seriously, we welcome debate and discussion, and we will accept some honest confusion and doubt in place of the charade of science we’ve been given. I encourage you all to buy a copy for yourself. And then buy a copy for every friend and family member you think might read it (or use it to press daisies, I’m not picky). Get a copy for your family doctor and your nephew in medical school. A copy for that high school senior that’s about to graduate. A copy for that guy at the farmers market who is always going on about how “lean” his pasture-raised pork is.
We need to put this book on the New York Times bestsellers list and keep it there until Teicholz is on Oprah and Oz and The View and 60 minutes and Rachael Ray and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. We need to get this party started and keep it going. You certainly don’t have to agree with all she says to appreciate that the conversation needs to continue.
Buying a copy (or multiple copies) of this book says: We are not going to take this (silence) anymore. Hey Harvard, hey AHA, hey USDA and DHHS. Let’s talk.
Convinced? You can stop here, head to Amazon or your local bookstore & stock up, then pour yourself an adult beverage and kick back, knowing you’ve done your part. Oh, you want a real book review? Glutton for punishment you are. Fine. I wrote more words. Or you can catch a fine review here or here.
Adele’s Book Review:
If you are wondering how we got into the food-health mess we are in, and you are not satisfied with the “fat piggy Americans” or “Big Evil Food Industry” answers that get tossed around the internets, you really need this book.
If you bought Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories and really, truly meant to read it all the way through, but somehow could not, this is the book to really truly read instead.
Maybe you are thinking, hell, Adele, I actually did slog through Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, and you want me to read another book on the same topic? Good grief! Can’t I just watch the FatHead movie again and call it a day?
I feel that pain. Like Taubes’ books, Teicholz’s book is thoroughly researched and well referenced. But it’s a very different book.
First of all, Teicholz writes like a dream. I get that parts of Taubes’ book tend to be as readable as an instruction manual for Windows 98 as written by David Foster Wallace. Teicholz has the facility of Michael Pollan, with a sharper intellect, more warmth, and a less condescending attitude. She assumes her audience is smart enough to follow her through the maze of science without wanting to stop to examine every risk ratio ever produced. At the same time, she brings us with her into those difficult moments in an interview when she has to ask a nice person a hard question. And she does ask some tough questions.
Second, she covers some very different territory than other books on this topic. One of the complaints leveled at the people who blame our current high rates of obesity and diabetes on carbohydrates is that this approach neglects to fully explore the possibility that a dramatic increase in consumption of polyunsaturated vegetable oils (particularly soybean oil) may have also been a primary contributor to the increase in obesity and chronic disease. Teicholz examines this issue, along with the science behind transfats and the Mediterranean diet, with some surprising revelations. So while the subtitle “Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” sounds like it could have been tacked onto Good Calories, Bad Calories or Death by Food Pyramid (both fine books), Teicholz’s approach reveals a much more complex cascade of assumptions and accommodations that accompanied the calls to reduce the use of animal products in our diets.
Finally, even if you don’t care much about the whole fat-carb-blah-blah debate, her look at the personalities and politics of how nutrition science gets made is absolutely fascinating. Being in a communication and rhetoric program now, I hear a lot about the “constructedness” of science, that claims of fact don’t just emerge from the ether, but from a particular social and political context (which isn’t to say that researchers just “make up” science–you can’t “construct” a pancreas that secretes maraschino cherry juice–but what “facts” are presented to the public by scientists are shaped by many other influences besides the material world). Teicholz’s perspective is sympathetic–scientists are allowed to like sunny tourists spots too–but she doesn’t pull any punches. If you can’t separate science from sunshine, you should have stayed home.
Teicholz introduces the Atkins-Ornish “diet wars” (somewhere in me is a blog post on Dean Ornish and how crusading against Atkins apparently gave him, literally, a reason to live when he was a depressed and suicidal med student) and updates us on some of the folks–Stephen Phinney, Jeff Volek, Eric Westman–doing the very real work of testing the ideas raised by Atkins. This is story that needs to be told, and Teicholz has just covered a few of the players, but she acknowledged the folks–including Gary Taubes–who have done a great deal to make sure that the debate that is so badly needed doesn’t disappear completely.
It’s a fascinating time in history. The very beginnings of righting a mighty colossal mistake. Teicholz’s book will fill you in on the major players to get you started. Stay tuned and between the two of us, we’ll keep giving you the play by play–and we’ll keep the conversation going. You can help. Buy the book.