Questions about The Big Fat Surprise

I listened to the audio book. Can I get access to the references?

Indeed you can, here.

I have the hardcover book. Is the paperback the same?

A number of corrections were made for the paperback edition. These can be downloaded here. (No worries–these corrections are minor and did not changed any of the assertions in the book.)

Can I get an autographed copy?

Yes, please order from the Hickory Stick Bookshop and indicate in the “comment” section on the order page if you’d like a particular inscription.

Is the book available in other languages?

  • Yes: Spanish (Mexico—Penguin Random House), Portuguese (Brazil–WMF Martins Fontes), Mandarin (China–Commercial Press), Czech (Jota), Estonia (Peramotsa Press), Korea (Window of Times), Slovakia (Publixing), Taiwan (Ark Culture), Vietnam (Thai Ha Books).
  • English-language books in the UK, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand can be obtained from Scribe Publications.
  • Please contact your local publisher for details on how to obtain a book.

Who paid for your book?

The only funds I received for the book were from my US publisher, Simon & Schuster. During the nearly 10 years that I spent researching and writing the book, I financed myself from my savings (exhausting an inheritance left to me by my grandmother) and also by relying upon my husband (thank you, Gregory!).

What are the similarities and differences between your book and Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes?

I’d venture to say that there’s no writer today challenging the low-fat diet policy who is not drawing upon the work of Gary Taubes. He pretty much single-handedly launched this entire field of inquiry, and we all owe him a great debt. Indeed, in my book, I credit his work throughout and have also included him in the acknowledgements. Beyond that, he is a major character in Chapter 10 of my book, where I seek to set his place in history so that it might never be forgotten (an effort that has turned out, sadly, to be ever more necessary as researchers, doctors and journalists on a regular basis claim to have themselves invented the contributions that rightfully belong to Taubes).

For people who’ve read Good Calories, Bad Calories, here’s how my book is different. The Big Fat Surprise:

  • Is written more for a general audience. It is somewhat less technical and has more of a story-telling quality to it. The Economist, which named it the #1 book of 2014, called it a “nutrition thriller,” which is my favorite description. Many Amazon reviewers say that it reads like a mystery ‘Who-done-it.”
  • Goes off in some entirely new directions. For instance, it covers the history of vegetable oils, tropical oils, trans fats and what replaced them, the Mediterranean Diet, and the story of nutrition science since 1986 (where Taubes’ book leaves off). And it includes the story of Gary Taubes himself and how he changed nutrition history, along with some brave and groundbreaking researchers.

It’s true that in my book, I recount many of the same events and studies as Taubes did in his work. This is necessary because in outlining the mistakes of nutrition history since 1950, certain events must be repeated, in the same way that any telling of the story of the Civil War must include the battle of Fort Sumter. It might seem redundant to anyone who already knows Civil War history, but retelling these events is necessary. I think it’s fair to say, too, that the story of our failed low-fat policy is so important that it bears repeating, many times over and in as many ways possible, until it becomes a matter of common knowledge.

On this topic, Gary Taubes himself agrees, and provided the following statement (July 23, 2015):

“The accusation that The Big Fat Surprise plagiarizes or “cribs” from my work is unjustified and naive. As Teicholz herself notes, any critical recounting of nutrition policy inevitably includes certain key events that must be addressed. I’d like to think my writing has in some way led to awareness of these events and to how they should be interpreted. Moreover, I believe that Teicholz, throughout her book, amply credits my books and articles as well as my role in exposing some of the bad science underlying the dietary fat hypothesis of heart disease and in developing the alternative hypothesis for chronic disease.”

What about concerns regarding animal welfare and the environment?

Since I didn’t eat red meat for 25 years, I understand the feelings that people have on this score. People may choose not to eat meat for ethical reasons. There’s great concern now about the environmental impact of cattle. And there’s the sense, going back to Frances Moore Lappe’s book, Diet for a Small Planet, that growing a pound of meat, compared to a pound of plants, consumes too many of the earth’s resources.

Here are some points to consider: what if a pound of plants cannot provide the same nutrients and nourishment as a pound of meat? What if they are not actually equal? Meat (and eggs and dairy) contain far more essential nutrients than do plant foods, and –this is a critical point—more of those nutrients are more bioavailable when consumed from meat and dairy than from plants, meaning that our bodies can absorb and use these nutrients better. For instance, heme iron is not particularly bioavailable when eaten in spinach (plus you’d have to eat a roomful of it), compared to when it is eaten in meat. Plants foods do not include B12 and and are lacking in micronutrients such as choline and lutein. It takes careful planning and artificial supplements to stay healthy on a plant-based diet. So it is quite clear that a pound of plants does not provide the same kind of nourishment that enables good health, compared to a pound of meat.

Moreover, the plant-based diet is almost inevitably high-carb, which is a diet that even the 2015 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee acknowledges is linked to heart disease. A great deal of science shows, in fact, that this high-carb diet causes heart disease by lowering HDL-C, the good cholesterol, as well as raising triglycerides—both reliable indicators of increasing heart-disease risk. The low-fat, high-carb diet is also strongly associated with increases in obesity and diabetes.

Thus, if a pound of (high-carb) plants comes with the burdens of nutrition-related diseases, the externalities of treating these diseases (estimated by some to be $1billion a day, not to mention the cost of human suffering) must be factored into the equation. By contrast, if a pound of meat sustains healthy human life, without obesity, diabetes and heart disease, then this lightens the ‘load’ of meat on us humans. The point is that we need to reconsider all these factors when calculating the effects of plants vs. meat.

Regarding the impact of red meat on global warming, I’m a bit skeptical of that science, just because I know that the anti-meat bias has become extremely strong over the past decade, and I never trust science done in the climate of prejudice. Also, there’s some data that contradicts the hypothesis that cow emissions (farts) drive global warming. For example, cattle herds in the US have declined by 30% over the last 3 decades, and beef consumption has dropped by more than 35%. So how is it that cattle could be responsible for global warming? For a serious analysis of this science, I would suggest following the work of a fellow former vegetarian, Nicolette Nieman, who wrote the book Defending Beef.

The cultivation of livestock is an ancient practice: Abel was a shepherd; sculpted on the Parthenon friezes are ancient Greeks walking their cows to the festival of Athena. Humans domesticated animals so that they could have a convenient source of protein without having to deplete the forests and land of wild animals. (Cows, as we know them, would not exist unless humans had domesticated them.) It’s simply hard to believe that raising livestock could be the main cause of global warming, as many vegetarians claim, especially when you look at other factors that have changed in recent decades: industrialization, loss of nature to cities, the proliferation of cars and factories, etc. These are massive changes that would seem to dwarf any impact of the (declining) cow population.

But even assuming that cows do drive global warming, we still need to separate out the scientific questions. The nutritional question is: can a diet without meat sustain human life, including healthy growth (children) and reproduction (pregnant women)? Meat is the best source of iron and folate, which are crucial for growth and fetal development. This is separate from the environmental question.

It is not scientific to merge these questions together.

At this time, there is no rigorous (clinical trial) trial data to support the vegetarian or vegan diet as one that can support a healthy human life over the long term. Moreover, there is no example of humans surviving multi-generationally this way in history. Thus, it does not seem wise to launch into what would be an experimental diet for the human species without evidence that this will be safe. Moreover, I believe nutrition experts should be humbled by their poor track record to date in prescribing experimental diets: obviously the low-fat diet has been a mistake, as have been restrictions on dietary cholesterol. These are excellent arguments to proceed with caution.

Finally, if cows do drive global warming, then we ought to ask ourselves, how can we reduce their impact? Do they make a contribution to the ecosystem that will be lost if we eliminate these animals? And what, then, will be our alternative source of healthy protein given that fish are disappearing from the oceans?