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Thursday 1 October 2015

Nina Teicholz: Response to Critics

This post goes hand-in-hand with the new Research FAQs page. Please head there for more information.

She’s just a journalist with no credentials:

This is a logical criticism, based on the assumption that the advice of experts should be trusted more than the advice of non experts. In general, I might agree with this. The field of nutrition science, however, has become entrenched in its mistakes, a situation that is now becoming obvious: sixty years of expert advice on dietary cholesterol have been overturned, as has the expert advice on the low-fat diet; sixty years of expert advice on saturated fats has been seriously challenged. The reversals on these lynchpins of dietary advice show that the experts have been wrong and in fact, cannot be trusted based on their authority alone.

And while it’s true that I have no nutrition or medical degrees, I spent a decade digging through thousands of scientific papers including many of the original, foundational studies that have long been forgotten. I studied biology and chemistry in college (pre-med courses, and I also partially fulfilled the requirements for an undergraduate degree in biology), but I believe my training in political science and history (for American Studies and Latin American Studies) were equally important to this endeavor, since my book is as much about the history and politics of nutrition policy as it is about the science.

Moreover, the real question is whether my arguments have credibility. Are there any strong challenges to them? In fact, to my great surprise and disappointment, serious scientists in the field have responded only with superficial or personal attacks. There has been no critique by a serious scientist of my book. By contrast, in the top journals where my book has been covered (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, British Medical Journal), it has received extremely strong reviews (“This book should be read by ever nutritional science professional…” stated the reviewer in AJCN. “Impressive . . . This book shook me. . . . Teicholz has done a remarkable job…” stated the reviewer in the BMJ ) The more substantive counter-arguments to my work, I respond to here, as well as in my FAQs post.

To the charge that I wrote the book simply to make money:

No one expects to make a fortune by writing a serious tome on politics, history and science with thousands of footnotes, even if its thesis is controversial. If you want to make money, you write a diet book, as David Katz has done, and whom I mention because he has prominently accused me of being motivated only by book sales (Perhaps he is thinking of his own motivations, since Katz charges $3500 an hour, according to his deposition, to consult with companies, including Chobani, for whom he has hired to defend the sugar content of its yogurt; Katz is also supported by Hershey’s, Quaker Oats, and JuicePlus, who sell the kind of high-carb products that he promotes in his work). Other influential voices in nutrition with diet books to sell are Marion Nestle and Walter Willett (Nestle also has a diet book for pets; And, as I document in my book, she negotiated a back-room deal with the the olive-oil industry to fund a journal supplement promoting the Mediterranean diet). I have to admit, too, if you take my book advance and divide it over nine years, with no paid vacations or health benefits and then subtract monies spent on fact checkers, research help, travel, the rights to republish illustrations, the result is embarrassingly less than what a kindergarten teacher would earn.

She must be backed by the meat/dairy/egg industry:

To the question of who supported my research, the answer is that in writing my book, I received a book advance but no industry support of any kind. Since publishing my book, I have received modest honorariums for presenting my research findings to various interested groups, including the medical, restaurant, financial, meat and dairy industries.

To the critique by Science of Nutrition, Parts 1-2

This critique is by Seth, a computer engineer and “fan of nutrition,” is notable for two things: 1. It’s the only serious critique that I have seen of my book. This tells me that my book must in fact be quite solid.

That said, Seth did go through every single one of my citations to check them, an exercise that must have taken him a hundred-plus hours (sponsored by whom?), and this makes his critique unique. Last summer, I went through Seth’s entire Review, and here’s what I found: I had made some mistakes. This is probably to be expected when you have thousands of footnotes. There were some incorrect page numbers and some sources that were wrong. All these corrections, I put into the paperback, a near-complete list of which can be found here.

However—and this is fundamentally important—none of these corrections altered any of the assertions in my book.

Seth makes a lot of mistakes. The biggest one is that, as a relative newcomer to the field, he simply fails to understand the larger historical context in which scientific papers have been written. For decades, researchers have been under extreme pressure to conform to the diet-heart hypothesis—something my book documents extensively. I describe numerous examples where scientists saw their careers suffer (lost research grants, inability to get papers published, etc) due to efforts to challenge this hypothesis. And among scientists who believed in the hypothesis, they could not acknowledge evidence to the contrary, even when their own data did not confirm their beliefs. The result has been that knowingly or not, researchers consistently buried “inconvenient” results. Sometimes even the written conclusions in their papers inaccurately reflect what their own data indicates. I write about one such instance in the book, when Jerry Stamler, in his Western Electric Study, dismisses his own study results, which do not support the diet-heart hypothesis, and goes on to conclude the opposite. The real results are buried deep inside his paper, and this practice has been common in the last 50 years of nutrition science. Therefore, reading these studies requires an extremely careful and experienced eye. Whenever possible, I also talked to the researchers themselves to better understand their work. Much of this subtlety and background work is lost when a study is simply cited in the footnotes.

In other cases, Seth’s accusations are simply sloppy. For instance, he goes on at length about how I copied David Schleiffer’s thesis. Actually, the lines of information sharing here are reversed: I helped David with his thesis. David found me via an article that I wrote on trans fats for Gourmet magazine, published in 2004. David was then writing his thesis on trans fat: I met with him and helped him with his research, including sharing with him a number of my interviews with food-company executives as well as many other materials. If you search his thesis (2010), you’ll find that my name is cited 24 times, often to make clear that the people he quotes are from the interviews that I conducted. He also cites me in the acknowledgments.

In another of Seth’s comments about me, he states that “nobody in their right mind would call this [30-35% fat] a low-fat diet. No one, that is, except for hyper-dogmatic low-carb proponents like Teicholz.” This statement, again, reflects an ignorance of the field. In fact, the USDA and AHA for decades told Americans to follow a “low-fat” diet that was defined as anywhere from 25-35% of calories from fat. You can look this up in the Dietary Guidelines or find it in any one of the thousands of papers written on the low-fat diet over the past 50 years.

To the charge that I copied the work of Gary Taubes:

Gary Taubes has provided the following statement on this issue (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.

My statement:

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 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, 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). Moreover, in interviews, I regularly volunteer Taubes’ name and explain how he is the “godfather” of this line of thinking.

There is no doubt that in my book, I recount many of the same events and studies as did Taubes. 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. This might seem redundant to anyone who already knows Civil War history, but this retelling cannot be called “plagiarism,” in either the spirit of the letter of that word.

(Regarding a specific accusation that like Taubes, I mistakenly accuse Keys of cherry picking countries for a 1953 chart on mortality vs. dietary fat data. Taubes and I are not making that accusation ourselves: we are merely (and accurately) recounting a criticism by contemporary critics of the chart. And whether or not their critique of Keys was perfectly on the mark in 1953 is largely irrelevant. The central importance of this moment in history is that it motivated Keys to embark upon the Seven Countries Study, the most influential study in the history of nutrition science, and this remains true regardless of whether we might interpret that chart differently today. The point is that Keys, in his time, was criticized for cherry picking countries, and that this was such a source of humiliation to him, at that moment, that (according to his pal Henry Blackburn), he launched the famed Seven Countries Study, which changed the entire course of nutrition worldwide.)

Also, 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.

For Taubes’ followers interested in how my book is different: The Big Fat Surprise is written for a more general audience than was Good Calories, Bad Calories. My book also 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.



Lynda said...

Hi - not related to this post but I just wanted to say well done on your blog... I don't comment often but just wanted you to know that I read and it's always great!! Thanks to you all :)

chris c said...

What she says! And what she says!

Launna said...

I think people only need to look back 50-60 years before processed food became the 'norm' to see that once processed food was so availalabe was when we started becoming more and more unhealthy. I don't want to follow anyones diet that tells me what I should eat... I just eat whole and real food... Once I started doing that I started feeling so much better and I took off a great deal of weight. This is a good and knowledgeable article.

Lowcarb team member said...


Many thanks for your comments.
Always good to receive and read them.