What can educators learn from a book on nutrition science “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” (2014), a book that methodically debunks advice North Americans have been following for years, which is to eat a low-fat and high carbohydrate diet for optimal health? A great deal it turns out. I don’t typically feature books in this blog that stray too far from the topic of education, but “The Big Fat Surprise” is a worthy of exception. It’s a meticulously researched book that highlights how poorly designed research studies, bias, influential leaders, and the public’s unfamiliarity with the difference between causation and correlation can impact policy to the detriment of the public good.
The book is a ten-year project by author Nina Teicholz. Through analysis and extensive review of countless nutrition, medical and health studies, interviews with top nutrition scientists, and heads of government agencies responsible for nutrition and health guidelines, Teicholz uncovers the lack of credible scientific evidence that supports the link between high cholesterol associated with diet, and heart disease (p. 172 – 173)
The study that started the low-fat diet movement (accomplished by eliminating meat, butter, eggs, cheese, dairy, etc) to curb cholesterol levels, was The Seven Countries Study (1963) by Ancel Keyes. This now famous study, sought to establish a relationship between diet and coronary heart disease and stroke. However Teicholz describes in detail the deep-rooted problems and flaws of the study. Even though Keyes was careful to state in published papers, “casual relationships are not claimed” (p. 73) he was a champion for the low-fat diet throughout his career, and extremely influential with politicians and decision makers.
Long story short, populations that include children, of numerous countries have been following low-fat diets for years yet with no scientific support that suggests low-fat diets are beneficial. Food manufacturers are heavily invested in the low-fat movement, up to one-third of product offerings feature low-fat versions. Yet heart disease rates have not declined, and worse obesity rates have risen. Which, not coincidently began to rise (1980) at the same time the United States Department of Agriculture began publishing guidelines for low-fat diets (p. 328).
How it Relates to Education
The book illustrates how flawed research, bias and misunderstanding of results led to misguided dietary recommendations by government agencies and creation of policies that were, and still are detrimental to large groups within our population. The lessons within “The Big Fat Surprise” for decision makers and influencers within any public sector, education being at the top of the list, are instructive, even enlightening. The Wall Street Journal’s review of The Big Fat Surprise written by Trevor Butterworth from George Mason University’s site stats.org puts it this way:
“… Ms. Teicholz’s book is a lacerating indictment of Big Public Health for repeatedly putting action and policy ahead of good evidence“.
- Misunderstandings are exacerbated when the public, the press, and even decision makers are unfamiliar with scientific studies, specifically the difference between causation and correlation.
- Dissenters within a scientific community can be silenced, if not shunned when bringing forth contradictory evidence of the popular hypothesis. The book describes in detail the intricacy of relationships between key decision makers, members of the scientific community, funders of the studies (in this case food companies), and how individuals can manipulate outcomes of studies to serve their own agendas.
- There is little doubt that readers, upon finishing the book will look at claims about proven programs and even raw data with a far more discerning eye.
Further Reading and Resources:
- The Big Fat Surprise, by Nina Teicholz
- The Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE) site created and managed by Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education presents reliable, unbiased reviews of research-proven educational programs to help policy makers and educators.
- How to Read Educational Data Without Jumping to Conclusions, Jessica Lahey and Tim Lahey, The Atlantic
- Stats.org, George Mason University
- Use Proven Programs or Manage Using Data? Two Approaches to Evidence-Based Reform, Robert Slavin, The Huffington Post
- Book Review: ‘The Big Fat Surprise’ by Nina Teicholz, Trevor Butterworth, The Wall Street Journal