Review: Big Fat Lies by David Gillespie

One of the books I read in January was Big Fat Lies by David Gillespie. I have seen a few of his books on bookshop shelves, particularly Sweet Poison (on the evils of sugar), and I had heard of Free Schools (which I also read in January), so I looked him up at the library and found this one.

According to Gillespie, we are being lied to about what to eat to avoid obesity, heart disease and cancer. He has scoured the evidence, and his claim is that the evidence points to two things: sugar and seed oils.

This is contrary to everything we’ve been told for decades: that the main culprit behind heart disease and obesity is saturated fat and we should reduce it. The best fats – and we do need a portion of fat in our diet – are mono and polyunsaturated fats.

The problem here, according to Gillespie is that the grounds on which saturated fat is labelled as bad are pretty shaky, but because the man promoting this view in the mid-twentieth century was well-respected by US government authorities, it went unquestioned and dietary advice across the world has since been to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats primarily come from seed, and the quantities at which we now eat these ‘vegetable oils’ is unprecedented. They just don’t occur in high quantities in nature.

Likewise sugar – or fructose to be more specific – is now eaten in quantities that are dangerous. Fructose doesn’t set off our ‘feeling full’ hormones, and so we can easily eat far more calories than we need without noticing. But not only that: the processes our bodies use to break down sugar become overloaded by too much of it, and this leads to Type 2 Diabetes, dementia, and kidney problems.

Gillespie claims that not only does the research show this, but statistics do too. The rise the rates of obesity, cancer and diabetes have tracked in line with the rise in consumption of polyunsaturated fats (from canola, sunflower, corn and soy oils) and of refined sugar (cane sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup).

The jury is still out for me whether Gillespie (and others: he certainly isn’t the only person publishing material spouting the evils of sugar and seed oils) is onto something, or just on an alarmist train. There are a few things I’d like to question about the topic:

1. Research isn’t always complete and reliable.  Often, we don’t get black and white answers, but rather another piece of the puzzle, and when we put all the pieces together we find an answer. When it comes to nutrition I like to take advice with a grain of salt, because our bodies are so complex that we still don’t have a complete understanding of many processes.  Has the anti-sugar brigade put together the wrong pieces of the puzzle?

2. Correlation does not mean causation.  A silly example is if you took 100 school students and found that al the students with blonde hair scored well in their maths tests, you might conclude that affinity for maths comes from having blonde hair.  This is a correlation.   Looking at statistics of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia and mapping them against statistics of sugar and oil consumption may give you an answer, or it may be a correlation, and it just so happens that as we live longer the incidence of these illness also increase.

3.  We all have to die of something.  100 years ago people were dying of infectious diseases and workplace accidents at much higher rates than we do now.  Life expectancy was lower.  Maybe heart disease and cancer are inevitable as we age. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s diet or our lifestyle.  Maybe Gillespie is giving us the answer.

The book was an easy read. Admittedly, the book I had finished just prior to this one was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was beautifully written, but a hard slog.  Big Fat Lies lacked Pollan’s journalistic quality.  (David Gillespie is a former lawyer.)

Besides explaining why sugar and seed oil is what is making us sick and fat, Gillespie also devotes a section of his book to how to cut them from our diet, as well as a family non-controversial section on the things we do that make no different to our health (dieting, exercise for weightless, and vitamin supplements), but if we are desperate we will try anything, right?

I’m still unsure if giving up sugar and polyunsaturated fats is just a fad, or whether this holds the answer to a slew of public health problems, but the more I read, the more I am convinced that a diet of ‘real food’ – whole, fresh, seasonal and minimally processed – is the way to eat to live a longer, healthier life.


The books in this review can be found at either of the following affiliated links, or try your local independent bookstore, or your library.


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