David Gillespie’s new book about vegetable oils is a load of codswallop

On the weekend a story by lawyer David Gillespie was published in several newspapers promoting his new book titled ‘Toxic Oil’. I’ve also tracked down an extract from his book on the internet. Mr Gillespie’s theme is that the consumption of vegetable oils, especially oils rich in omega 6, is killing us.There are so many errors and misleading statements in these short extracts that I can’t say I am looking forward to reading the full book. Here is a taste.

Gillespie says: … the amount of omega 6 oil we consume has exploded … our average polyunsaturated fat intake is currently … 11 per cent of our total calorie intake – more than double what it was in 1996.

This is just plain wrong. Intake of polyunsaturated fat in Australia has never been anywhere near as high as 11 percent of daily calories and rather than ‘exploding’ it has been declining for three decades.

The evidence on this issue is available to all in the two National Nutrition Surveys in 1983 and 1995, two CSIRO surveys and the 2007 Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. The overall picture is one of a steady decline in polyunsaturated fat intake from 1983 until the present. Page 17 of the latest survey report shows children’s intake of polyunsaturated fats to be just 4 percent of total calorie intake across both genders and all age groups, about a third of that claimed by Mr Gillespie. Children’s intake of polyunsaturated fat is little different from the mean intake of men and women of 4.5 percent of daily calories observed in the last survey of adults in 1995.

Where did Mr Gillespie get his figures from?

Gillespie says: Just 200 years ago, barely any of these diseases [diabetes, dementia, obesity, cancer and heart disease] existed …These diseases have raced from obscurity to epidemic proportions during a period when our health authorities have told us to replace animal fats with seed oil.

What Mr Gillespie fails to mention is that 200 years ago life expectancy was about 40 years of age and there was little opportunity for these chronic diseases to develop. The dietary change that so concerns Mr Gillespie has been associated with a doubling of life expectancy to over 80 years of age, but of course this is due to many factors. As the human body doesn’t last forever, old age is associated with increased risk for chronic disease.

Gillespie says: Vegetable’ oil makes you exceedingly vulnerable to cancer. Every mouthful of vegetable oil you consume takes you one step closer to a deadly (and irreversible) outcome.

Mr Gillespie had to go back to a study published in 1969 in order to find support for this tired old argument. He cites the Los Angeles Veterans Trial which was intended to test whether replacing dietary saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat would lower the risk for heart disease. Mr Gillespie states that “… there was a dramatic difference in cancer deaths between the two…” which he attributes to an adverse effect of omega 6 fats from seed oils.

Actually, there was no statistically significant difference in cancer deaths between the intervention and control groups in this study. And when the results of five similar studies, including the Los Angeles Veterans Trial, were combined again there was no statistically significant increase in cancer risk associated with high omega 6 intake.

Mr Gillespie then goes on to quote the findings of a cohort study that found higher breast cancer risk associated with the consumption of polyunsaturated fats. But that’s just one study. There have been many cohort studies into dietary fat and breast cancer and a pooled analysis of seven of the best studies was conducted in the mid-1990s. And the results? There was no suggestion that polyunsaturated fat increased the risk for breast cancer.

No recognised cancer authority anywhere in the world recommends the restriction of polyunsaturated fat for the prevention of cancer, not the Cancer Council, not the World Cancer Research Fund, no-one.

Gillespie on saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and heart disease risk

Although Mr Gillespie rails against omega 6 fats he appears to be rather partial to saturated animal fats. He questions the accepted wisdom that replacing saturated fats in the diet with polyunsaturated fats lowers the risk for coronary heart disease, citing the ‘French Paradox’ and the ‘Israeli Paradox’ which contradict the argument. This is primitive scientific evidence.

The advice to replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats comes from consistent sets of evidence from different types of studies, including a meta-analysis of diet/blood lipid trials, a pooled analysis of 11 prospective cohort studies and a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.

Just about every authoritative nutrition organisation in the world agrees that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat lowers heart disease risk, including the World Health Organisation, the National Health & Medical Research Council (latest Australian Dietary Guidelines), the Heart Foundation, the Baker-IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, the CSIRO, the American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Gillespie says: I am a lawyer and the only relevant skill I bring to the table is an ability to gather, understand and synthesise evidence… Just like law, science should be all about the evidence.

Public health nutrition recommendations stand or fall on their evidence base. All of the above organisations carefully scrutinise scientific evidence and weave it into dietary recommendations. Their reputations rest on the quality of advice they provide.

What they don’t do is cherry-pick, selectively unearth old studies with atypical results, present these findings as amazing new insights and ignore more recent, better conducted studies that resolved key nutrition debates years ago.

Gillespie says: More recent research is starting to suggest that polyunsaturated fats and in particular the omega-6 fats in seed oils also lie behind the accelerating incidence of … macular degeneration

Two major studies into diet and macular degeneration have been conducted in Australia – the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study and the Blue Mountains Eye Study. The findings of both studies were similar:

• Neither study found that total polyunsaturated fat intake affected risk, or that butter or margarine consumption affected risk.
• In both studies it appeared that omega 3 fats from fish offered some protection.

In the Blue Mountains Eye Study the authors explored the idea that omega 6 fats may interfere with the beneficial action of omega 3 fats from fish. However, the statistical test for an interaction between the two was not significant.

Gillespie says: … trans fats are just the tip of the iceberg.

Part of Mr Gillespie’s concern about seed oils appears to be based on the misconception that all oils with high polyunsaturated fat content need to undergo hydrogenation and are therefore full of trans fats. He states “Because canola oil has fewer polyunsaturated fats than soybean oil, it doesn’t require as much hydrogenation and has about half the trans fats of soybean oil.” The truth is that canola oil and soybean oil on the supermarket shelves do not ‘require’ hydrogenation at all and neither contains appreciable amounts of trans fats.

Trans fat intakes are low in Australia and seed oils are certainly not the major source. The meat and dairy fats that Mr Gillespie appears to support contribute about three-quarters of the trans fat in the Australian diet.

Gillespie says: If you do what I suggest, you will be doing all the wrong things, according to our health authorities. You’ll be eating butter, drinking full-fat milk, chomping through bacon and eggs for breakfast and enjoying a meat pie for lunch.

Need I say more?

What Mr Gillespie doesn’t mention

In demonising polyunsaturated fats Mr Gillespie fails to mention one salient point: polyunsaturated fats are the only fats that are essential nutrients for humans. Although the body can make monounsaturated and saturated fats it must get polyunsaturated fats from food. The idea that the only essential fats in the diet are the ones that make us sick defies logic and commonsense, let alone the weight of scientific evidence.

Summing up

Mr Gillespie has presented an alarmist thesis based on inaccurate data, unsound assumptions and rehashed theories from yesteryear. No authoritative nutrition organisation agrees with him.


30 thoughts on “David Gillespie’s new book about vegetable oils is a load of codswallop

  1. As far as I am concerned, all of David’s books are completely full of misinformation. I’m unsure what his motives are for promoting this misinformation to people. I don’t know how a lawyer can even be allowed to write books like this. What training has he had in reading scientific articles? Evidence in a courtroom is very different to scientific evidence. He contradicts himself yet again saying; ‘On my diet you’ll eat meat pies for lunch’ I think pies fall into the category of ‘processed foods’ therefore containing a large amount of polyunsaturates he is so against. He ignores all other aspects of healthy eating such as serves of fruit and vegetables and portion sizes in this example. This man is an idiot and he makes me angry because he makes operating as a health professional in the nutrition industry that little bit harder. Thankyou for exposing him!

  2. Hi Bill,
    Thanks, as always, for sharing a measured, systematic analysis and evidenced-informed conclusions – particulary on this sensationalist topic.
    I share your concerns in the selective use of data to support purpose-built arguments. Much of the information presented by Mr Gillespie goes beyond my scientific concern to genuine dismay and even alarm for the messages this book emotively and misleadingly presents to the public.
    Your insights and discussion are invaluable…and are much more coherent than the involuntary groan that escapes me on reading the arguments presented by this lawyer.

  3. Great to see an evidence based response, lets hope it gets 1/20th of the publicity he gets.
    David Gillespie seems to contradict himself (and the evidence) by condemning all unsaturated fats alleging that they are easily oxidised, especially polyunsaturated oils – and then suggesting some Omega 3 is good.
    His lack of understanding of basic science (and hints into where his research skills from law differ in the world of science” in the statement from the same book extract “Science is based on people making hypotheses about how things might work and then collecting evidence that will prove them right (or wrong).”
    He thinks science is about cherry-picking evidence – a fail from the outset!

  4. Thank you for reviewing these sensational claims and clarifying the science and the evidence that Gillespie uses to support them. I will be sharing your review far and wide.

  5. It’s so great what you are doing here Bill. This kind of unearthing needs more exposure so, as a fellow dietitian, I am sharing this with all my clients. well done. I am dreading all the questions and comments that will come as a result of this new book.

  6. Thank you for writing such a great evidence based post. It get tiresome reading hogwash in the press and online from under qualified people who think they are “experts” because they have lost a little bit of weight.
    It’s sad that he has such a large following, and ironic because i’m tipping that some will end up i our clinics complaining “they have tried every fad diet under the sun”. Eating a healthy diet is simple, and should feel normal. There is no need to cut out specific nutritionist, fats or sugars. In fact most healthy body weight people enjoy a wide variety of foods on a daily basis. I agree with you though, theres nothing healthy about eating more saturated fats and meat pies every day. Would you like a heart attack with your meat pie anyone??

  7. It is not about the evidence Bill. It is all about the author. People like this often have a mental state that does not accept evidence or fact because the process is about generating attention to oneself, proclaiming you have the “real truth”, that science conspires against the “real truth”, and, thanks be to the Lord, here I am as the one pure leader.

    We can throw evidence at them, but it won’t change a thing, especially in a world full of media folk with zero to little knowledge of biology, nutrition or science, who amazingly think that a local lawyer could know more than the entire world collective nutrition knowledge. Arrogance on both parts.

    May I suggest you don’t read any more of the book. Waste of your time. And the author pockets the dosh. You have better things to do, like watching Dr Oz or MKR on the telly.

    • Hello Rory. You hitched your wagon to Gillespie’s and I am sure that you did it for the right reasons. But his latest work sends a message that is the direct opposite of that arrived at over recent decades by virtually all the world’s nutrition and health authorities. Had he actually looked at the key studies, reviewed them, and put a novel interpretation on them I guess a might at least respect his opinion. But he didn’t. He trotted out claptrap circulating on the internet. He has totally isolated himself. Regards, Bill

  8. As always, a voice of reason, honesty and integrity. Thanks Bill.

    It is a shame Mr Gillespie does not share those values.
    (The only ‘values’ he seems to have are those generated from book sales)

  9. Another great read. Thank you. Why is there no regulatory body which must approve this sort of publication. It seems that any unqualified person can write anything they like and have it on the shelves, no questions asked.

    Yet for any academic wanting to submit a paper, it is a hugely rigourous process, not only collecting and assessing the evidence but the submission for review, with numerous critiques and corrections to be made before the article (not even a book!) will be considered for publication.

    And these publications are the ones that the general public rarely have access to. Extremely irresponsible and frustrating!

  10. Agreed on the evidence part. But let’s not judge him, he’s probably a good bloke. A lot of people have been made to feel displaced by the medical world, and fair enough. Some health workers can be pretty self-righteous, and let’s not deny it, a lot of us LOVE to roll our eyes and ridicule people who don’t eat the way we want them to or take their meds or don’t come to appointments. I don’t think it’s suprising that people want to find alternatives, or get on board with those who write about them. I got asked to do an interview with David on ABC, and I thought to myself…The worst thing I can do is to get on my high horse and abuse David himself, try to protect my own ego and end up looking like a twit. The best things I could do would be to greet David as another human on the planet with a different opinion, lose the ego and just say what my opinion is on the information. Trying to insult him as a person doesn’t feel good for anyone.

    • Except he is asking people to make significant changes to their diet that at best might just be inconvenient or more expensive, and at worst might have negative health consequences. For that reason he is not “a good bloke” but quite dangerous.

  11. Hi Bill – very well said. I think you should call your blog ‘BalancedNutritionist’ not sceptical nutritionist – ‘sceptical’ may imply to some that you hold unusual or edgy nutrition beliefs, but what you say is balanced and science-based.
    As to David Gillespie’s motives – $$$$, I would guess.
    Keep up the good work.

  12. I think people who write reviews on books before they have read the book are quite likely to make wrong assessments. Just because you have people who follow you, does not mean you should not do your research properly before posing a review.

    • Hello Christine. I based my comments on statements that Mr Gillespie had made in print – an excerpt of his book and a 2-page article by the author. I have now read the book and I would not change a single word that I have written. It’s not a work of science. But please read the book and make up your own mind. Regards, Bill

  13. Whilst David Gillespie may be bowdlerizing the current evidence, doesn’t the fact that these seed oils are predominantly created using industrial chemical extraction methods worry nutritionist?

    Whilst the science behind exactly what it is that is making us all ill can be argued indefinitely, one thing for sure is that it is the western diet, i.e. modern processed foods are causing many of the problems. Seed oils certainly fall into that category.

    • Hello Christine
      I think we need to be a bit careful about assuming that the western diet is making us all ill. Let’s not forget the progress that has been made. One hundred years ago thousands of people in the United States died in an epidemic of pellagra (vitamin deficiency disease). Our modern western diet ensures that events like this don’t happen anymore and consequently life expectancy has increased considerably. At the beginning of the 20th Century the life expectancy of an Australian man was one of the longest in the world, but it was only 55 years. Now it’s well over 80 years. So it’s not all bad.
      That said, our food is now abundant, tasty and cheap and this encourages consumption, which can easily become overconsumption in a society that doesn’t do much physical activity. Obesity, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease are predictable outcomes.
      One can paint a dark picture about the production of just about any food. But as a nutritionist, my major focus is on what happens to human health when certain foods are consumed. In relation to unsaturated seed oils, the answer is quite clear – blood lipids improve and the risk for coronary disease falls when these oils replace saturated fats (and carbohydrate) in the diet. Regards, Bill

    • Wagner was an antisemite and wrote operas which encourgage antisemites like Hitler.. Therefore in order to get rid of antisemitism we first need to stop watching operas. Bad luck Leonard Bernstein.

  14. This is the fun part of being a dietitian -being constantly challenged by uneducated people. Gillespie says “I am a lawyer and the only relevant skill I bring to the table is an ability to gather, understand and synthesise evidence… Just like law, science should be all about the evidence.” Your analysis shows how Gillespie has chosen his side. He is not a scientist, neither is he a judge. Gillespie seems to be prosecutor turning a blind a eye to any contradictory evidence. This is how a lawyer behaves.

    • I was going to say exactly the same thing! Lawyers aren’t about synthesising data and undertaking analysis, they are all about looking for the exceptions to the rule to exploit to the advantage of the point they are trying to make. In their working lives they are able to make use of a single precedence, or contradictory evidence on which to base a whole case. That’s not science! And drawing such a misleading analogy annoys the crap out of me. Okay. Rant over and thanks for the sensible review.

  15. David Gillespie makes me so angry! He is a LAWYER with no nutritional education whatsoever. I have read all of his books and he grossly exaggerates facts and twists evidence, using his words to carefully manipulate people into thinking that what he is saying is absolutely and positively correct. He also seems to have such a huge emphasis on being ‘fat’ and what will make us ‘fat’ when the true emphasis should be on health and healthy living. And don’t even get me stared on his comments about exercise!!! The public needs to realise that there are dieticians out there (like myself) who may not be in the spotlight as much as he is but do have qualifications and a little more authority than he does.

  16. “I am a lawyer and the only relevant skill I bring to the table is an ability to gather, understand and synthesise evidence… Just like law, science should be all about the evidence.”

    Great article. Last time I checked the total number of practicing lawyers who won Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry or Medicine was precisely 0.

  17. For a sceptical nutritionist it’s quite embarrassing how wrong you got the argument about life expectancy. A life expectancy of 40 years doesn’t mean that people dropped dead when they turned 40. It’s a statistical calculation. Child mortality was much higher back then. When a certain number of children die under the age of 5 and a certain number of people gets live to their eighties, you get an average of somewhere inbetween. I suggest you read the following article on that problem: http://www.livescience.com/10569-human-lifespans-constant-2-000-years.html
    The human life span hasn’t changed much, but the environment has in the last 150 years, dramatically so. The chronic diseases Gillespie mentions didn’t exist because of the different environment.

    • Hello Lucy. In his book David Gillespie says that polyunsaturated fats are the root of all evil and cause heart disease and cancer. What he doesn’t say is that AGE STANDARDISED death rates from heart disease, stroke, prostate cancer, breast cancer and lung cancer in Australia are actually all falling. In other words, 50-year olds and 60-year olds and 70-year olds are dying less from these diseases now than decades previously. This is why life expectancy is increasing.
      It’s not all good news as the incidence of type 2 diabetes is increasing in concert with higher rates of obesity, so there is plenty of work to be done.
      Mr Gillespie just doesn’t know what he is talking about. He’s a lawyer, not a nutritionist. Regards, Bill

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