I wrote this article over a dozen years ago. I just reposted it here (from my old website) because it provides some important relevent history for the presentation I just gave at the Cleveland Vegfest. Keep in mind, this article was written PRIOR to the explosion of Paleo/Primal -- which is what I am now specifically addressing in my talks.
DIET TRUTH SEEKERS Beware! While the benefits of plant based-diets have been gradually becoming more well known, an insidious pseudo-scientific movement has quietly been laying the foundation to confuse, misdirect and undermine the efforts of many who aspire to improve their health and live in a more sustainable and humane way. As many mainstream health and nutrition organizations are finally coming around and endorsing meatless diets for their health promotion and disease reduction, less well known entities are attempting to whittle away at the scientific basis of vegetarianism.
Recently, I have found myself drawn into this "underworld" of nutrition "information." I would like to expose some of what I have found, to prepare you for when you too encounter what at first may appear to be very valid arguments about the "DANGERS" of vegetarian diets. The good news in all of this however is that as I have delved deeply into the anti-vegetarian propaganda, I have found no one except those associated with the dairy industry who seem to support consumption of dairy products. Even those claiming we have a biological need for beef, chicken, fish or eggs seem to recognize that the downside of dairy products is just too obvious for them to try to foist that on the nutrition truth-seekers. Almost everyone who has gone without dairy products for a few weeks (and is careful to not consume dairy proteins like casein, whey or nonfat milk powder hidden in their breads, cereals, soy cheeses etc.) recognizes quickly that they feel much better! Acne, sinusitis, seasonal allergies, menstrual cramps and gastrointestinal distress are some of the more common things people notice improving when they eliminate dairy.
At the outset since I will be speculating upon the motives of these anti-vegetarian forces let me just disclose that I too am motivated by more than just a desire for the healthiest diet possible. I want clean air, clean water, clean soil and clean food for everyone. I want my children and grandchildren to live on a planet that can sustain them and enable them to have a good quality of life. I want them to be free of threats of war caused by too many people fighting over limited resources to grow food and live. I also feel a moral imperative to strive to live my life in a way that does not deprive others of their lives. If you read the biographies of individuals involved in the abolitionist movement it is amazing to discover that some of those working to end slavery, were still opposed to women's rights. Otherwise compassionate, educated, civic-minded individuals who believed slavery was wrong scoffed at the idea that women should be allowed to vote. And many historic people who aspired to live righteous lives quoted the bible as justification for the continuation of slavery.
The parallels between civil rights, women's rights, and animal rights are clear for those whose hearts and minds aren't clouded by their perceived dependence on animal slavery to maintain their lifestyle! These are the reasons why I eat only foods derived entirely of plants. Now let me tell you the story of how I came to find myself seeking the truth about anti-vegetarian propaganda.
By now you've probably heard of some of the popular diet books that are promoting high protein diets. About every twenty or thirty years it seems, books like these become popular all over again. The idea of a diet personalized and tailored just for us is sexy! High protein diets can cause rapid and dramatic water weight loss. Meat and dairy can be addictive and addicts want to be told that "bad" foods are ok! But history shows that these diet fads run their course and fade away. Why? Because they are inherently unhealthy, they stress the kidneys, increase inflammation, and may increase the risk of osteoporosis, appendicitis, and gout, while giving you bad breath, increasing your body, odor are constipating and not sustainable. Although I knew that these books were bestsellers, I had seen several intelligent rebuttals of them and dismissed them outright, figuring only the very naive would be seduced and would soon enough learn the downfalls and move on. There are several good articles on the web that address these diets specifically and I encourage you to read these:
Dr. Furhman - The Atkins Diet
Blood Type Diet
Fad Diets Exposed
Atkins "Nightmare" Diet.
That way I can use the rest of this space to share with you my own little journey.
A couple of months ago, my husband went to a new chiropractor who was highly recommended and purportedly treats many of the area's professional athletes. This doctor IS very skilled at adjustments and immediately gained my husband's respect. But then, upon finding out my husband is a vegetarian (vegan in fact!) he proceeded to share information about the "dangers" of vegetarian diets. He claimed to have come to his views after experimenting with vegetarianism and not feeling good, (I do not know how long he did this or exactly what HIS diet consisted of) He also claimed that his vegetarian patients generally "responded poorly." My husband felt this doc spoke with great authority and conviction. Even though my hubby has experienced a lessening in both frequency and duration of illnesses and allergies since becoming vegetarian himself he started to question the wisdom of our dietary choices.
As a result of my prodding, my husband asked the doctor for some documentation of what he was espousing. A one page typed sheet titled "vegetarianism" was sent home. It spoke of protein deficiencies, and linked a whole host of problems to a lack of tyrosine, including adrenal insufficiency, blood sugar problems, joint problems and ileocecal valve syndrome. Without articulating exactly how these "problems" might be experienced symptom-wise, this paper alluded to these things as being very serious with far reaching effects. It used plenty of big words, scientific sounding jargon and gave no references. I would have found it laughable were it not for the fact that this doctor is in a position of authority and stands to sabotage the health building advances of his patients. He even recommends on this sheet that patients "...eat some lean red meat daily in the rarest form possible." (Obviously this doctor feels that the growing threat of E-coli, Salmonella, and Campylobactor pale in comparison to his hypothetical and totally unsubstantiated syndromes that are mowing down vegetarians the world over! -- while the vegetarian Mafia keep all these victims out of the news.) This doctor appeared so poorly informed and misguided that I felt compelled to educate him. I typed him a seven page letter, the tone of which was not too polite. (Probably not a smart move on my part, but his stuff was so wacky, not referenced, and being presented with an air of authority, that quite frankly I was outraged. I don't have the space here to cover each of his assertions individually and the overwhelming, well-documented evidence to the contrary. Instead I would rather emphasize this one point: EVEN IF WHAT HE ARTICULATED WAS A SERIOUS THREAT TO A FEW SELECT INDIVIDUALS (And he presented not a shred of evidence for this) IN LIGHT OF THE FACT THAT IN THIS COUNTRY ONE IN TWO PEOPLE WILL DIE OF HEART DISEASE AND MANY OF THE REST WILL SUFFER FROM AN INVASIVE CANCER. in my opinion it borders on the criminal for a health-care practitioner to dissuade a patient from adopting a plant-based diet without having clear and compelling evidence that it is causing THAT individual serious harm! Heart disease, Cancer, Diabetes, Kidney Disease, and Osteoporosis are all linked with consumption of animal protein. There is overwhelming evidence that vegetarians have a much reduced risk of all of these. And these diseases -- nothing else-- are the primary threats to health and long life in this country! I know hundreds of meat-eaters, and most of them, by later middle age are showing symptoms of at least one of these five diseases. I also know hundreds of long term vegetarians, and not one of them has ever mentioned to me that they are struggling with "ileocecal valve syndrome" or "protein deficiencies" while "adrenal insufficiency" has become the, "disease du jour" and most of those saying they have it, have been life-long omnivores. Furthmore I have met a few hypoglycemics and diabetics who became vegan and found their illness easier to manage or completing disappearing.
As a result of my 7 page letter, this chiropractor responded by giving me reams of articles to substantiate his point-of-view. He photocopied a section of a physiology textbook that talked at length about ileocecal valve syndrome (I had chastised him for presenting it as some horrible malady without explaining what this was or why it was so awful -- since most people have never heard of this!) According to his own documents ileocecal valve syndrome is linked with LOW-FIBER DIETS! Since only plants contain fiber (there is none in meat, eggs or dairy) this could hardly be a condemnation of a plant-based diet. I of course pointed all this out to him in additional correspondence. (he has since told my husband that he will be pulling this allegation from his paper on "vegetarianism") What caught me off guard however, was all of the other stuff that he sent in the second round, much of it downloaded from the internet, most of it sounding far more credible and most of this subsequent stuff WAS thoroughly referenced. It no longer sounded wacky in fact at first glance, much of appeared quite CREDIBLE. However as I scrutinized his references (most of them from scientists I had never heard of) a different view emerged. Much of what he was claiming as proof of the unhealthiness of vegetarian diets were really just data showing the deleterious effects of trans fatty acids, polyunsaturated extracted vegetable oils (like safflower oil and corn oil etc.) refined sugar, processed carbohydrates (breads, pastas, cereals etc.) and reduced fat foods (like diet cupcakes and cookies) While these foods ARE health disasters, they are hardly a reason to include animal protein and saturated fat (which are also health disasters) in the diet. The last time I looked, Doctors McDougall, Ornish, Barnard, Harris, Campbell and Klaper were not suggesting that vegetarians build their diet on processed foods anyway! In fact they all stress the benefits of building diets on whole, minimally processed plant foods.
Several of this chiropractor's references did stand out. They were from researchers associated with the Framingham Heart study. This is an ongoing study started about fifty years ago looking at lifestyle and heart disease. Its researchers are often quoted in vegetarian material because their research is generally seen to substantiate low-fat plant-based diets as reducing one's risk of heart disease, so it really caught my attention when Framingham researchers were being quoted to dispel the "myth" that animal fat was linked with heart disease. (Note: some well-respected researchers like T-Collin Campbell have in fact proposed that animal fat might not be the biggest culprit after all -- that dubious distinction may go to ANIMAL PROTEIN, which is seldom examined in isolation from animal fat and so its risks may be obscured.) One page that the chiropractor gave me had been photocopied from the book, Diet Evolution by Charles Hunt. It contained 12 quotes on page 22, and one was attributed to a Dr. Mann associated with Framingham. I went to the Framingham web site, and scanned the bios section. There was no mention of this doctor. So I emailed a half a dozen of the doctors listed wondering how to get a hold of this one doctor, and they all emailed me back that they had never heard of him. Was his name made up? Another quote on this page was attributed to Dr William Castelli, the director of Framingham, and seemed to suggest that Dr Castelli doesn't believe that fat and cholesterol are linked with heart disease. It quoted him as saying:
"In Framingham, Massachusetts, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower people's serum cholesterol...the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories weighed the least and were the most physically active." I emailed Dr Castelli to see if he had said that. He admitted that he had, but then added that a number of popular diet books were misunderstanding his data and his statements. He told me:
"That quote is correct but its interpretation by Atkins and Sugar Busters and others is wrong." He went on to say, "The data are saying that people can work off a bad diet if they indulge in enough physical activity.....Over a dozen diet trials in the history of medicine which took people off the high fat diet lowered their cholesterols and 4-5 years out they lowered their heart attack rate."
In addition, another article provided by my husband's chiropractor was titled "Your Health at Risk" This paper quoted a different Framingham researcher, Dr. William Kannel as saying:
"No discernible association between the amount of cholesterol in the diet and the level of cholesterol in the blood regardless of how much or how little animal fat in the diet" So I emailed Dr Kannel and he replied:
"The quote about fat in the diet is definitely contrary to what I believe about the influence of diet on atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. I have no idea where that quote came from."
I think these examples simply speak to the fact that the Framingham study is very well-respected. Those who wish to attack the scientific basis of vegetarianism must be aware that this is one of the studies that strongly suggests that low-fat plant-based diets reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. I think this also demonstrates how you can't take at face value this type of propaganda. Considering how few of these quotes I actually bothered to follow up, I can't help but wonder if I had tracked down additional "experts" quoted in the propaganda that this doctor gave me if they too would have told me the overall perspective presented here is inconsistent with their views.
So that brings up another question....WHY? Why would anyone not obviously connected say with the dairy industry, or feedlots etc. attempt to discredit vegetarianism? I have my own theories. First off, so many of us grew up with the four food groups ingrained into our consciousness. For some these beliefs are intricately bound up in their brains with strong emotions. I believe that at a fundamental level-- tucked away in some dark recess of their mind, some people truly BELIEVE they must eat meat. There is good evidence that what is going on in the mind can dramatically impact our physiology and reality. I remember hearing once that some cases of people with multiple personality disorder were found where some of the personalities had clinical cases of allergies that other personalities (sharing the same body) did not. This suggests that emotions and/or beliefs can have tremendous influence over how we feel and physiologically respond to the environment. I have also heard of a few individuals who are vehemently anti-vegetarian AND anti-communist, who perhaps in their minds link vegetarianism with some sort of outgrowth of liberalism. (Despite some surveys that suggest vegetarians can be found across the political spectrum. (A desire for health and longevity is not exclusive to the right or left.)
In Summary, what I have found is that for the most part, anti-vegetarian propaganda is utilizing the following in an attempt to discredit the healthfulness of plant-based diets:
- Taking quotes from legitimate researchers out-of-context to misrepresent the views of these experts.
- Attributing quotes to people who may not exist, or at least may not be associated with the reputable institutions to which the quote claims.
- Attacking vegetarian diets as a whole by picking out a particular unhealthy food (like hydrogenated fat) which some vegetarians may not know to avoid and then making a case for how dangerous this food (hydrogenated fat) is and trying to incorrectly imply that ALL vegetarian diets are bad simply because some vegetarians may include this food (Even though most meat eaters do too!
To your health -- may you follow the example of populations around the world who follow predominantly plant based diets and have a far lower incidence of the major diseases plaguing Americans!