Part III: We’re not that weird
Before my dad mentioned the China Study to us, I was basically clueless about nutrition. I was the top student in 4 or 5 different nutrition classes in college and was well versed in the government guidelines, but I had never before taken the time to look behind the curtain and read the studies and data myself.
I was floored to discover so much of what I had been taught was pure marketing. Just like pharmaceutical companies are constantly criticized for “buying” doctors to push their products, the meat and dairy industries (plus junk food makers, sugar producers, fast food restaurants, flour mills, and an amazing number of businesses) are putting major money into persuading us that eating the Standard American Diet is healthy and will make us feel better.
Yet Americans are getting fatter and sicker every year.
Gratefully, a large number of doctors, researchers, and ordinary people (hey, how are ya?) have realized that the root cause behind our nation’s epidemics of obesity and preventable disease is pretty simple to understand: a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. While type II diabetes clearly has a genetic component, the vast majority of people don’t get it because their parents had it. They get it because of the way they eat. People don’t get heart disease because their parents had it. They get it because of the way they eat.
In one sense, that’s incredibly liberating to discover. Although my grandpa died of a heart attack and I might be more inclined to do the same, if I take care of my arteries by eating well my risk drops to nearly zero. On the other hand, it makes people uncomfortable. Nobody likes to realize they are responsible for their own sickness, or even worse, getting their children sick. It’s easier for most people to choose to set asides millions of dollars of our taxes to “find a cure” for Type II Diabetes than it is for them to turn their own diet around.
Here’s the thing, though… even people that are making an effort to eat better are falling short and getting frustrated. I think in large part this is due to massive amounts of misinformation about what constitutes a healthy diet. The people who have a financial interest in persuading you to eat their food have muddied the waters to such a large degree that it’s easy to follow “guidelines for health” (which, coincidentally, are heavily biased) and still get sick with a preventable disease. For example, if you think that having adequate amounts of calcium and protein in your diet will prevent osteoporosis you may choose to load up on Lean Cuisine, Kraft Singles, and meat. Unfortunately, this won’t keep you from getting osteoporosis. What it will do is wreak havoc on your body.
The Information War
About a month ago, I stumbled across the transcripts from the meetings to determine The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are “the cornerstone of Federal nutrition policy and nutrition education activities.” I was interested to see that they invited the public to come and comment in their meeting and I wished I could have been there to voice my opinion. I skimmed the transcript of meeting 2 day 1, down to where members of the public stood up one by one and had the floor for a few minutes each. What unfolded had me glued to the edge of my seat. Seriously.
Public voice #1: Executive Director of McCormick Seasoning
He, predictably, wants more “spice” in the dietary guidelines. “Sounds like a good food group to encourage.” (He says, in reference to spices.)
Public voice #2: Senior Vice President of Nutrition Affairs with the National Dairy Council
“leading health authorities recommend three to four daily servings of dairy.” (She says, to a group of supposedly THE authorities on health.)
“If dairy foods are not included in the diet, calcium and potassium are severely compromised.” (Fascinating, considering it’s well documented that the countries consuming the most dairy have the most cases of osteoporotic hip fractures. And I’m not aware of widespread hypokalemia (potassium deficiency) in countries that skip dairy. Low-dairy Japan is ranked #3 for life expectancy whereas America is #50. I’m glad we aren’t severely compromised like Japan.)
Public voice #3: Vice President for Consumer Marketing at the National Pork Board
“Americans are not overconsuming meat.” (Well, since he says it, it must be true!)
“Many people don’t realize that a 3-ounce serving of lean beef or pork provides the same amount of protein as a cup and a half of legumes but in half the calories. ” (I have never, ever met anyone who’s protein-deficient in America, including vegetarians, vegans, and people who survive on junk food. I guarantee you haven’t either. Protein isn’t the point, people. Obesity, cancer, and heart disease are not caused by lack of protein! Meat absolutely has protein. So does every whole plant food I can think of. Is that really the best you can do?)”
Public voice #4: dietitian at the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine
“Every five years since 1980, the government has given new health and nutrition advice to the American public through the Dietary Guidelines, and every year since then, the American public has become markedly more overweight and obese. ” (Well, she certainly got MY attention)
“The average American now eats more than 200 pounds of meat per year, approximately the double global norm. We eat about 30 pounds of cheese per year, three times as much as we did in 1970.” (Still listening…)
“It is time for the Guidelines to take direct aim at the diet-related diseases that claim millions of American lives each year.” (Drumroll please…)
“Vegetarian diets should be touted as the ideal”
“Science supports a low-fat, plant-based diet for optimal health.”
“The studies continue to show that these types of diets still prevent type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer.”
“Guidelines should rely solely on evidence-based research and disregard any special interest groups. It is possible to set the bar as high as the science dictates.” (And the crowd goes wild. Ok, maybe just Anne Bean goes wild. 🙂 )
Public Voice #5 – Vice President for Nutrition with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
“In fact, today’s pork is 30 percent leaner than 30 years ago, and beef is 20 percent leaner than 14 years ago. ” (Stores also sell Kool-aid with less sugar. Does that make it an essential part of one’s diet? I’m just sayin’.)
“Despite the common reference that animal fats are saturated, nearly 50 percent in red meat are monounsaturated, and one-third of the saturated fat in beef and pork is stearic, which have a neutral or cholesterol-lowering effect.” (So, what you’re saying is… animal fat is saturated, just not all of it? Sweet. Sign me up. )
Vote count thus far? 1 for plant-based diet, 3 for meat & dairy.
Take note that the plant-based vote came from someone with no obvious financial motivation, whereas the beef, pork, and dairy people have billions of dollars at stake.
Let’s see what happens next:
Public Voice #6 – Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University and President of the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington.
“The preventive power of a meatless diet against heart disease, weight problems, diabetes, and other conditions exceeds that of other diets.” (Anyone else catching the MEAT! / NO MEAT! drama unfolding here?)
“Prospective studies confirm that milk-drinkers have no better bone development early in life and no fewer hip fractures later in life. ”
Public Voice #8 – Christina Pirello, Host of Christina Cooks on National Public Television (#7 was blah blah blah)
“The simple truth is, if people changed their diets, healthcare would reform itself.”
“We must encourage the consumption of vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole unprocessed grains.” (She also hits on vegetarian and vegan diets specifically.)
Other interest groups were… interesting
A bit of a side note, but this stuff really got me thinking of being more of an advocate to policy makers. If ordinary people won’t, than the landscape in D.C. will be dominated by those with a financial stake in things.
This decision had me sick to my stomach a few weeks ago. Why are so many government dollars supporting an industry that’s making us sick? To me that’s like having the government subsidize candy makers or people who make ding dongs. Bleh. If the government is going to support an industry, let it be broccoli or blueberries please.
By my count no fewer than 5 out of ~50 presenters advocated that for our health, we should eat MORE refined grains. I’m not making that up. Three of them had an obvious horse in the race (they were grain producers, and I’m sure it’s cheaper and easier to store and market refined grains), but all 5 cited the risk of birth defects from not consuming enough folic acid. (Enriched grains are fortified with folic acid.) Hello? Why not fortify whole grains with the same? Or even better, eat some vegetables. They’re loaded with the stuff.
We also had the sugar people ask us not to blame sugar for America’s fatness, Martek Biosciences advocating supplementation with Omega-3s, the salt people asking us to not blame salt for America’s heart disease, tree nut people asking us to replace refined foods as snacks with nuts, the fish people wanting the council to recommend fish without caveats, and the processed Dairy people want us to have discretionary calories to sweeten up our milk and yogurt
Here’s what gets me, though. Nearly half of the 50 people that presented advocated for a plant-based diet. That’s incredible! From what I could tell, 3 were from animal-rights groups (though it doesn’t discount the studies they cited about the nutrient density of plant foods), and 2 were from produce organizations. All the rest? Concerned citizens. School lunch coordinators. Doctors. Dietitians.
Here are a few snippets from those who appeared (to me) to have no motivation for being there other than their hope that Americans will become healthier:
Plants = Healthy
Public Voice #10 – Concerned citizen
“A couple of months ago, I was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. I weighed over 225 pounds, and I was told I had diabetes, high blood pressure, and I was on the verge of taking five different pills. I was assigned to meet with a dietitian, who told me I had to follow the Dietary Guidelines that included dairy, meat, and, of course, fruits and vegetables. I indicated to her that I was interested in following an alternative diet, which was vegetarian, that I had read could improve my diabetes.
” I followed this diet, and was able to lose almost 100 pounds… I am no longer diabetic…. My cholesterol went from 215 to 137. My blood pressure, which was 140 over 80, is now 102 over 63. ”
Public Voice #11 – Executive Director of the Wellness Forum in Columbus, Ohio (woop!)
“It is quite clear to me that the reason we have such a health crisis in this country is based on food intake. When people come into our office, we put them on a near- vegetarian or vegan diet, and their health issues start to resolve and they lose weight.”
“I would ask the Committee to really think about looking at some of the myths that perpetuate bad diets, one of which is that we don’t know what really constitutes the best diet for humans, but I think the research is quite clear: plant-based diets are better for human health.”
“Another is that people won’t adopt this type of diet, so why bother to tell them about it? But my experience is completely different. When we talk to people about the dangers of the American diet, and we show them how to adopt a near vegetarian and vegan diet, a lot of them do it.”
“Still another myth is that children won’t adopt this kind of diet, but they will.”
“Last but not least, I’d like to address a very important myth, which is that little changes result in health change, and they don’t. People come into my office, they’ve been trying to change their diet for a long time without success, but when we address the totality of their diet, the good changes in health status begin to emerge. ”
Public Voice #13 – A High School Junior
Summary: Wants vegetarian diets added to the guidelines because she piloted a vegetarian lunch program at her school to much success.
Public Voice #24 A doctor in Howard County, where 31% of youth are overweight or obese
She urges the council to “incorporate into their policies the many scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of plant-based diets and the dangers associated with high consumption of animal-related foods, meaning meat and dairy. ”
“Now is the time for a groundbreaking 2010 Dietary Guidelines similar to the 1954 Surgeon General’s report on the danger of tobacco use. Further delay is putting millions of Americans at risk of various chronic diseases.”
Public Voice #27 – an ordinary citizen
Summary: She tells the story of her experience. She read that a vegan diet is best and convinced her mother to eat that way and her mother lived to be 93. All 12 of her mother’s siblings died before the age of 40 from cardiovascular disease. (Just one data point, but what a tragic story.)
Public Voice #34 – Dietitian and faculty member in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina
“I, like so many of the presenters so far this morning — it seems about half — encourage you to put more emphasis on choosing a more plant-based diet.”
“A plant-based diet is an eating pattern characterized by a foundation of whole grains, dried beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. These foods are nutrient-dense and confer significant advantages in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, cancer, and type II diabetes.”
Public Voice #44 – Director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food
“Chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, pizza, cheeseburgers, and hotdogs…. It is unbelievable that these regular menu items are described as balanced and nutritious and that they meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
““The majority of school meals are not health-supporting. Since school meals are to be consistent with the Guidelines, we recommend these changes:”
– “Meat and beans group: Change the name to the protein group, with legumes and other plant proteins as the primary source. Animal proteins should be listed as optional or infrequent. “
– “Dairy group: Change the name to the calcium group. It is a mistake to focus so much on dairy when people in the U.S. cannot digest it, including the majority of people of color.”
“Research does not support that dairy prevents osteoporosis.”
– “The 2000 Guidelines stated that most of our calories should come from plant sources. This was removed for 2005. Please add that statement back, emphasize it, and make it very clear that the majority of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers are preventable with diet.
It is a free country. People can choose to eat how they want, but, please, let’s tell them real truth, the kind that is not paid for or influenced by the food industry.”
Public Voice #46 – Ordinary citizen
“I grew up eating the standard American diet. Fast foods several times each week; Sunday mornings of eggs and bacon; every lunch and dinner centered around a meat dish. ”
“I was 40 pounds overweight by the time I was 17 years old. At that time, I began searching for information about losing weight and being healthy. Today my weight is where it should be, my cholesterol is 148, I take no medications, I have no health issues, and have been vegetarian for 17 years and vegan for 11.”
“In contrast, my father, who never changed his eating habits, has had two heart bypass surgeries, several angioplasties, takes numerous medications to control his blood pressure, cholesterol, and other chronic conditions, and has been diagnosed as pre- diabetic. ”
“I point this out to show that choosing a healthy diet, regardless of family genes, can prevent the majority of chronic diseases that are now prevalent in epidemic proportions in this country, and to serve as an anecdotal example of what the scientific studies we’ve heard about today, I’m sure you all know about, support.
Standby #4 – registered dietician
“..Encouraging Americans to begin the process of moving away from our typical meat-based fatty diet toward a healthier plant-based diet just makes sense. ”
“The health rewards of doing so are enormous, as I see every day in my practice. People lose weight automatically. High blood pressure drops. Blood sugar levels improve. Cholesterol improves. People are able to lessen or entirely get off their medications.”
Clearly, there is a growing movement towards better health but I think most of us are only exposed to what we see in the news or in ads and commercials. Break out of the shell. Seek out information for yourself and apply what you learn to your family. You just might save a life.
Our journey to better health started with my dad and I’m determined that it won’t end with us. 🙂