Rarely a week goes by that I fail to hear an anecdote about another acquaintance, or friend of a friend going "vegetarian," or even vegan. The movie, Forks Over Knives has certainly gotten a lot of traction through social media and word of mouth.
Readers of my book, Growing Young: A Doctor's Guide To The New Anti-Aging, know that I take a different view. Like Fox Mulder in the X-Files TV series, I "wanted to believe." I searched in earnest for evidence that today's vegetarian and vegan diets were healthier, and contrary to what we have been led to believe in the current era of vegetarian media hype, I found that evidence seriously lacking.
The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell has acheived near mythic status as the standard bearer for the vegan movement. Forks Over Knives is basically a film version of the book. I feel that both the book and film need to be viewed very critically, as agenda-based tracts, and not a what they purport to be, namely reasoned, scientific journalism.
Right now, more than ever before, people are asking big questions about diet; how should I eat? What should I eat? What should I avoid? What should I feed my kids? Is organic better? What about "local?" But of all these questions, the one that looms largest is, "should I eat meat?"
An important question, indeed. How would we go about finding an honest answer to this question? First of all, we need to be absolutely clear about what we are asking. Are we asking an ethical question, or a question about healthy eating? For some, who feel that eating meat is wrong for ethical reasons, the second question - about healthy eating - need never be asked.
But for those of us who see humans through the long lens of science and anthropology as natural omnivores - clearly fitted for eating animals as well as plants - the second question, "is meat eating good for me?" can and must be asked. The problem right now is that many in the first camp - the "ethical vegetarians" and vegans - claim to be answering the second question for us.
Here's where things seem to have gone wrong. Instead of being more explicit about their motivations, some prominent "ethical vegetarians" and vegans, are effectively "preaching" to the general public, under the guise of providing health recommendations. Books like the China Study, while purporting to stand alongside substantive nutritional science, are really little more than agenda-driven tracts, promoting ethical vegetarianism. They do not help answer the question, "what is the healthiest human diet."
T. Colin Campbell openly admits that he is a vegan, motivated powerfully by his emotional reactions to growing up on a dairy farm, and his subsequent decision to become a vegan. What he doesn't spell out is that fact that his book, The China Study, is at best very weak nutritional science, if it is science at all. The message is simple: animal products are not healthy for humans to eat. Specifically, we are led to believe that, if we eat animal products, we will have a higher risk of cancer, heart disease, and every other serious malady of western civilization.
But wait a minute; what does the China Study really show? I can assure you that I am not the only person left wondering if the so-called China Study actually tells us anything about what humans should or shouldn't eat. One certainly can't rely on the "conclusions" of T. Colin Campbell, as the China Study most definitely proves nothing about the relationship of eating animal products to cancer, heart disease, or any other specific disease in humans.
Instead, what the China Study presents is a dizzying array of variables (367) and weak statistical correlations (8000!), which when analyzed closely, often as not strongly contradict the "conclusions" T. Colin Campbell draws from his own study. This is not really a study at all; it's more of a "blind 'em with lots of numbers and say whatever we want" affair. For those interested in just how bad this "science" is, here is a great piece about it: The China Study Revisited at Science Based Medicine.
I don't want to waste any more time talking about the China Study, because we still have a serious question to answer; namely, "what is the healthiest diet for humans to eat." Fortunately, some serious research is addressing this question, and the answers are becoming clearer all the time.
One of these studies might be called, "The Real China Study." This study, published in The Journal of The American College of Cardiology, is titled Vascular Dysfunction in Chinese Vegetarians: An Apparent Paradox? (Kwok et al. 46 (10): 1957), shows that Chinese vegetarians have significantly worsened cardiovascular status, compared with meat eating, matched controls.
This study is a great deal more rigorous in terms of design than The China Study we discussed earlier. It is a bona-fide basic science study, with enough statistical power to accurately show actual correlations. In this case, the correlation does not appear to be a positive one for vegetarians. Artery walls were significantly thicker, and the vegetarians in this study show evidence of accelerated atherosclerosis, compared with their non-vegetarian counterparts.
Readers of my book, Growing Young, will not be surprised by these findings in the least. Why? Because they know that vegetarians, and vegans in particular, tend to eat an abundance of grain-based foods, and a dramatic overabundance of carbohydrates. In addition, vegetarians and vegans tend to short-change themselves where it really counts; they don't get enough essential fats, like DHA and EPA.
This dietary imbalance causes vegetarians, and especially vegans, to develop a chronic, inflammatory state, which promotes atherosclerosis, cancer, and a host of other chronic diseases. In addition, vegetarians trade nutrient-dense, healthy fat and protein rich foods for insulin-stimulating, glycation-bond promoting, atherogenic, weight-gain and inflammation promoting carbohydrates. They are often found (as in the American Journal of Cardiology article just cited), to be deficient in essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12.
Again, I must point out that I have the utmost respect for ethical vegetarians. What I disdain is the dishonesty with which vegetarianism and veganism are being promoted recently, with folks claiming that these diets make sense from a health perspective. Unfortunately, the evidence - as well as sound diet theory - just fail to support this idea at a core level.
Certainly, some epidemiological studies have shown weak protection against some kinds of cancer, for vegetarian diets. Unfortunately, these studies suffer from many methodological flaws, and that data is, at best mixed. However, to the extent that vegetarian diets show any protection against certain kinds of cancer, I believe this reflects not the benefit of a vegetarian diet per-se, but rather the benefit of avoiding factory farmed meat.
It also reflects something that is under-reported in the media, which causes strong bias in these large, "population studies," and which must be understood clearly, if one is to derive any meaningful conclusion from such studies; namely, the folks who self-report as vegetarians in these studies, are also very likely to be non-smokers.
For example, in the study called, European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition–Oxford (EPIC-Oxford), the media reported various cancer statistics which have emerged from this large, prospective study. This is a huge study, with more than 65,000 people enrolled. It is also "prospective," which means it looks at these folks going forward, giving it more statistical power than the typical, retrospective diet study.
This EPIC-Oxford study has been recently been reported as showing that "vegetarians get less cancer overall" (about 11% less - not much). But wait a minute, there are half as many smokers in the EPIC "vegetarian" population as among the non-vegetarians enrolled in the study. Hmmm. Could that be the reason for the meager 11% cancer risk reduction? I think so.
Here's what I find interesting. Among the EPIC-Oxford population, there was a signficantly higher incidence of colorectal cancer among the vegetarian population in the latest findings reported from this study. How much higher? About 50% higher! That's pretty compelling. I find this data especially compelling, because vegetarians ought to have some natural protection against colocrectal cancer, in the form of typically higher fiber intakes. Again, I don't believe this is surprising; vegetarianism is an unnatural diet for humans, and one we are not adapted for.
All that said, with the current state of our industrial food system, vegetarianism and even veganism, are probably protective against numerous toxins which are now found in industrially farmed meats. In fact, if I did not have access to grass fed, humanely and sustainably raised meat sources, I would become a vegetarian myself. Animals raised on industrial farms, concentrate the many toxins which they are routinely exposed to, such as hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, fungicides, and numerous others, which make such unsustainably intensive farming "possible."
So, the question remains: what is the healthiest diet right now for we humans to eat? I think it is a diet that is as much locally sourced as possible, with grass-fed, humanely raised meats, an abundance of green, leafy vegetables, root vegetables, healthy fats, such as olive oil, and animal fats in moderation, including butter from pasture-raised animals. A truly health-supporting diet avoids grains, including wheat, barley, rice, rye and corn, as well as white potatoes, and concentrated sugar sources, like cane sugar, honey and other concentrated sweeteners.
When we eat such a diet, we no longer have to count calories. We can eat until we feel satisfied, and not fear obesity. Furthermore, we needn't fear inflammation. Glycation (the pro-aging sugar cross-linking that makes our tissues stiff), is minimized. Subtle nutrient deficiencies that are now plagueing our society are prevented, because we are eating "real food," raised by conscientious farmers, on rich soil, using natural and organic techniques.
When we eat a "real food" diet, such as what I just described, we needn't fear toxins, or be subject to the vast organic chemistry experiment that modern processed food has become. We can eat responsibly, yet enjoy the abundance of flavor, color and texture which makes "real food," such a life affirming source of joy for those who prize it, and make space in their life to seek it out.
Furthermore, such a diet can be provided for our communities, without a 3000 mile supply chain, industrial farming, artificial fertilizers, GMO's, soil-depleting land management practices, habitat destruction, or displaced jobs. A diet such as this is thus complementary to community, civility, and to an economy that is stable, and vibrant.
For more information on this sort of "evidence based" nutrition, I recommend my book, Growing Young: A Doctor's Guide To The New Anti-Aging. I amplify on this subject, and clarify some key principles of a diet that can dramatically slow aging, and prevent a host of common, chronic diseases.
If you have not fully committed to eating mostly "real food," I recommend that you do so. It will be the greatest health investment that you ever make. It will also be an investment in your community, and help forestall the looming crisis in healthcare spending in the best way possible; by encouraging real wellness that is not dependent on medication, but rather on a sound diet and sustainable lifestyle.