Every few years, a new health documentary, book, or program comes along which highlights the advantages of a particular diet. A common theme is to blame one food group for all of our woes and to stress that if only we were to avoid that food, we would have less disease of every kind.
You can probably already detect my skepticism. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part I am grateful for most of these references. Many, especially the documentaries, point out terrible occurrences in our collective production of food and in what we are exposing ourselves to by our personal food choices. They often inspire consumers to eat more whole, fresh foods, like organic fruits and vegetables, which is always a good thing. The dangerous part is when we put too much stock in information that leans too far one direction.
Currently, the trend is to go vegan based on a rather shocking documentary by, you might guess, vegans/animal rights activists. If you want to become, or are vegan, by all means carry on, but it may not be the best choice for all of us, and I certainly wouldn’t make the decision based on this film alone. I can’t, and won’t, in this article, argue for or against the morality of eating animal product versus veganism, but will instead stay in the realm of nutrition, and based on nutrition alone, here are a few counter-arguments to keep in mind.
In general, historically, it is incorrect to exclude one particular food group as a cause for disease. We have done this many times in the past, and we always seem to circle back to moderation of a variety of whole foods as our best bet for healthy bodies. We now know that cutting out carbohydrates leads to increased inflammation. We also know that cutting out all fats leads to weight gain. Saturated fats, once completely blamed for heart maladies, are now no longer linked to cardiovascular disease. We also now know that your dietary intake of cholesterol doesn’t affect your cholesterol number very much. All of these were once black and white declarations that were later debunked.
Our bodies use a complex orchestra of nutrients and energy sources to metabolize and to ward off disease. So far, we haven’t stumbled on a single causative agent that remains true over the course of time, and we should suspect that if we don’t eat any animal product at all we would see the same result. Meat and dairy are a better source of Vitamin D, K, A, B-12 and the omegas than plant-based foods, and of course offer complete proteins. All of which can be supplemented, yes, but why not glean them from food when we have a good source available?
The most recent and extremely popular documentary, “What The Health,” would answer that question with, “Because animal product causes disease.” And it does this with rather shocking commentary. The problem is that it is extremely one-sided and loaded with questionable research. Some of the statements, like equating eggs with cigarettes, are really far-fetched and don’t have much basis. Many brilliant nutritionists have written rebuttals to “What The Health,” and for the most part I’ll leave you to research their sometimes line-by-line rebuttals of the research included in the documentary. I will highlight one research exaggeration because of its commonality. It is something you should look and listen for in every article and news report that comes along, especially if it seems one-sided. It can be intentional or not, and you could look back through my articles and find similar offenses, no doubt. In his rebuttal, nutritionist Robb Wolf points out a common technique of using relative risk versus absolute risk in study interpretation. As an example, say your absolute risk of developing a disease is 2 in 1,000. If something, say avoiding animal product, reduces that risk to 1 in 1,000, the absolute risk decreased by 1 in 1000 (.001%). However, the relative risk went from 2 to 1 (a decrease of 50%). If you see a news report that says you can decrease your chance of disease by .001% by cutting out animal product, you are much less likely to clear out your fridge than if you hear about that 50% reduction in disease risk. And the frustrating part is, both numbers are right. The sad part is that the media will always be attracted to the grabbing headline, and pharmaceuticals—or groups promoting a certain ideal—can take advantage of this fuzzy math to try to sway you a certain way. This specific exaggeration of a study is used to reference colon cancer in the film (and I’ve actually rounded the number up for easy math; the absolute risk is less). But, Robb Wolf, you might argue, if you are well-versed in the nutrition world, has an agenda of his own, and you’d be right. He authored the “Paleo Solution,” and I’m not necessarily advocating for that diet either. And that’s exactly the point: I would suggest we take the best knowledge from all of these sources versus limiting ourselves into a world of “I can eat this, I can’t eat that.”
If you read about the Paleo diet, I hope it encouraged you to seek out whole grains and eat less processed foods. If you have watched “What the Health,” likewise, do take its best points to heart. Processed meats and fast food meats should be avoided, and really all meat should be limited. Vegetarians do have some health advantages when it comes to the general population such as diets higher in fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and many bioflavonoids present in dark and bright fruits and vegetables. Animal products are higher inflammatory foods and many people in this country continue to eat too much meat and use too much dairy. I would encourage going vegetarian a few days a week, limiting milk and cheese, and when you do consume meat, do so a few times per week and make sure it is organic and free-range so that it is higher in nutrients and not full of hormones or by-products that could be found in other sources. It is true that much, if not most, of your diet should be plant-based, but it is also true that many, if not most, humans don’t thrive on a completely plant-based diet.
Like any other resource, if you watch this film, let it inspire you to come a little closer to where we always return: whole foods, fewer processed foods, lots of veggies, lots of color, and limited, quality animal product. Placing a higher demand on better animal products will place a higher demand on our food industry as well, but I hope you are inspired to advocate for better food production and animal rights. If you have moral issues with eating animal products, do adequate research to make sure that you are replacing essential nutrients that you are not getting by eating vegan.
I am always a fan of gathering information, and usually that information is presented by a person or group that feels strongly about their side of the story, and that’s okay, as long as you watch, read, or listen with that awareness and then take some time to vet out the details and consider opposing views as well. And then, do what works for you, and do it well.
Stay healthy & be well!
-Amy Whittington, NMD