I admit it:  I eat a high-protein diet.  Not just low-carb, and not just high-fat.  It’s high protein.

I thought I should make a public confession because every time some dunce in the media opines that the “high-protein Atkins diet” will kill you, low-carbers around the world jump up and down and yell, “It’s not high protein!  It’s high fat!”

Speak for yourself.

It’s true that when most of us switch to a low-carb diet, we don’t replace 300 grams of carbohydrate with 300 grams of protein.  We swap a lot of the carb calories for fat calories, and that’s good.  But a lot of us also swap a chunk of carb calories for protein calories, and that’s also good.   I used to eat pasta with low-fat marinara sauce for dinner.  Now I eat meats and vegetables.  More fat, more protein.  I almost certainly eat more protein — quite a bit more — than people on the standard Western diet.   I suspect a lot of people on paleo and/or low-carb diets do as well.

People who aim for a constant state of ketosis are, of course, an exception.  Many find they have to restrict protein.  Fine, if that’s working for you, keep it up.  But as I stated in this post and others, I see “nutritional ketosis” as an intervention that’s useful and perhaps even necessary for some, but not the ideal state all health-conscious people must seek.  It’s likely less-than-ideal for a large share of the population.

When ketogenic diets were all the rage, I tried getting into ketosis and staying there, but found it difficult.  Restricting carbs to almost zero and eating plenty of fat wasn’t enough.  I also had to restrict my protein intake to somewhere around 50 grams per day.  Even that barely got me past 1.0 on the keto-meter.

After mulling it over, I concluded that if maintaining chronic ketosis requires that much effort, it can’t possibly be the natural metabolic state of our paleo ancestors – at least not my Irish paleo ancestors.  They wouldn’t have restricted protein, and they certainly weren’t importing avocados year-round to keep their fat intake at 80 percent.

Yes, I’m sure they, like other paleo people, prized fat.  But that doesn’t mean they were able to live on mostly fat.  People prize gold too — because it’s difficult to obtain. There just aren’t that many fatty foods available in the wild, at least not in Northern Europe.  Even if you’re a successful hunter of Paleolithic beasts and eating them nose-to-tail, I doubt you end up at 80 percent fat and only 50 grams of protein per day.  The Inuits — our poster-boys for a VLC diet — consumed 240 grams of protein per day, according to one study.  That doesn’t sound ketogenic to me.

I went back to eating high protein because I listen to my body.  I gave myself several weeks to adjust to ketosis, but never felt quite as strong, energetic or alert as when I eat a higher-protein diet.  Wondering why that was the case, I looked to simple math for an answer.

Our brains, mucous membranes and red blood cells require glucose.  Ketones can substitute for some of the glucose, but not all of it.  The bottom line is that our bodies must have glucose – nowhere near as much as the USDA dingbats tell us, but some.

The answer in low-carb circles has always been Yes, but your body can produce glucose by converting protein.  It’s called gluconeogenesis.  Yup, I’m totally on board with that, and I’m pretty sure I rely on gluconeogensis for at least some of my glucose needs.  But we also need protein to maintain muscle mass.  Different gurus have different opinions on exactly how much, but the typical figure for a guy my size would be a minimum of 60 grams per day.

See the basic math problem here?  If I’m only eating 50 grams of protein per day, that might just cover what I need to maintain muscle mass, or it might just cover my body’s requirement for glucose via gluconeogenesis, but it sure as shootin’ won’t cover both.  So if I can only stay in ketosis by going zero-carb and low-protein, I’m either going to run short of biologically necessary glucose or lose muscle mass.  (If I’m missing something in the equation, somebody can enlighten me.)

When I’ve mentioned that I don’t aim for ketosis and don’t believe it’s the natural human metabolic state (at least not as a constant state), I’ve had well-meaning people assure me that if I’m not in “nutritional ketosis,” it means I’m still primarily a glucose-burner.  Let’s see how that holds up to simple math.

Suppose I consume 150 grams of protein in a day, plus 50 grams of carbohydrate.  That would be a typical daily intake for me, and definitely prevent me from going into ketosis.  My body will likely use 50 or more grams of protein to maintain lean tissue, but what the heck, let’s say all that protein ended up as glucose for energy.  In that case, we’re talking about 800 calories of protein and carbohydrate combined.  At my size and activity level, I probably burn at least 2400 calories per day.  That means the other 1600 calories come from fat … otherwise known as 67% of the total.

So no, I’m not primarily a glucose-burner.  I’m primarily a fat-burner, even at a high protein intake.  I don’t know why that doesn’t translate into higher readings on the keto-meter, nor do I care.  What I do care about is feeling alert, energetic and strong – which I do on a higher protein diet.

Once we let go of the “but I won’t be in ketosis!” fear, the question is whether going high-protein provides metabolic advantages.  For most of us (meaning those who don’t over-produce insulin in response to protein), I believe it does.

This study, for example, found that increasing protein to 30 percent of calories (which is what our friend Jonathan Bailor recommends) produced a spontaneous decrease of 440 calories per day and a reduction in fat mass.  As you know, I don’t believe restricting calories is the key to weight loss all by itself.  Your body has to be satisfied with fewer calories, or the elephant will panic and run away.  (That’s a reference to a post about The Rider and the Elephant, in case you missed it.)  When people eat less despite not being instructed to do so, it means their bodies are satisfied.

This study (as well as others) demonstrated that while losing weight, people on a high-protein diet were more likely to maintain their muscle mass.  If you’re trying to lose weight (and I’m sure many of you out there are), you don’t want it to come from your muscles.  That sets you up for a lower metabolism and a less-appealing body composition.  So restricting protein as part of a weight-loss diet could backfire in the long term.  A high-protein diet, on the other hand, has been show to raise metabolism.

I don’t feel the need to make major changes in my diet.  Going low-carb in 2008 was a major change that provided a slew of  benefits, so most of what I do now is tinker.  Last year I tinkered by re-introducing a bit of safe starch and adding some resistant starch.  This year I’ve been tinkering by reducing my fat intake a bit and increasing protein.  It’s still a high-fat diet, but not as high.

Most days I aim for somewhere around 150 grams of protein.  Since I don’t want to slog down 75 grams for lunch and another 75 for dinner, that means I’ve started eating breakfast again – well, most days.  Some days I just don’t feel like it.  I also still pick two days per week for intermittent fasting, meaning I don’t eat until dinner – usually around 7:00 PM.  I accept that I won’t get as much protein on those days.

On the non-fasting days, I’ve upped the protein partly by adding eggs whites to my meals.  Don’t scream.  I know we all think of eggs whites as those icky things the anti-fat hysterics want us to eat instead of whole eggs, but I still eat whole eggs – usually three per day.  However, I don’t want to choke down six whole eggs in the morning for the sake of consuming a high-protein breakfast.  I like eggs yolks, but not that much.  So I’ll eat three eggs with a cup of eggs whites added to the pan.  I’ve also been adding lean cuts of meat to my lunches and dinners – which already contain plenty of fat, so the point isn’t to create a low-fat meal.  The point is to create a high-protein meal.

After extolling the benefits of a higher-protein diet, I’m probably supposed to tell you how much weight I’ve lost.  Trouble is, I don’t know.  I’ve mentioned before that we don’t have a scale at home so I only weigh myself at the gym.  Turns out even that was useless, or at least it is now.

I realized as much when I stepped on the gym scale a few weeks ago.  It’s one of those “medical” scales you see in doctors’ offices, with the sliding weights and the balance mechanism.  It all feels so very precise, sliding that top weight over … and a little more … and a little more until the balance is dead center.

But I knew the gym’s scale wasn’t precise when it told me I weighed 206 pounds.  That’s not an impossible figure – I weighed more than that 10 years ago – but just a week earlier, the same scale told me I weighed 194 pounds.  All I’ve done since then is follow my usual diet and exercise program, which isn’t likely to induce a gain of 12 pounds in seven days.

So I turned to a nearby staff member and said, “This scale has me weighing 12 pounds more than a week ago.”

“Oh, yeah, don’t pay any attention to that thing.  It’s all messed up.”

Makes me wonder why it’s still in the gym instead of being fixed or sent to the scrap heap, but that’s not my concern.

Anyway, I don’t know how much I weigh.  But I can say I’ve had to cinch my belt a notch tighter since tinkering with a high-protein diet.

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“It’s like déjà vu all over again” may be the best-known Yogi Berra line, but my favorite is still his comment on a popular restaurant:  “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”

Anyway, the farm work over the weekend was largely like déjà vu all over again because we were constructing the second chicken yard, otherwise known as Flock A in Chareva’s grand design:

I’ll start with the end:  we’re almost done with the chicken yard, but had to stop for what the Pentagon would call an operational pause because of rain.

The young chickens will live in the yard in the foreground, and the older chickens will be moved to the the yard in the background.  (The really old chickens will be moved to a stew pot.)

The first job we had to tackle on the second chicken yard was stretching the fencing across the posts.  With our hilly, uneven terrain, it’s difficult to pull the fence into a nice, straight line.  I tried using a come-along, as a reader or two suggested.  It would be the perfect tool if we were stretching the fencing between heavy posts sunk into the ground.  But these are mere t-posts and, as I feared, the come-along starting pulling the-posts out of the ground long before the fence was straight.  So we accepted the bends and wobbles in the fence.

Well, almost.  There was one spot where the top of the fenced bowed in more than I could ignore.  Purely an aesthetic issue, you understand.  The chickens will be just as safe either way.  But after trying and failing to convince myself the bowed-in fence didn’t bother me, I finally pounded in an extra t-post to straighten it … a little.

Now, of course, the sight of that extra t-post bugs me.  But I can live with it.

We are able to secure the fencing to the posts much quicker than last time.  That’s because this time we had the good sense to buy aluminum fence-ties.  Last time we used steel ties.  Those are fine for fencing with large gaps, because you can wrap the tie around the wires using pliers and a screwdriver.

But with this fencing, the gaps are only 1″ x 2″.  Good luck sticking a pair of pliers or a screwdriver through those.  With the steel ties, we ended up pushing them through the gaps with our fingers, yanking them with pliers, rotating them around the wire with a small bolt, grabbing them again with pliers, lather, rinse, repeat, four times for each post … oh, and try not to become unreasonably grumpy with the innocent person on the other side of fence.

The aluminum ties were a breeze.  Chareva would clamp one end, bend the tie around the post and pass it through to me, then I’d wrap it around the wire with my gloved fingers.

This chicken yard, like the other, will open into a chicken moat that runs alongside the gardens.  The gate is for closing off the moat at night.

Thanks to the dog kennel we re-purposed, this chicken yard will also feature a human-sized entryway.  Since the yard and thus the net slope downhill from here, we also had to build another cattle-panel arch to elevate the net well above the door.

I pounded in two rows of t-posts to set the outer edge of the new hoop house, and then we bent cattle-panels (Chareva’s new favorite construction material) inside the posts to form the hoops.

I’m pretty much just the hired labor for hoop houses.  Chareva’s the architect and engineer.  She’s getting pretty good at building these things.  As you can see in the picture below, the four cattle-panels all start out having different opinions of where to meet.

So after they’re lined up, she clamps them together with something called hog rings.  (Don’t ask; I don’t know.)

We had a bit of excitement on Saturday.  As we were working on the hoop-house, the dogs started barking like crazy.  Chareva speaks a bit of canine and understood they were yelling at the hogs.  (Their exact words, according to Chareva, were “Hey, hogs!  Hey! Hey, stop that!   HEY-HEY-HEY-HEY-HEY!!”)

She ran off to investigate, then yelled back to me.  (Her exact words were “Hey, Tom!  Hey!  HEY-HEY-HEY-HEY-HEY!! GRAB A T-POST AND GET OVER HERE, NOW!)

Turns out the female hog was trying to push her way under the fence at the back of the hog-house — and doing quite a good job of it.  Her head was outside the fence and she was sniffing freedom.

Chareva scared the hog away from the fence, then I pounded a t-post deep into the ground.  We connected the fence to the post, which was enough to convince the hog there would be no great escape. (That’s the male in the picture below.  The female was off sulking.)

When we covered the first new chicken yard with a 50′ x 50′ net, we used up our existing net-lifting poles, so I had to make three more.  Before the weekend work got started, we picked up three cheap buckets, three galvanized steel pipes and a sack of Quikrete at Home Depot.  I used the front stairs and some Velcro strips to hold the pipes in the center of the buckets.

After adding water to the Quikrete, I hired a cement-mixer who was willing to work for less than union scale if she could make a hand-print in the cement.

I still have to bury the buckets in the ground to keep the poles from tipping over.  I was just about to start that job when the rain showed up.

Sounds like a busy weekend, eh?  Heh-heh … heck, that’s just part of it.  Last year, this chunk of our land was still a jungle with chest-high weeds.   I knocked down the weeds with the brush mower I call The Beast, then we spread grass seed.  It’s nice to have grass everywhere, except for one annoying feature:  the stuff keeps growing.

So in addition to helping with the construction, I got to mow all this …

and this …

and this …

and this …

and some other parts I didn’t shoot.  That took five hours.  Thank goodness the new chicken yards took part of the side hill out of the equation, or it could have taken five hours and twenty minutes.

I’m not complaining, mind you.  I never liked mowing lawns before, but this doesn’t feel like mowing a lawn.  It feels like maintaining my land.  It’s not a chore; it’s a chance to go out and get Dog-Tired Satisfied.

Weather permitting, we hope to wrap up Chareva’s spring project in the next 12 days or so, and with good reason.  I didn’t want to announce this until the schedule was set, but now it is: Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans will be coming to the Fat Head farm at the end of this month to film an episode.  Some of you fans Down Under had mentioned in comments that I should meet this guy some day. Perhaps you put that thought into the universe, because he ended up emailing me to ask about doing an interview.

He at first suggested flying me to New York for the interview.  I said sure, but mentioned that since making Fat Head, we’ve moved to a small farm with chickens, two hogs, gardens, etc.  He wrote back to say in that case, he’d rather come to the farm for a cooking episode plus the interview.

So the farm should probably look nice when he gets here.

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When I wrote a recent post disputing Dr. Dean Ornish’s cherry-picked evidence that meat will kill you, I ignored his closing paragraph.  That’s because I wanted to focus on the Meat Kills! nonsense.

Here’s how Ornish finished his essay:

In addition, what’s good for you is good for our planet. Livestock production causes more disruption of the climate than all forms of transportation combined. And because it takes as much as 10 times more grain to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, eating a plant-based diet could free up resources for the hungry.

This has become the latest weapon in the arsenal of The Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet.  They’ve tried convincing us that meat causes heart disease and cancer, but fewer and fewer people are buying that line — because it’s nonsense.  So the thinking seems to be Well, that didn’t work.  Let’s scare them away from meat by insisting that livestock are ruining the planet.  I give it maybe five years before The Anointed float the idea of requiring meatless days in school lunches.

What, you think I’m being paranoid?  Don’t forget who decides which foods can be served in schools.  And they’re apparently on board with the Meat Kills The Planet idea:

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a federally appointed panel of nutritionists created in 1983, decided for the first time this year to factor in environmental sustainability in its recommendations. They include a finding that a diet lower in animal-based foods is not only healthier, but has less of an environmental impact.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said sustainability is an issue that falls outside the scope of the guidelines.  But members of the committee say they had free reign to discuss food supply in recommending what people should and shouldn’t be eating.
 
“The scope is ours to fully define,” said Barbara Millen, chairwoman of the advisory committee and a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

Translation:  We’re The Anointed.  We can tell you what to do even when it’s not our official mission.  After all, given the wild success of our dietary advice in making Americans leaner and healthier, it’s only natural we should expand our focus and save the worldwide environment too.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of theory The Anointed absolutely love.  The mission is HUGE — after all, what’s more important than saving the entire planet? – which means it will require a Grand Plan, which makes The Anointed feel So Very Important.  Given the opportunity, they will feel justified in imposing the Grand Plan on all of us – for our own sake, of course.  Remember, they’re trying to save the planet!  Just where the heck do you selfish meat-eaters think you’ll live after your livestock causes global warming – uh, I mean climate change – and renders the planet too hot … or too cold … or flooded because of the torrential rains … or barren because of the lack of rain?

Best of all, as with any Grand Plan, there’s no real way to prove The Anointed wrong.  They want us to give up meat so the planet doesn’t boil (or freeze) in 50 years or so.  If the planet isn’t boiling (or freezing) in 50 years, The Anointed who are still alive and remember the Grand Plan can claim it succeeded.  However, if the planet is boiling (or freezing), they can say we didn’t do enough to stop it.  The Grand Plan should have been bigger.

Lierre Keith dealt with the notion that a vegan diet will save the planet in her outstanding book The Vegetarian Myth.  Keep in mind she was a committed vegan for 20 years and used to believe all that stuff.  But then she educated herself.  Here’s an excerpt from my review of the book:

As Keith explains in section two, Political Vegetarians, eating soy burgers won’t save the planet, either.  All those goofy vegetarian arguments about how many more people we could feed per acre if we all ate the crops instead of the animals who eat the crops are based on a flawed idea: that the animals who provide our meat are supposed to eat corn.  They’re not.  They’re supposed to eat grass.  Keith recalculates the calories-per-acre figures assuming we were smart enough to raise our animals on their natural food, and not surprisingly, the disparity shrinks to nearly zero.

And feeding the masses is only part of the equation.  When you raise animals in a pasture, you create topsoil — you literally can’t create topsoil without animals.  But when you raise corn, you destroy topsoil.  It’s mono-crop agriculture that uses extraordinary amounts of water and creates soil runoff.  Then, of course, there’s all that fossil fuel required to keep the crops growing as the topsoil disappears.  (Imagine the fun of explaining to your wild-eyed vegan friends that their “sustainable lifestyle” is enriching the oil industry.)

Since vegans are pushing the idea that going meatless will somehow prevent global warm– er, climate change – I re-read portions of The Vegetarian Myth today.  Here are some quotes:

The vegetarians aren’t looking for truth about sustainability or justice.  They’re looking for the small slice of facts that will shore up their ideology, their identities.  This is where politics becomes religion, psychologically speaking, where the seeker is looking for reaffirmation of her beliefs rather than active knowledge of the world.  I was one such believer.

After quoting one of the vegan zealots who was yammering on (like Ornish) about how many more people we could feed if we didn’t waste grain on cattle, Keith writes:

Yes, it is a waste, but not for the reasons he thinks.  As we have seen in abundance, growing that grain will require the felling of forests, the plowing of prairies, the draining of wetlands and the destruction of topsoil.  In most places on earth, it will never be sustainable, and where it might just possibly be, it will require rotation with animals on pasture.  And it’s ridiculous to the point of insanity to take that world-destroying grain and feed it to a ruminant who could have happily subsisted on those now extinct forests, grasslands and wetlands of our planet, while building topsoil and species diversity.

I can vouch for animals creating topsoil.  The soil in our chicken yards is rich and alive, thanks to all that chicken poop.  For a couple of years now, Chareva has been scooping poop-laden straw from the hen-houses and adding it to her compost pile.  The compost has been going into the garden, because it’s great for growing plants.

Later in her book, Keith writes about the “green revolution” – a misnomer if there ever was one.  There’s nothing green about it, at least not if we’re using green to mean good for the environment:

Between 1963 and 1997, worldwide crop yields doubled.  This doubling came at a cost: fertilizer use increased by 645 percent … the practice of repeatedly plowing the fields, removing the covering of grasses and poisoning the bugs and the weeds robs the soil of its most life-giving characteristics.
 
We’ve already seen how these crops demand more water from dying rivers, sinking water tables, emptied aquifers, how irrigation creates a wasteland of salt-caked desert.  My point here is that this abundance of grain is no true abundance.  When the vegetarians claim, for instance, that Britain could support a population of 250 million on an all-vegetable diet, they are basing those numbers on the over-inflated production only made possible by fertilizer from fossil fuel.

Anyone who believes eating soybeans and whole grains will somehow save the planet is blissfully ignorant or deluded.  To quote Keith again:

To eat the supposedly earth-friendly diet Motavalli is suggesting would mean that everyone in a cold, hot, wet or dry climate would have to be dependent on the American Midwest, with its devastated prairies and its ever-shrinking soil, rivers and aquifers.  It also means dependence on coal or oil to ship that grain two thousand miles.  So you’re an environmentalist; why are you still eating outside your bioregion?

The logic of the land tells us to eat the animals that can eat the tough cellulose that survives there.  But the logic of vegans leads us away from the local, our only chance of being sustainable, back to the desperate Mississippi and her dying wetlands, her eroding delta.  Yes, eating grain directly is less water-intensive than eating grain-fed beef.  But why eat either?  Animals integrated into appropriate polyculture destroy nothing.
 
That is the point the political vegetarians need to understand.  In the end, all our calculations don’t matter.  Who cares if more food can be produced by farming when farming is destroying the world?

But .. but … it’s a plant-based diet!!

Keith argues in the book (and I agree) that none of this is sustainable long-term.  Barring some breakthrough in food production (one that doesn’t require even more pollutants), at some point we’ll probably blow through the resources we’re now using to feed 8 billion people.  If anything will destroy the planet, it’s overpopulation.  But I don’t see anyone – vegans included – offering to commit mass suicide to save the environment.

If you want to save the planet, buy grass-fed beef.  Better yet, raise a cow on grass.  Raise chickens in a pasture.  That soy-burger – grown with fossil-fuel fertilizer and shipped halfway across the country — won’t do diddly to help.

I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth seeing again.  Here’s how properly-raised livestock could perhaps save the planet:

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I was recently the guest on Vinnie Tortorich’s Angriest Trainer in America podcast.

I haven’t met Vinnie, but I’ve listened to his podcasts.  I like the way he thinks. We had a great time talking about a variety of topics — so much fun, he didn’t notice the recorder stopped as we were talking.  So the podcast ends in the middle of a sentence.

No worries. As far as I’m concerned, that just means we need to do it again sometime.

You can listen to our interview here.

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I wasn’t planning to write another post this week because I’m busy at work and trying to make headway on the book Chareva and I are producing.  But a meat-and-mortality study showed up in my inbox, which prompted me to dig up a few more.  In my post dedicated to our vegetarian-zealot friends, I made the point that observational studies (the kind they cherry-pick to “prove” that meat will kill you) are unreliable and inconsistent.  Here are some studies that underscore that point.

From Meat consumption in relation to mortality from cardiovascular disease among Japanese men and women:

Moderate meat consumption, up to ~100 g/day, was not associated with increased mortality from ischemic heart disease, stroke or total cardiovascular disease among either gender.

What their data showed is that compared to men with the lowest meat intake, men with the highest meat intake had lower mortality rates from heart disease, a very slightly higher mortality rate from stroke, and the same mortality rate from all cardiovascular diseases combined.  Women who ate the most meat had a slightly higher rate of mortality from heart disease, but a lower mortality rate from stroke.

So here’s the story so far:  meat reduces heart-disease mortality in men, but raises it in women.  But the differences aren’t really significant either way.

From Red meat and poultry intakes and risk of total and cause-specific mortality:

Red meat intake was associated with increased risk of ischemic heart disease mortality and with decreased risk of hemorrhagic stroke mortality. There were suggestive inverse associations of poultry intake with risk of total and all-CVD mortality among men, but not among women.

Okay, then.  Red meat causes heart disease – for both men and women  –  but prevents strokes.  Poultry also prevents heart disease for men, but not for women.  Got it.

From Meat intake and mortality:

Regarding cause-specific mortality, men and women had elevated risks for cancer mortality for red and processed meat intakes. Furthermore, cardiovascular disease risk was elevated for men and women in the highest quintile of red and processed meat intakes. When comparing the highest with the lowest quintile of white meat intake, there was an inverse association for total mortality and cancer mortality, as well as all other deaths for both men and women.

Stop the presses!  Turns out red meat causes cancer and heart disease for both men and women after all.  Poultry, on the other hand, prevents cancer and a premature death – for both men and women.

From Red meat and processed meat consumption and all-cause mortality:

In a dose-response meta-analysis, consumption of processed meat and total red meat, but not unprocessed red meat, was statistically significantly positively associated with all-cause mortality in a nonlinear fashion.

Notice what they wrote about unprocessed red meat:  it’s not associated with higher all-cause mortality.  Now look at the conclusion:

These results indicate that high consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, may increase all-cause mortality.

Somehow red meat is still to blame, but especially processed meat.  The accurate statement (based on their data, anyway) would have been that only processed meat is the problem.

So the updated story: red meat and especially processed meat will kill you.

From Meat consumption and diet quality and mortality:

After multivariable adjustment, neither red and processed meat, nor white meat consumption were consistently associated with all-cause or cause-specific mortality. In men, white meat consumption tended to be inversely associated with total mortality, but there was no such association among women.

I see.  Red meat, white meat, and processed meat aren’t associated with all-cause mortality, or with mortality from any specific cause.  White meat prevents premature death among men, but not women.

So here’s what we know from observational studies:  Meat – especially red meat and most especially processed meat – will kill you.  However, meat (including red meat) prevents heart disease among men while having no effect on premature death.  Unfortunately, the same red meat causes heart disease among women — and among men, except for the men.

White meat prevents heart disease among men, but not women.  However, it prevents cancer and premature death for both men and women, but not women.

Oh, and all meats – red, white, processed and unprocessed – also have no effect on specific or all-cause mortality for anybody.

Got it?

That’s why observational studies are a joke – as are the people who cherry-pick them to (ahem) prove a point about meat and health.

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Surprise, surprise … my critique of Dr. Ornish’s recent “meat kills!” nonsense drew the ire of a vegetrollian.  These people show up and now and then, always singing from the same hymnal.  More than four years ago, I wrote a long post to answer them so I don’t have to waste time writing the same replies over and over in comments.  I decided it’s time for an updated version.  I’ll be busy this week, so this is probably my last post until Monday.

——————————————————————

Dear Vegetarian Evangelists:

Since you keep showing up on my blog and trying to convert me to the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet, I’ve decided it’s time once again to explain, in this new and improved post, why you’re wasting your time. You seem like nice people and all, but really, this is getting tiresome.  Every time I answer the doorbell, you stand on my porch and repeat the same old sermons by the same old preachers:  Joel Fuhrman, John McDougall, Dean Ornish, T. Colin Campbell, etc.  This may surprise you, but I don’t find those sermons any more convincing on the 100th repetition than I did on the 10th.

Perhaps I’d pay attention if I actually heard a new sermon now and then, but sadly that’s never the case.  So in the future, when you ring the bell, I’m going to simply refer you to this post and bid you good-day.

I know some of you will label this as closed-minded.  That’s because to an evangelist, the definition of “closed-minded” is “does not agree with me.”  The truth is, I’m being polite.  Even though I believe your religion is based on a mixture of emotions and faulty reasoning, I don’t show up on your doorstep and try to talk you out of it.  Unlike you, I don’t get emotionally involved in other people’s dietary choices.  If you believe it’s better for humans to shun animal foods, please do so.  I don’t really care.

But you obviously care very much that I eat meat, since you keep trying to convince me I shouldn’t.  Sometimes it seems as if you all got together and said, “There’s a meat-eater who lives in that blog over there!  We must take turns showing up on his doorstep and preaching to him until he sees the light!”  I give you credit, by the way, for attempting to cloak your arguments in something resembling science.  You apparently noticed the “Meat is Murder!” tactic just makes me laugh, so you’ve taken to presenting the same sentiment as a health issue.

Nice try, but it isn’t going work, and I’m going to explain why.  I’m not foolish enough to think I’ll change your minds — evangelists aren’t swayed by evidence, as Eric Hoffer explained brilliantly in his book The True Believer – but I figure there’s an outside chance you’ll finally realize I don’t find your arguments the least bit persuasive, in which case you actually might give up and go away.

WHY I’M AN EX-VEGETARIAN … AND WHY I THINK VEGETARIAN EVANGELISTS ARE FULL OF BEANS.

I’ll start with the reason that’s the least valid scientifically, but frankly the only one that ultimately matters to me:  my own experience.  I was a vegetarian for several years (yes, I’m a fallen-away believer) yet somehow never experienced all the magic health benefits promised to me by your preachers.  I did, however, experience arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, gastric reflux, restless legs, lower back pain, irritable bowel, fatigue, slow but consistent weight gain, listlessness, depression, frequent colds, canker sores, cavities, and receding gums that required grafts.

None of those ailments was caused by sugar consumption, because I already knew sugar was a sin and didn’t indulge except on very rare occasions.  I’ve since learned that some of those ailments were likely caused by a lack of fat and cholesterol in my diet, while others were likely caused by the gluten and lectins found in grains.

Now that I’ve gone over to the dark side of low-carb/paleo eating, I don’t suffer from those ailments anymore — not one.  It’s also no longer a battle to keep my weight down.  I’m 56 years old, but look and feel better than when I was 36.  I’m almost never sick and, unlike most people my age, I don’t take any prescription drugs. My only appointments with doctors in the past five years have been for regular checkups or to treat an injury.

Given my personal history, I don’t really care how much cherry-picked evidence bean-eaters like Ornish and McDougall can cite, because my body told me they’re wrong.  I listen to my body.  If I whack myself in the head with a rubber mallet and my body says, “You know, that gave me a headache and made me dizzy,” I’m not going to do it again –  even if you cite a Fuhrman study concluding that head-whacking improves mood and prevents sexual dysfunction.

I also have to consider the experiences of my friends and acquaintances.  I’ve known plenty of vegetarians over the years, and as far as health status goes, I wouldn’t trade places with any of them.  They’re all on prescription drugs.  I’ve seen them suffer from arthritis, auto-immune diseases, bone degeneration and cancer, to name just a few.  One vegan friend in Los Angeles had to undergo extensive dental surgery because she lost half the bone mass in her jaw.

But of course, those are mere anecdotes and therefore aren’t scientifically valid.  Now, you and I both know you’re only interested in the so-called “science” that supports your religion, but since you insist on pretending otherwise, I’ll deal with your science (ahem, ahem) as well.

First, let’s look at some basic principles of science.  In real science, we control for confounding variables when testing a hypothesis.  The studies you cite when you show up to preach at me are almost always observational studies, which are notoriously awful when it comes to controlling variables.

In real science, we also have to start with reliable data. Those observational studies are  almost always based on food questionnaires that are sent out once per year, or once every five years, or even once every 10 years.  The accuracy of those questionnaires is laughable.  Some people report eating so little, they’d be walking skeletons.

Here’s what a food questionnaire looks like, by the way:

Over the last 12 months, how often did you eat the following foods? (Ignore any recent changes.)

Whole milk (4%), NOT in coffee, NOT on cereal: Never | 1-6 per year | 7-11 per year | 1 per month | 2-3 per month | 1-2 per week | 3-4 per week | 5-6 per week | 1 per day | 2-3 per day | 4-5 per day | 6+ per day. Portion size: less than ½ cup | ½ to 1 cup | more than 1 cup.

Breads or dinner rolls, NOT INCLUDING ON SANDWICHES: Never | 1-6 per year | 7-11 per year | 1 per month | 2-3 per month | 1-2 per week | 3-4 per week | 5-6 per week | 1 per day | 2-3 per day | 4-5 per day | 6+ per day. Portion size: less than 1 slice or roll | 1 or 2 slices or rolls | more than 2 slices or rolls.

Ground beef in mixtures such as tacos, burritos, meatballs, casseroles, chili, meatloaf: Never | 1-6 per year | 7-11 per year | 1 per month | 2-3 per month | 1-2 per week | 3-4 per week | 5-6 per week | 1 per day | 2-3 per day | 4-5 per day | 6+ per day. Portion size: less than 3 ounces | 3 to 7 ounces | more than 7 ounces.

You can get a sense of the accuracy of food questionnaires without even seeing one:  just take out a piece of paper now and write down how many portions of asparagus you ate in the previous year.  What, you can’t do it?  Well then, let’s make it easier.  How many ounces of whole grains did you consume in the past month?

You don’t know, do you? And if you do know, you’re a diet freak who tabulates everything you eat, which means you in no way represent people in the general population.

If you’re not a diet freak and you were filling out the questionnaire, you’d do like most people — take a wild guess.  I once worked at a company where we were required to fill out a food questionnaire as part of a survey.  My co-workers and I laughed about the stupidity of anyone believing we could accurately recall detailed dietary information.  We took our wild guesses, filled in the form, and got back to our real jobs.

So Ornish and McDougall can cherry-pick a few studies that link saturated fat to heart disease and cancer … so what?  I’m sure that’s true to an extent, at least in America.  But some of the biggest sources of saturated fat in the American diet are grain-based desserts (sugar and refined flour), dairy desserts (sugar), pizza (refined flour) and Mexican dishes (refined flour).  Do you see any possible confounding variables there?

Most people who become vegetarians do so because they believe (mistakenly) that giving up meat with make them healthier.  That makes them a self-selected group of health-conscious people.  Health-conscious people are different from the rest of the population.  They’re less likely to smoke, drink to excess, take drugs, consume candy and sodas, or eat highly processed foods.  They’re more likely to exercise, take vitamins, etc.  So of course they’re healthier on average than the general population, which includes a lot of people who don’t give a @#$% about their health and have lousy health habits.  That makes direct comparisons between vegetarians and the non-vegetarian population as a whole meaningless.

For example, when one of you rings my doorbell, I know it’s only a matter of time before you start yammering on about an observational study of Seventh-Day Adventists.  Yes, they’re vegetarians.  Yes, they have better health and longer lifespans than the population as a whole.  That’s because they’re exactly like the people I described above:  they don’t smoke, drink, do drugs, eat candy, drink sodas, etc.  I have a Mormon friend who also doesn’t smoke, drink, do drugs, drinks sodas, etc., because her religion prohibits those behaviors.  And guess what?  Mormons, like Seventh-Day Adventists, are much healthier and live much longer than the population as a whole.  But they do eat meat.

If the only difference between Seventh-Day Adventists and the rest of the population was meat vs. no meat, you might have a point.  But that’s not the only difference.  Not by a long shot.  That’s why observational studies are lousy as evidence.

How lousy?  According to Dr. John Ioannidis, a Harvard M.D. and mathematician who has spent decades studying old studies, 80 percent of the conclusions drawn from observational studies have turned out to be wrong.  Got that?  Eighty percent.  So when you ring my doorbell to warn me that New Study Links Meat To Blindness! or whatever, what I hear is:  New Study That Is Far More Likely To Be Wrong Than Right Links Meat To Blah-Blah-Blah.

But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that observational studies actually tell us something.  Here’s another basic principle of science:  a hypothesis isn’t considered valid unless the evidence supporting it is consistent and repeatable.  The evidence has to hold up across time and geography.  Your Meat Kills! evidence doesn’t.

There have been native peoples all over the world who lived primarily on animal flesh and animal fat — the Masai tribes, our own buffalo-hunting tribes, the Inuits, etc. — but heart disease was nearly non-existent among those people.  Doctors who visited them were stunned at how healthy they were.   The buffalo-hunting tribes didn’t become fat, diabetic, and plagued with heart disease until they stopped hunting and started living on sugar and flour.

A century ago, Americans consumed four times as much butter and lard as we do now, but again, heart disease was quite rare.  We didn’t see a surge in heart disease until we began eating a lot more sugar and substituting processed vegetable oils for animal fats.   Even today, the French and Swiss consume far more cream, butter, cheese and pork than Americans, but have a much lower rate of heart disease.  (They do, however, consume far less sugar, soda, processed vegetable oils, and white flour.)

Those are general observations.  Let’s get more specific.  After all, I’m sure you’ve been indoctrinated by the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet to cite a few specific observational studies linking meat to heart disease, cancer, early death, etc.  So here are some specific studies that prove those results aren’t consistent and repeatable.

Meat and Mortality

From a large observational study titled Mortality Among British Vegetarians:

Within the study, mortality from circulatory diseases and all causes is not significantly different between vegetarians and meat eaters.

That means meat-eaters didn’t have higher rates of heart disease and didn’t die any younger.

From a study of the Japanese elderly:

  • Nutrient intakes in 94 Japanese centenarians investigated between 1972 and 1973 showed a higher proportion of animal protein to total proteins than in contemporary average Japanese.
  • High intakes of milk and fats and oils had favorable effects on 10-year (1976-1986) survivorship in 422 urban residents aged 69-71.
  • The survivors revealed a longitudinal increase in intakes of animal foods such as eggs, milk, fish and meat over the 10 years.

The Japanese elderly who lived the longest ate the most meat and animal protein.

Meat and Disease

From a summary of red meat/cancer studies:

Colinearity between red meat intake and other dietary factors (e.g. Western lifestyle, high intake of refined sugars and alcohol, low intake of fruits, vegetables and fibre) and behavioural factors (e.g. low physical activity, high smoking prevalence, high body mass index) limit the ability to analytically isolate the independent effects of red meat consumption. Because of these factors, the currently available epidemiologic evidence is not sufficient to support an independent positive association between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer.

In other words, when they try wading through the confounding variables, they can’t come up with a significant link between red meat and colorectal cancer.

From The Fukuoka Colorectal Cancer Study:

Our findings do not support the hypothesis that consumption of red meat increases colorectal cancer risk but do suggest that high intake of fish may decrease the risk, particularly of distal colon cancer.

Red meat isn’t linked to a higher rate of colon cancer, but fish is linked to a lower rate.  I don’t think you vegan zealots will care much for that result.  Fish are animals, right?

From a meta-analysis of observational studies conducted in Asia:

Our pooled analysis found no association between intake of total meat (red meat, poultry, and fish/seafood) and risks of all-cause, CVD, or cancer mortality among men and women. Red meat intake was inversely associated with CVD mortality in men and with cancer mortality in women in Asian countries.

Let me explain “inversely associated” in case you’re a total illiterate when it comes to science:  that means men who ate more red meat were less likely to die of heart disease, and women who ate more red meat were less likely to die of cancer.

From an Oxford observational study titled Cancer Risk In Vegetarians:

Within the study, the incidence of all cancers combined was lower among vegetarians than among meat eaters, but the incidence of colorectal cancer was higher in vegetarians than in meat eaters.

Hey, there you go!  A result all you disciples of the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet can use to spread The Word.  The vegetarians had lower overall cancer rates, so let’s cherry-pick this one study and start ringing more doorbells!

Oh, but wait … the vegetarians also had higher rates of colorectal cancer.  That’s the type of cancer you vegan zealots are always warning me I’ll get as the result of eating meat.  Hmmm …

As any decent scientist will tell you, correlation doesn’t prove causation.  But a lack of a correlation is pretty danged strong evidence that there’s no causation … because if one thing causes another, they will be correlated — consistently.  We not only don’t see consistent correlations between meat and higher rates of heart disease or cancer, we can find studies like the one above in which more meat was correlated with lower rates of those diseases.

I could go on and on, but I hope you’ve grasped the point by now:   the observational evidence delivered from the pulpit by Ornish, Fuhrman, McDougall and your other high priests is cherry-picked.  Those observations don’t hold up across time or geography.  They don’t even hold up in modern Western countries if you look at all the studies instead of just the ones your priests selected for you.  Not consistent and not repeatable means the hypothesis isn’t valid.

Clearly something other than animal fat causes heart disease — my guess is sugar and refined carbohydrates, because that result does hold up.  Go around the world, look at different cultures throughout time, and you’ll see that heart disease, cancer, and other “diseases of civilization” show up shortly after sugar and white flour become dietary staples.

Many of you have preached to me that the Fuhrman-McDougall-Ornish diet is superior because it lowers cholesterol.  I’ve got news for you:  That’s one of the least convincing arguments you can make, because I don’t want my cholesterol lowered.  Have you ever checked the data on cholesterol levels vs. mortality?  I have.  The graphic below shows total cholesterol plotted against all-cause mortality using data from 164 countries.

I apologize for the teensy type, but check the blue line.  That’s all-cause mortality.  Notice how it reaches the lowest point at a cholesterol level of around 220?  Your high priests brag about how their diets lower cholesterol, but the data shows that people with low cholesterol have shorter lifespans.  They’re more likely to die of cancer, stroke, infections and suicide.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can sense you reaching for that chapter from the prayer book already:  “No, you see, cancer CAUSES low cholesterol!”  Uh-huh.  If high cholesterol is linked to heart disease, it must mean cholesterol is causing the disease.  But if cancer is linked to low cholesterol, by gosh, it must be the other way around — because preacher Fuhrman says so.  Since the low cholesterol often shows up years before the cancer, that’s quite a trick.  And good luck explaining how strokes and suicide cause low cholesterol.

But about that link between high cholesterol and heart disease:  it doesn’t actually exist, except in males below the age of 65 living in a few countries.  It certainly doesn’t hold up around the world.  Some of you have quoted McDougall as saying he’s never seen a heart attack in anyone with cholesterol below 150.  (Notice he didn’t say he’s never seen cancer or a stroke.)  Well, if that’s true, it merely means McDougall has never visited Australia.  Aborigines have one of the lowest average cholesterol levels in the world.  They also have one of the highest heart-disease rates.  Autopsies have shown plaque-filled arteries in heart-attack victims whose total cholesterol was as low as 115.   If high cholesterol causes heart disease and low cholesterol cures it, how is that possible?

Some years ago, I dug up the WHO data on average cholesterol levels and heart-disease rates around the world.  If high cholesterol causes heart disease, then plotting those figures against each other would produce a nice, recognizable trend-line.  And as it happens, I did plot them against each other.  You can see the result below:

Do you see a trend-line there?  I certainly don’t.  When I ran the CORR function in Excel, it showed a very slight negative association between cholesterol and heart disease — in other words, higher cholesterol was correlated with slightly lower mortality from heart disease.

I found a similar result when I ran an analysis on the American Heart Association’s own data:  people with LDL over 130 actually have a slightly lower rate of heart disease than people with LDL below 130.

So once again, the observations your preachers made that you keep quoting don’t hold up.  They’re not consistent, and they’re not repeatable.  Therefore, they’re not scientifically valid.

Many of you have offered yourselves as evidence that the Fuhrman-McDougall-Ornish diet works.  Some of you have even sent me pictures of your now-skeletal bodies, apparently thinking I’d be impressed.  I wasn’t.  I have no desire to look like I take my meals in a concentration camp.

If your health improved, I’m happy for you.  But you might want to ask yourself which aspect of the diet improved your health.  Your preachers insist you give up animal foods, but also sugar and refined carbohydrates.  Then when your health improves, they offer it as proof that animal foods were the problem and only the Holy Plant-Based Diet can lead to eternal health and happiness.

But I also gave up sugar and refined carbohydrates, and my health also improved, despite adding more animal fat to my diet.  Hey, ya know … perhaps it’s the sugar and refined flour that are the real problem here.

You’ve preached about how Ornish and Furhman have reversed heart disease in their patients.  Fine, I believe you.  But so have doctors like William Davis and Al Sears, and they don’t tell their patients to give up animal foods; they tell their patients to give up sugar and refined carbohydrates (as do Ornish and Furhman).  Rocky Angelucci, author of Don’t Diet Early, followed the program designed by Dr. Davis and reversed the plaque in his coronary arteries by 24 percent in six months.  A friend of mine went on the Atkins diet — no sugar, no refined carbohydrates — and his labs improved so much, his doctor took him off his statin and said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

Notice anything consistent about the diets that reverse heart disease?

If merely giving up animal fats and switching to all plant-based foods were the key to avoiding heart disease, that result would hold up around the world.  But it doesn’t.  Vegetarians in India have one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world — higher than the Indians who aren’t vegetarians.  They don’t eat meat, but they do consume sugar and flour.

Here’s a quote from an article about Bill Clinton’s vegan diet:

When Caldwell Esselstyn spotted a picture of him on the Internet, eating a dinner roll at a banquet, the renowned doctor dispatched a sharply worded email message: “I’ll remind you one more time, I’ve treated a lot of vegans for heart disease.”

So even a priest of the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet admits vegans can develop heart disease — by eating white flour.

Since your religious tracts are full of cherry-picked observational evidence, I’m going to close by asking you to make an observation for me …  just one, and if your preachers are correct, this should be easy:  Name the cultures, now or in the past, where people subsisted on a diet high in animal foods and animal fats but consumed little or no sugar and flour, yet had high rates of heart disease and cancer.  If you can do that, I’ll answer the bell and listen to you preach the next time you feel like asking me to join the Church of the Holy Plant-Based Diet.

Until you can do that, go away.  You don’t stand a chance of converting me.

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