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 to explain, once and for all, 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 if I actually heard a new sermon now and then, I might pay attention, 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 were 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 caused by a lack of fat and cholesterol in my diet, while others were likely caused by the lectins found in grains and beans.
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 51 years old, but feel better than when I was 30. I moved to Tennessee a year ago and haven’t even bothered to look for a doctor yet, since I’m never sick.
Given my personal history, I don’t really care how much cherry-picked evidence bean-eaters like Fuhrman 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’m not. I’ve seen them suffer from arthritis, auto-immune diseases, spinal 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. We also don’t consider a hypothesis valid unless the results are consistent and repeatable.
The studies you cite when you show up to preach at me are observational studies, which are notoriously awful when it comes to controlling variables. So Fuhrman and McDougall can cite a few studies that linked 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?
If animal fats are the culprit, then the supposed link between heart disease and saturated fat would hold up across time and across the world. But it doesn’t. Humans have been meat-eaters for hundreds of thousands of years, and yet heart disease and cancer are referred to as “diseases of civilization.” As researcher Peter Cleave told the McGovern committee back in the 1970s, blaming modern diseases on ancient foods is ludicrous.
There have been native peoples all over the world who lived primarily and sometimes exclusively 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.)
In other words, the observational evidence that Fuhrman and McDougall cite isn’t consistent. It doesn’t hold up across time or geography. Not even close.
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. Check the longevity figures against various cholesterol levels. 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 months 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 a slightly lower rate of 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 give up animal foods; they tell their patients to give up sugar and refined carbohydrates. 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.
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: Find me a culture, 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.