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
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.
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?
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.