It must be tough to be Dr. Dean Ornish these days. The man desperately wants to convince everyone to live on a low-fat vegetarian diet, and yet the Wisdom of Crowds effect is turning the tide in the opposite direction. People previously frightened into giving up eggs and red meat have gone paleo, improved their health, and announced as much to the crowd. Books like The Big Fat Surprise are shining a very bright light on the shoddy science that led to anti-animal-fat hysteria in the first place. Researchers are revisiting the science and declaring the low-fat diet a mistake.
This can’t sit well at all with Dr. Ornish, for whom the plant-based diet is clearly akin to a religion. In fact, I suspect that like many vegetarians and vegans, the thought process that formed his beliefs went something like this:
- Eating animals is a sin.
- Therefore, animal foods must harm your health – a punishment for committing sin.
- Giving up animal foods must improve your health – a reward for no longer being a sinner.
Ornish has spent his career warning of the health hazards of animal foods. The emerging evidence – the reliable kind, anyway – keeps contradicting him, so now he’s like a walking, talking example of the people described in the terrific book Mistake Were Made (but not by me): having staked out a very public position, he can’t possibly change his mind without committing career suicide. He must cling to that position to the bitter end.
And so Ornish pops up now and then to bang the Animal Foods Kill! drum yet again … by pointing to a lousy observational study here and a mouse study there. You never hear him quoting clinical studies on humans (i.e., the studies that actually matter) because those don’t support his beliefs.
Ornish’s latest attempt to bang the drum came in the form of an essay in the New York Times, which several readers called to my attention. Let’s take a look.
Many people have been making the case that Americans have grown fat because they eat too much starch and sugar, and not enough meat, fat and eggs. Recently, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee lifted recommendations that consumption of dietary cholesterol should be restricted, citing research that dietary cholesterol does not have a major effect on blood cholesterol levels. The predictable headlines followed: “Back to Eggs and Bacon?”
But, alas, bacon and egg yolks are not health foods.
And we know they’re not health foods because Dr. Ornish says so.
Although people have been told for decades to eat less meat and fat, Americans actually consumed 67 percent more added fat, 39 percent more sugar, and 41 percent more meat in 2000 than they had in 1950 and 24.5 percent more calories than they had in 1970, according to the Agriculture Department. Not surprisingly, we are fatter and unhealthier.
Notice how Ornish lumps added fat, sugar and meat together, attempting to paint them as members of the same murderous gang. It’s a bit like stating that the trio of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and Mother Teresa were responsible for more than 50 brutal murders. That’s technically true, but Mother Teresa’s share of the carnage was zero.
But what about that increase in added fat? Did we become fatter and unhealthier by consuming more butter and lard?
Dr. Mike Eades delved into Ornish’s creative uses of food-consumption statistics in a recent post. It’s worth reading the entire post, but here’s the bottom line:
The added fats are mostly vegetable oils – the exact type the vegetarian zealots insist are better for us than animal fats. Ornish reached way back to 1950 to grab figures on meat consumption so he could make a dramatic comparison with today and thus blame meat for obesity rates that began rising … wait for it … 30 years later. Let’s back up instead to 1970, when Americans were still lean on average and not suffering from record rates of diabetes.
Meat consumption rose by 13 percent from 1970 to 2005, but mainly because we eat a lot more chicken. During that same timespan, red meat consumption dropped by 22%, egg consumption dropped by 17%, and dairy consumption dropped a wee bit. Meanwhile, grain consumption increased by 45%.
Keep those figures in mind as we continue quoting Dr. Ornish.
The debate is not as simple as low-fat versus low-carb. Research shows that animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Dr. Ornish includes a link that goes to a study I already analyzed in this post. It’s another one of those number-crunching analyses of two lousy observational studies based on food questionnaires. Other analyses of the same parent studies (The Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the Nurses’ Health Study) have consistently shown that the participants who ate the most meat and eggs were also more likely to smoke, to drink, to be overweight, etc. In other words, we’re comparing adherers vs. non-adherers, not the effects of any one food.
But since Dr. Ornish apparently believes observational studies are rock-solid evidence, perhaps he can explain these results 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.
I guess animal foods will kill you unless you’re Japanese, in which case they extend your life.
Back to Dr. Ornish:
Heavy consumption of saturated fat and trans fats may double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Once again, notice how he lumps trans fats and saturated fats together. The vegetarian and vegan zealots do that all the time – well, at least now that they’ve admitted trans fats are bad. Back in the 1980s, The Guy From CSPI was pushing trans fats as a safe alternative to animal fats. Point is, trans fats and saturated fats have very different effects on your health – which Dr. Ornish chooses to ignore.
A study published last March found a 75 percent increase in premature deaths from all causes, and a 400 percent increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes, among heavy consumers of animal protein under the age of 65 — those who got 20 percent or more of their calories from animal protein.
Dr. Ornish forgot to mention a couple a couple of facts about that study:
- It’s yet another observational study based on food questionnaires and is therefore nearly worthless.
- Data from the same study showed that heavy consumers of animal proteins over the age of 65 had lower mortality and lower rates of heart disease and cancer, not higher.
So if this observational study actually tells us something about the health effects of animal protein (which it doesn’t), we’d have to conclude that meat will kill you until you turn 65, but after age 65 it will save your life.
Back to the good doctor:
Low-carb, high-animal-protein diets promote heart disease via mechanisms other than just their effects on cholesterol levels. Arterial blockages may be caused by animal-protein-induced elevations in free fatty acids and insulin levels and decreased production of endothelial progenitor cells (which help keep arteries clean). Egg yolks and red meat appear to significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease and cancer due to increased production of trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO, a metabolite of meat and egg yolks linked to the clogging of arteries. (Egg whites have neither cholesterol nor TMAO.)
Ornish linked to a study to support that paragraph, so I checked it out. Here’s the abstract:
Mice that were fed a high-fat, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet were found to have atherosclerosis that was not associated with traditional cardiovascular risk factors.
So I’m going to suggest you avoid (especially if you’re a mouse) the “Atkins Diet” version of laboratory rodent chow, which is a mix of corn starch, sugar, casein, and various fats including soybean oil, corn oil and Crisco.
Animal protein increases IGF-1, an insulin-like growth hormone, and chronic inflammation, an underlying factor in many chronic diseases. Also, red meat is high in Neu5Gc, a tumor-forming sugar that is linked to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of cancer. A plant-based diet may prolong life by blocking the mTOR protein, which is linked to aging.
To support those claims, Ornish referred to another mouse study and the observational study that showed a statistical link between meat and higher mortality up to age 65, but lower mortality after age 65. Since most of us will live to be 65 anyway, I think we can stop worrying about the meat. Eat it now, and after celebrating your 65th birthday, start eating even more of it.
Are you recognizing the Ornish method of persuasion by now? He’s like the Wizard of Oz, blowing a lot of smoke and bellowing loudly, but really hoping you don’t look behind that curtain. A quick reference to a mouse study (which he doesn’t identify as a mouse study), a quick reference to an observational study (citing one result but skipping the result he doesn’t want you to see), a quick conflation of trans fats and animal fats, and VOILA! – you’ve almost got an argument against eating animal foods.
An optimal diet for preventing disease is a whole-foods, plant-based diet that is naturally low in animal protein, harmful fats and refined carbohydrates. What that means in practice is little or no red meat; mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and soy products in their natural forms; very few simple and refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour; and sufficient “good fats” such as fish oil or flax oil, seeds and nuts. A healthful diet should be low in “bad fats,” meaning trans fats, saturated fats and hydrogenated fats. Finally, we need more quality and less quantity.
Hmmm … let’s rewrite that paragraph to reflect the actual evidence:
An optimal diet for preventing disease is a whole-foods diet that is naturally low in harmful fats and refined carbohydrates. What that means in practice is meat, eggs, vegetables, fruits and nuts, but little or no whole grains or soy products; very few simple and refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour; and sufficient “good fats” such as fish oil, natural animal fats, seeds and nuts. A healthful diet should be low in “bad fats,” meaning trans fats, processed vegetable oils, seed oils, and hydrogenated fats. Aim for quality, and you’ll probably find the quantity takes care of itself.
I didn’t bother to read all the comments on Ornish’s article, but I did come across this one:
So far, 331 comments posted. About 88% either disagree or have a different view than the author. I suppose if you agree with him, then you may not comment. But it is obvious the author is not connecting to his audience. I suspect he is not much different than other vegans I have met: for him, diet is a religion and he cherry picks the science.
Sorry, Dr. Ornish, but the jig is up. People aren’t buying these weak arguments of yours anymore. You can keep bellowing away about the hazards of animal foods, but it’s the information age now and the crowd knows better – and the crowd is loud.