Dr. Walter Willett, whom the Boston Globe once described as the world’s most influential nutritionist, has finally convinced me to adopt the diet of a gorilla. Yes, it’s a big mental shift, but the turning point came when I read about a rigorous, unbiased study Dr. Willett recently conducted, as reported in the U.K. Telegraph:
At least one-third of early deaths could be prevented if everyone moved to a vegetarian diet, Harvard scientists have calculated.
Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggested that around 24 per cent or 141,000 deaths each year in Britain were preventable, but most of that was due to smoking, alcohol or obesity.
But the new figures from Harvard suggest that at least 200,000 lives could be saved each year if people cut meat from their diets.
Wow. Apparently giving up meat would provide as many health benefits as giving up smoking or heavy drinking. Or to put it another way, apparently eating meat is as damaging to your health as smoking or heavy drinking.
I admit, I found this confusing at first. As a logical person, I tend to assume if a change in diet provides massive health benefits – like, say, giving up meat prevents one-third of all premature deaths – we’d see consistent evidence to that effect.
But that’s not what we’ve seen. When it comes to meat and health, the evidence has been all over the place. Sure, vegetarians can cherry-pick some observational studies in which vegetarians had longer lifespans, but I can just as easily quote from observational studies in which they didn’t.
For example, here’s the conclusion from a study titled Mortality in vegetarians and comparable nonvegetarians in the United Kingdom:
In conclusion, our results suggest that United Kingdom–based vegetarians and comparable nonvegetarians (including people who eat fish but not meat and those who eat meat <5 times per week on average) have similar all-cause mortality.
That’s in spite of the fact that the people classified as “regular meat-eaters” in this study were older and less active on average than the vegetarians.
Here’s a similar conclusion from an Australian study titled Vegetarian diet and all-cause mortality, which included more than 250,000 people aged 45 and older:
We found no evidence that following a vegetarian diet, semi-vegetarian diet or a pesco-vegetarian diet has an independent protective effect on all-cause mortality.
No difference in mortality in two large studies, and yet Dr. Willett calculated that one-third of all premature deaths would be prevented if we all stopped eating meat – and we know Dr. Willett has to be right because he’s from Harvard. But how can his conclusions differ so drastically from the conclusions drawn from large epidemiological studies? Like I said, it was confusing.
But then I read this:
Dr Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Medical School said the benefits of a plant-based diet had been vastly underestimated.
Ahhhh, now it makes perfect sense! The reason those other large studies didn’t find a longevity benefit for vegetarians is that the benefits were vastly underestimated! Those silly scientists just didn’t see what was right in front of them.
Nothing unusual there at all. It happens all the time. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of the modern NFL era, yet he wasn’t drafted until the sixth round. Teams chose 198 other players ahead of him. NFL scouts looked at the guy and weren’t impressed. They vastly underestimated the benefits Brady could provide.
Nonetheless, I was still unclear on exactly how these inferior scientists were so wildly underestimating the benefits of a vegetarian diet. But this cleared it up for me:
British-born Professor David Jenkins, of the University of Toronto, also told the conference that the benefits of vegetarianism had been ‘undersold.’
His team recently teamed up with The Bronx Zoo in New York and travelled to central Africa to record the feeding habits of gorillas.
Man, it’s times like this I’m painfully aware of the gaps in my education. I stupidly assumed if you want to calculate the benefits of a particular diet on humans, you study humans. Turns out you’re supposed to study gorillas. Anyway, here’s what they found:
When they recreated the diet for humans – which amounted to 63 servings of fruit and vegetables a day – they found a 35 percent fall in cholesterol, in just two weeks, the equivalent of taking statins.
“That was quite dramatic,” he said “We showed that there was no real difference between what we got with the diet and what we got with a statin.”
Around 17.5 million people eligible for statins to stave off heart disease, equating to most men over 60 and most women over 65.
I’d like to have a chat with the people who consumed 63 servings of fruits and vegetables per day while lowering their cholesterol levels so dramatically. I curious about how much they enjoyed that diet. I’d also like to know how many of them found bananas and apples to have the same metabolic effects as broccoli and asparagus, since fruits and vegetables always seemed to be lumped together in these studies.
Anyway, let’s the follow the logic:
- Recreating a gorilla’s diet for humans – which translates to 63 servings of fruits and vegetables per day – reduces cholesterol as much as statins.
- According to the latest guidelines, almost everyone over 65 who still has a pulse should be on statins … even though statins have been demonstrated to prevent premature death for pretty much nobody except older men who’ve already had a heart attack or are at unusually high risk of heart attack. But within those highly specific groups, taking statins may prevent one heart attack for every 100 people treated … at least in the most positive studies.
- Therefore, if everyone stopped eating meat, we’d prevent one-third of premature deaths.
Dang, I’m humbled. I can’t believe I didn’t connect the dots myself. This is the kind of solid, unbiased scientific reasoning that’s made Harvard and other universities such trusted sources for advice on diet and health.
And so, thanks to the impeccable work of Dr. Willett and his colleagues, I now understand I should be eating like a gorilla.
Vegetrollians, of course, have been telling me that for years. Oh, yeah? You think you need meat for complete protein? What about gorillas, huh? HUH?! They’re big and strong enough to tear you apart, and they only eat plants!
I’ve always replied that if I ever wake up and find myself with a gorilla’s big jaws and huge digestive system required to extract protein from leaves and metabolize cellulose fibers into fats, I’ll give the gorilla diet a try.
But thanks to Dr. Willett and his colleagues, I see that was limited thinking on my part. Who’s to say I can’t develop the physiology of a gorilla? When did that become a law of the universe? Maybe I don’t have gorilla-sized jaws because I haven’t exercised them enough.
In fact, once I worked past my speciesist biases, I began to see the advantages of becoming more like a gorilla. That huge gut size I mentioned above is just one of them. For human beings, a big ol’ round belly is both embarrassing and unhealthy … yet many us of struggle to maintain a flat belly. In fact, a comedienne I worked with back in my standup days speculated that men decide they’re ready to get married when they finally grow tired of exercising and sucking in their bellies.
On the other hand, have you ever seen a gorilla trying to suck in his gut when there’s a lady gorilla around? Of course not. For gorillas, a healthy belly looks like this:
Again, that’s because living on fibrous plants requires a ginormous digestive system. With enough time and effort, I believe I can expand my digestive system to the size of a gorilla’s. And if some snarky person comments on my girth, I’ll just reply, “Look, you idiot, I’m working my way up to 63 servings per day of fruits and vegetables, and this is what it takes. Dr. Willett says it’s good for me, and he has to know what he’s talking about, because he’s at Harvard.”
The more I think about it, the more I’m looking forward to going out and buying the kind of “relaxed fit” clothes I tossed after I lost my big belly by switching to a high-meat, low-carb diet. I could gain 15 pounds over the holidays while wearing those clothes, and they still fit just fine. Nowadays, gaining 15 pounds means my pants are tight.
But even more than the new wardrobe, I’m looking forward to spending 80 percent of my waking hours chewing my food or resting from the effort. I don’t mean to complain, but my current lifestyle can be hectic. There’s the programming work, the commute to the office, family responsibilities, weekend farm work, researching and writing posts, animating and sound-mixing and composing music for the Fat Head Kids film, etc., etc.
Gorillas don’t deal with that kind of stress. Because their diets consist mostly of fibrous plant matter, they get to spend nearly all day chewing and chewing and chewing and chewing and chewing and chewing and chewing their food to extract the nutrients, then resting. Thanks to Dr. Willett and his colleagues, I now recognize what a healthy, relaxed lifestyle that would be for me. I want in.
I believe Chareva will agree I’m entitled to the change. We both had jobs early in our marriage, but before the girls came along, we decided I should provide all the income so she could be 100% available for the wee ones.
We didn’t make that decision lightly, of course. Because I’m such an avid reader of academic papers produced by gender-studies departments, I pointed out that making her financially dependent on me would reproduce existing patterns of discrimination and inequality imposed by the patriarchy. She countered with something like, “Shut up and go to work,” so I reluctantly agreed to oppress her.
But she surely recognizes that as teenagers, the girls are no longer as dependent on her. Seeing Mommy go to work and take over the mortgage-paying responsibilities might even inspire and empower them. And if that doesn’t convince Chareva, I’ll simply say, “Look, Honey, if I don’t start eating like a gorilla, I’ll probably die soon anyway. Dr. Willett said as much, and he’s a professor at Harvard, so we know he’s right. At least this way, you can visit me in the back pastures when I’m out there gathering and chewing my dinner.”
I know some of you wacky paleo and low-carb meat-eaters will disagree with my decision to become a gorilla. Some of you may even hurl insults in response. Well, I’m not worried. According to Dr. Willett, two-thirds of you will die prematurely anyway, so you won’t be around to argue with me.
And I know Dr. Willett is right, because he’s a professor at Harvard.