What do Michael (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) Pollan, the Mayo Clinic, the Atkins Dietand vegan activists have in common?

Besides being way too visible in the media, that is.

Answer: They’re all addressing the same dietary dilemma confronting Americans—and it has nothing to do with meat-eating.

Let’s start with the similarities. As anyone involved in meat production understands (thanks to that media visibility thing), the vegan diet contains no animal foods whatsoever: It’s super low fat, absolutely unnatural and its proponents tout incredible health benefits from rigid adherence to its strictures.

For example: Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a former Cleveland Clinic cardiologist turned dietary guru,has written several best-sellers claiming that after five years on his plant-based diet(essentially a vegan protocol), his patients’ average cholesterol levels dropped from 246 to 137 (above 240 mg/deciliter is considered “high risk;” below 150 mg/dL is the level seen in cultures where heart disease is almost nonexistent.)

Pretty impressive data; less so the actual food choices he recommends.

Then there’s Michael Pollan, whose ego couldn’t fit into Yankee Stadium but whose “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” mantra has gotten serious traction among the culinary cognoscenti (why is a mystery). Pollan argues that human beings should eat what the human physiology has adapted to throughout evolution. Thus no processed foods, snack items or any of the high-fat, high-calorie treatsmost of us sneak into our daily diets.

Next, consider the Mayo Clinic diet, which relies on such staples as low-fat chicken, grapefruit and tomato juice and lots and lots and lots of fresh produce. It’s not too difficult to imagine that most people who are able to stick to that plan would likely lose weight.

Lots of weight.

Finally,there is the renowned Atkins Diet, developed by Dr. Robert Atkins, who became famous for preaching that a diet of steak, eggs and bacon—while simultaneously curbing the carbs—could produce significant weight loss in a surprisingly high percentage of overweight and otherwise sedentary adults. The Atkins Diet has fallen out of favor, but in its heyday, it now only helped many people trim their waistlines, it simultaneously fattened meat processors’ bottom lines in ways they can only dream about these days.

The ties that bind

Now comes the punch line: What do all these very different approaches to optimal nutrition have in common? At first glance, nothing. The Atkins Diet and veganism couldn’t be further apart.But there’s a powerful connection among all of them that ties all these radically different diets together: A serious reduction of processed carbohydrates.

That’s the magic wand that produces the weight loss, cholesterol control and high-level wellness these very different diets all promise their adherents.

Although many researchers and medical authorities argue that the Atkins Diet worked for the wrong reasons, what it did was eliminate the deleterious effects of high fat intake along with high carbohydrate consumption. That was (is) the problem with most overweight people: too many refined carbohydrates that trigger a cascade of unhealthy responses, such as elevated blood glucose that leads to unwanted bodily fat storage.

It’s not that a high-fat diet is harmless and people really can eat all the bacon and eggs they want—and still lose weight. The Atkins Diet produced results because cutting out all the processed carbohydrates proved to be a powerful way to re-shape one’s metabolism and thus lose weight.

Of course, if people to eat only vegetables, legumes, and whole grains—as vegans preach and Pollan postulates--their cholesterol levels will definitely decline, their blood glucose profiles will absolutely improve and they will lose weight—guaranteed. But any significant slippage that endsup adding back refined carbs and vegetable fats (especially trans fat) will quickly negate the benefits of any such restrictive diet.

Basically, we pay a huge metabolic price for wolfing downthe copious amounts of refined carbohydrates found in bread, breakfast cereals, snack foods and other junk that line the aisles of every supermarket and fill up the menuboards of every fast-food store on earth.

But unlike what Michael Pollan—and certainly the “meat is murder” crowd—would have us believe, the problem isn’t animal protein, it’s the rest of what’s typically on our plates or in our hands.

As I’ve been saying for years, the problem ain’t the burger, it’s the bun.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator