In comments made in response to Cattlenetwork.com’s publication of a two-part interview with British obesity researcher Zoe Harcombe last week, several readers criticized her views on health and nutrition as out-of-touch with mainstream Americans, and in a couple cases, as being antagonistic toward animal agriculture.
Nothing could be further from the truth. To dispel such notions—and explain why I heartily endorse her views—I’d like to offer Exhibit A: Some direct quotes from her book, “The Obesity Epidemic:”
[On the “nutritionally rich” consumption of fruits and vegetables]
“One of the key arguments is that fruits and vegetables are highly nutritious. We must stop making genera; and unsubstantiated claims like this. The statement in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that, ‘Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins’ is not evidence-based. For a short and more accurate statement, the Guidelines should have said: ‘Animal products are unbeatable nutritionally.’ ”
[On the basics of nutrition]
“The first lesson in nutrition sets out that the body needs macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates—although the need for the latter is debatable) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). The best providers of the essential macronutrients are animal foods—meat, fish, eggs and dairy. The best providers of vitamins and minerals are animal foods again, with seeds and a few animal foods (kelp and peppers) being useful. The most nutritious foods on the plant, therefore, are animal foods.”
[On the standard advice from professional dieticians]
“Where is the logic for our governments and dieticians telling us to replace the most nutritious foods (animal foods) with the one macronutrient (carbohydrates) that we arguably don’t even need, and certainly not in the quantities currently recommended? How can our dieticians be so enthusiastic about processed foods, so lacking in micronutrients that they are inevitably fortified?”
[On the perfect “Five-a-Day” foods]
“I set about doing what should have been done before any of this [dietary advice] started. I went back to the nutrition database to see if I could get the RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) from just five foods. This can be achieved with 100 grams of liver, 200 grams of sardines, 200 grams of whole milk, 100 grams of sunflower seeds and 200 grams of broccoli (1,300 calories).”
[On the suitability of a vegetarian (not vegan) diet]
“Dieticians applaud people for choosing a vegetarian diet, but then tell them to avoid eggs and consume low-fat milk. Under those conditions, it becomes practically impossible for a vegetarian to meet even minimal nutritional requirements.”
[On the causes of obesity]
“Sedentary behavior isn’t the cause of obesity. Inactivity is a consequence of our poor nutrition providing no useful energy for [cellular] mitochondria [to produce energy]—with the result of becoming overweight and less able to move about. That’s the downwards spiral.
[On exercise as it relates to obesity]
“The notion that the obesity epidemic has been caused by sedentary behavior is just the converse of saying that the obesity epidemic has been caused by eating too much. [Some] believe we are overweight because we have not expended enough energy. They believe if we increase ‘energy out’ (exercise more) we will lose weight. [Others] who hold the ‘Calorie Theory’ believe that for every 3,500 calories worth of exercise we do, we will lose one pound. They are both equals and opposites of the same misapplication of thermodynamics.”
[On the modern trend toward “laziness”]
“A complete lack of evidence does not deter those who believe that obesity is the result of laziness. [Instead], anecdotal evidence is offered: ‘We used to do more physical work.’ ‘We have all these labor-saving devices nowadays.’ ‘Kids watch TV all the time.’ I suggest that it is not watching television per se that is the cause of obesity, but rather the snacks we eat while watching TV that are causing obesity.”
[On adolescent behavior and the rise in obesity]
“We have placed a worrying reliance on the idea that, if only we could get our younger people away from the screen and active in some way, all will be fine. But the compelling argument against exercise being the cause (or the cure) for obesity is the simple fact that in one minute we can eat enough fuel for one hour of activity. The relative importance of not eating something, versus eating it and trying to use the fuel is enormously weighted towards not eating something in the first place.”
To me, Harcombe’s conclusions that eating “real foods,” like meat, milk and eggs, while cutting down on processed products formulated with added sugar, corn syrup and refined carbs, as the solution to the obesity crisis make more sense than just about anything I’ve ever read or heard on the subject.
She’s a friend—not a foe—to producers, which is clear from her speeches and her writings. She’s a big believer in natural foods, which she defines as foods of animal origin, supplemented by green vegetables and limited amounts of fruits.
That approach to nutrition has served humanity well for close to 100,000 years.
Why change now?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator, and Zoe Harcombe.