Commentary: In praise of animal foods

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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.


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W.E.    
May, 22, 2013 at 09:39 AM

Good job on this, Mr. Murphy! Some even-handed and common-sense commentary which puts us all in our rightful place. I wonder if Zoe Harcombe has any opinions or information in her book about the differences in the nutritional levels of nutrients like Omega 3s, beta carotene, vitamin E and conjugated linoleic acid in grass-fed vs. grain fed meats.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  May, 22, 2013 at 12:02 PM

She is decidedly in favor of grassfed production, partly because of the nutritional distinction, but more so because of environmental reasons. Personally, I see the need for both system of beef production. There are millions of acres of rangeland unfit for row crop cultivation yet well-suited to raising cattle or sheep-- as long as numbers are managed and rotational grazing tactics are employed. On the other hand, the efficiencies of feedlot production (including its smaller carbon footprint per pound of product) mean that we protect the environment more so by using that method to help feed the world's need for protein. That's the beauty of animal agriculture: It can be adapted to numerous climate zones, precipitation levels and availability of feed and forage.

corrine    
May, 22, 2013 at 09:59 AM

I am a farmer, i raise cattle, grow corn, egg farm, professionally raise horses, we have an orchard my daughter sells fruits we grow, my son has a vinard, we sell all at farmers markets with our pumpkins my youngest farms. Yet you crazyr crazy articles still propose that we r designed Only to eat meat, which keep in mind, we are extremely large cate farm in our state. It all has to work in conjunction with one another, a symphonie of foods, cause meat alone high in proteins can kill. What amazes me, the studiesdone on food structures combined on your plate daily trains your body to digest, utit lize vitamins, build immunity, breeds strength and longivity, however another crazed left wing article about meat. Children cannot eat only meat every day, look at the research on their health. As well no such research was done to justify what this woman stated, just a commentary that is unlicenced and ridiculous. All foods in lesser amounts are productive to your body when used together. Fitness, genetics, and health conditions were not mentioned in the article or her rationale. My apologies but a one sided, downplay of other lines of farming, orchards, and farmers markets by your publication is outrageous and uncalled for. Get some sense of what you advise people prior to print publication.

    
May, 22, 2013 at 12:25 PM

With all due respect, Corrine, you've got it all wrong. Nobody --certainly not Ms. Harcombe -- is advocating that we "only eat meat." In fact, she advocates eating "real foods," which includes everything you mentioned: Fruits, vegetables, eggs, etc. Personally, I've written dozens of commentaries over the years advocating for diversity in food production, for more farming operations such as the ones you describe. It's good for consumers (more choice, more local foods), good for the business (bringing in new farmers) and good for the land (keeps farmland in production. What she opposes (as do I) is the official dietary recommendations to obtain fully one-half (or more) of our daily calories from "grains and cereals." What that means in practical terms is consuming hundreds of pounds per person per year of refined carbs and sugar. That's the problem, and that's the cause of the obesity epidemic we're experiencing. Instead of demonizing saturated fat, and by implication meat, we should be promoting its consumption as a STAPLE of one's daily diet.

IndianaJohn    
NW Indiana  |  May, 22, 2013 at 12:44 PM

We are today the dumbest, fattest, and sickest people who ever lived. Our diet is central to the latter two conditions. The following link is an important discussion on the topic of diet; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYJkS3ZBqos

michael    
kansas  |  May, 22, 2013 at 02:34 PM

Well, indianajohn, you've proven the first of your three descriptions to be true. Tell me what you're eating so I can avoid it. That, is important to me.

MWD    
Ames, IA  |  May, 23, 2013 at 09:24 AM

Hear hear! Excellent response.

Peter Lawton    
Onrus River, South Africa  |  May, 24, 2013 at 04:49 AM

Proof-reading required in section [on the basics of nutrition], last two lines "- -and a few ANIMAL foods (kelp and peppers)- -" and next sentence "- -most nutritious foods on the PLANT- -". Apart from that, thanks for your positive support of Dr H, she's doing a real good job. She's got brains and good sense.


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