Given the track record, Oprah’s “Farewell Season” was bound to include at least one episode featuring veganism.   Ms. Winfrey didn’t disappoint – she and 378 staff members, under the direction of author Kathy Freston (Quantum Wellness), omitted meat, milk and eggs from their diet for an entire week.  Oprah’s previous veganism run occurred several years ago; she went on a 21-day vegan fast initiated by her association Freston.  At that time she noted, “The goal is to allow the body to rid itself of toxins, but Kathy’s thoughts on the ‘health, environmental and spiritual implications of the foods we choose to eat’ got my attention too.”  The recent episode focused upon the respective experiences and observations by employees during the week. 

The recent endeavor also featured Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Dialogue between Mr. Pollan and Ms. Winfrey was especially revealing.   The conversation transpires as follows:   

Oprah:  “Isn’t it amazing how we have more access than ever before and yet we’re unhealthier than we’ve ever been?” 

Pollan:” Yeah, we have access to lots of healthy food and yet the American diet is a catastrophe.  When you hear the phrase ‘healthcare crisis’ or ‘healthcare cost crisis,’ that is a euphemism for the catastrophe that is the American diet.  75% of our healthcare spending is on chronic diseases linked to diet.  That’s really what’s bankrupting us and that has to do with the way we’re eating:  way too many calories, too much processed food, tons of refined carbohydrates.” 

Oprah:  “Define refined carbohydrates – by refined carbohydrates what do you mean?” 

Pollan:  “White flour, things with white flour in it and sugar…soda.”

Oprah:  “It’s all those things that are packaged in the boxes and you just add water and…” [Ms. Winfrey snaps her fingers]

Pollan:  “Exactly.  It’s all that processed food.” 

Fair enough: Mr. Pollan correctly asserts the significance of obesity's impact from a health-care cost perspective.  However, the dialogue takes a decidedly strange (and I’d argue convenient) turn from there.   Mr. Pollan’s logic suddenly morphs into wholesale condemnation of mainstream animal agriculture.  We pick up with Pollan's observations about a shifting diet below (these immediately following his processed food comment above). 

Pollan (continuing):  Our diet has changed more in the last 100 years than in the last 10,000 probably, with the result that it is affecting our health.  And also, look, cheap food is a blessing in many ways but it’s also a curse.  So there are many good reasons to reduce our consumption of meat, especially.  But eliminate it?  You know, that’s a personal choice.     I went through the same exercise about meat, could I justify eating meat or not?  I came out in a different place than Kathy [Freston] did – I came out  thinking that I could eat meat in this very limited way, from farmers who were growing it in a way that I could feel good about how the animals lived.  And luckily we have a great many farmers like this now. We have a renaissance of small-scale animal farming….And that we’re not feeding them grain and taking that grain away from people who need that food.  

Certainly, we can’t disregard the influence of food availability in our current society; abundance plays a role in the rising obesity epidemic.  But then again, high-caloric foods aren't a new invention (think apple pie, ice cream, butter, chocolate, etc...)  Therefore, it leaves one wondering about the attempt to provide an anti-animal agriculture explanation.   It just doesn’t compute.  (Other than being beneficial for Ms. Winfrey; she never presses Mr. Pollan on his incoherent train of thought).   Does Pollan really believe that meat-based diets didn’t predominate 100 years ago (never mind 10,000)?   After all, what’s really changed over the past 100 years is a society that’s become increasingly industrialized.  As a result, we’re now more sedentary.  And in the end it’s pretty simple, we’re likely making poorer dietary choices (more on that later) while also burning fewer calories.  

In all fairness, such observations aren't unique to Ms. Winfrey, Ms. Freston or Mr. Pollan.  For example, Dr. Taryn Vian (Boston University School of Public Health) further suggests that purchasing options should now be regulated (letter-to-the-editor, Boston Globe, “Meat of the Matter on Fighting Obesity,” August 3, 2010):

What if we could reduce consumption of artery-clogging beef without changing eating habits at all?  We could do this by offering more choice of meat package sizes in grocery stores.  Many recipes for a family of four call for one pound of ground beef, yet packages sold in many markets weigh 1.2 pounds, on average.  Rather than throw away the extra meat, most people throw it into the pot, adding unnecessary calories to the dinner.  Those package sizes are not random.  All those little "0.2" portions add up to more profit for meat suppliers and stores.   The Massachusetts Department of Public Health could help nudge consumers to eat less beef by pressuring meat packers and grocery stores to offer a range of package sizes, including smaller portions.

The argument suggests that regulators (in their infinite wisdom) can save us from ourselves. That’s a slippery slope.  Do we really want to go down that path where government dictates how food products are packaged for purchase or consumption?    And of course, it doesn’t solve the problem that consumers might simply purchase two half-pound packages (that might weigh 9 ounces) instead of a single one-pound package.  

Lastly, it’s important to note that responsible, healthy dietary decisions are not exclusive to vegans.  Case in point, Kathy Freston’s cautions against bad habits:   “One thing to be careful of on a vegan diet is that you don't become a "junk food vegan," only eating things like cookies and chips.”   Also note that Mr. Pollan emphasizes the fact that we have access to lots of “healthy food” but we fail to exploit that advantage.   Therefore, inclusion of meat, milk and eggs in one’s diet is not automatically unhealthy nor provides a direct link to obesity!  In fact, many nutritional researchers have noted that gaining weight on meat-based diets is nearly impossible (for more on that subject read Gary Taubes:  Good Calories, Bad Calories).   

Meat, milk and eggs are NOT the culprit – any attempt to indicate otherwise is disingenuous.  The real dilemma (puzzle) for omnivores (consumers) is the need to sort through the rhetoric when so-called authorities confuse and/or misrepresent the facts.