The self-titled most prestigious university in the nation’s School of Public Health can’t help itself: There aren’t enough days in the week to publish studies slamming the consumption of meat.
Let’s start by acknowledging that the steadily increasing incidence of type 2 diabetes is an alarming national health problem.
Almost 10% of the country has diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, and of those nearly 30 million people, more than two-thirds are undiagnosed, and thus aren’t receiving treatment for the condition. That’s troubling, because frank diabetes, especially when poorly managed medically, triggers a host of complications: heart disease, kidney disease, even blindness caused by diabetic retinopathy.
It’s a public health crisis that warrants research and recommendations from the country’s academics and scientists in the field of preventive medicine.
If said academics are employed by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, however, we already know what their recommendation is going to be: Just stop it.
Stop eating meat, that is.
According to a new report from Harvard’s School of Public Health — one in a long line of similar studies — “consuming a plant-based diet is linked with substantially lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”
“This study highlights that even moderate dietary changes in the direction of a can play a significant role in the prevention of type 2 diabetes,” Ambika Satija, postdoctoral fellow in the university’s Department of Nutrition and lead author of the study, was quoted in the official news release. “These findings provide further evidence to support current dietary recommendations for chronic disease prevention.”
Those “current dietary recommendations,” of course, are for people to eat a “healthful plant-based diet.”
But with apologies to the late Paul Harvey — now . . . the rest of the story.
The real cause — and cure
What was not included in the lead of Harvard’s news release was a critical distinction. Yes, the study examined the impact of “healthful, plant-based diets,” but not just from the perspective of reducing or eliminating meat, as 99.99% of people who saw the headline and skimmed the first few sentences would assume.
But let’s have the researchers explain it themselves.
“While previous studies have found links between vegetarian diets and improved health outcomes, including reduced risk of type 2 diabetes,” the news release stated, “this new study is the first to make distinctions between healthy plant-based diets and less healthy ones that include things like sweetened foods and beverages, which may be detrimental for health.”
Well, they can lay claim to conducting the first such study to be published with that distinction — hard to believe that’s accurate — but conservatively speaking, this is probably the 50th or 60th such column I’ve written over the years making that exact same argument: Preventing diabetes isn’t about cutting out meat. It’s about cutting out the “sweetened foods and beverages.”
Even the Harvard data bears that out, and the scope and scale of the research underscores the conclusion the university’s PR flacks buried deep in the report.
The researchers tracked more than 200,000 male and female health professionals for more than 20 years using questionnaires on their diet and lifestyle choices, plus their medical history and disease diagnoses.
Here’s what they found: Adherence to a plant-based diet low in animal foods was associated with a 20% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, compared with low adherence to such a diet. Eating what they characterized as “a healthy version” of a plant-based diet was linked with a 34% lower diabetes risk, which sounds convincing. Go veggie and you lower your diabetes risk.
And to be sure, the researchers emphasized the benefits of plant-based diets that are high in fiber, antioxidants, unsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients such as magnesium.
But here are the key data: A less-healthy version of the vaunted plant-based diet — which features foods such as refined grains, white potatoes and sugar-sweetened beverages — was linked with a 16% increased risk of developing diabetes.
In other words, eating foods the majority of people gravitate toward when urged to reduce their consumption of meat not only fails to lower one’s risk of diabetes, it makes it more likely someone will develop the disease.
Now, the Harvard folks couldn’t bring themselves to state the obvious, instead falling back on their go-to line that, “Even modestly lowering animal food consumption was linked with lower diabetes incidence.”
Since they won’t say it, I will. The way to prevent (or control) diabetes starts and stops with a very simple dietary directive: Cut out refined carbs.
Period. End of directive.
That’s the cause, and that’s the cure.
Just don’t hold your breath waiting for anti-meat activists like our friends at the nation’s most prestigious university to utter those words.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator