Commentary: Demented diets

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Here’s the lead for a pro-vegetarian website reporting on a recent study from an international consortium of vascular researchers participating in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study: “If you’ve been following our website, you know that too many helpings of red meat, processed foods and dairy products are really bad for your health, and that red meat can kill you.”

Of course, the source for that information isn’t the REGARDS study but the Harvard University “Healthy Eating Plate” concept (see diagram), an “alternative” to USDA’s MyPyramid dietary guidelines. To refresh everyone’s memory, and in case anyone’s doubts its anti-animal foods bias, the Healthy Eating Plate features four main food groups—“Vegetables, Whole Grains, Healthy Protein, and Fruits;” provides graphics for “Healthy Oils” and “Water;” mentions 24 separate food and beverages; and uses more than 125 words to reinforce its dietary game plan.

Amidst all that, there is exactly one single mention of “meat,” and that’s the phrase “limit red meat.”

This is the vegetarian agenda writ large, without any pretense of acknowledging humanity’s historical diet that sustained Homo sapiens for, oh, approximately 250,000 years, give or take a couple dozen millennia.

The Healthy Eating Plate (HEP), departs from logic in two critical ways. First, the idea that it makes sense to “avoid bacon, cold cuts and processed meats” (because of the poisonous presence of saturated fat).

As if the Harvard experts can pretend that producers should raise livestock (“naturally” on pristine outdoor pastures only, of course—and by the way, pigs and poultry don’t do too well if left “grazing” out in a field), and then after the animals are humanely dispatched, then . . . what? Discard the organ meats? Trim off the fat and feed it to our pets (who actually need it to thrive, as any vet will tell you)? Take the trimmings and toss them into a rendering tank?

It’s the height of arrogance to smugly recommend a dietary strategy regarding animal foods that is inherently wasteful, inefficient and economically and environmentally unsustainable—then pretend that it’s sound, healthful advice.

Second, Vegetables and Fruits in HEP comprise fully one-half of the daily diet, at least visually. That’s 100% contrary to the dietary choices that people have had available throughout the eons during which human physiology developed—which by the way, hasn’t changed in the last 30 years as vegetarianism became the vogue. Even in tropical climates, it’s not possible to obtain half of one’s calories from fruits and vegetables, certainly not all year long.

Now, in most developed countries, fruits and vegetables are available 365 days a year, but only because there is global infrastructure in place to grow those products elsewhere and ship them around the world to those who can afford it.

Like Harvard faculty and researchers.

Yes, we could all broaden our dietary choices, and most of us would benefit from more conscious selection of high-nutrient fruits and vegetables. But making them a focal point of one’s diet is a luxury afforded to a relative few among the seven billion people alive today—plus, it’s wasteful and unsustainable to pretend that the Healthy Eating Plate makes sense for anyone other than a small fraction of the planet’s most affluent populations.

A new line of attack

But back to the original scare story: The idea that eating meat causes dementia. It’s basically another spear that anti-industry movement can gleefully chuck at meat-eaters.

“Eating too much red meat can also cause you to start losing your memory by the time you are in your sixties,” according to an interpretation of the REGARDS study on the Care 2 Make a Difference website.

The study, which was published last month in the clinical journal Neurology, involved a prospective, four-year analysis of 17,478 people screened for a history of stroke or impaired cognitive status. From that database, the authors concluded that, “A higher adherence to the Mediterranean Diet was associated with a lower likelihood of incipient cognitive impairment.”

The Mediterranean Diet is considered to be one high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as oily fish and olive oil, while limiting red meat, saturated fats and dairy products.

Problem No. 1 is that this study, as is true of virtually all dietary analyses, relies on food questionnaires. Asking people to accurately report what they ate (and in proper quantities) over four years is notoriously unreliable.

Problem No. 2, all this study only demonstrates an association, not cause-and-effect.

Third, about 7% of the study cohort overall developed symptoms of “incipient cognitive impairment” (ICI). With the highest level of adherence to the Mediterranean Diet, the risk was estimated to drop to about 5.67%. In other words, if every single person ate what the researchers believed was a superior diet, we could expect that slightly more than one person out of 100 would be spared the onset of dementia.

For four years, anyway.

But now here’s the kicker, in the researchers’ own words: “High adherence to the Mediterranean Diet was associated with a lower likelihood of ICI in nondiabetic participantsbut not in diabetic individuals” (emphasis added).

That means that the people who developed diabetes ended lowering their risk of dementia! If you have diabetes, apparently, you’re less likely to develop dementia even if you’re living on oily fish and olive oil as prescribed.

I don’t know exactly what that means, medically speaking, but it sure suggests that there’s more at play here than merely switching out red meat for seafood.

As if that’s even a realistic option when the world’s fisheries are severely deteriorated due to overharvesting.

But looking beyond affluent Americans and drawing conclusions based on a broader perspectivedoesn’t seem to be part of the curriculum at Harvard.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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