It didn’t take long for the self-proclaimed dietary experts to follow up the Dietary Guidelines recommendation to cut back on meat with their (allegedly) superior alternatives.
We’ve just seen the mission to pin the Earth’s environmental woes on livestock producers come full circle, with the “scientific” report (sorry to have to use quotes) of the Dietary Guidelines gurus urging Americans to shun beef — all meat and poultry is suspect, but cattle are being branded as the primary culprits — in an effort to promote “sustainability” and save the planet.
That leads to an immediate question: If people eat less beef, what are they supposed to substitute for the burgers, steaks, roasts, hot dogs, deli meat, sausage, meatloaf, meatballs, jerky, snack sticks and other items that comprise a significant percentage of the protein and calories for 95 + percent of the population?
There is no shortage of suggestions, and definitely no shortage of self-styled experts ready and willing to provide that information.
For example: Two osteopaths, Drs. Karl Nadolsky and his brother Spencer, maintain a website called “Lifestyle Medicine.” They dish out advice on healthy living, particularly on diet and nutrition, as an alternative to medical intervention for the chronic health problems that admittedly plague way too many Americans.
So far, so good.
But it’s quickly apparent that the good doctors are anything but mainstream, since they prominently discuss their month-long foray into a “totally vegan lifestyle” — which, not surprisingly, they found to be a wonderful experience.
What do they recommend in lieu of red meat, that horrible scourge of the Earth?
“We have always been nuts about nuts, including them not only in our own diets but also in our dietary recommendations to patients,” they write, citing a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that examined “Cardiometabolic Risk and Abdominal Adiposity in Healthy Adults With Elevated LDL-Cholesterol.”
In other words, people who are overweight and at higher risk of heart disease.
The study concluded that eating tree nuts “improved glycemic control and reduced the risk of coronary artery disease.” Based on that, you might be tempted to assume that it’s time to shove that package of ground beef back into the meat case and reach for a sack of almonds instead.
But let’s dissect this study a little further before jumping to any sweeping conclusions.
An inaccurate comparison
First of all, the study was done with only 48 patients, who participated in a “crossover feeding trial” (in which they switched roles) for two 6-week periods. One group ate a daily snack of 1.5 ounces of unsalted whole almonds (about 250 calories); the other group ate a banana muffin with butter (about 270 calories).
Stop right there. Forty-eight people isn’t exactly a massive population study, and six weeks isn’t much of a long-term assessment. Moreover, while a banana muffin may deliver approximately the same calories as a handful of nuts, the impact of refined carbohydrates (sugar and flour) on glycemic control, and thus abdominal adiposity, is not the identical to that of the protein and fat provided by the almonds. They’re not the same. A calorie is not a calorie! The source of the calories matters greatly, so it’s understandable that people eating nuts might improve their cardiovascular metrics, versus people eating muffins.
And here’s the clincher: The researchers noted that both intervention groups showed improvements in lipid profiles. It’s just that the almond eaters had a greater improvement — for the reason noted above.
And one more set of facts to consider, which in the light of the Dietary Gurus’ insistence on sustainability in food production, are highly relevant. California, the world’s leading producer of almonds, diverts more than 80 percent of the state’s total water supply to agriculture. That’s understandable. The state is a major producers of a whole range of agricultural commodities.
But despite the publicity that the Almond Board of California gives to growers’ efforts to use soil mapping and micro-irrigation (drip) systems, the reality is that the million or so acres planted in almond orchards in the Golden State consume more than 1.1 trillion gallons of water a year, according to California Department of Water Resources data. That’s 10 percent of the state’s entire water supply, enough to take a 10-minute shower — for the next 86 million years.
In fact, each acre of almond groves requires three to four acre-feet of irrigation water a year, which means that every single almond requires a gallon of water to produce, and that’s not counting the water footprint created during post-harvesting, processing, packaging and distribution.
In summary: Almonds are indeed a healthy sources of nutrition, but they’re hardly benign in terms of their eco-impact, nor is it accurate for self-styled experts such as the Drs. Nadolsky to blithely pretend they’re the perfect substitute for beef.
In response to such suggestions, I say . . . wait for it . . . nuts to that.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.