Monday, January 29, 2007

A comment on Micheal Pollan's "Unhappy Meals"

I've just finished reading Micheal Pollan's New York Times Magazine article "Unhappy Meals". The first line of the article is, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I couldn't agree more with his advice to "Eat Food", food being defined as anything your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food. And it's probably good advice to not eat too much. But the last line, "Mostly Plants", irks me.

I am, unabashedly, a meat and dairy eater. I do not agree that "meat is bad" based on what I consider to be sound scientific evidence as well as some fairly convincing circumstantial evidence. (See my prior entries.) Pollan simply states that meat is bad and uses it as a truism throughout the article. His evidence is based on the findings of a 1977 senate subcommittee that was apparently swayed by the arguments that "while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted." Is that the best he's got? He wants me to base my diet on the findings of a senate subcommittee?? One who based their findings on circumstantial evidence??? I'll give you circumstantial evidence: In Russia, following the collapse of communism, heart disease rates have exploded while meat and dairy consumption have declined. In Japan, heart disease rates have dropped for fifty years while beef and pork consumption are on the increase. And in Japan, they eat their beef and pork as fatty as they can get them. There are cultures with strikingly low rates of chronic disease whose diets are high in milk, meat and fat, like the Masai of Africa, the Inuit, traditional native american cultures like the Cree, and the Chinese citizens of Tuoli county. Not to mention the French, Swiss and Italians. I can name more.

He later states that "populations that eat diets high in meat have higher rates of coronary heart disease and cancer than those that don’t." Really? Which ones? I've already named a handful for which this is not true.

His lack of evidentiary support gets him into trouble when he's trying to explain the findings of the Women's Health Initiative, a large, recently published study that failed to find any evidence that women who reduced their fat intakes as a percent of calories were protected against heart disease or breast cancer. He cites two scientists who think that the "culprits" in meat and milk might not be fat at all, but animal proteins or steroids. And here's the irony. The two scientistst are T. Colin Campbell, whose China Health Study failed to find any link between meat consumption and heart disease and Walter Willett, whose recently published "Low-Carbohydrate Diet Score and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women," failed to show any connection between a high meat, high fat diet and heart disease.

OK, I'm going to restate that point in it's own paragraph for effect. In order to explain why a recent study failed to show any benefit associated with a low fat diet, Pollan offers us the OPINIONS of two scientists whose studies failed to show any connection between diets high in meat and animal fat with heart disease and zero scientific evidence.

Pollan also claims that the Womens Health Initiative is poorly controlled. I agree, but Dr. Campbell's and Dr. Willett's studies are much better and had the same result. Let's not pretend that the Nurses Health Initiative is the ONLY one to have failed to show the link between meat and chronic disease.

Other than my point about meat consumption, I agree with Pollan entirely. I particularly agree with his concluding point number seven: Eat more like the French. In particular, enjoy "communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating."