I am a huge skeptic. I mean, I’m a scientist, so of course I want proof for claims, especially health claims. And my demand for health claims got even worse after reading Bad Science by Ben GoldAcre. This book basically teaches you about how studies can be flawed and it is truly eye-opening on health studies and claims. If you are interested in health at all, this is a must read so you can look at everything with a clear perspective.
Anyway, so on a recommendation of a friend, I watched Forks Over Knives, a documentary supporting a switch to a vegetarian diet. The reason I didn’t review it is that I disagreed with it so much that I couldn’t stand it. I understand what they were saying but their claims were so flawed, I couldn’t bear it! I was actually perturbed while watching it!
The reason this popped into my head today is because I am following a mostly-Paleo diet. I prefer to avoid grains and dairy. That leaves me with vegetables, fruits, nuts, and meat. A lot of people think that Paleo is all meat, all the time. I don’t feel that way. I still consume meat or fish at least twice a day (at breakfast, I have eggs), but this is no more than before I gave up grains. When I cut out the grains, I replaced those calories with vegetables.
So back to being a skeptic. A lot of studies that claim to show meat is bad for you compare apples to oranges, two different monsters per say. In the documentary Forks Over Knives, they compared a Western diet to a mostly-vegetarian diet. The Western Diet to me, and according to TheFreeDictionary.com, is “a diet loosely defined as one high in saturated fats, red meats, ‘empty’ carbohydrates—junk food—and low in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, poultry”. So how do we know it was just the meat and not some other aspect of the diet? The study in the documentary also compared different regions. Did they compare the other habits that could effect health such as activity level, exposure to environmental toxins, etc.?
I found this article from the New York Times which you may or may not trust, but I have a point, I promise. Read through the article yourself. Find anything strange? The big claim is that “the yearly national health care costs of eating meat are comparable to the estimated $50 billion spent each year to treat illnesses related to smoking”. They proceed to briefly discuss the studies (this is where the tips and tricks you can read in Bad Science come in handy). I’m constantly skeptical of their claims and statistics but check out this quote from one of the scientists.
The researchers did not offer physiological explanations for these findings beyond pointing out that “when meat is included in the diet, plant products are necessarily reduced.” They added, “The health effects of an omnivorous diet may result from the presence of meat, the displacement of plant foods, or both.”
So what about my diet? I have a diet relatively high in meat (compared to vegetarians) and very high in plant products. So I don’t fit into this study. I basically take all those soy products, grains, and beans that vegetarians eat and replace them with meat and more vegetable. But basically, the researchers said that their own study couldn’t definitively say that their outcome was cause by meat (verses lack of plant foods). Check out this section also:
Dr. Roy M. Schwarz, group vice president for professional standards of the American Medical Association, said the study did not specify whether factors like age, sex and genetic history of the people covered in the studies had been taken into account. All such factors could affect health.
“I just have a very difficult time believing that they have controlled for all these different factors,” Dr. Schwarz said, adding that he could not reach the same conclusions as the authors of the paper on the basis of evidence they had presented.
Again, these are the types of things you learn about in Bad Science (you really need to read this book!!). Basically, they chose to omit factors that could have lead to different conclusions. I will give benefit of the doubt to those studies that took in more factors such as smoking and exercise habits. What I really want to see is a study that compares those consuming a vegetarian diet and those consuming a Paleo diet where both groups eat similar amounts of vegetation while getting equal amount of nutrition from their respective “add-ins”. I might even claim that I consume more plants than some vegetarians because I have to boost my calories without boosting my meat consumption (though I also “boost” it with eating nuts).
Now then, for the disclaimer. I do not advocate any diet. No grains or dairy works for me. If vegetarian works for you, then do it. If a diet with grains, dairy, veggies, and meats works for you, the do that! I just wanted to help you become a better investigator and scientist. I don’t want you to blindly follow health claims because that can lead you down a path that maybe be detrimental to your health. And I felt that the Paleo diet needed a little bit of defense.
So, I have not seen a study yet that definitively proves to me that meat is bad for me or even grains for that matter. I have digestive problems with grains so I choose not to eat them. Do I think they are bad for everyone? Maybe not. I encourage people to investigate their diets. I admit I encourage my mom and my sisters to look with a skeptic eye at grains, but we have the same genetics so that is a different story. So do what you choose but please make sure that you are making an educated decision. Be skeptical, read into claims, check their backgrounds and studies. Decide what makes you feel good and healthy and do it!