Snake Oil and Public Broadcasting

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First, let me say once again that I love PBS – the Nightly News Hour, Frontline, Nova, and so much more.  Sometimes I even like it’s programming on health and nutrition, whose guest experts are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and increasingly ugly.

 

Such was the case last night when my local PBS affiliate aired an infomercial, masquerading as sound nutritional guidance, which was called something like Eat Fat to Get Thin.  I’m not making this up — the wording was close to this.  The fundamental message, which is a popular one now on several PBS “nutritional” programs, is that we need to be eating a lot more fat, especially “good fat.” The program was screened in front of a live audience that looked like it firmly embraced the standard American diet (SAD), hence its members were already getting about half of their calories from dietary fat.  And it showed.  But that still isn’t enough!!!

 

The nutritional “expert” was a family medicine physician who has presumably found that the road to riches lies in writing industry-subsidized books that make outrageous claims about how we should be eating.  For example, he asserted that a recent “study” showed rather remarkable health benefits to people who consume a liter of olive oil per week (no, really, he actually said this – and he’s not Donald Trump!).  For those of you reaching for your calorie counters, that would come to over 8000 calories per week from olive oil alone, which for most of us would be over half of our week’s caloric intake!  Now that should satisfy this PBS expert’s call for increasing our fat consumption!

 

He offered some good advice along with the ugly.  For example, he asserted that we should avoid eating dairy products.  We can’t argue with that.   But when the speaker turned to how we might remedy our unhealthy under-consumption of dietary fat, he suggested, at least twice during the program, that we eat more “grass-fed butter.”  Okay.  Aside from the wonderfully novel expression “grass-fed butter” (who makes these things up?), the speaker seemed to suffer no conflict with his assertion that we should avoid all dairy products.  I’m guessing – just a guess — that the object being fed grass in the process of producing “grass-fed butter” is a cow.  Which I think would make “grass-fed butter” a diary product.

 

The speaker for this PBS infomercial, in addition to being a popular author, is the chair of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a group promoting alternative medical therapies that are conspicuously lacking in scientific support.  One prominent critic of functional medicine condemned the opening of FM centers at two universities as an “unfortunate example of pseudoscientific quackery infiltrating medical academia.”  I think he was being kind!

 

I know that operating finances are difficult for PBS, and that it’s tempting to continue airing pay-to-play infomercials that peddle such nonsense as the need to increase dietary fat intake in a population that is literally doping on dietary fat.  PBS could probably afford to pay someone who is academically qualified to vet programs that claim to offer sound nutritional advice.  As it stands now, more and more of these PBS programs are forums for selling snake oil.

Some Random Thoughts on New Year’s Eve

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Being true to my blog purpose, I hope you all resolve to minimize putting junk in your mouths in 2016.  It’s not that hard.  But you first must be able to distinguish food from junk.  Let this be a brief and random summary of that distinction.

First, if an item is full of calories and empty of essential nutrients, it’s junk.  By and large, almost all “processed” items are junk (note that I resist misusing, and degrading, the term “food” when modified by the adjective “processed”).  Consume whole foods that are appropriate for the anatomy and digestive systems of human beings.  What is appropriate for humans?

You don’t need a Ph.D. in comparative anatomy to recognize that the human anatomy is that of the herbivore.  Nothing in the human anatomy fits the anatomical requirements and features of an omnivore, despite Michael Pollan’s bestselling tome.  Nor, obviously, does it possess the features of a carnivore’s anatomy.  We were made to eat vegetation.  We are best served by eating whole, not processed, vegetation.  Here are some guidelines:

Eat oranges, not orange juice.

Eat olives, not olive oil.

Eat applies, not apple juice.

Eat potatoes, not “French fries.”

Eat broccoli, carrots, spinach, pinto beans, peas, strawberries, garbanzo beans, brown rice, whole grains, onions, garlic, kale, and cauliflower – all those things you will find in the uncrowded produce section in your grocery store.

Don’t eat potato chips (or any “chips”), peanut butter, Wonder Bread, oil (yes, that includes no olive oil), soda, crackers, frozen “dinners,” pizza, cheese, meat, yogurt, granola bars, enriched cereals (yes, that’s pretty much all of them), anything with added sugar, anything with added oil, anything with added anything – all those things you will not find in the uncrowded produce section in your grocery store.

Now – in the interest of public safety and health – here are a couple caveats.  Let’s say you want to deviate a bit from the “don’t put junk in your mouth” guidelines, and nibble a bit on meat for New Year’s Eve.  Do not apply the “no processing, whole foods” rule to items that are not appropriate to your herbivore anatomy – especially not to meat.  Real carnivores can eat just fine following their version of “no processing, whole food,” which they do when they snatch their prey, rip it apart with their teeth, and scarf it down on the spot.  That works just fine for self-respecting carnivores.  It does not work fine for herbivores, for whom “unprocessed whole meat” is categorically unsafe, even in the short term (yes, in the long term meat is unsafe for human consumption, no matter how you process it).  But to survive meat-eating in the short term, be sure you process it by cooking it thoroughly.  Humans can eat as though we were omnivores only because we can cook, at high heat, items that we are not made to safely process by our digestive systems.  So if you continue to eat meat, do not eat unprocessed meat as a real carnivore would.

Finally, last night our PBS station aired a discussion around being “in defense of food” (whatever that is supposed to mean?), hosted by Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Predictably the program began by identifying a few unassailable enemies of modern health: sugary sodas, chemically processed stuff of all kinds, products that egregiously add sugar, fat and salt just for their role in taste addiction, and products that are made from ingredients that no one can understand.  This builds credibility with viewers who know these products are killing us.  But eventually the program moves to the predictable obfuscation, with Pollan repeating his advice to eat real food, not too much of it, mostly from plants – and casually assuring the viewers that if they “eat mostly plants” that they have no fear of eating too much meat.  There are a couple problems with this. First, eating mostly plants has no reference point.  Does that mean eating most of one’s calories from vegetation?  Or does it mean that vegetation occupies the most volume, or most weight, on your dinner plate?  What does it mean?  I ask this because I could easily eat “mostly plants” by volume or weight, and consume most of my calories from meat and dairy.  In fact, the plates that were visible throughout the show were entirely inadequate to support most people’s caloric needs if they were representing the “mostly plants” mandate based on calories – the accepted measure for food consumption.  For example, if you are eating eighty percent of your calories from vegetation, you will need to consume far more food than that which appeared on the skimpy plates in the show.  If you are getting all of your calories from vegetation, you will need to consume about four times the volume of food that was visible on the program’s plates.  Which calls in question the “not too much” food admonition from Pollan – because if you are currently getting over half of your calories from fat and protein, as  you would be on the Western or Standard American diet, you will need to substantially increase the amount of food you consume to meet your daily caloric and nutritional requirements.

So the program leaves the views at best confused; at worst mislead.  And this is exactly the goal of this kind of modified infomercial that has increasingly become a mainstay of public television.  The industry that supported this program strives to create confusion and obfuscation, so that everyone viewing it can rationalize what they are currently doing as appropriate and at least reasonably healthful.

Let me end with a rebuttal to this message.  In short, the program’s message was to eat whatever you want to, with the notable exception of absurdly processed products.  This is not a good or safe message.  Sound nutrition demands much more.  Making a joke of epidemiology, which the program does, is not respectful to science.  And make no mistake about it; epidemiology is a science and arguably the most important scientific vehicle for exploring nutrition.  Rejecting the power of inferential statistics is both unscientific and unprofessional.  It reminds me of the decades-long success of the tobacco industry in arguing that no “causal relationship” could be proved in relating tobacco consumption to lung cancer and myriad adverse health effects.  And finally, the program showed studies that raised “questions” about nutritional conventional wisdom, without even mentioning the industries that supported those studies, nor that the studies have been thoroughly discredited by credible researchers.

Bottom line:  when it comes to nutrition, go with solid nutritional science and with impartial nutritional scholars – not with journalists.

Happy New Year!

 

Obesity Link – to the Coca Cola Company?  Say it Ain’t So!

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Under the theme of “follow the money” we have this unsurprising revelation from earlier this month.  A nonprofit corporation calling itself the Global Energy Balance Network (funny name, no?), which was established to combat obesity, claimed that it had received an “unrestricted gift” from the Coca Cola Company to help carry out its work in fighting the scourge of obesity.  Oh, and for those skeptics out there, this was a genuine no-strings-attached gift and involved “no input” from Coke.

I can tell some of you readers aren’t quite buying this!  You cynics, you!

Well, OK, maybe you were right to follow the money on this nefarious caper.  The Associated Press looked a little deeper into this relationship (which is surprising in itself!) and found emails showing that Coke a) helped with the selection of the nonprofit’s leaders, b) edited its mission statement, and c) suggested content for its website!  Now that is what I call a truly “unrestricted gift” with “no input” from the donor!

The anti-obesity group lasted about one day after severing its relationship with Coke, which was tantamount to cutting off its head and severing its limbs.  Coca Cola, by any other name (like, for example, the disingenuous Global Energy Balance Network), is still Coca Cola.  And, yes, “things go better with Coke,” especially if Coke is paying for them.  Just ask the defunct Global Energy Balance Network!

 

“Baby Animals Bring Big Blessings” (Are you sure about that???)

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Tis’ the season for holiday gift catalogues!  With that in mind, I was happy to see that World Vision is joining this tradition by offering its supporters a chance to send life-giving gifts of charity this holiday season.  But I wasn’t happy for very long – only until I looked in the catalogue and found incongruous opportunities to supply livestock to bolster the living circumstances of the destitute beneficiaries of World Vision!  These offers were supposed to be a variation on the gift that keeps on giving motif.

Now, let’s be fair, World Vision is a wonderful organization that does immeasurable good in this world.  I’m proud to have World Vision as a neighbor in the Pacific Northwest.  However, as I’m sure my readers know, the answer to world hunger is not to be found in moving people up on the food chain!  That is the wrong direction to be moving!  Today nearly five billion of the world’s 7.4 billion inhabitants subsist on diets comprised mainly of vegetation, and the only foreseeable strategy for insuring that all of our earthly brethren have enough food to eat in the years ahead is to move the other 2.4 billion of us to plant-based nutrition.

Have you missed the recent news from the Paris summit on global warming?  Have you missed Pope Francis’s profound encyclical on climate change – the Laudato si?  Let me briefly summarize: under no circumstances can the earth survive if its land and energy resources are used to raise grain to feed livestock so that a small minority of the population can eat at the top of the food chain.

Either we all consume low on the food chain, or over half of the world’s population will, at best, subsist near starvation – which is the way it is today.  So – please do not heed World Vision’s invitation to give that little piggy to a family.  That is not where we want to be going!

 

“Et tu, Globe and Mail?”

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First, let me disclaim any grudge against the venerable Globe and Mail.  I love that newspaper, so much so that I frequently cross the Canadian border and remain for days in the coffee houses of Vancouver or Victoria just to commune with my Globe and Mail.   In fact, I was doing just last week while escaping our American Thanksgiving, not the ideal holiday for those who prefer not to put junk in their mouths.

On the day before our Thanksgiving (November 25, 2015) the Globe ran a piece called “Eating Cheese with Chopsticks?” about the efforts of the Canadian dairy industry to seduce Chinese-Canadians into become new customers.  I know, all is fair in love, war and advertising – but journalism should perhaps rise above the ethical nadir of the infomercial.  In the article the Globe found a “dietitian” who asserted with great authority that “as well as decreasing blood pressure, milk can reduce incidences of diabetes and heart diseases” and added that in “countries such as China, where dairy is uncommon, the rate of osteoporosis in women older than 50 is twice as high as in Canada” and that dairy “reduces bone-thinning.”

My goodness!  Such a surprise!  And this must all have happened in the short interval since I last looked at the epidemiology of diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure and osteoporosis!

So – let’s be clear.  Despite the journalism of my favorite newspaper, the meta-analyses of unsponsored studies looking at these ailments do not, by any interpretation of the data, support the salubriousness of dairy consumption.  The assertions quoted above are simply not true.

My dear Globe and Mail, please check your facts before printing reckless claims from a “dietitian” who, in this case, is securely in the pocket of the dairy industry.  Your “Food & Wine” section on Wednesdays should be more than a collection of infomercials.

Prostituting to “Big Food” (aka, at least by me, as “Big Junk”)

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Last month the World Health Organization (WHO) finally conceded publicly that processed meats dramatically elevate the risks of getting myriad cancers, thereby giving the WHO’s imprimatur to a fact that everyone in the scientific nutritional community has known for decades.  The occasion of this news was the release of a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies reaching this conclusion, including studies sponsored by members of the “Big Food” industry.   If we were to remove the sponsored studies from this meta-analysis, the case against eating processed meats would be even more pronounced.

The information in this blog series is largely based on meta-analyses (summary results of large bodies of research) of unsponsored nutritional studies.  Studies sponsored by food-industry giants (these would include Tyson Foods, Nestle, Kraft, ConAgra, ADM, General Mills, etc.) are always flawed by research designs tailored to produce results sympathetic to the sponsoring industry – in other words the studies are rigged!  And if a study doesn’t produce the intended biased result, you will never hear about it.

The WHO study (meta-analysis) was mammoth, incorporating the results of over 800 studies conducted over a period of decades.  So, in a serious world, the results and implications of this research should have been the unequivocal message of media reports, right?  Wrong!  Not when the media itself is “sponsored” at a pretty hefty level by Big Food.  Whether you received this report on CNN, or PBS, or from the New York Times, the capper for each report was an unbridled repudiation of the report by an organization calling itself the North American Meat Institute.  The spokeswomen from the NAMI assured media consumers that the far reaching health benefits from eating meat far outweighed the alleged, negligible risks claimed by the WHO report.

Pretending that an unsupported proclamation from an industry trade association is “news” and belongs in a news report is the pinnacle of media hypocrisy.  Reading press releases written by trade groups, and inviting their unscientific comments on WHO research studies, is not, if I may understate, journalism.  It is, if I may again understate, prostitution.  And prostitution of the worst kind.