Many Americans are consuming less animal products and more plant-based products in response to a growing trend of “vegan for health”. What does the research say about plant-based diets and the health effects of avoiding meat?

The weekend before last at UCLA there was the Ancestral Health Symposium. This hosted lectures from many big names like Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, Stephen Guyenet, Tom Naughton, and others. Denise Minger, famed slayer of The China Study (not the book, but the actual China-Oxford Cornell study), hosted a lecture entitled How to Win an Argument With a Vegetarian.

Despite the name, this was not a series of silly talking points that one can read from to “shut up” that vegetarian/vegan that disagrees with them (the name was inspired from a popular post on VegSource entitled How to Win an Argument With a Meat Eater). Throughout the 40 minute talk, Minger introduces the big names in the plant-based diet community that always come up as the definitive proof that a “whole food, plant-based diet” (WFPBD)  is the singular way to good health.

You will find all these individuals are interconnected, and you’ll commonly see one name be mentioned by the other (since they all belong to the vegan front-group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)). If you shop at Whole Foods, you have likely already heard of them:

  • Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn
  • Dr. Neal Barnard
    • President of Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (a group purporting to be a body of physicians and health experts giving out the best science in nutrition and health). He has had success in treating individuals with diabetes.
  • Dr. T. Colin Campbell
    • Author of the best-selling book The China Study, which claims that animals products correlate with cancer. He is also the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University.
  • Dr. Dean Ornish
    • Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California. Known for his lifestyle intervention trials where he has combined a very low-fat vegan diet with lifestyle suggestions to reverse heart disease.
  • Dr. John McDougal
    • Launched a successful vegan and vegetarian program in some hospitals and has a food line that is sold in grocery stores.
  • Dr. Joel Fuhrman

Minger outlined the studies done by these gentlemen, which they say is the definitive proof that a WFPBD is better than anything else and the proof therefore that meat and other animal products are bad for your health and are the trigger for modern disease.  Here is a shortened version of what they espouse and what kind of diet they recommend:

  • Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn
    • Very low-fat, vegan diet. Reduce and eliminate sugars, refined and processed foods, and extracted oils.
  • Dr. T. Colin Campbell
    • Low fat, vegan diet. Reduce and eliminate sugars, refined and processed foods, and extracted oils.
  • Dr. Neal Barnard
    • Low fat vegan diet. Reduce and eliminate sugars, refined and processed foods, and extracted oils. He also suggests avoiding fried starches like potato chips and french fries.
  • Dr. Dean Ornish
    • Very low-fat, vegan diet. Reduce and eliminate sugars, refined and processed foods, and extracted oils. Ornish offers his patients lifestyle suggestions, help to stop smoking, and extra support when they need it. Patients may consume fish oil.
  • Dr. John McDougal
    • Low fat, high carb vegetarian or vegan diet. Reduce and eliminate sugars, refined and processed foods, and extracted oils. His patients also eliminate fruit juices.
  • Dr. Joel Fuhrman

Other than a lack of animal products, what else do you notice? That’s right, they all advocate a healthy lifestyle, no sugar, no white flour, no polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and no processed foods. So, let me get this straight: if you remove the smoking, and drinking, sugar and flour, processed foods and vegetable oils, sedentary lifestyle, and lastly the meat, then by God it must’ve been the meat that was the biggest culprit! Wait, what?

According to these gentlemen:

  • Smoking and drinking is the same as eating a steak, an egg, or drinking full fat milk
  • The standard American diet is a valid comparison to a healthy omnivorous diet
  • Factory farmed animal products are just the same as pasture-based animal products

Am I the only one that sees some funny math here? How can it be that a steak or an egg is equivalent to smoking or eating processed food? It’s easy to come to this conclusion when you have a very specific agenda! Of course, “agenda” is a strong word and it’s thrown around a lot, but I know that they have an agenda because for one, Activist Cash has shown how the PCRM has all sorts of connections to animal rights groups, and for two, I’ve been familiar with this group since I was in nutrition school. As a student, Dr. Neal Barnard  gave a lecture while I was there. I also was subscribed to the PCRM’s publications for a few years before I noticed just how much they like to ignore pesky little details. This group likes to blur the lines between pasture-based animal products and those that come from a factory farm. You’ll notice that no studies they have done have  involved healthy meat eaters; only those who follow a standard American diet.

The big problem here of course is that someone following a standard American diet is more likely to smoke, more likely to have a sedentary lifestyle, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they consume lots of processed and refined foods. These are the very things that we know can trigger disease, so then how is it that these men have proven that a WFPBD is superior to all other diets when what they’ve really shown is that a diet that is plant-based, with no extracted oils, no smoking, no processed or refined foods, and stress reduction bundled together can help reverse modern-day disease. At no point have they proven that solely removing meat was the panacea that worked.

Well, this is true save for one man: Dr. T. Colin Campbell, whose book The China Study is cited by most proponents of the WFPBD community as the definitive proof that animal protein causes cancer. For those that aren’t already familiar with Campbell’s work, his evidence rests upon two separate studies. The first was an epidemiological (observational) study of Chinese people and what they ate. Campbell purports that the study showed that the more animal protein people consumed, the more likely they were to get cancer. The second study was a rat study where Campbell tested the effect of both animal protein and plant protein on rats and the results showed that the rats that ate the plant protein did not get cancer (but the animal protein rats did).

Case closed, right? No, not really; the devil is always in the details, my friends. In regards to Campbell’s epidemiological study (the famed “China study”), there are some glaring issues with the method. All this study did was ask people to mail in a questionnaire about what it is they ate for the period of time that the study was conducted. At no point was the quality of the food questioned, and likewise, there was no attention given to other food and lifestyle habits (sugar? white flour? vegetable oils? stress? smoking?). Regardless, poor controls in the study don’t outright discredit it. This is where Ms. Minger comes in, as she eviscerated the study itself and showed how the study actually pointed to a greater correlation between wheat and cancer, rather than meat consumption, and there are many other glaring issues that she beautifully exposed.

Next up, in regards to the rat study, this was also seriously flawed. In fact, the way the study was designed really makes one wonder if Campbell was purposely making the study flawed to get the results he wanted (that meat is bad and plant protein is divine). The rats were given powdered casein as the representative of the “meat group”. They weren’t given real meat, or milk, or eggs, or any whole food animal product. Instead, they were given a powdered protein isolate that I can assure you I wouldn’t touch with a 10 ½ ft pole! Really, I am not surprised that feeding rats powdered casein gives them cancer, not at all. In addition to the casein being removed from the vitamins and fatty acids that are naturally found with it, it’s quite likely that the source came from conventional milk which is potentially cancerous when treated with growth hormones. It really begs the question: why hasn’t Campbell followed up on this study with better controls?

Interestingly, Dr. Chris Masterjohn analyzed Campbell’s rat study, and surprise: the data does not match the conclusions! I also have to ponder as to how casein can be cancerous if it is contained in every animal milk, including humans? Ms. Minger brought this up in her critique of  Campbell’s study, and in his response, he completely ignored this. Why?

Finally, it’s important to understand that there is a stark difference nutritionally between grass-fed milk and powdered casein. Let’s compare a whole food animal protein to powdered casein:

Raw milk from grass-fed cows:

  • CLA (conjugated linolenic acid)
  • Vit A, D, & K2
  • Omega 3
Powdered casein from conventional dairy:

  • rBGH (growth hormones)
  • No vitamins or minerals

CLA and vitamins A & D are known cancer killers, so as you can see, a high quality whole food source makes a big difference! Likewise, rBGH and A-1 beta casein can trigger cancer. Coincidence?

In conclusion, it’s obvious that these men have not proven that the animal products are what cause disease. I’ve seen the studies, and I’m just not convinced. If someone removes processed and refined foods and adopts a healthy lifestyle, then of course there will be a dramatic difference in their health. In science, you must isolate specific factors in order to come to specific conclusions. If one must prove that meat or milk are bad, then it’s not as simple as just removing them. As I mentioned previously, all these men have shown is that a diet free of animal products, sugar, white flour, processed and refined food, and extracted oils, along with positive lifestyle changes, can help to prevent and reverse disease. They have never tested these same protocols with animal products; they’ve only compared it to the standard American diet (which we all know is no good for a variety of reasons).

In reality, as I had shown in the table previously, animal products (when coming from an ideal source; not sugar covered, soybean oil-drenched garbage) contain specific nutritional factors that help to prevent cancer. It is only in the last 100 years that we’ve seen a rapid increase in disease. Go figure, since we eat away from home more, have a less active lifestyle, are under more stress, eat more garbage (factory farmed animal products, sugar, white flour, processed and refined foods, polyunsaturated vegetable oils), smoke more, and have a less fulfilling life as a whole.

So is a WFPBD really the panacea for modern disease? If it is, there’s no evidence to show it. Likewise, this complete lack of evidence and poorly designed studies really calls into question the credibility of these men from the PCRM that crow the loudest about how a WFPD (and only a WFPD) will cure all that ails you. One must be left to ponder: if these men are so well-educated and have such an illustrious background, why the heck can’t they design a proper study that truly comes to the conclusions that they claim it does? Unless of course, they are only interested in coming to those conclusions first, and designing their studies to come to this conclusion all along…

Outside of the PCRM and their biases, there are still studies that have shown that a meat-free diet is healthier. If you look at these studies, you’ll find a clear pattern: vegans and vegetarians generally have better lifestyle habits than the average meat-eater (this goes back to what I was saying before about comparing someone with a healthy lifestyle to one with an unhealthy lifestyle). Last year a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine compared a low-carb Atkins diet with a low-carb “eco-Atkins” (a meat free low carb diet). The study showed that the individuals on the “eco-Atkins” had lower mortality and heart disease, while the regular Atkins was associated with a higher incidence of these. Is this the definitive proof that meat is bad? Far from it! In this study, the “eco-Atkins” group had a healthier lifestyle; no wonder they were healthier! A Polish study published last year showed that vegans and vegetarians are much more likely to engage in healthy lifestyle habits like less smoking and drinking and less processed foods (well, except for the veggie burgers that are giving many of them thyroid disease). Again, this goes back to what I was mentioning before: is it accurate (or even honest) to compare two individuals, one whom has a healthy lifestyle, and the other who doesn’t, and base the results solely off of what their diet is like? No, no it is not.

But what about when both omnivore and herbivore have a similar lifestyle? A study Minger mentioned in her discussion was this one from Taiwan. It compared vegetarian and non-vegetarian Buddhist monks who had a similar diet (except one didn’t eat meat). I like that this was done on Buddhist monks since that means that stress levels should be about the same. Stress is a disease trigger that is often ignored. Getting back to the study now, the results showed that it was the vegetarian Buddhists that had the higher risk of heart disease.

Is it time for the PCRM to eat their words? I think so. Really, there isn’t a single study that I know of that has compared health-conscious meat eaters with health-conscious vegetarians and has found that the meat eaters were just dropping like flies from disease. I think the Taiwanese study is especially interesting because all the individuals involved ate a similar cultural diet. Over at Minger’s site Raw Food SOS, she has a lengthy article discussing heart disease and the evidence that shows that ditching meat won’t save your arteries.

Since the beginning of time, humans have consumed meat and animal products. It’s taken thousands of years now for this animal-based diet to start giving us epidemics of heart disease, cancer, and obesity. But gosh, what about 200 years ago when we weren’t consuming nearly as much garbage (and before the invention of polyunsaturated vegetable oils, packaged processed foods, growth hormones, factory farming, epic stress levels, and super-sized soda)? You guessed it! There wasn’t an epidemic of these problems. Really, Dr. Weston A. Price demonstrated very clearly in numerous populations that when we eat nutrient dense animal foods, cut out the junk, and follow nourishing traditions, we have great health, and we even keep all our teeth!

(A very special thanks to Ms. Minger for her fantastic lecture and article that helped to inspire this post!)