How would you feel if you found out that pretty much everything you’ve been taught about nutrition was wrong? Would you feel lost? Confused? Dazed? It’s like finding out there’s no such thing as Santa Claus all over again. It’s like opening a gift and finding the box empty. Your entire world seems to come crashing down on you. You start questioning everything. You don’t know who or what to believe anymore.
The Holy Grail of Nutrition
That’s where I was a couple of weeks ago. I had just finished watching a great movie called “Forks over Knives” (available on Netflix) as a result of someone’s recommendation. It had a profound effect on me. I thought, “Finally! Someone’s found the Holy Grail of Nutrition: the “Optimal Diet.” Someone’s finally got scientific proof on which kind of diet works best.”
I was in 7th Heaven. I thought the mystery of which type of diet is really the best in terms of health and nutrition had finally been solved. It was like someone had actually discovered which “one true religion” out of all the “one true religions” that are out there really was the one, true, religion.
If you haven’t seen the film, here’s a short summary from the film’s webpage:
“FORKS OVER KNIVES examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods. The major storyline in the film traces the personal journeys of a pair of pioneering researchers, Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.”
Let me run that past you again: …examines the profound the claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and process foods.
Holy Moley! That’s way more than a “profound” claim. That’s revolutionary! That’s monumental! That’s bat-crazy astounding!!
But is it really true?
I really, really, really wanted to believe everything the film presented at face value. Watching the movie had been almost a religious experience. I was convinced. I was converted. I was “saved.” I was ready to turn totally vegetarian. However, it wasn’t long before the air was let out of my emotional “high” and I came crashing down to earth.
Being the skeptic that I am, the next morning I Googled “is ‘forks over knives’ legit?” just to see what came up. That’s when I came face-to-face (virtually, of course) with Denise Minger, a very unique and talented young woman. Denise has written a blog post titled “Forks Over Knives”: Is the Science Legit? (A Review and Critique) that has gone viral and it immediately caught my attention — and started putting my feet back on solid ground.
Denise is a raw-food advocate as well as a self described “numbers geek.” She’s not part of any lobby group nor does she have the backing and financial resources of the major food manufacturers. She’s simply an individual with a critical mind, some sharp analytical and research skills, and a flair for writing. The firestorm that she started with her post has been nothing short of amazing.
First of all, Denise’s post on “Forks over Knives” is not a “review” in the normal sense. A “review” of a movie is when some blogger takes 2 or 3 paragraphs to say, “Yo, I saw such-and-such movie and I really liked it. You guys should go see it. Click on my affiliate link to buy your tickets….” Now THAT’s a “review.” What Denise wrote however, is a detailed, fully documented, point-by-point critique of the movie’s assertions, primarily those based on the research of Dr. T. Colin Campbell, that spans more than 40 screen pages (not counting another 80 or so pages of comments, some of which are quite informative). Her critique is so thorough and so detailed that it elicited an actual response/rebuttal from Dr. Campbell himself, something that most researchers rarely deign to do.
You really need to read Denise’s post and subscribe to her website if you’re at all serious about nutrition. Her writing style is easy to understand and she does a super job of explaining the research. The link again is: “Forks Over Knives”: Is the Science Legit? (A Review and Critique)
“Slight of Hand” Conclusions
Denise brings up a lot of serious questions with the research cited in the movie. One of the points that impressed me the most early in the movie was the chart that graphed Norwegian mortality rates due to circulatory disease during the Nazi occupation of their country in 1940’s. Here’s a copy of the graph I’m talking about:
As you can plainly see, mortality rates start plummeting right after the Nazi’s come marching in. Dr. Campbell explains in the move that this is because the first thing the Germans did was confiscate all the livestock for their own use. This left the poor Norwegians with no meat in their diet and as a result of this primarily vegetarian diet, their mortality due to circulatory disease dropped like a rock. In 1945 when the Nazi’s left and meat began to be reintroduced into their diet, the Norwegian heart disease mortality rate began to increase again. Therefore eating meat equals increased mortality rates due to circulatory disease, and not eating meat equals lower mortality rates. So sayeth Dr. Campbell. It is logical, right?
This chart impressed me more than any of the other data in the movie and I was ready to accept Dr. Campbell’s conclusions hook, line, and sinker. I was sitting in my living room waving my arms overhead and singing, “I believe, I believe.”
However, like most stories, there’s more to it than meets the eye and it takes someone like Denise Minger to ask insightful questions like:
– “Is that really the case?”
– “What else was going on at the same time?”
– “Could there be something else that might explain this effect?”
Denise not only asked those questions, she researched the answers. What she found blows some pretty serious holes in Dr. Campbell’s arguments.
Denise reasoned that just because the Germans took away their livestock doesn’t necessarily mean that the Norwegians had no meat in their diet. She figured they’d probably try to find substitutes. That’s what you or I would do. Oh by the way, isn’t Norway by the ocean? Aren’t there fish in the ocean? If you lived in Norway during this time, wouldn’t you go out and find a way to catch, barter, or buy fish to feed your family with, especially if all of your livestock has just been confiscated? Of course you would.
Here’s what Denise found when she researched the dietary records of Norwegians during the Nazi occupation and plotted the results (this is Denise’s graph and is part of her post “Forks Over Knives”: Is the Science Legit? (A Review and Critique)):
What you see is just what you would expect if you really gave it some thought. Sure, the amount of meat (pork, beef, chicken) decreased during the occupation because the nasty Nazi’s kept taking it all for themselves. However, the amount of fish increased to compensate for the loss of meat. And as Denise says in her article, “the last time I looked, fish is not a vegetable!” (I’m paraphrasing. If you want the exact quote, read her post.) Isn’t it possible, Denise poses, that the drop in mortality might be because people were eating more fish and not because they all turned vegetarian as Dr. Campbell states?
I felt like I had been had. “Damn you Denise,” I thought. I had really hoped that I had finally found the “One True Diet,” the “Diet to Rule Them All.” Instead, what Denise did was rip back the stage curtain and expose the guy working the springs and levers.
The Problem with Nutritional Research
I’ve known and written about the problems with traditional research for years so it’s even harder for me to believe that I fell victim to Campbell’s conclusions so easily. But I did. Maybe it’s because the movie did such a great job getting me emotionally involved that my common sense and skepticism went to sleep.
In order to perform proper research, a researcher typically spends a significant amount of their time trying to find funding. After all, somebody’s got to pay for all the fancy lab equipment and lab rats. However, more and more of today’s research gets funded by groups that have a vested interest in the outcome of the research. Even grants doled out by the government are often times reviewed by committees and/or legislators with ties to and/or backgrounds in industry groups.
Researchers are no fools either. In order for them to win funding and to have that funding extended or increased, they do everything they can to design experiments that are highly likely to produce the types of results their financial sponsors are looking for. What you end up with is a lot of research that sounds and looks impressive, but really has little application to real world applications.
For Dr. Campbell, his pinnacle research project was the compilation of a massive study on the Chinese mainland that looked at diet, lifestyle, and disease in a wide variety of locations. Titled “The China Study,” it forms the basis for much of Campbell’s assertions in the movie. Denise does a great job of analyzing some of the data in The China Study and pointing out some of the problems with the correlations that are drawn. Basically, she shows that if you create a large enough pool of data points, you can pretty much correlate anything you want.
Trust Me, I’m a Professional
The thing that really left a sour taste in my mouth was Dr. Campbell’s response to Denise’s post on a number of vegetarian and vegan websites (here’s one for example). Although Dr. Campbell was polite, his responses at times seemed downright condescending. What he basically seemed to be saying was that since he’s got several degrees, he’s the only one that can understand and interpret his data. In other words, he seemed to be saying ‘trust me, I’m a professional.’
Sorry Dr. Campbell, not good enough. Denise brought up some very specific questions and all we get is ‘don’t worry your pretty little head missie??’ (obviously not a direct quote <grin>) I expected more. Much more.
If anyone performs a study and comes up with any kind of conclusion, especially one as profound as this one, they should be able to explain exactly what they did and how they did it. There should be no unexplained gaps or assumptions in logic. And they should be able to explain it a way that you, I, or anyone else can follow along, step by step, and reach the same conclusion. Like the cartoon at the right, you can’t just say “and then a miracle occurs” or respond to questions by saying “because I say so.” You need to be able to prove your results in a way that’s reproducible.
Somewhere along the “vegetarian yellow brick road,” I get left behind unable to jump over the gaps in logic.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
So after spending way more time than I can really afford reading blog after blog and trying to decipher all kinds of statistical charts and tables, where did all this leave me? Well, actually in a pretty good place. I’ve learned, or in some cases re-learned, the following:
- There is no “Holy Grail of Nutrition” after all, even though I really wanted to believe in one. There is only the path that is best for you, at your current stage of life, taking into account your environment, lifestyle, culture, and health goals.
- Judging from the comments on some of the websites, you can only conclude that a lot of hard-core vegetarians and vegans are flat out kooks. To them, diet is more like religious dogma rather than an issue of optimal nutrition. These people believe what they believe and nothing will ever change their minds.
- Judging from the comments on some of the websites, you can only conclude that a lot of hard-core carnivores and paleo-diet followers are flat out kooks. To them, diet is more like religious dogma rather than an issue of optimal nutrition. These people believe what they believe and nothing will ever change their minds.
- Research on nutrition, in fact pretty much research on anything, is often times funded by groups with a significant stake in the outcome. As a result, it’s really difficult to conduct research that is truly objective. Since the primary purpose of every researcher is to acquire the next round of funding, studies can be inadvertently biased in one direction or another. This results in conclusions that have little or no application to real world issues. We’ve done so much research in the field of nutrition that you can literally find a study that will support ANY conclusion you care to make basically proving the maxim that too much knowledge leads to ignorance.
- Everybody’s got an opinion to sell, and as a result, relevant facts sometimes get left out because they may not totally support the case you’re trying to make. It’s human nature. We ALL have “selective memories.” This human tendency to try to “push the facts towards what we already believe” tends to creep into books, movies, and yes, even scientific research. You’ve always got to listen to the skeptic inside you and evaluate all sides of an issue.
- The best diet is the one that works for you – and that may be totally different than what someone else is eating.
While going through the pages and pages of comments on Denise’s website, I came across one that I think makes the most sense to me. Here it is:
…haha, I have a hard time with these in-depth articles on which form of nutrition is best (even though I wrote my own version!). There are too many factors to weigh, and so much of what really matters depends on each of us as individuals.
I hope that in the near future, we will start to largely dismiss any article on health, diet, nutrition and the like and instead begin forcing ourselves to gently experiment with what nutrition works best for our own individual circumstances.
In the beginning, these “experts” may be of some help, but the faster we can get to a point of 100% trusting our own ability to determine what optimal nutrition looks like for us, considering our unique life situation, the better. To take full responsibility for our health in all areas … is a powerful step.
~ Mike Roberts (http://biggoalhunting.com) in a July 12th, 2010 comment at www.rawfoodsos.com.
Thanks Mike. Great advice. The Holy Grail of Nutrition may truly be “Eat a Balanced Diet – whatever that means to you.” That may be as specific as science can get simply because we’re all individuals and because our bodies are made up of complex interconnected systems. Throw in the fact that we all come from different cultural backgrounds, each of which have different customs and beliefs about food and eating, we live in different environments and have different foods readily available and you can easily see why there will never be a “one size fits all” type of diet recommendation.
What I Eat Now
I did learn enough through this experience to change my diet in a way that is currently working for me. I’m actually losing a couple of pounds that I though I’d never get rid of. My energy level is steadily increasing so I feel confident that I’m giving my body what it needs.
Although I learned that “Forks Over Knives” took quite a few liberties with the facts (maybe THAT’s why the work of the researchers is not so well known and not because of some sinister plot by Big Pharma or the Media), some of the lessons did stick. My dietary “rules” now include:
- Rather than a totally “Meatless” diet, I’ve gone to a “Less Meat” diet. This is not totally vegetarian (ie: meatless) nor is it the typical American diet (where meat is the primary component). I still eat meat – it’s just a much, much smaller portion of my total meal than it used to be. What little meat I do eat is usually in form of soups or stews – and always with a salad. Gone are the 12-oz T-bone steaks with the tiny “garnish” of vegetables.
- The majority of the meat I do eat is fish. I’ve pretty much eliminated beef and pork from my diet completely. If I do occasionally have chicken, it’s in soup.
- No red meat. I covered this already. Nuff said.
- No deep fried foods. I reduce fried foods as much as possible and avoid all deep-fried foods.
- No dairy. God, I hated to give up my Blue Bell ice cream but I feel better for it. I do occasionally have cheese as part of a dish but no more cookies and milk, which brings me to:
- No sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Cut out the sweet stuff period. No cakes, no cookies, no soda. This alone will significantly improve your health and help you lose a couple of pounds.
- No processed foods. If it comes in a cellophane wrapper with cartoon characters on it, don’t eat it. If it’s made with “refined” anything (sugar, wheat, flour, etc), stay away from it. There’s a scene I remember from some old boxing movie in which someone offers one of the characters a sandwich. The boxer says something like, “I ain’t eating no white bread. That stuff will kill ya.” Stay away from breads and cereals made with refined flour.
- Reduce the starchy vegetables. Yes, that means go easy on the potatoes.
- Increase your intake of dark green, leafy vegetables. Have a spinach or mixed green salad before every meal – or better yet, have the salad AS your meal.
- Drink water instead of soda, tea, coffee, or the “power” drinks.
This is what is working for me. You might want to experiment a bit in order to optimize it for you. The one thing I have learned is that no one diet fits all. We’re all different, from different cultures (or parts of the country), have different eating habits, live in different environments, and so on. What I may be able to buy in the local grocery store might not be available where you live or vice versa. The point is to find what works for you. You’ll be in better health as a result.
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