A few years ago a young English major with a bent for statistics came out of nowhere and laid waste to the life’s work of one of the most prominent scientists working in the field of nutrition. In a single blog post, Denise Minger systematically refuted the main points of The China Study, the seminal work of Dr. T. Colin Campbell. Such was the devastation that Dr. Campbell, himself, suspected it to be the work of a trained academic, instead of a young blogger with some time on her hands.
Due to the strength of her writing skills, statistics acumen, and research abilities, Ms. Minger scored a book contract. Death by Food Pyramid is the offspring of her last couple of years of effort, and it is well worth a serious read.
It’s just the kind of book I really enjoy: a goulash of history, science and gossip. A surprise on every page.
Though not really a low-carb book per se, Death by Food Pyramid belongs on the shelf of every low-carber.
Because it helps piece together the story of how we ended up with the food pyramid in the first place and how the low-fat diet–a true fad diet if there ever were one–ended up reigning supreme in modern nutritional thinking.
Nutritional science — all science, for that matter — is like a jigsaw puzzle. Except instead of having the box showing the blue sky, the green grass, the red barn and the brown cows, the scientific jigsaw puzzle doesn’t have the picture on the box. So you can’t just put all the straight edges together to make the frame, then fill it in with all the red, brown, blue, and green pieces you previously segregated into little piles by color. Not only does the scientific jigsaw puzzle have no picture to follow, it doesn’t even have all the pieces. And what’s more, it has pieces of other puzzles thrown in. It takes a ton of time, effort, patience, and meticulous trial and error to get the puzzle even close to what it’s supposed to look like.
Death by Food Pyramid added a few more pieces to the still unfinished puzzle for me. For instance, I always wondered why Senator George McGovern, who represented the cattle-raising state of South Dakota, would come out so forcefully for what amounted to a vegetarian diet. Why would he rebuff his own constituents when he had the opportunity to bow out gracefully after his crushing defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in 1972? Why instead did he choose to redouble his efforts to fundamentally alter the American diet?
Denise Minger tells us.
It all started in 1968, when McGovern was deeply moved by a television documentary on starvation in America. As a member of the Committee on Agriculture, the very next day he
marched into the Senate with a mission. He would leverage his political clout for the welfare of the nation, launching a committee dedicated to abolishing America’s hidden hunger. He had no trouble gathering the support he needed. The documentary’s shocking–and, for the country’s pride, disgraceful–exposure of hunger in our land had been enough to galvanize both the public and Congress into action.
A few months later, McGovern was named chair of the soon-to-be Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs…
From his perch on this committee, McGovern worked tirelessly to eradicate hunger in the United States. As he was beginning to experience success, he decided to run for President. As we all know, he went down to crushing defeat in 1972. After a few months of licking his wounds, he resurfaced and resumed his mission to stamp out hunger.
Along the way, McGovern ran into ultra-low-fat guru, Nathan Pritikin, who became his new dietary inspiration. Under Pritikin’s influence, McGovern became convinced that the ultra-low-fat diet was the key to the health of the nation. Almost overnight he veered from saving Americans from starvation to saving Americans from heart disease, diabetes, and obesity through the agency of the low-fat diet. The ultra, ultra low-fat diet.
McGovern commandeered his Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs to
re-engineer the American diet — no longer to curb hunger, as their original mission might indicate, but to combat the killer diseases terrorizing the nation. And their weapon of choice was a seventy-two page report now synonymous with the low-fat movement: Dietary Goals for the United States.
The Dietary Goals would become the first major effort to heal Americans by telling them to eat less instead of more.
All did not go smoothly during the creation of this document. Experts were questioned and hearings were held. Many scientists did not quietly fall into line. Some realized this change in government policy would end up making millions of Americans unwitting subjects in a giant experiment, the hypothesis of which was that the low-fat diet would better the health of the citizenry, and the skeptical scientists begged for a delay in the publication, so that more research could be done. You can see McGovern’s arrogant and overbearing response at 0.31 mins in this film showing one of the hearings.
All this would be just so much government meddling and wasting of money except for the fact that under McGovern’s direction, the Dietary Goals for the United States ultimately morphed in 1980 into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years. As concocted, these guidelines were based on very little science, but they were written so that significant amounts of hard science would have to be mustered to change them. Consequently, the most recent Dietary Goals for the United States published in 2010 aren’t that much different from the ones published in 1980.
Many might ask, Who cares what these documents say? No one pays attention to them. I’m not going to eat what the government recommends, if I don’t like it. I’m going to eat whatever I want to eat, whenever I want to eat it. So what’s the big deal? Bill O’Reilly asked me that very question when I was a guest on his show back in 2001, right after the 2000 Dietary Guidelines for Americans has been published. You can see his question and my answer at about 3:15 in this video of my appearance on The Factor.
The long and the short of it is that the US Government is required by law to adhere to these guideline for all the people it provides food for. And the US Government is the largest food provider on the planet, feeding 53 million people daily (that was in 2000 when I last looked it up — God only knows how many it’s feeding now). How does Uncle Sam feed so many people? School lunches, the military, commodities programs, prisons, etc.
So the Dietary Guidelines for Americans serve as the basis for the Federal food and nutrition education programs. It is not some obscure document the government spends a ton of taxpayer dollars on then hides it away. It is the law of the land.
The Food Pyramid
We’re all familiar with the infamous Food Pyramid. But how did it come about? Would you be surprised to learn (as I was) that the person charged with developing what ultimately became the food pyramid was an actual nutritional scientist who wanted to create a
set of recommendations designed–for the first time in federal history — to mitigate chronic disease.
And that her version
Cracked down ruthlessly on empty calories and health-depleting junk food. The new guide’s base was a safari through the produce department–five to nine servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. “Protein foods” like meat, eggs, nuts and beans came in at five to seven ounces daily: for dairy, two to three servings were advised. Instead of promoting what would soon become nationwide fat-phobia, [her] guide recommended four daily tablespoons of cold-pressed fats like olive oil and flaxseed oil, in addition to other naturally occurring fats in food.
What happened? That sounds so reasonable, especially for a government publication. How did it get hijacked? Ms. Minger described in detail all the shenanigans by all the hustlers, food manufacturers and low-fat-minded academicians, who ended up making the Food Pyramid what we know it as today. Sad, but fascinating reading.
No story about the history of nutrition is complete without an appearance by Ancel Keys, the author and main promoter of the diet-heart hypothesis. Keys was the force behind the idea that saturated fat in the diet drives the development of heart disease. He was smart, capable, and indefatigable in the promotion of his ideas, but he was also an obnoxious, condescending, arrogant, overbearing bully (a flaming prick is the more technical term) to anyone who crossed him.
Ms. Minger tells his story well. If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between the Six Country graph and the Seven Country Study (which difference has tripped me up a time or two), you will wonder no more after reading this book. And if you want to read about one of the great scientific takedowns of all time, when two New York docs tore Keys limb from limb in a widely quoted 1957 paper, this book is the place to do it. This paper so bent Keys out of shape that it changed his life. It was the great motivating factor in his bullheaded insistence that he was right about the diet-heart hypothesis despite many opposing views. I hadn’t read this paper in years, so I dug it out of my files and read again. Knowing Keys’ personality as I do (and as you will after reading this book), I got all warm and tingly inside just imagining how he must have felt when he first read it.
Understanding the scientific literature
In a chapter of Death by Food Pyramid called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Nutrition Research,” Ms Minger provides an easy-to-follow method of reading between the lines of scientific papers. Once armed with this info, you’ll know all the questions to ask when confronted with headlines such as “Red meat causes cancer,” “Whole grains shown to prevent heart disease.” and any of the others people write me about, importuning me to weigh in. One of the most enlightening sections in this chapter is the one showing the actual contents of the diet used as the ‘high-fat diet’ in most rodent studies. Once you see what it’s made of, you’ll understand why the ‘high-fat’ mousy subjects in these studies always seem to have such bad outcomes.
Her description of one of my favorite phenomena in all of life, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, is alone worth the price of the book.
Ms. Minger was a long-time vegan, until she developed a number of health problems at a fairly early age. It’s enlightening to read the excuses she made to herself and others as to why her vegan diet wasn’t really working out the way she expected.
Although she does now eat meat, she doesn’t eat a lot of it. But she has written a nice chapter about meat and meat eating, titled “Meet Your Meat.”
She discusses the notion that the meat eaten by our Paleo ancestors was different than the meat we eat today, and implies that those following a Paleo type of eating regimen aren’t really eating Paleo. Why? Because Paleo man ate from nose to tail. He ate the entire animal, including all the parts modern man avoids, such as the viscera, offal, and organs. Typically, if reports from contact with contemporary hunting societies are indicative of how Paleo man behaved, the muscle meats–the ones most of us Westernized folk eat–were not prized as much as the organs and offal and were often fed to the dogs.
I have a little different perspective.
The organs, offal and viscera supposedly contain a lot more nutrients than the muscle meat. And, compared to muscle meat, they are filled with considerably more fat, much of which is saturated. Consequently, those following an ancestral diet are encouraged to limit muscle meat and increase consumption of organs, offal, and viscera, i.e., eat nose to tail. I have no argument with this other than it’s often difficult to find organs, viscera, and offal unless you are on a farm or in a major city. Santa Barbara, where we live part of the time, is an upscale small city with three or four natural food grocers, including Whole Foods, and about the most exotic organ meat I can regularly find is liver. I suspect it’s the same in most other places. Those of you who live in foodie towns, such as Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, and New York can probably find all kinds of organ meats, but the rest of us either have to resort to ordering online, butchering our own, or doing without.
But all is not lost. First, although organ meats have more nutrients than muscle meats, it’s not all that much more. Run a search on the USDA Database of Foods, and you’ll see what I mean. Compare beef steak to beef liver or kidneys. Not a lot of difference except for the vitamin A in the liver.
A muscle meat diet can provide most, if not all, of what you need nutrient-wise. If you’re worried, supplement with a multi vitamin.
I suspect our ancient ancestors were drawn to the organ meats and offal not because they knew they were more nutrient dense (how did they know?), but because of their greater fat content. Thankfully, agricultural science has come to our rescue. We modern folk enjoy steaks and chops and roasts more than we do the inner organs of beasts and fowls, so modern farmers now produce muscle meats that contain more fat than wild game. So we can get the fat of the organ meats while at the same time getting almost the same level of nutrients.
Many purists consider the muscle meats to be overloaded with fat and turn to the organ meats and offal instead. I say, what’s the difference? I would much prefer a juicy, medium rare ribeye steak than I would a kidney or spleen or lung (and I’ve eaten them all), so why not get the fat in my steak?
Trans fats, polyunsaturated fats, in-depth reviews of seminal studies, plant-based diets, low-carb diets and the best diet for all.
Unlike many books that start strong but fade in the stretch, Death by Food Pyramid finishes strong. It provides great information from beginning to end.
After chapters discussing trans fats, polyunsaturated fats, vegetarianism, and multiple famous dietary studies (most of which have been misinterpreted and misused by the lipophobes and statinators), Ms. Minger wraps it all up with the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, whom she and I both greatly admire. Referencing Dr. Price’s monumental work, Ms. Minger outlines some basic dietary strategies that hold true across cultures and across the many dietary regimens we see presented by various diet book authors and institutionalized weight-loss programs.
Because so many different societies the world over have done well on a wide variety of diets–some high-carb, some low-carb, and everything in between–it is difficult to identify a specific diet that works well for everyone. All promoters of diets can point to some healthy primitive or ancestral group following said diet. I do think the enigma can be resolved, and Ms. Minger hints at it in one sentence near the end of the book:
It may be that the nutritional playing field changes once we’ve hit a certain level of “brokenness.”
I firmly believe this is the case and plan on discussing the idea in great detail in an upcoming post. In fact, this idea of ‘brokenness’ is the underpinning of my whole dietary philosophy, so I am extremely glad she at least mentioned it in her summary.
Death by Food Pyramid is a book not to be missed. As I said earlier, it belongs on the shelf of anyone serious about nutrition. It is just the type of book I enjoy immensely, one of those with the back pages filled with great references linking to hundreds of important studies. The reference section alone is worth the price of the book.
Which brings me to my full disclosure. I was provided a free copy of this book for review purposes. But I purchased my own copy on Kindle because I wanted to have the list of references available to me at all times. I can only recommend you do the same.