Monday, November 24, 2014

Is Meat Unhealthy? Part III

When we consider the health impacts of eating meat, cardiovascular disease is the first thing that comes to mind.  Popular diet advocates often hold diametrically opposed views on the role of meat in cardiovascular disease.  Even among researchers and public health officials, opinions vary.  In this post, I'll do my best to sort through the literature and determine what the weight of the evidence suggests.

Ancel Keys and the Seven Countries Study

Ancel Keys was one of the first researchers to contribute substantially to the study of the link between diet and cardiovascular disease.  Sadly, there is a lot of low-quality information circulating about Ancel Keys and his research (1).  The truth is that Keys was a pioneering researcher who conducted some of the most impressive nutritional science of his time.  The military "K ration" was designed by Keys, much of what we know about the physiology of starvation comes from his detailed studies during World War II, and he was the original Mediterranean Diet researcher.  Science marches on, and not all discoveries are buttressed by additional research, but Keys' work was among the best of his day and must be taken seriously.

One of Keys' earliest contributions to the study of diet and cardiovascular disease appeared in an obscure 1953 paper titled "Atherosclerosis: A Problem in Newer Public Health" (2).  This paper is worth reading if you get a chance (freely available online if you poke around a bit).  He presents a number of different arguments and supporting data, most of which are widely accepted today, but one graph in particular has remained controversial.  This graph shows the association between total fat intake and heart disease mortality in six countries.  Keys collected the data from publicly available databases on global health and diet:


Monday, October 27, 2014

Is Meat Unhealthy? Part II

In the last post, I said Part II would be about cardiovascular disease.  Shortly after publishing that, I realized that before we move on to diseases, we need to set the stage by considering our evolutionary history with meat.  So here we go.

Human Evolutionary History with Meat: 200 to 2.6 Million Years Ago

Mammals evolved from ancestral therapsids approximately 220 million years ago (Richard Klein. The Human Career. 2009).  Roughly 100 million years ago, placental mammals emerged.  The earliest placental mammals are thought to have been nocturnal shrew-like beasts that subsisted primarily on insects, similar to modern shrews and moles.  Mammalian teeth continued to show features specialized for insect consumption until the rise of the primates.

65 million years ago, coinciding with the evolution of the first fruiting plants, our ancestors took to the trees and became primates.  For most of the time between then and now, our ancestors likely ate the prototypical primate diet of fruit, seeds, leaves/stems, and insects (1).  Some primates also hunt smaller animals and thus eat the flesh of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish in addition to insects.  However, the contribution of non-insect meat to the diet is usually small.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Is Meat Unhealthy? Part I

Introduction

At Dr. McDougall's Advanced Study Weekend, I had the opportunity to hear a number of researchers and advocates make the case for a "plant-based diet", which is a diet containing little or no animal foods.  Many of them voiced the opinion that animal foods contribute substantially to the primary killers in the US, such as heart disease and cancer.  Some of the evidence they presented was provocative and compelling, so it stimulated me to take a deeper look and come to my own conclusions.

No matter what the health implications of meat eating turn out to be, I respect vegetarians and vegans.  Most of them are conscientious, responsible people who make daily personal sacrifices to try to make the world a better place for all of us.

My Experience with Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Obesity → Diabetes

A new study adds to the evidence that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes is rapidly increasing in the US, and our national weight problem is largely to blame.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) currently estimates that a jaw-dropping 33 percent of US men, and 39 percent of US women, will develop diabetes at some point in their lives (1).  Roughly one out of three people in this country will develop diabetes, and those who don't manage it effectively will suffer debilitating health consequences.  Has the risk of developing diabetes always been so high, and if not, why is it increasing?

In the same issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine as the low-carb vs. low-fat study, appears another study that aims to partially address this question (2).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Metabolic Effects of a Traditional Asian High-carbohydrate Diet

A recent study supports the notion that an 'ancestral diet' focused around high-starch agricultural foods can cultivate leanness and metabolic health.

John McDougall gave Christopher Gardner a hard time at the McDougall Advanced Study Weekend.  Dr. Gardner conducts high-profile randomized controlled trials (RCTs) at Stanford to compare the effectiveness of a variety of diets for weight loss, cardiovascular and metabolic health.  The "A to Z Study", in which Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diets were pitted against one another for one year, is one of his best-known trials (1).

Dr. McDougall asked a simple question: why haven't these trials evaluated the diet that has sustained the large majority of the world's population for the last several thousand years?  This is an agriculturalist or horticulturalist diet based around starchy foods such as grains, tubers, legumes, and plantains, and containing little fat or animal foods.  Researchers have studied a number of cultures eating this way, and have usually found them to be lean, with good cardiovascular and metabolic health.  Why not devote resources to studying this time-tested ancestral diet?  I think it's a fair question.