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Cherry-Picking


Cherries are fresh and ripe right now in stores. And a new film on Netflix is causing some people to accuse the makers of cherry-picking. A prominent critic of “What the Health” is accusing the film of overstating its case. Dr. Harriet Hall, a prominent skeptic of nutritional literature in general at the blog Science-Based Medicine calls it a “fairy tale.” So what is the problem she has with the film and its position?

Dr. Hall states, “There are undisputed health advantages to a plant-based diet, but the evidence is insufficient to recommend that everyone adopt a vegan diet.” So she agrees with the basic premise of the film, that people are eating too much fat, meat and dairy. Where is the problem?

She goes on to say “It presents no evidence to support the claim that a vegan diet can prevent and cure all the major diseases.” That is a strong claim to make when the film presents a lot of evidence. Perhaps she means that it presents no compelling evidence to her. The film is loaded with evidence, she just discounts it. Discounting evidence that you don’t agree with can be considered cherry-picking.

She states the following as “questionable claims”:

  1. Eating meat rapidly causes elevated bacterial toxins in the blood (endotoxemia). This study found a western diet heavy in meat and dairy to do exactly that. This study found that it happens directly after a high fat meal. This study showed exactly the same thing. It is possible that very lean venison or bison would not cause this, but all grocery store meats are high in fat and therefore would cause this. The film seems spot on.

  2. Meat reduces arterial dilation by half. This study shows exactly that. It appears that Dr. Hall didn’t even Google it. This study showed very similar findings.

It would make me more comfortable reading her review if I knew that she was aware of these studies and discounted them for some reasons that she goes on to explain. But to claim these ideas are questionable without even acknowledging that these studies exist, suggests she is harvesting dark-red stone fruit from a tree in a crane-like device.

I will not endorse every claim made in the film as 100% accurate and neither could anyone else of any film. The truth always takes longer to fully explain than a simplified version. But the simplified version in favor of a plant-based diet is pretty strong.

The totality of the issue is simple. There was essentially no obesity in Ireland in 1835 when they ate 4000 calories a day per person of white potatoes. Vietnam today has the highest consumption of white rice in the world and an obesity rate of 1%. Neither of these countries is or was vegan. As Dr. Hall rightly states, you can be healthy on a diet that includes some animal products. I don’t think the film actually states anything contrary to that. But that tiny amount of animal products is probably on the order of Dean Ornish’s diet or Nathan Pritikin’s diet. That is nothing remotely like the amount that most people in the western world eat.

So it seems to me that Dr. Hall’s critique also misses some key facts and perspective, opening her to the charge of cherry-picking as well, but she has an agenda to push, as does the film. I am also missing some key facts and perspective in this article. I don’t have time to address every single point, neither does anyone else. I also am trying to make a point. Making a point can lead you to remove complex issues that require a lot of explanation to simplify an argument. Then people can look at the big picture.

When we look at the big picture, Dr. Hall agrees. A plant-based diet is full of undisputed health advantages. Leave it at that. There is broad agreement. I don’t think that the producers of “What the Health” ever state that changing diet would remove all disease, but maybe they do somewhere and I wasn’t paying attention. Yet a general lowering of everyone’s cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar should be something a skeptical doctor would be in favor of.

Promoting plant based diets is not really a fringe position. Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest HMO has suggested a plant-based diet for all of its patients. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has suggested that it is appropriate for all life stages and has health benefits. Doctors should feel comfortable recommending healthy diets low in saturated fats and high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains as a basic preventative measure for their patients. This is the scientific consensus.

There are almost always accusations of cherry-picking on all sides in a discussion. But in this case both sides agree that eating a diet that includes lots of cherries is pretty amazing.


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