Manufacturing Doubt

The food, pharmaceutical, hospital and healthcare sectors of the US economy have a strong, vested interest in the status quo, just like the tobacco industry did in the 1960s.

There is a strong scientific consensus that most of the food you eat should be plant-based. Adopting this lifestyle throughout the US would disrupt those industries to a great degree and they are justifiably concerned about this possibility.

Media coverage of films like “Forks Over Knives,” “Eating You Alive” and “What the Health” have generated a large amount of interest in adopting plant-based diets as a way of preventing or managing chronic diseases.

So what do you do if you run those industries? You have to find ways to make headlines (which is all most people read) that directly contradict plant-based diets. You have to design a study that will show the opposite of what is clearly shown by almost all other research.

It is in this context that we should approach the study published this week in the Lancet known as PURE (Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiology). This study looked at health outcomes and nutrition, based on a methodology proven to be faulty over a decade ago in over 100,000 participants.

So you have a defective technique being used to study a topic very prone to abuse by statistical tricks that allow manipulation of the data. Who funded it? The pharmaceutical industry, specifically Astra Zeneca, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, Boehringer Ingelheim, Servier, King Pharma, and GSK.

The study looked at people who aren’t usually studied. They looked at poor people in poor countries like Bangladesh, developing countries like India and also some western nations like Canada and Sweden for comparison.

What they showed was that death rates for people eating an extremely low fat diet were much higher than those eating a moderate fat diet. The maximum amount of dietary fat recommended by one of the researchers is 35% of calories.

Guess what?

No, really guess.

That’s the exact amount most people in American already eat. How’s it working?

Is your buddy who has a cheese omelet for breakfast, a Wendy’s Baconator for lunch and a Double Del Burrito for dinner doing well?

Of course, compared to Bangladesh, we’re much better off for overall mortality. We don’t die nearly as often from diarrhea, for example.

Is that what we want? Better health than people who live in impoverished countries or developing nations?

Yet that’s what it seems the study was designed to show. If you want to make the status quo look good, you have to compare it to a worse situation. Dr. David Katz likened it to a study on square vs. round wheels. Easy to show square tires are better if you make them out of rubber and the round ones out of porcelain, right?

As James Hamblin puts it in the Atlantic today,

People are complex, and the ways we perceive and communicate and relate to one another are complex. But the basic agreement on what to eat for the health of people and the planet is not: diverse, naturally high-fiber, minimally processed foods, mostly plants. Sufficient amounts of protein and fats, as people in wealthy countries get in their diets without thinking.

It is hard for rural inhabitants of Zimbabwe who are living off subsistence-level wages to afford enough food, period. This increases their overall death rate. This is not news. But a study has now been published to make it look like the reason for the high death rates is carbohydrates (the cheapest source of meaningful calories). This works to reassure people in rich countries that they don’t need to change anything.

Industries are fabulous at creating a media climate favorable to their own interests. If this were about cars or airplanes, it would even be mildly amusing.

But this topic is serious. People are dying from cancer, stroke, heart attack and diabetes at high rates in the developed west. Yet industry is promoting headlines from their sponsored research recommending higher intakes of saturated fat, meats and cheese. This will cause people to avoid healthy foods like potatoes, corn and beans.

Large amounts of chronic disease are necessary to maintain current levels of spending on hospitals, pills, surgeries, insurance, meat and Oreo cookies. The tobacco industry didn’t go quietly. It fought tooth and nail and is still enormously profitable and powerful.

Don’t be fooled by the propaganda.

Many people in the 1960s and 70s bought the tobacco industry line that more studies were needed and the cigarettes hadn’t been proven harmful. These are the same arguments, updated for this era. They are no more valid now than they were then. Don’t be a victim.

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