BACKGROUND: I recently made a presentation to professionals on nutritional options to modulate testosterone in men. During the presentation, I touched on the role of soy/plant-based/low fat diets and research that shows them to adversely affect testosterone status, adding that such data should be considered the next time we are subject to propaganda from COP26 on further dietary change. I received a question from a fellow practitioner which asked me why I felt that the recommendations made at this summit are propaganda. Given the layers to this subject, the universal importance and how impossible it would be to fit a response into a short email, I have put together a more complete response in article format…
I thought it may be helpful to share my thoughts on COP26/WHO/etc and propaganda. To start with, I am defining propaganda as the deliberate broadcast of distorted information in order to further political or financial aims.
To this end, the information provided by COP26 is that 1. Meat is bad for us, 2. Meat is bad for the planet and thus 3. We should all eat a plant-based diet. My thoughts on each claim:
1. Meat is bad for us
The recent declarations provide no evidence other than reference to expert opinion, eg. that provided by the WHO, EAT-Lancet and the US Dietary Guidelines Committee report.
The 2015 US report was the first to ramp up the attention to the urgency of changing our diet, principally that we should lower fats and meats. The 571-page document featured a number of quirks, most notably that it decided to ignore the NEL (Nutition Evidence Library), which was set up to standardize such assessments and support scientific transparency, in favour of hand-picking their expert panel to advise. This proved highly relevant to the content of the report when it came to saturated fats, with the panel choosing to ignore the a large meta-study and systematic review (here and here) in favour of several small trials that were cherry-picked. These trials were small in size and epidemiological in nature; that is to say, they are the lowest quality evidence available. The panel provided no explanation as to why they gravitated towards the low-quality evidence. However, there was a correlation in some of these between saturated fat and health, and this is what the report focused on. They went on to warn about the consumption of meat in regards to mental health, despite the 19 studies they referenced showing no evidence for this (three studies were not even consider meat intake, the epidemiological studies provided a mixture of positive and negative effects, while the 2 randomized controlled trials showed no effect and a positive effect on mental health, respectively).
The WHO report on red meat followed hot on the heels. The centrepiece of this report was the consideration of 800+ epidemiological studies, of which they selected 29 for assessment in making the case against red meat. Two problems here: first, these are epidemiological studies, which cannot provide any proof of such links (especially when confounded with other factors, those consuming red meat alongside ice cream are treated in the same way as those eating red meat with broccoli). This explains why studies can prove a correlation between margarine consumption and the rate of divorce. The second problem? Of 29 studies, 14 found some association between red meat consumption and 15 did not. In short, they provided nothing resembling evidence of harm. Perhaps one the very studies they referenced said it best: “in puzzling contrast with epidemiological studies, experimental studies do not support the hypothesis that red meat increases colorectal cancer risk”.
Which brings us to the much-discussed EAT-Lancet report, published in 2019 and widely considered the scientific equivalent of ‘Gamechangers’. This is the report that accelerated the global agenda quicker than any other but was especially noteworthy for lack of evidence for the claims made. It included the claim that we should eat less meat to avoid cancer; they base this on the idea that complete proteins – yes, the complete proteins needed for humans to stay alive – could also support cancerous cells because ‘rapid cell replication can increase cancer risk’ (p8). The sole reference they provide to support this idea does not mention protein, meat or amino acids at any point in its text. That’s just weird.
But it gets weirder. They go on to acknowledge that humans need omega 3s but that they don’t know how much alpha linolenic acid (plant source omega 3) might be required to satisfy these requirements (p11). They acknowledge that no trial ever has even found any correlation between consuming an egg each day and health issues, but then go on to put forward a ‘reference diet’ that contains just 1.5 eggs per week (p11). They do the same with poultry (p10). They then go on to acknowledge that, should individuals adopt many of these recommendations, then they may require supplementation to avoid deficiencies (p13), before warning that this intake is unlikely to be suitable for anyone who is young, old, undernourished, poor or suffering from metabolic issues/insulin resistance (p12). They skirt round the issue 88% of American adults are now estimated to be insulin resistant.
Despite this recognition that the recommended diet guarantees nutritional deficiency without supplementation, that it contains plenty of unknowns and is unsuitable for most of the population, they urge the public and health professional to make such shifts ‘urgently’. This is worrying that such influential organisations would push a message that they themselves admit is unsupported by any evidence, especially when we see the sentiments of such advice integrated into state-level provisions for children’s diet, as per the Meatless Mondays that are already a staple of school dinners in New York State. Yes, the same Meatless Mondays whose corporate partners just so happen to be a list of corporations who stand to profit from increased consumption of non-meat foods and the same Meatless Mondays campaign that claims whole wheat is ‘packed with cheap plant-based protein’.
80% of epidemiological findings are falsified when assessed in experimental studies, which is why I consider it particularly concerning that, in all the reports provided by these organisations, the only studies that support the meat-is-bad hypothesis come only from such epidemiological data (and, even in the reports they provide, are outnumbered by epidemiological studies that demonstrate neutral/positive effects on health outcomes).
In summary, I feel that there is rationale in considering the health implications of meat consumption (both positive and negative) and how this may vary depending on the rearing conditions of the meat (eg. altered fatty acid profile, nutrient status, etc), post-processing (eg. sausages versus steak). Equally, the different impact this may have based on the amount consumed and the individual consuming it; digestive capacity, metabolic response to methionine and lipids, etc etc. However, with due consideration of human evolution and clinical responses, it remains clear that the proposition that meat is ‘bad’ for humans is an extraordinary claim and therefore calls for extraordinary evidence. No such evidence yet exists.
2. Meat is bad for the planet
This is naturally a fairly complex subject and I should preface the below by sharing my concerns over factory farming, both for the unacceptable treatment of many animals and also the unnecessary impact on the environment (just because it may be profitable, the idea of creating a feedlot in arid locations like Arizona is ridiculous). Substandard conditions not only raise important ethical questions, but they also necessitate industrial use of antibiotics (a practice that have been shown to drive antibiotic resistance, notably to certain strains of campylobacter, salmonella , E Coli and enterococcus).
Of course, this is not representative of all animal rearing – or any rearing until recent decades – which ties in with the idea that ‘its not the cow, it’s the how’. I feel this nuance is important to consider when discussing the above claim, as this is a claim based on a) modelling and b) presented as a black-and-white issue. As Simon Fairlie discussed in depth in his book, the modelling is based on surprisingly little evidence and assumptions that have not been questioned (eg. the idea that you need to feed multiple kilos of grain to produce one kilo of meat, which is actually true, although is highly limited by the fact that it assumes that the input:output ratio is the same for all plants, that such plants are all edible by humans (which they clearly are not), that animals are meant to eat grains and that the limited resource is the grain/plant rather than the land). An equally important contribution comes from an Australian study conducted in 2011, which sought to measure the total impact of animal-based versus plant-based proteins (eg. impact from clearing a habitat, effect of pesticides, deaths via combine harvesters, etc etc) and found that 27x more animals die per kilogram of plant protein than that from cows. It is fair to point out that this too is a modelling exercise and has been questioned by a 2018 study; this follow-up pointed out flaws in the 2011 calculations and found that, if we were to correct for these errors, exclude the impact on fish, assume that the manufacturer’s claims on the lower toxicity of newer pesticides and exclude ‘secondary’ deaths (whereby farming drives animals into habitats that make them more vulnerable to predation, something that accounts for around half of all mammalian deaths from farming), then we see substantially less deaths-per-kg-protein from plant approach. Of course, there are some big ‘ifs’ here and, as the authors clearly state, “There is no simple route to an estimate of the impact of plant agriculture on animals”. This leaves us in a place where discussion an appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of each model would be helpful, something that is largely missing from the current tribalistic discussions that predominate.
Monocropping, the practice of using land for one specific crop year-round, remains a major driver of environmental decline. Monocropping calls for increased use of pesticides that impact on both animal and human health, some effects only becoming quantified over several decades. This is especially so in GMO crops that permit unrestrained spraying of the fields. It also calls for tilling (the process of turning over the first 6-10 inches of soil before planting new crops), a practice that increases short-term yield yet has destructive effects on soil quality in the long term; most agricultural systems have already lost 30-75% of their original soil carbon, which such emissions continuing to drive up the total greenhouse gases from crops (while the COP26 luminaries continuously speak of the need to reduce animal-based agriculture on the basis of these gases, they remain remarkably silent over the fact that plant-based agriculture generates substantially more). Equally, with every ounce of carbon that is deposed into the atmosphere, this is a gram that is no longer in the soil; it is estimated that the world loses 24 billion tons of fertile soil every year (3.4 tonnes per person).
Of course, these commercial practices do not represent all plant agriculture and there are many options that, while not necessarily being as profitable, can mitigate environmental impact. Growing vegetables on a small scale avoids the need to clear lands, use pesticides that kill wildlife, tilling practices that degrade the soil. Introducing mycorrhizal fungi can support the health of roots while fixing soil carbon. Mixed agriculture systems that employ dairy manure increase carbon sequestration into the soil while conventional systems lose carbon. The co-dependence of plants and animals is noted by long-term vegan Lierre Keith in her book the Vegetarian Myth, which considers the multiple interactions within each complex system, with the most obvious being how grazing animals need the cellulose in plants, the same plants need the grazing animals to return minerals and beneficial organisms into the soil in the form of manure and urine.
The multiple avenues that each method can take, together with difficulties in measuring the net impact of ‘plant-based diets’ versus ‘omnivorous diets’ serve to outline how far away we are, as a scientific community, from being able to accurately quantify the environmental benefits and harm from various approaches. We are in a better position to pose suitable questions than to provide clear answers. However, there are certain starting points that may serve such enquires, specifically 1) it is unhelpful to attempt to determine the environmental impact of ‘animal farming’ or ‘grain farming’ as a single concept, as the methods/locations/etc clearly have a huge impact, 2) while modern-day practices should be subject to question, the last 9,000 years demonstrate that omnivorous diets can co-exist with a healthy environment, and 3) no-one can yet know the long-term impact of monocrop operations, which are still in their infancy. With that in mind, and with due consideration of human evolution and the available, it remains clear that the proposition that eating meat is bad for the environment is an extraordinary claim and therefore calls for extraordinary evidence. No such evidence yet exists.
3. We should all eat a plant-based or plant-dominant diet
Obviously this claim is a major crossover of the idea that we should all eat less meat, albeit one that focuses more on the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Therefore, some concerns that are mentioned above need not be repeated although I think there is benefit in considering problems with the idea that a plant-based is A Better Diet For All.
As you may or may not know, I focus on personalized nutrition. As such, the idea that there is any specific diet that would suit a large population rings all my alarm bells. Equally, the client population I work with is 80% complex/chronic health issues (CFS, etc) and these happen to be the population that are substantially more likely to demonstrate impaired ability to tolerate certain plant chemicals (eg. lectins, oxalates, salicylates, etc). Added to the common employment (and thus, financial) issues problems that chronic health issues so often create and the lack of voice afforded to these patients (that remain largely ignored by existing medical practice and largely ‘invisible’ in society), I remain very concerned as to the effect that some of the proposed polices could have on them; taxing meat being such an example.
Just as important is the focus on plant-based diets as a single entity. As we can no doubt agree, there is a big difference between crisps, toast and chocolate versus legumes, seeds and broccoli. To this end, the recent South Korean study is a perfect illustration of this point; while it of course suffers from the usual limitations of epidemiology and its short-term nature, it highlights a massive disparity between outcomes from healthy plant-based diets versus those that are poorly constructed. It also echoes the observations that I and many others have repeatedly made, that a poorly-constructed plant-based diet is substantially less forgiving than a poorly-constructed omnivorous diet. To further flesh out this point (pardon the pun), a 50% increase in metabolic syndrome does not prove anything as it is purely a correlation but, given the findings from higher-quality studies (eg here, here, here and here, plus the Sydney Heart Study and the Minnesota Coronary Experiment) and the obvious problem that we live in a society whose dietary habits are largely driven by taste rather than nutritional goals (ie. A plant-based diet one person may mean a very different thing for the next), the is little signal of benefit in adopting this change on a society-wide level but ample signal of potential harm (with the latter concern supported by high-quality evidence also).
This potential harm is underscored in a 2003 study which showed that adolescents that were fed a vegan diet during their early years showed delayed development or permanently impaired development and that this could be prevented with just two spoonfuls of meat per day. Equally, a meta-analysis of 18 studies on mental health and dietary intake found that those consuming a vegan/vegetarian diet were at significantly higher risk of depression, anxiety and self-harm (of the studies, 11 showed an increased risk, 3 showed a decreased risk, 4 were inconclusive). A study that looked into the number of prescriptions for anti-depressants found that vegans/vegetarians take medications at twice the rate of omnivores. There is the question of correlation versus causation and the need to investigate further through randomized controlled trials but, all the same, these findings raise important questions of the hypothesis that plant-based diets are better for human health. The link between dietary intake and medication use also demonstrates the potential link between the human health and the environment; while the metric or carbon emissions may have its limitations, the pharmaceutical industry remains one of the worst contributors (totalling 19% more emissions that the automotive industry). Just as relevant is the environmental cost of a stay in hospital; very few things lead to as much landfill as receiving inpatient treatment in hospital.
Global recommendations, individual concerns
At this juncture, I would like to make the distinction between recommending ‘a plant-based diet’ for an entire society versus making recommendations of a particular diet protocol for an individual that is plant-based or plant-dominated. I hope we can agree that the near-endless diversity of phytonutrients in plants offer an incredible array of opportunity to support health, opportunities that remain largely untapped (at least in so-called civilized societies). I often recommend dietary protocols for individuals that are near-vegan for a variety of therapeutic reasons, although I am keen to avoid doing so long-term (a concern borne from countless audits on individual trajectories over time). Equally, it is clear from such clinical observations that humans are capable of thriving on a wide range of dietary intakes when they have the metabolic flexibility to do so. But this must be tempered by the reality that any impact on thyroid activity or nutritional status is going to impact on the activity of delta-5-desaturase enzymes (and therefore need for EPA/DHA over plant-based omega 3s), just as beta-carotene will prove a beneficial source of Vitamin A in many individuals but will be inadequate for those with digestive disturbances or polymorphisms at the BCM01 gene. For context, humans convert plant-source omega 3s into DHA at a highly variable rate (as little as zero percent and as high as nine percent, according to this 2018 review).
In summary, I see many individuals thrive on near-vegan diets when a) individual genetic status and metabolic health permit this and b) sufficient attention is given to supplementing with Vitamin A, B12, Zinc, Iron, Copper, Choline, Creatine, Carnitine, Carnosine, Co-Q10, Taurine, Methionine, Glycine, Calcium, Vanadium, Chromium, Iodine and DHA/EPA. However, it is still important to share that I am yet to see any evidence of a society maintaining health on a fully vegan diet. Thus, in consideration of these evolutionary observations and the discussion above, it remains clear that the proposition that a plant based diet is better for humans is an extraordinary claim and therefore calls for extraordinary evidence. No such evidence yet exists.
Is this propaganda?
I hope the above makes clear why I consider the communication from COP26 and the related authorities to be distorted. As to whether this is simply misguided or indeed propaganda, this comes down to whether this is broadcast intentionally to serve financial/political goals. To this end, while I recognize there is always a lot more to things than the numbers, the starting point has always been to ‘follow the money’ and to pose the same age-old question posed by Cicero, that of qui bono? Who benefits?
The most obvious connection here is that of the EAT-Lancet report (mentioned above), one of the most cited articles in history and widely considered to be the most influential document to date in advancing the agenda away from meat consumption and towards lab-based meat replacements. The report makes very clear that this was a joint project between the journal and the EAT Fresh consortium. But who are the EAT Fresh consortium? They are a veritable who’s who of refined carbohydrate vendors (Kelloggs, Danone, Pepsico, Nestle, Unilever, Cargill, etc), flavouring and additive manufacturers (Givaudan, Symrise, DSM, etc), pesticide and agrochemical multinationals (BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta, etc), brought together by a Norwegian animal rights activist and the Wellcome Trust, the world’s richest pharmaceutical research organisation. That The Lancet, then still considered a prestigious journal, would align themselves so heavily with such outfits came as a surprise to many; their conduct since (eg. their complicity in the fake hydroxychloroquine papers) speaks to a larger pattern.
The conflict of interests at the WHO, the organisation who first pushed the idea that human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 was not a concern, then praised China’s authoritarian lockdowns and then warned about the damage that lockdowns cause, follow a similar pattern. Since 2005, they elected to accept private contributions and now receive more funding from business than they do from member states (since the USA’s withdrawal of funding, the single biggest donor is an organisation called the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose capital stems from returns in investments in chemical, pharmaceutical and food companies). Just as concerning is the conflict of interests that are endemic within Government committees across the Western world, with the influence of lobbying and the ‘revolving door syndrome’ well-documented (see the Time investigation and Marion Nestle’s book, Food Politics).
I have concerns that corporate influence impacts both on the information that the public receives, which is the main subject of this discussion, but also the impact that such influence has on the free discussion of science. An example here is an extensive review on red meat’s health effects from 2019, which found no evidence of any harm. Such a study was met with a campaign from partisan academics to retract the article, with such pleas made on the basis that such science should be withheld to not ‘damage’ the public health. The situation is perhaps best summed up by Christine Laine MD, the editor-in-chief of the journal, who said: “We’ve published a lot on firearm injury prevention. The response from the NRA (National Rifle Association) was less vitriolic than the response from the True Health Initiative.” While the journal chose to publish the paper and to speak publicly about the campaign, those in my position can only speculate on how often such canvassing is successful and what influence this has on research grants.
The concerns that such links raise are underscored by what is communicated and what is ignored by the organisations in question. If they are so concerned as to the sustainability of meat, why is there so much focus on using soy (which, due to both agricultural reasons and federal subsidies, remains a particularly profitable crop) and novel lab-based meats (proprietary products), rather than sources such as insect protein or traditional non-meat protein sources? If they are so concerned about the effects of meat on our health, why do they not spend a tiny minority of the funds used on PR to conduct randomized controlled trials? If they have the health of the public in mind, why do their guidelines repeatedly speak of the plant-based diet as a single entity, rather than emphasizing the tactical use of health-supportive plants and stressing intelligent dietary design to overcome the obstacles of a plant-based diet? Why do the same government bodies that talk such a good game about protecting the environment continue to award eye-watering subsidies to corporations that engage in the most environmentally-damaging farming methods, while providing no support for smaller operations that use more sustainable approaches? Ultimately, even if we are to be especially charitable and deem these claims as simply an over-enthusiastic misreading of the science, it still must be asked: is it coincidence that every single oversight just so happens align with recommendations that line the pockets of the corporations that make such heavy financial contributions?
I hope that the above discussion provides a fair view on my distrust of the dietary recommendations that have been emitted from COP26 and the intentions of the associated organisations, while also recognizing the complexity involved in the dual considerations of supporting human health and protecting environmental resources. I do not offer my thoughts above as a solution to such multifaceted problems, but instead as a starting point for context and further consideration. I feel that fruitful consideration cannot be undertaken without recognizing that those broadcasting the information we receive do indeed ‘have a horse in the game’. In any case, I would be very happy to hear your thoughts on any matter that you feel is relevant or contrary to the points I’ve laid out above.