Eating Our Way to Disease
In July 1976, the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by Sen. George McGovern, held hearings titled “Diet Related to Killer Diseases.” The committee heard from physicians, scientists and nutritionists on the relationship between the American diet and diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Six months later, the committee released “The Dietary Goals for the United States,” which quickly came to be known as the McGovern Report. “Decrease consumption of meat,” the report urged Americans. “Decrease consumption of butter fat [dairy fat], eggs, and other high cholesterol sources.”
“The simple fact is that our diets have changed radically within the last 50 years …,” McGovern said when the report was released. “These dietary changes represent as great a threat to public health as smoking. Too much fat, too much sugar or salt, can be and are linked directly to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and stroke, among other killer diseases. In all, six of the ten leading causes of death in the United States have been linked to our diet. Those of us within our government have an obligation to acknowledge this.”
The response to the report was swift and brutal. The meat, egg and dairy industries lobbied successfully to have the document withdrawn. They orchestrated new hearings, supplying a list of 24 experts approved by the National Livestock and Meat Board, so that, in the words of Wray Finney, then the president of the American National Cattlemen’s Association, the public would get “a balanced, correct view of this whole matter.” A new report was released in December 1977. This second edition insisted that “meat, poultry and fish are an excellent source of essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals.” The Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs was abolished. Its functions were taken over by the Agriculture Committee. “The Agriculture Committee looks after the producers of food, not the consumers, and particularly, not the most needy,” wrote The New York Times. And when Sen. McGovern, who had already angered the Democratic and Republican leaderships with his 1972 insurgent campaign for the presidency, was up for re-election in South Dakota in 1980, he was defeated by James Abdnor, a cattle rancher and well-funded spokesman for the meat industry.
Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn—whose documentary “Cowspiracy,” about the environmental impact of the animal agriculture industry, led me to become a vegan—recently released a new film, “What the Health,” which looks at how highly processed animal products are largely responsible for the increase of chronic and lethal diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the United States and many other countries. Both films are available on Netflix.
The companion book, also titled “What the Health,” written by my wife, Truthdig Book Editor Eunice Wong, lays out in even greater detail how the animal agriculture industry intimately joins with the pharmaceutical industry, the medical industry, health organizations and government agencies to mask and perpetuate the disastrous effects of animal products on our health. The animal agriculture industry, like the fossil fuel industry or any other branch of the corporate state, profits at the expense of our health and even our lives. Many corporations and our government have a lot invested in keeping us sick.
“We sometimes joke that when you’re doing a clinical trial, there are two possible disasters,” one biotech stock analyst told The New York Times. “The first disaster is if you kill people. The second disaster is if you cure them. … The truly good drugs are the ones you can use chronically for a long, long time.”
In the book “What the Health,” Wong writes, “The public’s willingness to endure lifelong pharmaceutical use is called, in industry lingo, ‘compliance.’ And we are compliant. In 2014, the US spent $374 billion on pharmaceuticals. That’s more than the combined gross national products of New Zealand and Bangladesh. It’s also well over 200 percent of what the US federal government spent on education in 2015.”
Corporations invest heavily to promote the nation’s unhealthful diet. “The meat, egg, and dairy industries,” economist David Robinson Simon says in an interview in the book, “spent, in one year, at least $138 million lobbying Congress alone.”
“It’s money well spent for these industries,” Wong writes. “A $1 industry contribution usually results in a $2,000 return as federal subsidy payments.”
“You have a $5 billion stent industry,” Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a renowned cardiologist, says in the book. (A stent is a permanent wire mesh inserted into an artery to prop it open.) “A $35 billion statin [cholesterol-lowering] drug industry. They don’t want that to go away. Look, if I’m in the middle of a heart attack, there’s no question that I want a man or a woman with great expertise in stents by my side. They will save my life and a lot of my heart muscle. But the 90 percent of stents being done electively? There is zero evidence that you can prolong life or protect against a future heart attack with stents.”
“Of every US federal income tax dollar in 2015, 28.7 cents went to healthcare,” Wong writes. “That’s the biggest single chunk of the dollar, larger now even than the military (25.4 cents). Compare that to 3.6 cents for education, and 1.6 cents on the environment. Talk about priorities. And yet for all that healthcare spending, the US has the lowest life expectancy among 12 high-income nations, and some of the worst health outcomes.”
Early in the film, a news broadcast announces, “The World Health Organization this morning has classified processed meat, such as bacon and sausage, as carcinogenic, directly involved in causing cancer in humans. …”
Andersen discovers that processed meat has been classified by the cancer agency of the WHO as a Group 1 carcinogen, along with tobacco, asbestos and plutonium.In fact, Wong writes in the book, “… every 50 grams of processed meat eaten daily [on an ongoing basis] raises your risk for colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Fifty grams is less than two pieces of bacon, or two slices of ham. … [E]ating meat only 4 times a week [on an ongoing basis] increases your cancer risk by 42 percent, according to an Oxford study.”
“No more than 10-20 percent of risk for the primary causes of death come from our genes,” Wong writes. “Only about 5-10 percent of cancer cases are attributable to genetic defects, with the other 90-95 percent rooted in lifestyle and environment. Colon cancer, the second most lethal cancer in the country, is the cancer most directly affected by what you eat. According to WHO, 80 percent of all heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes can be prevented.” (The book’s extensive footnotes facilitate research by readers on the scientific and medical studies cited.)
“The reason we know cancers like colon cancer are so preventable is because rates differ dramatically around the globe,” Dr. Michael Greger says in the film. “There can be a 10-, 50-, 100-fold difference in colon cancer rates, from some of the highest measured in Connecticut, down to the lowest rates in Kampala, Uganda, for example. There are places where colon cancer, our No. 2 cancer killer, is practically nonexistent. It’s not some genetic predisposition that makes people in Connecticut die from colon cancer while people from Uganda don’t. When you move to a high-risk country, you adopt the risk of the country. It’s not our genes; it’s our environment.”
“We can change the expression of our genes—tumor-suppressing genes, tumor-activating genes—by what we put into our bodies,” he goes on. “Even if you’ve been dealt a bad genetic deck, you can reshuffle it with diet.”
In the film, Andersen visits the American Cancer Society website. In a section of the site called “Basic Ingredients for a Healthy Kitchen,” recommended foods include extra-lean hamburger, ground turkey breast, chicken breast, fish, eggs and cheese.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) in its “Diabetes Meal Plans” was no better. The U.S. has the highest diabetes rate among 38 developed nations, according to the International Diabetes Federation. The ADA recommended to the estimated 29 million Americans with diabetes that they eat dishes such as “Moroccan Lamb Stew, oven-barbecued chicken, Asian pork chops and barbecued meatballs.”
Eating one egg a day can triple the risk of death among diabetes sufferers. And consumption of eggs doubles the risk of prostate cancer progression among men with that disease. This is probably why, as the book points out, “90 percent of scientific studies on dietary cholesterol are currently paid for by the egg industry.”
“Diabetes, of all the diseases, may be the most affected by meat,” Dr. Garth Davis says in the film.
“There is probably more confusion around what causes Type 2 diabetes than around any other disease, among doctors, patients, and the media,” says Dr. Michelle McMacken in the book. “People don’t understand that high blood sugar is a symptom of diabetes. It is not the cause of diabetes. The foods most clearly linked to the development of Type 2 diabetes are processed meat, like bacon, hot dogs, cold cuts, salami, pepperoni, ham, sausage. There’s a number of studies showing that the more processed meat there is in your diet, the more likely you are to get Type 2 diabetes. And of all the foods, whole grains are the most protective against the disease. The root cause of diabetes has to do with our insulin not working properly, which is very directly related to extra body fat. Until that message gets out, we’re never going to break the cycle.”
The American Heart Association posted recipes for “Grilled Chicken and Vegetables,” “Pork Tenderloin Stuffed With Spinach” and “Steak Stroganoff,” along with recommendations to eat low-fat dairy and skinless poultry and fish and to buy cuts of beef labeled “choice” or “select” rather than “prime.”
Andersen and Kuhn found that these major health organizations received large donations from the animal agriculture industry, fast food chains such as McDonald’s, soft drink companies such as Coca-Cola, and pharmaceutical corporations.
The American Heart Association, Wong writes, “has received money from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Live Stock and Meat Board, Subway, Walgreens, Texas Beef Council, Cargill, South Dakota Beef Industry Council, Kentucky Beef Council, Nebraska Beef Council, Tyson Foods, AVA Pork, Unilever, Trauth Dairy, Domino’s Pizza, Perdue, Idaho Beef Council, and fistfuls of pharmaceutical companies—the usual suspects like AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Merck, which spent $400,000 to fund an AHA program teaching 40,000 doctors to ‘treat cholesterol according to guidelines.’ ”
One of the main sponsors of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is the National Dairy Industry. AND, which is the nation’s largest trade group for registered dietitians, publishes so-called Nutrition Fact Sheets for the public. The food industry writes these Nutrition Fact Sheets for its own products and gives $20,000 for each of these sheets to AND.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, one of the lead scientists of the China-Cornell-Oxford Study, a 20-year study “that found 8,000 statistically significant correlations between eating animal protein and risk of disease in 65 counties in China,” is emphatic about the danger of dairy products. He told The Guardian that “cows’ milk protein may be the single most significant chemical carcinogen to which humans are exposed.” Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, warned in the book, “Milk, because of what it is [a fluid designed to jump-start the growth of a 60-pound calf into a 1,500-pound cow], makes things grow faster, and that includes cancer cells. This is not a product even in its purest state that you want to consume.”
The filmmakers confront spokespeople for the health organizations about funding from the animal agriculture industry, much as they confronted environmental groups in “Cowspiracy.” They ask these spokespeople about peer-reviewed, scientific studies showing that plant-based diets dramatically lowered the risks for disease. The administrators in these health organizations, including Dr. Robert Ratner, the chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, invariably canceled or terminated the interviews once they discover they would be asked about the link between diet and disease. The idea that chicken is a healthful alternative to red meat is fictitious. A skinless chicken thigh, the book points out, contains more fat—including saturated fat, the most dangerous kind—than over two dozen different cuts of lean beef. Chicken is potentially the most fattening meat. Carcinogens form in chicken and other meats as they are cooked. Chicken is the top source of sodium for American adults because the chicken industry injects poultry carcasses with salt water to increase market weight and therefore prices, while still being able to label its product “100% natural.” Chicken contains more cholesterol than a pork chop. And cholesterol is found primarily in lean parts of meat.
“The birds come through on hooks,” Dr. Lester Friedlander says in the book in explaining the processing of chicken carcasses, “and then a mechanical arm goes up the cloaca [the opening through which the bird releases urine and feces] and pulls out everything inside the cavity. Unfortunately, when the mechanical arm pulls the intestines out, they often burst. Then all the fecal contamination is inside the bird. At the end of the poultry slaughter line there’s a big chill tank to cool the birds down quick so they can get packaged and shipped out. If you have just one of those chickens with broken intestines and fecal contamination, the whole chill tank is contaminated. They call the water in the tank, ‘fecal soup.’ All the chickens throughout the day, if they don’t change the water, are contaminated with feces. Hundreds of thousands of chickens go through that water. And while they’re in the tank the chicken flesh soaks up that fecal soup. That’s what they call ‘retained water’ on the chicken label.”
“About 90 percent of the nation’s retail chicken is contaminated with fecal matter,” the book states. “Yes, that includes the kind you buy at your clean, local supermarket. This is according to a 2011 FDA report, which monitored bacteria such as E. faecalis and E. faecium, on meat, concluding that 90 percent of chicken parts, 91 percent of ground turkey, 88 percent of ground beef, and 80 percent of pork chops have fecal contamination.”
We need to stop believing the lie that we require animal products in our diet for protein, calcium, iron, omega-3s or any other nutrient. “Every nutrient from meat, dairy, and eggs can be found, in a form that is as healthy or healthier, in plants,” as Dr. Neal Barnard points out in the film.
There is one weakness in the film. It focuses at the end on several people suffering from serious diseases who switched to a vegan diet. A few weeks later they appear on screen dramatically improved. The book, unlike the film, makes it clear that the patients did this within a supervised medical program, including liquid fasts before the transition to a whole-foods, plant-based vegan diet, free of salt, oil, sugar and processed foods. Yes, they did improve, but I worry that the scene in the film incorrectly implies that veganism is a miracle cure. Despite this shortcoming, the documentary “What the Health” is tremendously important. We are being preyed upon and poisoned by the animal agriculture industry, working in conjunction with the medical and pharmaceutical industries and our government.
“We are on the cusp of what can truly be a seismic revolution in health,” Dr. Esselstyn says in the book. “It’s never going to occur because of another pill or operation. That revolution will occur when we in the healing profession have the grit and the determination to share the nutritional literacy that will empower the public to absolutely destroy this common, chronic, killing disease [heart disease]. When somebody orders pizza with cheese or a steak, it will be the same as smoking today. Look how long it took us, but it happened; nobody would even dream about smoking in your house now. It will be the same with food.”
“I thought of George McGovern, struggling to present the truth to a society that wasn’t ready to hear it,” Wong writes. “The animal agriculture industries mercilessly snuffed out—for the moment—his attempt to tell the truth, just as other powerful political forces snuffed out his attempts to bring justice to a war-ravaged nation. … But things spiral around. A groundswell of awareness is surfacing, and people are feeling the change before they can articulate it. We know there is something terribly broken about the industrial food, medical, and pharmaceutical systems, but most people don’t know what it is. It’s no wonder, because, as we’ve discovered, there is an intricate political and corporate apparatus in place to keep us from finding out.”