Sunday, February 24, 2008

What’s Wrong with Health Studies?

Like many vegetarians, I enjoy reading news reports about new health studies that come out. Most of these studies, of course, directly or indirectly support the vegetarian cause by showing that some aspect of eating plants is good for us, and/or some aspect of eating animal products isn't so good for us. I've come to count on these scientific findings as continuing confirmation of my good judgment to be a vegetarian.

But what about those other studies—the ones that you occasionally see that find eating meat or dairy products may be healthy? What do we do about those?

I used to think that any studies that found meat-eating to be healthy were aberrations that should be relegated to mere footnote status in the great tide of favorable literature. They must be written by people with loose scientific morals and a vested interest somewhere, I thought. Lately though, I've read some pretty troubling findings from some pretty credible sources. I've had to delve a little deeper and rethink my position.

What I've learned is that the whole system of scientific inquiry into the relationship between diet and health is hugely unfavorable to vegetarianism. More importantly, though, I've learned not to take any study results as gospel. Here's why:

  • People really do have loose scientific morals and vested interests. The meat, dairy, and egg industries have the money and organization to fund a lot of research. Cantaloupe and lettuce growers don't. No matter how honest scientists try to be, their results are going to favor the people paying the bill. If you need an example, just look at our court system. "Experts" can be hired to support any position.
  • Cause and effect relationships are difficult to establish. Whether you're doing research in the lab or conducting an epidemiological study, it's incredibly difficult to isolate the effect of just one dietary factor and study its health consequences. There are simply too many environmental and genetic variables, and too many interactions between variables to get in the way. Results from even the best-designed studies can vary widely.
  • Animals may be lousy models for people. When you take animals in the lab and pretend they are people, you've introduced a potential for serious error right off the bat. Just last week I happened to be reading the literature on a new drug. Testing found it caused cancer in mice, but not in hamsters. Okay… so what can we do with that useful information? It should be obvious that any results based on animal testing are suspect, and should be subject to additional scrutiny.
  • Test subjects lie. Maybe they don't intent don't intend to, but it's human nature. In any study that requires people to report on their own diets there's going to be an impetus to report things just a little healthier than they really were. (I mean, who's really going to own up to eating a whole box of Ding Dongs for dinner?) The errors are magnified when, as in many studies, people have to report on their dietary patterns in the past. Of course, this exaggeration is always going to make the results of "healthy" food choices seem a little less healthy.
  • There aren't enough "vegetarians." It's especially difficult to do studies of vegetarians, because there often aren't enough of us to be a good sample. More importantly, we all know that people lie about their vegetarianism. (A recent Time Magazine poll found that 37% of the people calling themselves "vegetarian" had eaten red meat in the last 24 hours!) Finally, there are huge variations in vegetarian diets, and studies may not compensate for that. They may lump the raw foods folks in with the people who live on Ding Dongs. Again, the result of this is going to make "vegetarians" seem a lot more like everyone else, and a "vegetarian" diet seem a lot less healthy.
  • There aren't any vegans. Vegans are so few in number and so misunderstood, that it is going to be a rare study indeed that will properly analyze and/or give meaningful results that apply to this group. Because of the problems cited above, results for "vegetarians" may be totally inapplicable.
  • Since practically everyone eats meat, dietary studies often suffer from the "lesser of the evils" syndrome. For example, we've all seen lots of studies that cite the benefits of eating fishes. But if the "control" group is made up of folks who eat other kinds of flesh foods, it's hard to draw absolute conclusions. Sure, fish-eaters may be healthier than hamburger-eaters, but if fish-eaters were compared to vegetarians, the results might look entirely different.

    Another recent example was a study that found that, among overweight and obese adults, those who ate massive amounts of dairy products were less likely to develop insulin resistance syndrome. The conclusion, widely reported in the media, was that 5 servings a day of dairy products protects us. But how did the people who ate less dairy make up those calories? Almost certainly by eating more meat. (I doubt that any vegetarians were in their sample group.) Could the conclusion of the study just as easily have been "avoid meat at all costs—even if you have to eat lots of dairy?"

  • Since practically everyone eats meat, results of dietary studies may not apply to vegetarians. Results from dietary studies may only apply to people with diets similar to the test group, and that rarely includes vegetarians. For example, I recently read a report raving about the benefits of fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids). The primary benefit noted was fish oil's ability to thin blood and thus prevent heart attacks and strokes. But thinner blood is only of benefit to people already sick with cardiovascular disease (i.e., most people on the Standard American Diet). For many vegetarians and vegans, and others with healthy cardiovascular systems, this blood thinning could be a health detriment rather than a benefit.
  • There is scientific evidence out there to support everything. A librarian friend of mine once told me "doctors like to write." It's true. You can find a study out there to support almost anything you can imagine. If it isn't there yet, it's on the way. No individual study, nor the credence that someone gives to it, should be taken as definitive.
  • People give more authority to later studies than earlier ones. While the conclusions expressed in the scientific literature may vary wildly, people tend to believe the latest news they hear. They mistakenly believe that new scientific studies override the results of those that came before. This is unfortunate indeed when poorly designed or aberrant studies conflict with what has been established in numerous previous studies.
  • People like good news. How much press has "red wine is good for you" received? How many millions of books has Dr. Atkins sold by telling people it's healthy to eat lobsters and butter? People want to believe, and they tend to cite, studies that favor their own positions. We vegetarians are guilty of this all the time. On the other hand, since the vast majority of people in our society are addicted to animal products, any study at all hinting that meat and dairy products might somehow be good for us will receive considerably more notoriety than a study finding the opposite.
  • The press exaggerates. (And that's an understatement!) Combine this with the fact that people like good news, and the potential for the public to be misled in favor of meat and dairy products is enormous. For example, a report on the fish oil study mentioned above, written by a registered dietician, starts off proclaiming the "good news," and ends with the pronouncement that "Including rich fish as a regular eating habit is one of the most positive steps anyone can take to protect against the development of heart disease. Best of all, it is good nutrition at its tastiest." Objective medical reporting? Hardly.
  • Doctors still believe in what they grew up hearing and doing. Old ways die hard for most of us, and that's true for doctors and medical researchers as well. Anything that goes against what their mothers told them as children is going to be looked upon with additional skepticism. That doesn't bode well for vegetarianism. Just consider how Dr. Spock was almost drummed out of the medical community when he had the audacity to suggest that cow's milk isn't good for growing children. Consider how many doctors are happy to heed medical evidence and recommend eating more vegetables and less meat (Mom would have liked this). Consider how few are willing to heed that same medical evidence and recommend vegetarianism (Mom definitely wouldn't approve).


    Given all of the problems inherent in medical studies of diet and disease, it's amazing that we can learn anything at all. Yet, the fact that some results (saturated fat is bad; fiber is good, etc.) keep coming up over and over again, means that we can probably trust them and rely upon them. The best advice may be to use our common sense (if it sounds too simple or too good, ignore it) and take a big picture/long term approach. (I'm starting to sound like my stockbroker!)

    Considering how the odds are stacked against vegetarianism, it's equally amazing that we get any good news at all from the medical community. And yet, there they are, week after week—new scientific studies lending support to the vegetarian way of eating. No, they may not be the only things we read, but that's good enough for me. They are more than enough to make me feel confident that my decision to be a vegetarian was a good one.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Zoos (from the ancient Greek word: “Zeus”)

Vegetarians have mixed feelings about zoos. Sure, we like the chance to spend some time with animals we'd never get to see otherwise, and zoos do an admirable job of repopulating threatened species and advocating wildlife causes. Just maybe (we hope) those kids who get to spend the day eating popcorn and ogling the elephants and giraffes come away with a little more appreciation for the diversity of life, and a little more respect for creatures of species other than their own. These are all good things.

The problem with zoos, of course, is that the animals are in prison. Putting them behind bars is not a nice thing to do to our fellow creatures, and you don't have to spend long at a zoo to sense the pain and unhappiness of many of the animals who are there.

Sadly, zoos may one day soon be the only thing that keeps us from being a planet populated only by humans, cattle, chickens, dogs and cats, mosquitoes, catfish, and the occasional pigeon. It's a pity. If we must build them, let's at least make them nice.


30-Second Quiz About Zoos

It's the year 2163, and the world is infested with Finsters, which are huge, highly intelligent mutant cockroaches that got their start way back in the twentieth century in a bio-engineering lab just off the Santa Monica Freeway. They all worship old Jerry Lewis movies.

You are one of only a dozen or so humans left on earth. It seems that humans just don't survive well in the Finsters' new high-tech world, and they are no longer able to reproduce naturally. You're given the choice of: (1) being put in prison for the rest of your life as part of an attempted artificial breeding program, or (2) dying out naturally in your own home.

Is relative freedom or perpetuating your species more important to you? What would you choose? What do you think a tiger or a water buffalo would choose?

Saturday, February 9, 2008


Politics can be frustrating. Indeed, it was during the last Presidential election that I heard a number of my friends complain, "How can anyone vote for that guy?!" Now, while I won't disclose exactly which candidate "that guy" was, I am pretty sure that a lot of people on the other side of the fence were saying, "How can anyone vote for that other guy?!"

The fact of the matter is that in American politics some people are going to vote for the conservative candidate every time, and some other people are going to vote for the liberals, and there's nothing that anyone is going to be able to do to change either of their minds. Using computer terminology, you might say that people are "hardwired" to favor one position or the other.

I've found that the same principle applies to the age-old debate between meat-eaters and vegetarians. Some people think it's right and good to eat the flesh of other animals, and there's nothing we vegetarians are going to do to change their minds. Pleas for the rights of the animals eaten, or even for mercy to save them from pain, will go unheeded. Arguments about the effect of diet on the global environment will be ignored. And even attempts to address their self-centered interest in their own health will be scoffed at by these meat-eaters. They're "hardwired" to eat meat, and no amount of "software" programming can change that.

I must say that this frustrates me and my vegetarian friends to no end. "How can they be this way?" we ask. "How can they 'not get it'?" "Don't they care at all???"

It's certainly tempting for us vegetarians to make value judgments about "hardwired" meat-eaters. It's easy for us to see them as unfeeling, selfish and anthropocentric. But, of course, all of this totally ignores their viewpoint.

From a hardwired meat-eater's perspective vegetarianism makes no sense at all. They think it's ridiculous to deny oneself the pleasure of eating meat. Moreover, it's antisocial, impolite, and generally makes a big fuss over something trivial. As much as we vegetarians think meat eating is wrong, hardwired meat-eaters think vegetarianism is just plain stupid.

Where does "hardwiring" to one point of view or the other begin? Well, while there may well be a genetic component, I have to think that most of the process happens after birth. What you end up believing will in all likelihood be greatly influenced by what your parents teach you.

Recently, I participated in an animal rights rally that required me to hold up a sign depicting an animal in some human-induced distress. (To be more specific, it was a calf taking part in a rodeo. Let's just say this poor guy's neck—with a rope around it—was headed in a different direction than his body!) It was interesting to see the reaction of children to this sign. I saw uniform expressions of shock and disapproval on their faces, while at the same time their parents had the equally uniform reaction of hurrying them away from my presence. Will most of these kids grow up hardwired against vegetarianism? You can bet on it.

So, which side is right—the hardwired vegetarians, or the hardwired meat-eaters? Of course we all like to think we're right. And certainly from a vegetarian perspective there are some compelling scientific and ethical arguments to support our point of view. But, to tell you the truth, I'm not certain. Meat-eaters certainly believe that the human pleasure that comes from eating meat outweighs the cruelty to animals, destruction of the environment and human health consequences that meat-eating necessarily causes. I can't say they're wrong, because I simply can't understand their viewpoint, any more than they can understand mine. We're hardwired in opposite polarities.

Of course, in vegetarianism, just like politics, there's a big middle ground of people who aren't necessarily hardwired in one direction or the other. Like most vegetarians, I've had plenty of experience with meat-eaters who were more than happy to espouse vegetarian principles and eat a vegetarian diet in my presence, while going back to their omnivorous ways among others. Actually, I think most people are probably this way. Our battles, just like their political counterparts, will be won or lost by who commands this vast undecided group.

Right now we're losing. Actually, we're losing horribly. But we shouldn't give up the fight. If we concentrate on the undecided voter—or rather, eater—we have a chance to eventually win over the majority. But there's no sense in trying to appeal to those who are hardwired against us. Sadly, they simply can't, and will never be able to, understand our position. We may as well agree to disagree—at least until we can find a brain surgeon with a very large pair of wire cutters.