Jane Brody’s Misleading Attack on What the Health

Fatty, low-carb diet

New York Times colum­nist Jane Brody wrote a sil­ly attack on the doc­u­men­tary What the Health. Germany’s Iron Chan­cel­lor Otto von Bis­mar­ck sup­pos­ed­ly once quipped, “Nev­er believe any­thing in pol­i­tics until it has been offi­cial­ly denied.” Since the New York Times is regard­ed as the “News­pa­per of Record” in the Unit­ed States, we could amend this say­ing to “Nev­er believe any­thing in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics until it has been offi­cial­ly denied in the New York Times.”

Are Eggs as Dangerous as Cigarettes?

Jane Brody focused on one alarm­ing state­ment about the harm­ful effects of eat­ing eggs. She then con­clud­ed that the entire doc­u­men­tary was full of bad sci­ence. Some­how, she failed to men­tion the main mes­sage of the doc­u­men­tary. The doc­u­men­tary warns us that the major health-focused non­prof­its are tak­ing mon­ey from the food indus­try. Those orga­ni­za­tions then fail to warn peo­ple of that their spon­sors’ prod­ucts pose a threat to human health.

The online ver­sion of Brody’s screed was enti­tled “Good Veg­an, Bad Veg­an.” The “bad veg­ans” are pre­sum­ably “those who dis­tort sci­ence.” Yet Brody her­self is guilty of that offense. The research real­ly does show that egg con­sump­tion, like cig­a­rette smok­ing, is cor­re­lat­ed with the buildup of plaque in the arter­ies. If the effect of eat­ing two eggs a day is equiv­a­lent to half of the effect of smok­ing a pack of cig­a­rettes a day, that would work out to a five cig­a­rettes per egg ratio, which is not unre­al­is­tic. The research also shows that eat­ing processed meats real­ly does increase your risk of get­ting type 2 dia­betes. As a con­sumer of eggs and meat, Brody is pre­sum­ably unhap­py about those find­ings. How­ev­er, her unhap­pi­ness does not make those find­ings untrue.

The Food Industry Is Sponsoring the Health Nonprofits

What the Health even showed that these non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions have some­times been urg­ing peo­ple to eat the very foods that are known to con­tribute to the dis­ease that the non­prof­it is sup­pos­ed­ly try­ing to fight. If the New York Times were real­ly serv­ing as the “watch­dog press,” then it would have been sound­ing sim­i­lar warn­ings for many years. (I sound that warn­ing in my book Where Do Goril­las Get Their Pro­tein? What We Real­ly Know About Diet and Health.) Instead, the pub­lic had to wait for an inde­pen­dent doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er to artic­u­late this mes­sage, and for Net­flix to broad­cast it.

What the Health is report­ing on a sto­ry that the News­pa­per of Record pre­sum­ably finds “not fit to print.” Word about What the Health is spread­ing via social media. Our News­pa­per of Record can no longer ignore the doc­u­men­tary. Thus, it is time for one of its colum­nists to tell us to “move along, there’s noth­ing to see here.” Brody claimed that sev­er­al of her “well-mean­ing, health con­scious young friends” (a descrip­tion that sim­ply drips with con­de­scen­sion) urged her to watch the doc­u­men­tary. How­ev­er, she claims that she had to quit watch­ing it part­way through. Sup­pos­ed­ly, the  sci­ence report­ing was intol­er­a­bly bad. Yet sev­er­al of the peo­ple inter­viewed in the doc­u­men­tary are promi­nent sci­en­tists. Brody is just a news­pa­per colum­nist. And her arti­cle reveals that she does not know basic facts about nutri­tion.

Brody Spread Myths About Protein

Although Brody rails against bad sci­ence, she pro­mot­ed some of the worst of it in her col­umn. In par­tic­u­lar, she put forth the long-dis­cred­it­ed myth that plant pro­teins are incom­plete. She spread the myth that veg­ans must there­fore com­bine dif­fer­ent plant pro­teins in the same meal to get a com­plete pro­tein. In real­i­ty, nutri­tion sci­en­tists have known for more than 100 years that human beings don’t need to wor­ry about their pro­tein intake.

Any prac­ti­cal plant-based diet would auto­mat­i­cal­ly give you enough pro­tein, as long as you eat enough food to get enough calo­ries. In the 1950s, William Cum­ming Rose showed that ordi­nary sta­ples, such as rice and pota­toes, give you more than enough of all of the essen­tial amino acids. There has nev­er been any evi­dence that human beings need to com­bine dif­fer­ent plant-based foods to “com­ple­ment the pro­teins.” I explain all this in my book Where Do Goril­las Get Their Pro­tein: What We Real­ly Know About Diet and Health.

Brody con­cedes that “respon­si­ble, well-informed sources” already rec­om­mend a plant-based diet. Then she assures us that a plant-based diet can be “fleshed out” with low-fat pro­tein sources from ani­mals. But she pro­vides no evi­dence to sup­port that claim. In real­i­ty, the Chi­na-Cor­nell-Oxford Project found that adding even a small amount of ani­mal-source food in the diet would increase the risk of death from degen­er­a­tive dis­ease. There is no safe lev­el of intake.  T. Col­in Camp­bell, who is a nutri­tion­al bio­chemist and a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Brody’s alma mater, Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, was the lead author of the arti­cle that report­ed that find­ing. Brody has no excuse for being igno­rant of it.

If Brody is will­ing to run the increased risk of ear­ly death that results from eat­ing foods from ani­mal sources, that is her choice. But as a jour­nal­ist, Brody has a pro­fes­sion­al and moral respon­si­bil­i­ty to tell peo­ple that the risk exists, so that they can make informed deci­sions.

Junk Food Veganism?

Brody warns, “A veg­an diet laden with refined grains like white rice and bread; juices and sweet­ened drinks; cook­ies, chips and crack­ers; and dairy-free ice cream is hard­ly a health­ful way to eat.” Yet that is a straw-man argu­ment. Nobody inter­viewed in What the Health endors­es junk-food veg­an­ism. On the oth­er hand, a diet of noth­ing but white rice, fruit, and sug­ar could save your life. Dr. Wal­ter Kemp­n­er of Duke Uni­ver­si­ty dis­cov­ered in the 1930s that this “rice diet” can save the lives of many heart and kid­ney patients. It also revers­es type 2 dia­betes. It even reduces the amount of insulin that peo­ple with type 1 dia­betes need to inject. Brody’s audi­ence deserves to know things like that. (I explain Kempner’s diet in my book Thin Dia­betes, Fat Dia­betes: Pre­vent Type 1, Cure Type 2.)

Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes book cover

Good Calories, Bad Calories

Brody’s choice of title is telling. It alludes to Gary Taubes’ book Good Calo­ries, Bad Calo­ries. On July 7, 2002, the New York Times Mag­a­zine ran Gary Taubes’ arti­cle “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” That arti­cle launched Taubes’ career as a nutri­tion guru. It claimed the low-fat, high-car­bo­hy­drate diets are the real cause of our obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic. Like Brody, Taubes has no for­mal train­ing in nutri­tion or dietet­ics or epi­demi­ol­o­gy. Thus, like Brody, Taubes may not even rec­og­nize the mis­takes that he makes. Note that Taubes has been round­ly crit­i­cized by nutri­tion sci­en­tists for mis­rep­re­sent­ing their views.

Listen to the Scientists, Not the Pundits

Some of the peo­ple inter­viewed in What the Health are famous sci­en­tists. They have done land­mark research on how your food choic­es affect your health. Brody earned a master’s degree in sci­ence writ­ing back in 1963. How­ev­er, she is not a sci­en­tist. Thus, she can­not ren­der a sci­en­tif­ic opin­ion about their sci­en­tif­ic work. All she can do is express her feel­ings about what those sci­en­tists say. Brody likes to eat ani­mal-source foods, such as meat, fish, dairy foods, and eggs. Nat­u­ral­ly, she wants to feel that it is safe to do what she wants. She also wants to feel that ani­mal-source foods can be pro­duced humane­ly. But want­i­ng some­thing to be true does not make it true.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Brody has a major plat­form at the New York Times. Thus, she can reach mil­lions of peo­ple. Brody tried to steer peo­ple away from hear­ing a poten­tial­ly life-sav­ing mes­sage from impor­tant sci­en­tists. We Amer­i­cans may  nev­er read that mes­sage in our News­pa­per of Record. For­tu­nate­ly, we can hear about it through social media.

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