New York Times columnist Jane E. Brody has written 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.”
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, which is that the major health-focused nonprofits are taking money from the food industry. Not coincidentally, those nonprofits are systematically failing to warn people of the health risks posed by the foods that their sponsors are selling. 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. Since our Newspaper of Record can no longer ignore the documentary, 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, but that she had to quit watching it partway through, supposedly because the science reporting was intolerably bad. Yet several of the people interviewed in the documentary are prominent scientists, while Brody is just a newspaper columnist.
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 is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. As a consumer of eggs and meat, Brody is presumably unhappy about those findings, but her unhappiness does not make those findings untrue.
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 and 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 any practical plant-based diet would automatically provide enough protein for a human being, as long as the person ate enough food to get enough calories. In the 1950s, William Cumming Rose showed that ordinary staples, such as rice and potatoes, provide more than enough of all of the amino acids that are essential in human nutrition. There has never been any evidence that human beings need to combine different plant-based foods to “complement the proteins.” If Brody had read even an introductory-level textbook on nutrition, she would know this.
Brody concedes that “responsible, well-informed sources” already recommend a plant-based diet. Then she assures us, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that a plant-based diet can be “fleshed out” with low-fat protein sources from animals. In contrast, one of the major findings of the China-Cornell-Oxford project was that even a small amount of animal-source food in the diet was associated with an increased risk of death from degenerative disease. There did not seem to be any 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 humanitarian responsibility to tell people that the risk exists, so that they can make informed decisions.
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, Dr. Walter Kempner of Duke University discovered in the 1930s that he could save the lives of patients with malignant hypertension by having them eat a diet of nothing but white rice, fruit, and sugar. Brody’s audience deserves to know things like that.
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 launched Gary Taubes’ career as a nutrition guru by running his article “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” That article claimed that the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that doctors had supposedly been recommending was really the cause of our obesity epidemic. Like Brody, Taubes has no formal training in nutrition or dietetics or epidemiology. Thus, like Brody, Taubes does not even recognize the mistakes that he makes in his writings about nutrition. Note that Taubes has been roundly criticized by nutrition scientists for misrepresenting their views by making it seem that they endorsed a low-carbohydrate diet.
Some of the people interviewed in What the Health are famous scientists who did landmark research related to the effects of dietary choices on health. Brody is not a peer of the scientists interviewed in What the Health. Thus, she is not qualified to serve as a reviewer for any of the journals that published their scientific work. Yet because of Brody’s platform at the New York Times, she has been able to encourage a broad readership to “skip” watching a documentary in which these scientists explain their findings to the public. The people who take her advice will miss the chance to hear a potentially life-saving message that they will never read in the Newspaper of Record. Fortunately, they may hear about it through social media.