Jane Brody’s Misleading Attack on What the Health

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.

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