Why Do Chimpanzees Eat Meat?

Chim­panzees eat meat for two sim­ple rea­sons: they can catch it and they like it. Chim­panzees are par­tic­u­lar­ly like­ly to eat meat dur­ing the dry sea­son, when short­ages of the foods that nor­mal­ly make up the bulk of theirdi­et cause them to lose weight. Although the meat may be a use­ful source of calo­ries dur­ing the dry sea­son, wild chim­panzees don’t need to include meat or any oth­er ani­mal-based food in their diet to ful­fill their needs for pro­tein or any of the amino acids. In fact, plants pro­vide all of the nutri­ents that are known to be essen­tial for a chim­panzee, except for vit­a­min D (which they get from the abun­dant sun­shine in Africa) and vit­a­min B12 (which comes from bac­te­ria).

Many peo­ple think that I am sil­ly for ask­ing where goril­las get their pro­tein. They tell me that I should talk about chim­panzees instead. Often, they inform me that chim­panzees are far more sim­i­lar to human beings than goril­las are, as if I couldn’t tell that just by look­ing. These peo­ple are miss­ing my point: goril­las are the largest and most pow­er­ful liv­ing pri­mate and yet are the clos­est to fol­low­ing what human beings would con­sid­er a veg­an diet. Chim­panzees and human beings don’t need to eat meat to grow up big and strong because goril­las grow up to be far big­ger and stronger with­out it. Lawyers may rec­og­nize this as an a for­tiori argu­ment.

If a male goril­la, whose diges­tive sys­tem is prac­ti­cal­ly iden­ti­cal to a human being’s, can get enough pro­tein from veg­eta­bles to grow to weigh more than 400 pounds and be ten times as strong as a man, why shouldn’t I expect that a rel­a­tive­ly puny human Olympic weightlifter could also get enough pro­tein from a plant-based diet? My intent is to ridicule the Four Food Groups dog­ma that I was taught in sixth grade.

Goril­las don’t hunt or fish, and they don’t keep cows or chick­ens. As a result, they don’t eat meat or fish, dairy prod­ucts or eggs. The only ani­mal-source food they eat is “the oth­er, oth­er white meat”: ter­mites, slugs, and oth­er creepy-crawlies. These foods would make an insignif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the goril­las’ pro­tein intake, which is already high because pro­tein accounts for a high per­cent­age of the calo­ries in leaves.

Bugs and slugs could be a use­ful source of vit­a­min B12, a micronu­tri­ent that is made by bac­te­ria in their intestines. Vit­a­min B12 is also pro­duced by bac­te­ria in a primate’s gas­troin­testi­nal tract. How­ev­er, the vit­a­min may be pro­duced so far along in the intesti­nal tract that it isn’t absorbed effi­cient­ly. No plants make vit­a­min B12, but goril­las and chim­panzees can prob­a­bly get enough vit­a­min B12 from the bac­te­ria in the bugs they eat and in the dirt that clings to their food. Plus, apes are not metic­u­lous about wash­ing their hands, if you get my drift. If you are wor­ried about get­ting enough vit­a­min B12, you don’t have to eat dirt or bugs. You can get it in a nice, clean tablet instead.

I don’t ask where chim­panzees get their pro­tein because chim­panzees do eat some meat. Chim­panzees prob­a­bly eat less meat than just about any human pop­u­la­tion oth­er than Bud­dhist monks. Nev­er­the­less, many peo­ple want to use chim­panzees’ meat con­sump­tion as an excuse for humans to eat meat.

The fact that chim­panzees’ meat con­sump­tion is large­ly sea­son­al goes far toward explain­ing why human beings have always eat­en meat. Chim­panzees are most like­ly to eat meat dur­ing the time of year when they are los­ing weight because their usu­al foods are in rel­a­tive­ly short sup­ply. Peo­ple think of meat as a source of pro­tein, but it’s main­ly a source of calo­ries, espe­cial­ly from fat. Meat is also a good source of sodi­um, which is in rel­a­tive­ly short sup­ply in the chim­panzees’ fruit and veg­etable diet.

The fact that chim­panzees eat the most meat dur­ing times of food short­ages sug­gests that their food choic­es fol­low a pat­tern that biol­o­gists call opti­mal for­ag­ing the­o­ry. Ani­mals try to get the most calo­ries for the least effort and with­out get­ting hurt. Opti­mal for­ag­ing the­o­ry explains why chim­panzees eat meat but goril­las don’t, and why chim­panzees eat more meat dur­ing times of food short­age.

Chim­panzees are main­ly fruit eaters, but they also eat a lot of veg­eta­bles. The prob­lem with fruit is that it’s sea­son­al. Worse yet, a fruit tree rep­re­sents a rich enough source of calo­ries that ani­mals will fight over it. When fruit is scarce, chim­panzees can use the skills they devel­oped in fight­ing over the fruit to engage in preda­to­ry behav­ior. Also, chim­panzees are small enough and fast enough that they are rea­son­ably good hunters.

Goril­las, on the oth­er hand, main­ly eat leaves. There are gen­er­al­ly plen­ty of leaves to go around, and a leafy plant is gen­er­al­ly so poor in calo­ries that it’s not worth fight­ing to pro­tect. To sub­sist on leaves, how­ev­er, you have to eat an enor­mous vol­ume of food. Since leaves are so low in calo­ries, leaf-eaters have to be good at con­serv­ing their ener­gy. That’s why goril­las have such a placid dis­po­si­tion. For a goril­la, hunt­ing is sim­ply not worth the effort. They are too big and slow to catch very much, and they’re large enough that they’d risk injury if they got too reck­less.

Chim­panzees use twigs to fish for ter­mites, and goril­las don’t. Some peo­ple think that this fact means that chim­panzees are smarter than goril­las. I don’t. If you are a juve­nile goril­la or a preg­nant or nurs­ing female goril­la, you don’t need to mess around with a lit­tle bit­ty twig to get a few ter­mites. All you have to do is wait for the sil­ver­back to knock over a rot­ting tree. Then all of you can eat as many ter­mites as you’d like.

Some peo­ple have argued that the bal­ance between ani­mal and plant foods in a hunter-gath­er­er society’s diet rep­re­sents the opti­mal bal­ance for human nutri­tion. I think that’s idi­ot­ic. Hunter-gath­er­er peo­ples (or should I say, gath­er­er-hunter peo­ples) tend to fol­low opti­mal for­ag­ing the­o­ry just like any oth­er oppor­tunis­tic feed­er. Their goal is to sur­vive in the short term, not to avoid breast or prostate can­cer in mid­dle or old age. The main threat to their short-term sur­vival is star­va­tion.

Meat rep­re­sents a con­cen­trat­ed source of calo­ries. The fact that a rel­a­tive­ly high per­cent­age of these calo­ries comes from pro­tein is actu­al­ly a dis­ad­van­tage. Hunt­ing peo­ples pre­fer the fat­ti­est foods. Peo­ple who end up hav­ing to sub­sist on extreme­ly low-fat meat, such as rab­bit, are prone to a prob­lem called fat-hunger or rab­bit star­va­tion. This prob­lem prob­a­bly results from a diet that has too much pro­tein and not enough car­bo­hy­drate or fat. On a low-carb diet and dur­ing star­va­tion, the body has to make its sug­ar sup­ply out of pro­tein. Per­haps the body can make only so much sug­ar out of pro­tein. As long as you are eat­ing enough fat to meet most of your ener­gy needs, your body can make enough sug­ar out of pro­tein to feed your brain. If you were eat­ing pro­tein but not enough fat or carbs, you could end up in seri­ous trou­ble. So you could end up in trou­ble from a diet that is too high in pro­tein. In con­trast, it is prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble to avoid get­ting enough pro­tein, as long as you are eat­ing enough unre­fined plant foods to get enough calo­ries.

Famine is not a sig­nif­i­cant cause of death in the Unit­ed States. In fact, peo­ple in the Unit­ed States are far more like­ly to die of the dis­eases of afflu­ence, such as heart dis­ease and can­cers of the breast and prostate. Ani­mal-based foods and fat­ty processed foods are the main con­tribut­ing caus­es of the dis­eases of afflu­ence. The abil­i­ty to use ani­mals for food may have helped human beings sur­vive to the mod­ern era, espe­cial­ly in the Arc­tic, but ani­mal-based foods are a major cause of death and dis­abil­i­ty in the Unit­ed States today. Think about that the next time you hear some­one pro­mot­ing a “Paleo” diet.

A Fish Is Not a Vegetable!

Late­ly, lots of peo­ple have been claim­ing that seafood is an impor­tant part of a health-pro­mot­ing diet for human beings. Some of the hype comes from the seafood indus­try, and some of it comes from peo­ple who sim­ply want an excuse to eat seafood. In real­i­ty, the health ben­e­fits of the so-called pesc­etar­i­an diets (a veg­e­tar­i­an diet plus seafood) result from the fact that they include a lot more starch and veg­eta­bles than is cus­tom­ary in the stan­dard Amer­i­can diet, while exclud­ing some of the most dan­ger­ous ani­mal-based foods. The starch and veg­eta­bles are good for you. Avoid­ing meat and milk from mam­mals and meat and eggs from birds is good for you. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the wine and seafood and olive oil in the “Mediter­ranean” diet do more harm than good.

It has always struck me as illog­i­cal for peo­ple to call them­selves veg­e­tar­i­an if they eat seafood, which is the gen­er­al term used to include edi­ble fish and shell­fish. (Yes, there are some edi­ble plants that grow in sea­wa­ter, but they’re gen­er­al­ly called sea veg­eta­bles rather than seafood.) Fish are not veg­eta­bles. They are ani­mals. So are shell­fish, a cat­e­go­ry that includes mol­lusks such as oys­ters and crus­taceans such as shrimp and lob­ster. If you are eat­ing ani­mals, you’re not veg­e­tar­i­an.

Many peo­ple eat fish because they are afraid that a pure­ly plant-based diet wouldn’t pro­vide enough pro­tein to main­tain their health. That’s non­sense. Pro­tein defi­cien­cy is sim­ply not a real con­cern. As long as you get enough calo­ries from any prac­ti­cal diet based on unre­fined plant foods, you will auto­mat­i­cal­ly get enough protein—unless you have some bizarre diges­tive or meta­bol­ic dis­ease.

Rather than wor­ry­ing about not get­ting enough pro­tein, most peo­ple should be wor­ried about the effects of eat­ing too much pro­tein. When you eat more pro­tein than you need, your body turns the excess amino acids to sug­ar, releas­ing tox­ic waste prod­ucts such as ammo­nia and sul­fu­ric acid. In con­trast, burn­ing car­bo­hy­drates and fats for ener­gy pro­duces just car­bon diox­ide and water. The tox­ic byprod­ucts of a high-pro­tein diet can harm the liv­er and kid­neys, as well as pro­mot­ing osteo­poro­sis. One study showed that peo­ple from the North Slope of Alas­ka had high rates of bone loss as a result of their high-pro­tein diet, even though their cal­ci­um intake was high because they were eat­ing fish bones.

Seafood is ani­mal tis­sue, and it has the same faults as any oth­er ani­mal tis­sue. It con­tains cho­les­terol, too much pro­tein and fat, and no starch or fiber. Fish and oth­er sea crea­tures don’t pro­vide any essen­tial nutri­ents that you can’t eas­i­ly get from oth­er sources. Plants con­tain all of the nutri­ents that are essen­tial in human nutri­tion except for vit­a­min D (which you get from sun­shine) and vit­a­min B12 (which comes from bac­te­ria). Even the omega 3 fat­ty acids in fish oil came from the plants that were at the bot­tom of the fish’s food chain.

Anoth­er prob­lem with ani­mal tis­sue, includ­ing seafood, is the buildup of tox­ic sub­stances, includ­ing heavy met­als and fat-sol­u­ble chem­i­cals such as diox­in. This prob­lem is called bioac­cu­mu­la­tion. The high­er up in the food chain an ani­mal is, the worse this prob­lem tends to be. You can avoid this prob­lem by eat­ing plants instead of ani­mals.

In short, the hype about a “pesc­etar­i­an” diet is just hype. Peo­ple are bet­ter off just eat­ing plants.

Pho­to by Pardee Ave.

Where Do Elephants Get Their Protein?

I chose the goril­la motif for this blog because goril­las are the biggest and most pow­er­ful pri­mates, along with being about as close as pos­si­ble to veg­an as you can get while eat­ing many pounds per day of veg­e­ta­tion in a rain for­est. I want­ed to point out that peo­ple sim­ply don’t have to wor­ry about get­ting enough pro­tein or cal­ci­um from a plant-based diet. In real­i­ty, the ani­mal-based foods that we have been urged to eat don’t pro­vide any nutri­ents that we can’t eas­i­ly get from plants or bac­te­ria. If you are still wor­ried about pro­tein, think about where ele­phants get their pro­tein. Ele­phants are even big­ger and even stronger than goril­las. A big ele­phant can eat up to 600 pounds of food a day.

Pho­to by mcough­lin

Online course in nutrition from Cornell University

Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty is offer­ing an online course in nutri­tion, under the super­vi­sion of T. Col­in Camp­bell, PhD, a nutri­tion­al bio­chemist who is also one of the world’s fore­most author­i­ties on nutri­tion­al epi­demi­ol­o­gy. The course pro­vides essen­tial infor­ma­tion for health­care pro­fes­sion­als (doc­tors, nurs­es, chi­ro­prac­tors, dieti­tians, nutri­tion­ists), patients, teach­ers, par­ents and any­one in the gen­er­al pub­lic with an inter­est in reach­ing opti­mal health and dietary excel­lence. Med­ical doc­tors who take the course can get 19 Con­tin­u­ing Med­ical Edu­ca­tion cred­its for tak­ing the course.

Predators Aren’t the Top of the Food Chain, Their Parasites Are!

Lots of peo­ple tell me that human beings are sup­posed to be preda­tors and carnivores—that we’re sup­posed to be the top of the food chain! This makes human beings sound real­ly impor­tant and spe­cial, doesn’t it? There’s only one small prob­lem with this idea. The apex preda­tor of an ecosys­tem (i.e., a preda­tor that has no preda­tors of its own) is not real­ly at the top of its food chain. The crea­tures at the very tip­py top of the food chain are the par­a­sites that feed on the apex preda­tor. Here’s a link to an arti­cle that describes the pro­to­zoa, worms, and mites that were found in the drop­pings of wild lions in Tan­za­nia. These par­a­sites are the sort of crea­tures I think of when some­one men­tions the top of the food chain! Not so glam­orous, is it?

The idea that human beings should be at the top of the food chain and there­fore should or must kill and eat oth­er ani­mals to main­tain some sort of spe­cial sta­tus sounds to me like a weird and dan­ger­ous form of nar­cis­sism. It asserts that we are spe­cial and enti­tled to spe­cial priv­i­leges, but it bases that exalt­ed sta­tus on prim­i­tive ani­mal­is­tic behav­iors, not on the abil­i­ties and accom­plish­ments that are unique to our species. We’re the only known species in the uni­verse with whom it is even the­o­ret­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble to hold an intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion. We’re the only ones who can con­tem­plate and delib­er­ate­ly shape our own des­tiny. Those unique­ly human gifts make us spe­cial, even if we eat the low-fat plant-based foods that are good for our health instead of the fat­ty, meaty foods that are the major cause of death and dis­abil­i­ty in the Unit­ed States.

The Cause of the Breast Cancer Epidemic

Octo­ber is Breast Can­cer Aware­ness Month, and we’re inun­dat­ed with pink rib­bons, urg­ing us to be “aware” of breast can­cer and encour­ag­ing women to get mam­mo­grams. Per­son­al­ly, I didn’t need to be made aware of breast can­cer. It dev­as­tat­ed my fam­i­ly about 40 years ago, when my father’s eldest sis­ter, who was more like a moth­er to him, died of it after a long and hor­ri­ble ill­ness. About 10 years lat­er, anoth­er of his sis­ters began her long and painful strug­gle against the dis­ease that even­tu­al­ly claimed her life. Recent­ly, some of my friends have under­gone mas­tec­tomies. It would hard for me to be more aware that breast can­cer exists.

What infu­ri­ates me is that the attempts to raise “aware­ness” of breast can­cer sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly fail to tell women the sin­gle most impor­tant thing they can do to reduce their risk of dying of breast can­cer: cor­rect their diet. Instead, it urges them to do some­thing that might have lit­tle or no effect on their sur­vival: get an annu­al mam­mo­gram. It would be as if the efforts to edu­cate the pub­lic about lung can­cer all failed to men­tion cig­a­rettes but instead just urged every­one in the pop­u­la­tion to get an annu­al chest x-ray.

By the mid 20th cen­tu­ry, Euro­pean and U.S.-trained doc­tors who were prac­tic­ing in Africa and Asia real­ized that breast can­cer is rare to prac­ti­cal­ly nonex­is­tent in pop­u­la­tions that eat a low-fat, plant-based diet. By the end of the 20th cen­tu­ry, epi­demi­ol­o­gists knew that breast can­cer mor­tal­i­ty is strong­ly linked to the amount of ani­mal pro­tein that a pop­u­la­tion con­sumes. The more ani­mal pro­tein a pop­u­la­tion eats, the more like­ly its women are to die of breast can­cer. Veg­eta­bles had the oppo­site effect. The more veg­eta­bles a pop­u­la­tion eats, the less like­ly their women are to die of breast can­cer.

The data on breast can­cer mor­tal­i­ty boil down to a sim­ple les­son: if women ate low-fat plant foods instead of a fat­ty, ani­mal-based diet (includ­ing meat, milk, fish and eggs), they could dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce their risk of dying of breast cancer–and colon can­cer, and heart dis­ease, and dia­betes, and autoim­mune dis­ease, etc. etc. etc. They’d even reduce their risk of get­ting vari­cose veins! Even if a woman already has can­cer, a switch to a low-fat, plant-based diet might improve her chances of sur­vival.

Instead of being giv­en advice that will actu­al­ly pre­vent breast can­cer, women in the Unit­ed States are urged to get a rou­tine annu­al mam­mo­gram. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, mam­mo­grams do absolute­ly noth­ing to pre­vent breast can­cer, and they may do lit­tle or noth­ing to keep most women from dying of breast can­cer. Worse yet, rou­tine mam­mog­ra­phy may lead to unnec­es­sary sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures in women who don’t have can­cer.

The deci­sion of who should under­go mam­mog­ra­phy and when they should under­go it is com­pli­cat­ed. The next time you hear some­one urg­ing all women of a cer­tain age to have annu­al screen­ing mam­mo­grams, con­sid­er the fol­low­ing:

  • Mam­mog­ra­phy involves expos­ing the breast to x-rays and thus might actu­al­ly cause some can­cers. The x-rays could pose a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem for young women and women with a genet­ic pre­dis­po­si­tion to breast can­cer.
  • The breast is typ­i­cal­ly squashed flat while the mam­mo­gram is being tak­en. Not only does this com­pres­sion hurt, it could break up a pre­can­cer­ous lesion, turn­ing it into a dead­ly inva­sive can­cer.
  • Mam­mog­ra­phy is less use­ful for find­ing can­cers in the breasts of pre­menopausal women because their breast tis­sue is denser.
  • By the time a can­cer is large enough to be seen by mam­mog­ra­phy, it may already have spread.
  • Mam­mo­grams often cause false alarms by bring­ing atten­tion to harm­less benign lesions, as well as to can­cer­ous tumors that would have gone away by them­selves if left untreat­ed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the woman has to under­go the pain and expense and risk of a sur­gi­cal biop­sy to find out whether the lesion is benign or not, and she’ll nev­er know whether her body’s immune sys­tem would have destroyed a tumor before it caused any prob­lems.

Many stud­ies have failed to show that rou­tine screen­ing mam­mog­ra­phy pro­vides any ben­e­fit in terms of sav­ing lives. As a result, some experts argue that it is a point­less and cru­el waste of med­ical resources to urge all women to have annu­al screen­ing mam­mog­ra­phy. Even the val­ue of rou­tine breast self-exam­i­na­tion has been ques­tioned. Nev­er­the­less, mam­mog­ra­phy could still be valu­able for many indi­vid­ual patients, depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion. The real ques­tion is when and how often and for whom it should be used.

Pho­to by maf04

Host a Screening of Forks Over Knives

If you haven’t seen it already, watch the doc­u­men­tary Forks Over Knives. You can watch it instant­ly on Net­flix if you are a Net­flix sub­scriber. You can also order the DVD at www.forksoverknives.com and host your own screen­ing.

The doc­u­men­tary includes this juicy quote from T. Col­in Camp­bell, PhD, who is one of the world’s most promi­nent nutri­tion sci­en­tists:

I know of noth­ing else in med­i­cine that can come close to what a plant-based diet can do. I can say this with a great deal of con­fi­dence, that our nation­al author­i­ties are sim­ply exclud­ing this con­cept of nutri­tion from the debate, in the dis­cus­sion, in order to pro­tect the sta­tus quo. In the­o­ry, if every­one were to adopt this, I real­ly believe that we could cut health­care costs by 70% to 80%.

How to Cook Dried Beans, Lentils, and Peas

It’s easy to get enough pro­tein from a plant-based diet, even if you don’t eat legumes (beans, lentils, and peas). In fact, the Pythagore­ans of ancient Greece thrived on a pure­ly plant-based diet, even though they refused for philo­soph­i­cal rea­sons to eat beans. Nev­er­the­less, beans are cheap, tasty, and nutri­tious and play an impor­tant part in many tra­di­tion­al cuisines. The only prob­lem is that dried beans can be hard to cook. I’ve tried sev­er­al dif­fer­ent meth­ods and have had good luck with all of them.

If you want to use dried beans instead of canned beans, you’re going to have to think ahead and allow time for the beans to soak and cook. I usu­al­ly soak them overnight and then cook them the fol­low­ing day. I often cook a huge pot of beans and then use the cooked beans in var­i­ous recipes over the next few days. For exam­ple, I mash some of the beans with a lit­tle bit of chili pow­der and salt and use them as sand­wich fill­ing. Or I can add chick peas or oth­er beans to a sal­ad.

If you want to cook chick peas, use soft water, such as rain­wa­ter. If you use hard water, the chick peas will nev­er soft­en! We have real­ly hard water, so I use water from a reverse osmo­sis fil­ter when I cook chick peas. I can use reg­u­lar tap water for oth­er kinds of beans.

The first step in cook­ing dried beans is to sort through them to make sure that no peb­bles are hid­ing among the beans. I sim­ply pour them into my hand a few at a time and then toss them into a bowl. For small beans like lentils, I scat­ter them a hand­ful at a time onto a white plate and pick through them before toss­ing them into the bowl. You can cook lentils and peas right away. I soak larg­er beans overnight before cook­ing them.

I use any of sev­er­al meth­ods to cook beans. The tra­di­tion­al method used by the Native Amer­i­cans of New Eng­land was to put the beans and water and maybe some maple syrup in a crock­ery pot and leave it by the fire. The Puri­tans of New Eng­land adopt­ed a sim­i­lar prac­tice because they strict­ly observed the Sab­bath, which meant that they couldn’t work on Sun­days. They real­ized that they could have a hot, cooked meal on Sun­days if they left a pot of beans and a crock­ery of coarse bread dough in a hot brick oven on Sat­ur­day night. The fact that near­ly every­one ate beans on Sun­days is why Boston is called Bean Town.

With the rise of the sug­ar plan­ta­tions in the Caribbean, and the result­ing Tri­an­gle Trade involv­ing Boston, Bosto­ni­ans start­ed using molasses and brown sug­ar to sweet­en their Boston baked beans and their Boston brown bread. This struck me as deeply hyp­o­crit­i­cal. It meant that peo­ple turned a blind eye to human traf­fick­ing and slav­ery but frowned on free peo­ple doing house­hold chores on Sun­days. As Hait­ian-Amer­i­can author Solar Cook­ers Inter­na­tion­al.

In win­ter and dur­ing cloudy weath­er, I use a pres­sure cook­er to cook beans. My Presto® pres­sure cook­er is about 20 years old. Two years ago, I bought it some new gas­kets and a new han­dle for the lid. Pres­sure cook­ers are great! They save time and ener­gy. Here’s a chart that gives the pres­sure cook­er cook­ing times for var­i­ous kinds of beans. Pres­sure cook­ers are par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful for peo­ple who live at high ele­va­tions, such as in the Rocky Moun­tains. That’s because water boils at a low­er tem­per­a­ture if the air pres­sure is low.

Pho­to by WhyKen­Fo­tos

Plant-Based Diet and Vitamin B2 Might Help in Managing Parkinson Disease

Back in Novem­ber 2009, I wrote a blog post about a study that sug­gest­ed that a hered­i­tary prob­lem in the metab­o­lism of riboflavin (vit­a­min B2) and the heavy con­sump­tion of red meat could both con­tribute to the cause of Parkin­son dis­ease. The researchers did blood tests for riboflavin for 31 con­sec­u­tive Parkin­son patients who entered their clin­ic. Every sin­gle one of them had abnor­mal­ly low blood lev­els of riboflavin. In com­par­i­son, only a few of the patients with oth­er neu­ro­log­ic dis­eases had low riboflavin lev­els. The Parkin­son patients also tend­ed to be heavy con­sumers of red meat. After the riboflavin defi­cien­cy was cor­rect­ed and the Parkin­son patients stopped eat­ing red meat, their motor skills improved dra­mat­i­cal­ly.

I thought that this study was impor­tant. It sug­gest­ed that cheap and gen­er­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial inter­ven­tions could pro­vide sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits for peo­ple with Parkin­son dis­ease. It should have been fol­lowed up with larg­er stud­ies. Keep in mind that Parkin­son dis­ease is a major cause of dis­abil­i­ty among elder­ly Amer­i­cans and ranks 14th among caus­es of death in the Unit­ed States.

Since then, I’ve seen a few stud­ies in which inves­ti­ga­tors assess riboflavin sta­tus by ask­ing peo­ple what they’ve been eat­ing, instead of doing a blood test! This is a big mis­take because the Parkin­son patients in the 2003 study had riboflavin defi­cien­cy even though they were eat­ing nor­mal amounts of riboflavin. Their bod­ies just weren’t han­dling the riboflavin effi­cient­ly. We need more research to show whether Parkin­son patients should rou­tine­ly be screened for riboflavin defi­cien­cy. Of course, if you or a loved one has Parkin­son dis­ease, you can just ask for the riboflavin lev­el to be test­ed. If a patient has a vit­a­min defi­cien­cy, it should be cor­rect­ed, shouldn’t it?

Anoth­er study, pub­lished in Jan­u­ary of 2011, found that Parkin­son patients improved when they switched to a plant-based diet. This came as no sur­prise to me because sim­ply eat­ing less pro­tein, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the day­time, can dra­mat­i­cal­ly improve the patient’s response to L-dopa, which is the drug of choice for treat­ing Parkin­son dis­ease.