Erik Nesler: What’s in a healthy diet?

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 5:02pm

If you haven’t yet seen the eye-opening documentary “What the Health, I highly recommend you watch it. My mouth was gaping wide open as I watched the entire film.

The directors, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, reveal that consuming meat and dairy can promote chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. They cite the 2015 World Health Organization report, which declared processed meats (think: bacon, hot dogs and cold cuts) as “carcinogenic to humans” and also claimed dairy consumption is associated with prostate and breast cancers. These assertions serve as the foundation for their argument that adopting a vegan diet is optimal.

The friends and family members who I forced to watch the documentary immediately wrote it off as “vegan-propaganda.” This is undoubtedly true, but I still found it intriguing. From a young age, I had always believed meat, along with a glass of milk, was an important part of every meal. I even believed the two food products were healthy (unless, say, the meat was deep-fried). The documentary challenged these established beliefs. I decided to do some digging on my own to see if Andersen and Kuhn were on to something.

It turns out that the WHO report categorizing processed meats as carcinogenic — effectively grouping them together with tobacco and asbestos — is misleading. The WHO panel found “sufficient evidence” to support the idea that meat consumption contributes to cancer, but that does not mean that meat is even close to being as carcinogenic as tobacco or asbestos.

In fact, much of the documentary is viewed as intentionally misleading. Several sources, including Time, have criticized the directors’ exaggerated claims and misrepresentations of science.

As I continued to dig for information regarding what a healthy diet looked like, I found a wealth of information but no definitive answers. There appears to be a general consensus that doctors are recommending patients to consume less meat along with less sugar, but many believe that moderate meat and sugar consumption is not as harmful as Andersen and Kuhn depict it.

Andersen and Kuhn discussed claims of deceptive research by the meat and dairy industries in the documentary, and while researching, I, too, came across biased scientific studies. The New York Times broke a story in 2016 when it was discovered that the sugar industry paid scientists to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease. Knowing this, who are we as consumers supposed to trust when it comes to determining what is truly healthy?

The U.S. government has attempted to step in to help consumers make wiser, more health-conscious decisions, but even the government’s efforts aren’t completely unbiased. The U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced their Food Guide Pyramid in 1992 as a nutrition education tool to recommend what types of food consumers should eat every day. The USDA continues to release updated tools like MyPyramid and their most recent MyPlate. Despite doctors across the country urging patients to reduce their meat and dairy consumption, the tools continue to display meat and dairy as prominent portions of every meal. It’s clear to see why people, including myself, believe meat and dairy are necessary ingredients to every meal, and thus why they are a part of a balanced diet.

Meat and dairy have been able to persist as a necessary ingredient in every meal because of the industries’ power (read: money) to influence governmental actors. The meat industry spent $17.7 million in 2014 on contributions to various political campaigns and direct federal government lobbying to ensure that their products stay a staple in the American diet. The Washington Post reported years ago about how the USDA attempted to deemphasize the importance of meat and dairy when creating a new nutritional tool for consumers and how the organization quickly abandoned the plan after private sector backlash.

I find it worrisome that the public can’t even trust the government to produce an unbiased and accurate depiction of what a healthy diet should look like. If the private sector is willingly taking part in deception and devious marketing, the government should step in to protect consumers, no matter what losses may be incurred by producers.

If the government, or any organization, were to fund a completely independent series of studies to decipher what a truly healthy diet looks like, the obesity epidemic that plagues the world could be halted. Research may not initially lead to a swift change in consumption, but with the passage of time, habits are malleable. Nobody initially thought that tobacco was harmful to humans, but after extensive research and many years of consumer adjustment, people finally began changing their habits. I propose that the same progression can occur with people’s diets.

Erik Nesler can be reached at egnesler@umich.edu.