The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

It’s Not the Burger, It’s the Bun: A Defense of Meat

April 22nd, 2009 · 9 Comments · Posted in Blog

Danger: This bun could kill you

Warning: This bun could kill you

Does red meat cause cancer? How about heart disease? Or could we solve global warming if we just stopped eating beef?

Every day the headlines declare another reason not to eat meat. But I’m thinking of three million reasons why red meat has been very, very good to the human race. That would be about the number of years that we humans evolved eating a diet composed predominantly of–you guessed it–meat. Our bodies crave protein and fat, and since the dawn of time that is what we fed them. Wouldn’t it be a shame to throw away three million years of evolution because we suddenly developed a fear of one of the most nutritious foods at our disposal?

For our hunter ancestors, meat was life. To replace the protein in an 8-ounce piece of elk, for instance, you would need to eat 13 heads of lettuce. Or 56 bananas. Or 261 apples. Or 33 slices of bread. To replace the methionine, an essential amino acid, in that same 8-ounce piece of meat, you would need to consume 22 heads of lettuce. Or 127 bananas. Or 550 apples. Or 46 slices of bread.

No wonder humans liked meat so much. Meat made the job of staying healthy easy. It’s packed with everything our bodies need. Man can easily live on meat alone–and some do, just ask the Eskimos. They practice what science knows too well: carbohydrates–potatoes, bread, rice–aren’t even necessary for human survival.

You might say we were designed to eat meat.

Until about 50 years ago, nobody really thought twice about eating meat. People ate lots of it–or at least whatever they could get their hands on. But then a frightening notion began to percolate through some quarters of the medical-research community: meat, and the fat it contains, was a cause of heart disease. The argument made sense at first blush. If heart disease is the result of clogged arteries, we could easily picture fat doing the clogging. There was just one problem: It wasn’t true. Try as they might, proponents of the “fat hypothesis,” as it is known, were never able to prove their case. Fat did not cause heart disease. There’s little evidence that even saturated fat–the nutritionist’s equivalent of Darth Vader–is truly dangerous. (Unless it is eaten with carbohydrates.)

But in spite of all the evidence to the contrary,  the fat hypothesis lives on. You can hardly turn around these days without being admonished to reduce your intake of red meat and fat. And that wouldn’t be so hard to live with if all the attention on meat and fat weren’t distracting us from a far more pernicious danger. Turns out all the time you spend worrying about your fatty burger would be put to much better use contemplating the hazards of the bun it came in.

Here are some interesting factoids: Since the government first started urging us to cut back on fat, Americans responded. We reduced meat and egg consumption and began eating more poultry and fish. Americans, who on average previously consumed 45 percent of their calories in the form of fat, now get by on less than 35 percent. The number of Americans with chronically elevated cholesterol has dropped nearly 30 percent. In other words, we didn’t just hear the message. We acted on it.

But guess what? During the same period we were cutting back on fat, inpatient medical procedures for heart disease increased 470 percent. Since 1980, obesity levels have more than doubled. One in three American adults is now considered obese. The number of children either overweight or obese has tripled. The incidence of Type II diabetes has soared by a factor of 10 and the disease once thought of as being reserved for the aged is now turning up in children.

How could that be?

Remember that hamburger bun?

With all the hand-wringing over meat and fat, you’d think it was our favorite food. Care to guess what is? That would be white bread, rolls and crackers. And the second-most favorite? Doughnuts, cookies and cake.  They all have one thing very much in common: they’re pure carbohydrate. (Yes, there is a third-favorite food: alcohol, as in beer, which delivers 33 percent of its calories in the form of carbs.)

What all the noise about fat has been drowning out are decades of research much less publicized confirming what used to be common knowledge: carbohydrates make you fat. And not just fat. Carbs, it turns out, and the way they stimulate the body’s most powerful hormone–insulin–are the primary culprit behind obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, the so-called diseases of civilization. When we eat carbohydrates, our body responds by producing insulin. The same insulin spurred by our consumption of carbohydrates is responsible for bloating our bodies with fat, increasing levels of bad cholesterol, inhibiting the body’s production of good cholesterol, priming arterial walls for plaque and clots. It may even play a role in cancer and a host of auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers have given the carbohydrate phenomenon a name:  Syndrome X.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a list of facts around fat and insulin presented by Gary Taubes at the conclusion of his monumental book Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, And The Controversial Science of Diet and Health. A distinguished science writer, Taubes spent five years in research and turned out a startling expose of how our nation came to adopt a flawed fat hypothesis and continues to ignore our carbohydrate dependency and the insulin epidemic it has spawned:

  • Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.
  • The problem is the carbohydrates in the diet, their effect on insulin secretion, and thus the hormonal regulation of homeostastis–the entire harmonic ensemble of the human body. The more easily digestible and refined the carbohydrates, the greater the effect on our health, weight, and well-being.
  • Sugars–sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup specifically–are particularly harmful, probably because the combination of fructose and glucose simultaneously elevates insulin levels while overloading the liver with carbohydrates.
  • Through their direct effect on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease and diabetes. They are the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the other chronic diseases of civilization.
  • Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating, and not sedentary behavior.
  • Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter, any more than it causes a child to grow taller. Expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss; it leads to hunger.
  • Fattening and obesity are caused by an imbalance–a disequilibrium–in the hormonal regulation of adipose (fat) tissue and fat metabolism. Fat synthesis and storage exceed the mobilization of fat from the adipose tissue and its subsequent oxidation. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue reverses this balance.
  • Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated–either chronically or after a meal–we accumulate fat in our fat tissue. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and use it for fuel.
  • By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. The fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.
  • By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.

After interviewing more than 600 researchers, technicians and scholars, Taubes wrote that he was shocked by what he discovered was missing from the very fat hypothesis that has dominated our approach to diet for the last 30 years.

“I had no idea that I would find the quality of research on nutrition, obesity and chronic disease to be so inadequate; that so much of the conventional wisdom would be founded on so little substantial evidence; and that, once it was, the researchers and the public health authorities who funded the research would no longer see any reason to challenge the conventional wisdom and so test its validity.”

Many in the scientific community have known for years that fat is not the villain we are repeatedly told it is but have remained silent on the overriding dangers of carbohydrates. Think about this: if you are on an average diet, consuming 2,200 calories a day and following the federal Dietary Guidelines–the “food pyramid” published by our own U.S. Department of Agriculture that urges you to eat at least 60 percent of your calories in the form of carbohydrates–you are consuming the equivalent of nearly two cups of sugar a day. That’s what your body does–turns those carbs into sugar, then produces insulin to deal with it. An estimated 75 percent of Americans have a problem with their insulin levels, meaning they are producing too much of the hormone that most likes to turn carbohydrates into fat.

To one extent or another, we are all potential diabetics stuffing ourselves with the very thing that is making us sick.

You may be wondering, as I did, how our nation’s nutritionists could so badly misinterpret the science behind diet research. Taubes’ alarming conclusion is that “science “–as Mae West might have said–really had nothing to do with it.

Institutional vigilance and critical thinking are “nowhere to be found in the study of nutrition, chronic disease and obesity,” Taubes writes, “and it hasn’t been for decades. For this reason, it is difficult to use the term ‘scientist’ to describe those individuals who work in these disciplines….”

Yet the portrayal of fat–and especially the fat from meat–as enemy number one is an idea so firmly embraced by nutritionists, physicians, government officials, the media and everyday consumers that it has become a kind of dogma. The kind of dogma H.L. Mencken might have had in mind when he quipped, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.”

“The urge to simplify a complex scientific situation so that physicians can apply it and their patients and the public embrace it has taken precedence over the scientific obligation of presenting the evidence with relentless honesty,” Taubes concluded. “The result is an enormous enterprise dedicated in theory to determining the relationship between diet, obesity and disease, while dedicated in practice to convincing everyone involved, and the lay public most of all, that the answers are already known and always have been–an enterprise that purports to be a science and yet functions like a religion.”

In fact, there have only been two trials to test the kind of low-fat diet recommended by the American Heart Association since 1961 and written into the USDA food pyramid. One, published in a Hungarian medical journal in 1963, concluded that cutting fat consumption to only 1.5 ounces a day reduced heart disease rates. The other, a British study, concluded that it did not.

The low-fat juggernaut functions more like a religion than science. That’s quite an indictment. And perhaps most impressive about Taubes’ work–besides his incredible thoroughness, his bibliography runs 66 pages–is his relentless adherence to scientific principles. True science depends on constant skepticism, experimentation, questioning, doubting of results, re-testing, cross-checking. These are the principles that have been tossed aside and ignored at almost every level to produce dogma that is killing millions of U.S. citizens–adults and children–by way of a national insulin overdose embedded in our dietary guidelines in the form of too many carbohydrates.

Ironically, the period of ascendency for the low-fat dogma–the 1960s through the present–has been a time when Americans seriously  questioned their national institutions. Government, the military, sports, the media, banks, Wall Street–each has found a way to fail us so miserably that we asked ourselves why we ever trusted them in the first place. Perhaps it is time we shine a similar light of doubt on the dietary establishment that until now has failed to warn of the danger of carbohydrates in order to perpetuate a religion of low fat.

For as Taubes illustrates, the story of all institutions–our medical and health establishment being no exception–is the story of individuals. Good Calories, Bad Calories is really the saga of certain men within the medical research establishment who, by dint of will and perseverance–as well their role in the many interlocking government committees, research bodies, grant-given agencies, and health advocacy groups–succeeded in pressing to the forefront their theories about fat despite an absence of scientific proof or even a prudent dose of healthy skepticism. Like all human dramas, it is a story of pride, vanity, miscalculation and the defeat of truth at the hands of self-aggrandizement and political expediency.

As one medical expert lamented after Congress adopted the fat hypothesis in the form of its Dietary Guidelines: “What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?”

Ah, but our government did precisely that, and for the last 30 years we have been engaged in just such an experiment, ridding ourselves of fat and stuffing ourselves with carbohydrates, with disastrous consequences.

Without turning this post into a book, I think it’s worth revisiting what happened not so many years ago that turned the country onto its misbegotten low-fat, high-carbohydrate path. It was George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs that on January 14, 1977, published the first “Dietary Goals for the United States.” McGovern himself had recently been on the extreme low-fat Pritikin diet (he only lasted a few days). His personal doctor had recommended he eat less fat. The guidelines followed just a few days of hearings and the authors, in Taubes’ words, “took a grab bag of ambiguous studies and speculation,  acknowledged that the claims were scientifically contentious, then officially bestowed on one interpretation the aura of established fact.”

“We really were totally naive,” the committee’s staff director at the time, Marshall Matz, told Taubes,  “a bunch of kids who just thought, Hell, we should say something on this subject before we go out of business.”

The job of writing the “Dietary Goals” was almost single-handedly accomplished by a former labor reporter named Nick Mottern, who until getting a job with McGovern’s committee had been working as a researcher for a consumer products newsletter. For expertise, Mottern relied on a Harvard nutritionist–Mark Hegsted–“who by his own admission was an extremist on the dietary fat issue.”

Once the report was issued, the nation’s course was set. The guidelines recommending that Americans sharply reduce their intake of fat and consequently red meat–and increase their consumption of carbohydrates–was picked up by every news outlet in the country and soon enshrined in the policy apparatus of every health-oriented government agency and private non-profit advocacy group. As a result, funding to research anything that might test or contradict the fat hypothesis dried up. Instead, grants went to studies that favored the popular hypothesis du jour. A new national diet was heralded as the only way to eat.

Even now, writes Taubes, health researchers who know the fallacy of the fat hypothesis–and the identity of the true villain, carbohydrates–are loathe to say anything on the subject of what kind of food people should eat, lest they find themselves cast out of the medical community, as was Robert Atkins when he challenged the high priests of low fat with his famous protein diet.

Good Calories, Bad Calories should be required reading for all food writers. Published in 2007, after first appearing as an article in the New York Times Magazine in 2002, its chilling indictment of nutrition orthodoxy already has receded into the shadows of food literature. When was the last you the last time you heard anyone talk about the evils of carbohydrates? We are too busy scribbling words about fat. Yet I challenge my fellow food bloggers to read Taubes and see if they are not similarly disturbed about where this country is headed with its addiction to carbohydrates and out-of-control insulin. The cries for eating less meat and more plant-based foods are a prescription for making things only worse.

Especially with re-authorization of the federal school lunch program looming we should be taking a hard look at the second-rate carbohydrates with which we are stuffing our children. We should be demanding actual science in the field of health and nutrition. Processed flour, sugar, polished rice, pizza, white bread, French fries, crackers, cookies–even the protein in school lunch rooms is breaded. It is nothing less than a hyperinsulinemic nightmare.

In fact, we should be eating more meat, not less. The food pyramid should be turned upside-down to require fewer carbohydrates and more proteins of all kinds. Even more fat. We only need to find a way to do so more sustainably, not in factory feedlots, but on grass, in the open, the way nature intended.

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  • brett.hite

    I began reading this post last night and was thinking to myself you must’ve read Taubes. This morning as I finished it, my suspicions were correct! I’m definitely forwarding this post to anyone and everyone I can think of. Taubes was a little difficult for me to read – a little text-bookishy – but you’ve done an excellent job summarizing his key points. I’d vote to make this required reading for more than just food writers!

  • valerierose

    In general, I agree with you that the medical community doesn’t know as much about the effects of dietary fat and cholesterol as they claim. But I don’t think exchanging the demonizing of fat for the demonizing of carbs accomplishes much. To be sure, the typical American diet these day is way to heavy in refined carbs and I agree that this is the cause of many of the health problems that are on the rise. But it’s not the carbs and sugars themselves, but the fact that they are refined away from the *fiber* that they came originally packaged with by nature. When you eat a wholesome food such as a piece of fruit, in its natural state, it may contain a lot of sugar but it also contains fiber which regulates the absorption of that sugar so that you don’t get the spike in insulin you would get from drinking a can of soda. Carbs are good in that they are a pure and easily digestible form of energy. Lack of fiber is the real demon if you ask me.

  • Ed Bruske

    Brett, thanks for spreading the word. I’m glad to know there are others who have heard of Gary Taubes out there.

    Valerie, whole grain is definitely better. But the fiber, while providing nutrients, only mitigates a little. Carbs are still carbs, whether from whole grains or fruits. They all get converted into sugar, which requires an insulin response. Humans were not designed to eat the diet you are describing, and in fact the fossil record shows that mankinds health declined significantly with the advent of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago–a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Plants are loaded with defense mechanisms that make digestion much more difficult than protein. This is more of an issue for some people than others, just as the inuslin disturbance is. Some people have a very difficult time dealing with certain plant foods–the reaction to beans, favism, gluten intolerance spring to mind. There are many others. It is also established that proteins provide a much greater sense of satiation than carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, among the many other issues listed, just make people hundrier. But what is truly alarming are the health issues that arise around insulin. They are rarely discussed as a public health matter and deserve much wider attention.

  • espringf

    You know what worries me? From an environmental standpoint, we can’t afford this much protein, especially in meat form. I know I feel better and am healthier when I eat fewer carbs and more fat and protein, but the only way we can feed 6 (let alone 9) billion people is on a high-carb vegetarian diet.

  • Ed Bruske

    Emily, I know it worries you. It worries me, too, because we do seem to be caught in a bit of a cunundrum. But we can find a way. If we can bring agriculture back to the local community, where it belongs, then we can do this, too. Read Joel Salatin.

  • espringf

    I’ve read Salatin, and greatly admire what he’s doing. I think I need more data, though. Can we really ranch enough land without destroying our remaining ecosystems to eat this much meat? Or do we aim for ethically-farmed tilapia and beans until we can get the population down to a more sustainable level?

  • FoodRenegade

    Ed —

    What a thorough post! I also was converted reading Taubes’ book. I’ll definitely be sharing this with my friends on Twitter & Stumble Upon.

    As to whether or not we can feed everyone in the world on this diet — even if we all farmed like Salatin — I think the answer is no.

    But that doesn’t bother me. I’m responsible for feeding my family with food grown as healthily, locally, and sustainably as possible. The end. If my local area can sustain me eating this way (and it can), then I’m going to eat this way because it’s the best choice for myself and those I love.

    If other parts of the world can’t sustain their populations this way, then maybe they shouldn’t. Eventually, they’ll stop reproducing, or they’ll start dying young (which is what’s happening! Google “demographic winter” for more info). And given more time, they’ll reach an equilibrium for their own local food/population balance as well.

    Thanks again for this post, and for submitting it to Fight Back Fridays today!

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  • Kimberly

    Hi Ed–I agree with you and Gary, refined carbs are at the heart of our weight issues in America. My husband and I lost 50 lbs between us and have kept them off for 5+ years, by watching our carb intake.

    PS–Did you know that Gary Taubes is speaking in Arlington this weekend, May 16?


  • Ed Bruske

    Kimberly, I didn’t know Taubes was in town this weekend. I will be giving a composting class. Darn. But for others interested, this is a breakfast talk May 16, 9:30, at Harry’s Tap Room, in Arlington, VA, 2800 Clarendon Blvd. Sponsored by Weston Price Foundation. You do need to pay for breakfast.