Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #209: “Maureen Dowd is off today,” the NYT said.

Maureen Dowd was off today, the New York Times said on March 25th at the bottom of a column, “Butter is Back,” by the NYT’s contributing op-ed writer and food writer, Mark Bittman. The piece he contributed that day was long overdue, in my opinion, and was generally very good – until the last two paragraphs.  At that point he “steered” the drift of his op-ed to his own personal theme, as revealed by the title of his recent book, VB6: Eat Vegan before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Health. I guess the title makes it pretty clear what his confirmation bias is.

The “Butter is Back” column was brought to my attention on Facebook by my step-daughter, a biochemist, who appeared, by posting it, to endorse it. I “liked” it and added my own commentary there about Bittman’s bias. But that does not detract from the substance of his writing and thinking. Nor does it diminish the impact of his saying so in The New York Times, nor my step-daughter’s in helping to disseminate the broader message through the medium of pop-culture. Both are significant events in our evolving understanding and acceptance of what “Healthy Eating” means.

I am enormously encouraged.

Bittman acknowledged that “the worm is turning.” The most recent example that this is “increasingly evident” was the meta-analysis just published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine that quickly made headlines around the world. The researchers looked at 72 studies and came to this conclusion: “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”

Most media writers quickly took note of the “total saturated fat” part of this bifocal conclusion. I think this may be because 1) the saturated fat message has been ringing in our ears for half a century, and 2) many people have missed their favorite saturated fatty foods. Bittman wrote, “…when you’re looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew, you can resume searching for the best pieces — the ones with the most fat.” And, “…the days of skinless chicken breasts and tubs of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter may finally be drawing to a close.” And, “You can go back to eating butter, if you haven’t already.” Hallelujah!

Referring to the scientific findings, Bittman, the guy who personally eschews (before 6PM) animal protein and advocates “eat vegan…to restore health,” now says, “there’s just no evidence to support the notion that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. (In fact, there’s some evidence that a lack of saturated fat may be damaging.)” Okay, a guy can change his mind. Or keep an open mind.  In #193, I admired the way Gary Taubes did that in this NYT piece.

But Bittman, on the way to his vegan message, took note of the other, less familiar but just as important conclusion of the Annals piece: “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids…” Polyunsaturated fats are vegetable (seed) oils, folks. Or, in Bittman’s own words, “...many polyunsaturated fats are chemically extracted oils that may also, in the long run, be shown to be problematic.” Okay, he hedges a little by saying “may,” but I do not. See #203, “A Brief History of Edible Vegetable (i.e. Seed) Oils,” for my take.

The Annals piece, naturally, prompted a firestorm of controversy. Vested interests came out of the woodwork. A good companion piece to Bittman’s aired on National Public Radio (NPR) a week or so later. The accompanying text article, by Allison Aubrey, is titled “Rethinking Fat: The Case For Adding Some Into Your Diet.” It’s a good, “balanced” read.

The magazine Science published an article, “Scientists Fix Errors in Controversial Paper About Saturated Fats,” just before the Bittman op-ed. The “errors” reflect a disagreement about whether the evidence is strong enough to advocate eating less saturated fat and substituting instead more polyunsaturated fat, the way the AHA and other guidelines presently state. The lead author states that the paper’s conclusions are valid and that the paper was “wrongly interpreted by the media.” Bottom line, as both Bittman and I see it, the Annals piece exculpates saturated fats and excoriates polyunsaturated fats.

In “Butter is Back,” Bittman also takes aim at fake food and extols the virtues of real food. He lashes out at all manner of “highly processed ‘low-fat’ carbs” like SnackWells. My favorite: “How you could produce fat-free ‘sour cream’ is something to contemplate.”  He was an early supporter of the slow food movement and of authors like Michael Pollan. The Nutrition Debate #17, “Michael Pollan: Pied Piper of Pseudo Paleo Prandial Principles,” is, I think, a fun and enlightening read.
And be sure to go back and read “Butter is Back.” So long as you are informed and armed for the Vegan end-pitch, it’s an entertaining and informative look at the current state of nutritional science in transition. As Bittman says, “The tip of this iceberg has been visible for years, and we’re finally beginning to see the base.” That’s, indeed, very encouraging.

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