Friday, September 13, 2019

Retrospective #209: “Maureen Dowd is off today,” the NYT said.

Maureen Dowd was off today, the New York Times said at the bottom of a 2014 column. Substituted was “Butter is Back,” by Mark Bittman, the NYT’s food writer. The subject was long overdue, in my opinion, and generally favorable – until near the end.  At that point he steered the writing to a more personal theme, pitching his recent book, VB6: Eat Vegan before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Health. The title makes it pretty clear what his confirmation bias is.
On balance, though, I was enormously encouraged, if only because of my own confirmation bias wrt saturated fats.
Bittman acknowledged that “the worm is turning.” The example that this is “increasingly evident” was the meta-analysis he cited from the journal Annals of Internal Medicine that 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.”
Media writers quickly took note of the “total saturated fat” part of this bifocal conclusion. 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 over.” And, “You can go back to eating butter, if you haven’t already.”
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.)” So, a guy can change his mind. Or keep an open mind.  In #193, I admired the way Gary Taubes did that in his NYT op-ed.
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. 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, I don’t hedge on this. 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 fed the fire. 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.” Google it.  On balance, it’s a good read.
And just before the Bittman op-ed, the magazine Science published an article, “Scientists Fix Errors in Controversial Paper About Saturated Fats. 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 the Dietary Guidelines for Americans presently advocate. 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 OF INTERNAL MEDICINE PIECE EXCULPATES SATURATED FATS AND EXCORIATES POLYUNSATURATED FATS (PUFAs).
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 writers like Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and other best sellers. In Retrospective #17, “Michael Pollan: Pied Piper of Pseudo Paleo Prandial Principles,” I take a poke at Pollan in what, I think, is a fun and enlightening read.
Please Google 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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