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Books, Documentaries, Reviews: Denise Minger’s DEATH BY FOOD PYRAMID

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Books, Documentaries, Reviews AND Interesting Information:  March 26, 2014

Death By Food Pyramid:

How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Ruined Your Health…

…and How to Reclaim It

Denise Minger


Denise Minger’s book is a very useful book in so many ways and is, in my not-always-so-humble opinion, a really good addition to the ongoing discussion about food knowledge, food history, and food safety.


Minger, as you may recall from earlier posts on this blog, is the young woman who took on T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study by digging deep into his research data and showing that, likely, because his belief system about veganism was so strong that he missed what the data was telling him.  Indeed, in the middle of the movie lauding vegetarianism and veganism, Forks Over Knives, the Chinese doctors Campbell worked with in China announced that health seemed to be determined by “meat and vegetables.”

In addition, Minger has an absolutely wicked sense of humor.  But, more importantly, she has a kind of research worldview that looks objectively at what happened and what is, not what gets driven by belief system so that it becomes “truth” when it isn’t.  Despite the grim title, Minger ends her book with a powerful plan of attack on how to win back, as Chris Masterjohn notes in his forward to the book, “the right to a healthy future.”

Minger begins the book with the tale of her 16 to 17th year of living after falling prey to a raw food diet comprised mostly of fruit.  A trip to the dentist revealed SIXTEEN cavities and the dentist’s observation that he had never seen ” `teeth like this on someone so young’ ” (5)  Later she realized that her “teeth had likely fallen victim to a deficiency of fat-soluble vitamins” (5).  Those are the crucial vitamins that live, you know, IN MEAT FAT.  And here’s an example of a typical Minger bit of humor:  “Although the doctor insisted I’d had low levels of iron and vitamin B12, my most deadly deficiency, I would later learn, was in critical thinking” (5).

Here’s another:

Contrary to popular belief, America’s dietary guidelines aren’t the magnum opuses of high-ranking scientists, cerebral cortexes pulsating in the moonlight as they solve the mysteries of human nutrition.  What reaches our ears has been squeezed, tortured, reshaped, paid off, and defiled by a phenomenal number of sources.  And as my own story proves, the USDA’s wisdom, pyramid and beyond, isn’t the only source of misguided health information out there.  But it is some the most pervasive, the most coddled by the food industry, the most sheltered from criticism, and–as a consequence–the most hazardous to public health (7).

Like I have done in the Mainely Tipping Points Essays, Minger goes back to the history of the USDA Food Pyramid and surfaces the swarmy political history of the early 1980s where Luise Light, hired by the USDA to come up with a good food guide, puts together a team of eminent scientists and nutritionists–only to find their recommendations (especially about grain consumption) undercut and overturned by industry shills in the upper regions of the USDA.  (Science-based food policy needs to be removed from the USDA–their interests are in conflict.)  She goes on to identify other players in how our farm policy got so far off track–if one is trying to grow healthy food.  And, how political theater instituted policies out of belief system (with help from the industries who would profit), so that we wound up with the deadly one-size-fits-all low-saturated fat, high-carb diet that is advocated today.  Look around you to see how well that’s all working for a lot of us.  In any case, Minger does a good job of pulling together the important highlights of this history in a readable, interesting form.

One of the arguments Minger makes is that the current “one-size-fits-all” USDA dietary information is “rubbish.”  (The same should be said for one-size-fits-all medicine, school curriculums, and on and on.)  Minger goes to some length to show that we do not all relate to foods in the same way.  We have genetic differences that control how our bodies take up, or don’t, the nutrients in foods–which explains why some folks can tolerate a vegetarian or vegan diet better than others.  Like me, a vegetarian diet made Chris Masterjohn profoundly ill.  (I am still trying to recover from my vegetarian years.)  But all of us likely know people who don’t eat meat or, even, nutrient dense foods, and they are not visibly sick, have reasonable amounts of energy, and so forth.

But, who should one trust?  To answer that question, Minger notes that “our understanding of diet and health is still too young for anyone to have all the answers.”  So, she writes, “Anyone who’s certain they’re right about everything in nutrition is almost definitely wrong.”  And we should not confuse “certainty” with “an evidence-backed opinion that seem reasonably correct.”  Look for people who keep an open mind and who are willing to “consider and integrate new information.”  None of us should be so certain that we lock all the doors.  Rather “a well-reasoned argument with a dash of humility is an open” door (53).

Minger also cautions that despite their white coats, “doctors tend to be some of the least educated health professionals on matters of nutrition.” Doctors don’t, too often, get their ideas on nutrition from “nutrition journals or other scientific literature, but from profit-driven industries with products to push” (57).

To buttress how to find the “well-reasoned argument,” Minger explains at some length how to vet the myriad number of studies out there claiming to hold truth.  She walks readers through what to look for in a study and what to throw into the nearest trash can.  I personally think that we all need to understand what comprises a genuine, useful study and what is fake science.  Of course she takes on the issue of causation versus the simple correlation that pervades much of today’s government, media, and industry hype about “food science.”  I can’t reproduce this whole section of the book for you, but I can urge you to read it so you can begin to understand how to vet information for yourself.  Just because something comes from a place like Harvard does not mean it has any value whatsoever.  One has to look at the nature of the study and WHO HAS FUNDED IT.  Minger also looks at what’s wrong (or what has been misreported) with the key BIG studies, like the longitudinal Framingham Heart Study–which was never able to prove the high cholesterol, dietary saturated fat, and heart disease theory.  Moreover, “multiple papers spawned by Framingham also link low cholesterol levels with greater risk of cancer….” (146).  And it is fascinating to me that in the news recently is the revelation that a blood test that measures lipids (fats) in the blood is 90% accurate as a prediction for Alzeimers:  LOW lipid levels point toward getting or having Alzeimers.

One really important section of the book walks through the history of Ancel Keyes and the lipid (fat) hypothesis.  Unknown to me was the fact that a competing theory was circulating at the same time arguing that sugar was the leading cause of heart disease.  Since sugar lost this battle in the political arena, the name of the scientist, John Yudkin, also got lost.  Other scientists adopted one or the other theory, but the real problem (and what turns out to be a problem with many of the studies) is that trying to blame illness on one single macronutrient does not consider the bigger, more complicated picture.  (Trying to understand the complicated “whole” of things by viewing one of its parts is the curse of modernity AND the producer of bad science.)  I think it was useful to see Keyes and Yudkin within the CONTEXT of their times–an analysis which makes Keyes less of a “demon” who left out information that didn’t fit his hypothesis and more of a scientist who just tried to simplify a cause (fat) too much.

Of course Minger addresses the rise of the use of trans fats and the PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) with high Omega 6 levels and chronic illness.  And she notes how major organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA) produce studies recommending the PUFAs that are written by people from industry.  For instance, William Harris the author of such a paper for the AHA “received significant funding from the bioengineering giant Monsanto, in addition to serving as a consultant for them.”  Monsanta is pioneering currently a GMO soybean supposedly enhanced with Omega 3’s while also providing Omega 6 (177-178).

Minger discusses the “modern Trinity” of diets (Paleo, Mediterranean, and Whole Foods/Plant-Based)–showing in the process where these diets deviate from their origins.  Modern Paleo, for instance, calls for the use of lean meats and low fat intakes, though ancient peoples ate a lot of animal fat and gave lean muscle meat to their dogs.  Paleo peoples also likely included some legumes and grains in their diets.  And some ate a lot of dairy.   The original Mediterranean diet was adopted from the island of Crete.  Yet those folks fasted almost 180 days a year for religious reasons and foraged for a lot of wild greens seasonally.  The success of the plant-based diet is unclear as it is always compared to SAD, the Standard American Diet, and not to either Paleo or the Mediterranean diet.  This diet needs longitudinal study as to the impact of the lack of fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients on fertility and bone development, among other things.  It would be wise to note as well that there is no known primitive culture that has lived for some generations entirely on a plant-based diet.

Where do these diets intersect?  They ALL EXCLUDE  industrially processed vegetable oils; refined grains and sugar; “chemical preservatives and lab-produced anythings”; and “nearly any creation coming in a crinkly tinfoil package, a microwavable tray, or a McDonald’s takeout bag.”  They ALL INCLUDE tubers, low-glycemic fruit, and all non-starchy vegetables (225).

There is a lovely discussion of the work of Weston A. Price, who searched the world for healthy groups of people, to see what kinds of food they ate to produce optimal human health.  Minger highlights many of Price’s groups and concludes that while eating patterns could vary enormously, what they all had in common was the presence of nutrient dense foods.

Minger’s takaway:

Eliminate or drastically reduce intake of refined grains, refined sugars, and high-omega-6 vegetable oils.

Secure a source of the precious fat-soluble vitamins.

Stock your diet with nutrient-dense foods.

When choosing animal foods, limit muscle meat and favor “nose to tail” eating.  (Yes, that means the organs, like the liver and bone marrow which is full of gelatin.)

Respect your genetics.(Some of us thrive on high-fat, low-carb diets and others of us do better on a high-starch diet and it all has to do with genetics that dictate how we process fats and starches.)

Acknowledge that health is about a lot more than what you put in your mouth.

Above all else, stay anchored in your own truth–as long as you have not become ensnared in a “psychological trap that prevents you from following your body’s instincts.”  Remember, “you are not low-carb, or lowfat, or plant-based…” (242-243).

Again, Minger’s book is very useful.  I highly recommend it for a no-nonsense detangling of what we do and don’t know about food.






Turkey Tracks: New Books on Food Issues

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Turkey Tracks:  January 2, 2013

New Books on Food Issues


I’ve been waiting for this one to be published:


Denise Minger is the fiery and very funny young woman who took on T. Colin Campbell of The China Study fame and showed that he is so blinded by his vegan belief system that he is not “seeing” what his data is really telling him about meat protein.

T. Colin Campbell, you might recall, is the bona fide scientist who thinks that meat causes cancer.  Only his data does not support that conclusion.  And, you might also recall from earlier posts on this blog that one of the main critiques of The China Study is that the Chinese doctors did not come to the same conclusions that Campbell did about meat.  Indeed, in the very middle of the film (I will not call it a documentary as it is really an emotional and unscientific appeal to a belief system), the Chinese doctor filmed says that “meat and vegetables” support health.

The takaway here, as Minger notes early on in the book, is that we have to consider WHO is telling us what to eat and to consider their agendas a part of our vetting process.  Sometimes “experts” are not so expert.

Minger, as a teenager, spent a year being a raw food believer and learned the bitter lesson that one’s body needs nutrient dense food.  In that year, as she recounts in her book, she got 16 cavities and her dentist said he had never seen a mouth so badly hurt in one so young.  So, it will be interesting to see how she positions herself around “what to eat.”

She is very clear that there is no “one size fits all” diet that is magic.  We each have to know our bodies and figure out what gives us good health.  Still, she does list some foods that cause a lot of people trouble, and grains are in that mix.  But I will do a more formal review of this book when I finish it.

Michael Pollen’s book Cooked was the gift of Gina Caceci, who knows me well.


Apparently Pollen spends some time writing about Sandor Ellis Katz’s lacto-fermented foods (Wild Fermentation).  And, with Katz, of course.  (I have several blog posts on lacto-fermenting foods and on Katz.)  Recently I read a Dr. Joseph Mercola post that said the lacto-fermented foods have the power to detox the body.  I don’t doubt it.

Thanks you, Gina!








Interesting Information: The China Study Myth

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Interesting Information:  July 4, 2012

The China Study Myth:  Flaws in the Vegan Bible

T. Colin Campbell published THE CHINA STUDY in 2006.  Campbell is a “heavy hitter” in terms of credentials:  a PhD from Cornell, authorship of over three hundred scientific papers, and decades of research in the field of nutrition.

Campbell’s premise in THE CHINA STUDY is that ALL animal foods cause modern ailments like heart disease and cancer.  This idea came from a rat study done in India and rat studies Campbell did, from which he extrapolated his flawed conclusions.   The rat studies point to animal protein as being protective, not deadly.

THE CHINA STUDY rocked the nutritional world and about half a million copies have been sold so far.  Vegans call this book their “bible” and have taken to shutting down all questions about the health of their diet choices with “read THE CHINA STUDY.”  But, beware that only one chapter is actually devoted to the actual China study–a tipoff that belief system might well be at work in Campbell’s conclusions.

Chris Masterjohn, who is associated with the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), critiqued Campbell’s work early on.  You can find his analysis on his blog and on the Weston A. Price foundation web site.  See, for instance “The Curious Case of Campbell’s Rats”–http://www.westonaprice.org/blogs/2010/09/22/the-curious-case-of-campbells-rats-does-protein-deficiency-prevent-cancer/  And, Denise Minger, a health writer, editor, researcher, and vegetarian for about a decade, started digging into Campbell’s data.  She concluded that THE CHINA STUDY is “more a work of fiction than a nutritional holy grail.”  And, that the book “is not a work of scientific vigor.”  And, “the book’s most widely repeated claims, particularly involving Campbell’s cancer research and the results of the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, are victims of selection bias, cherry picking, and the woefully misrepresented data.”

 Minger’s article “The China Study Myth:  Flaws in the Vegan Bible” was published in the spring 2012 “Wise Traditions,” the journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation–you can read it for yourself at http://www.westonaprice.org/vegetarianism-and-plant-foods/the-china-study-myth.  And if you harbor the notion that meat is unpure or bad for you and that vegetables are pure and good for you, I hope you take the time to do so.

It’s pretty clear, after reading Minger’s article and Masterjohn’s early analysis, that Campbell’s belief system got in the way of what his data was actually telling him.

Minger explains that Campbell’s now-famous rat study involved exposing “rats to very high levels of aflatoxin–a carcinogen produced by mold that grows on peanuts and corn–and then feeding them a diet containing varying levels of the milk protein casein.”  Rats eating low levels of casein remained tumorless, but rats fed higher levels developed tumors.  Only, the casein was separated from the rest of the components in milk, which “work synergistically” together in countless ways.  Certainly isolated casein can’t be generalized to all forms of animal protein–which Campbell does.  And, Minger notes that “an impressive number of studies shows that the other major milk protein whey, consistently suppresses tumor growth rather than promoting it….”

Campbell’s studies showed that wheat or soy protein did not produce cancer, even at high levels.  But, what he discovered but left out of his book is that “when wheat gluten is supplemented with lysine to make a complete protein, it behaves exactly like casein to promote tumor growth”–which shows that “animal protein doesn’t have some mystical ability to spur cancer by mere virtue of its origin in a sentient creature–just that a full spectrum of amino acids provide the right building blocks for growth, whether it be of malignant cells or healthy ones.”  Minger notes that, therefore, “theoretically, a meal of rice and beans would provide the same so-called cancer-promoting amino acids that animal protein does.”

Minger references Materjohn’s analysis–using the very Indian study that jumpstarted Campbell’s research–which showed that rats on a low-protein diet experienced increases in the acute toxicity of aflatoxin.  The high-protein diet for rats was at least keeping them alive.  Iin other words “when the aflatoxin dose is sky high, animals eating a low-protein diet don’t get cancer because their cells are too busy dying en masse, while animals eating a higher-protein diet are still consuming enough dietary building blocks for the growth of cells–whether healthy or cancerous.”  This fact highlights  a major problem with Campbell’s conclusions about plant-based diets and prompts Minger to write that “in a nutshell, the animal protein fear-mongering in THE CHINA STUDY stems from wildly misconstrued science.”

Campbell, writes Minger, cannot prove a relationship between animal protein and diseases because “that relationship does not exist.”  Indeed, with plant proteins “we find almost three times as many positive correlations with various cancers as we do with animal protein, including colon cancer, rectal cancer, and esophageal cancer.”  And, animal-food eaters in rural China “are getting less cardiovascular disease than their more vegetarian friends.”  In short, once again we see that plants are NOT nutrient dense and do not fully support abundant human health.

Minger goes on to show that “although wheat gets nary a mention in the China Study chapter, Campbell actually found that wheat consumption–in stark contrast to rice–was powerfully associated with higher insulin levels, higher triglycerides, coronary heart diseae, stroke and hypertensive heart disease within the China Study data–far more than any other food.”

Minger’s arguments, born of her in-depth analysis of Campbell’s data and his previous papers, is, obviously, much more detailed than I can repeat here.  Yet, the paper is easy to read.  And, it shows clearly that, once again, correlation has been used to target causation and that belief systems blind one to what science is actually telling us.

Minger writes a blog dedicated to revealing the bad science with regard to food issues (www.rawfoodsos.com), and her upcoming book DEATH BY FOOD PYRAMID will be published in late 2012.  I, for one, look forward to reading it.