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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.