What About Eating Just a Little Meat?

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As you can see in my video, Plant-Based Diets and Diabetes, we've known for decades that a plant-based diet may be protective against diabetes. Studies going back half a century found that those eating meat one or more days a week had significantly higher rates of diabetes, and the more frequently meat was eaten, the more frequent the disease. And this is after controlling for weight, so even at the same weight, those eating more plant-based had but a fraction of the diabetes rates. If anything, vegetarians should have had more diabetes just because they appear to live so much longer, so they had more time to develop these kinds of chronic diseases; but no, apparently lower rates of death and disease.

Fast forward 50 years to the Adventist-2 study, looking at 89,000 people, and we see a stepwise drop in the rates of diabetes as one eats more and more plant-based, down to a 78% lower prevalence among those eating strictly plant-based. Protection building incrementally as one moved from eating meat daily, to eating meat weekly, to just fish, to no meat, and then to no eggs and dairy either. Followed over time, vegetarian diets were associated with a substantially lower incidence of diabetes, indicating the potential of these diets to stem the current diabetes epidemic.

We see the same step-wise drop in rates of another leading killer, high blood pressure. The greater the proportion of plant foods, the lower the rates of hypertension, and the same with excess body fat. The only dietary group not on average overweight were those eating diets composed exclusively of plant foods, but again there was the same incremental drop with fewer and fewer animal products. This suggests that it's not black and white, not all or nothing, any steps we can make along this spectrum of eating healthier may accrue significant benefits.

What about eating a really healthy diet with just a little meat? Is it better to eat none at all? We have new insight last year from Taiwan. Asian diets in general tend to be lower in meat and higher in plant foods compared with Western diet, but whether a diet completely avoiding meat and fish would further extend the protective effect of a plant-based diet wasn't known, until now.

Traditionally, Asian populations have had low rates of diabetes, but a diabetes epidemic has since emerged, and appears to coincide with increased meat, animal protein, and animal fat consumption, but the Westernization of Asian diets also brought along a lot of fast food and junk, and so these researchers at the national university didn't want to just compare those eating vegetarian to typical meateaters. So, they compared Bhuddist vegetarians to Bhuddist non-vegetarians, eating traditional Asian diets. Even the omnivores were eating a predominantly plant-based diet, consuming little meat and fish, with the women eating the equivalent of about a single serving a week, and men eating a serving every few days. That's just 8% of the meat intake in the U.S., 3% for the women. The question: is it better to eat 3% or 0%?

Again, both groups were eating healthy; zero soda consumption, for example, in any group. Despite the similarities in their diet, and after controlling for weight, family history, exercise, and smoking, the men eating vegetarian had just half the rates of diabetes, and the vegetarian women just a quarter of the rates. So even in a population consuming a really plant-based diet with little meat and fish, true vegetarians who completely avoided animal flesh, while eating more healthy plant foods, have lower odds for prediabetes and diabetes after accounting for other risk factors. They wanted to break it up into vegan versus ovo-lacto like in the Adventist-2 study, but they couldn't because there were no cases at all of diabetes found within the vegan group.

More on preventing and treating this terrible disease:

The reason I keep going back to that Adventist-2 study is that it's not only the biggest study of those eating plant based diets in North America, but the largest such study anywhere anytime. We owe those investigators a great debt (not to mention the 96,741 participants!). One thing I'm happy my tax dollars are going towards (via the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health). More from the Adventists in Caloric Restriction vs. Animal Protein Restriction.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish

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Dioxins are highly toxic pollutants that accumulate in tissue fat. Almost all dioxins found in people who don't work in toxic waste dumps or something similarly hazardous are believed to come from food, especially meat, milk, and fish, which account for about 95% of human exposure. We tend to only hear about it in the news, though, when there's some mass poisoning.

In 1957, for example, millions of chickens began dying, blamed on toxic components in certain feed fats. Factory farming was taking off, and the industry needed cheap feed to fatten up the birds. They ended up using a toxic fleshing grease from hide stripping operations in the leather industry that were using dioxin-containing preservatives. A subsequent outbreak in 1969 resulted from a pipe mix-up at a refinery that was producing both pesticides and animal feed.

In the 1990's, a supermarket survey found the highest concentrations of dioxins in farm-raised catfish. The source of dioxins was determined to be the feed, but that's surprising, since catfish aren't fed a lot of animal fat. Turns out it was dioxin-contaminated clay added to the feed as an anti-caking agent, which may have originally come from sewage sludge. The same contaminated feed was fed to chickens, so what may have started out in sewage sludge ended up on the plates of consumers in the form of farm-raised catfish and chicken.

How widespread of a problem did it become? This affected five percent of U.S. poultry production, that's people eating hundreds of millions of contaminated chickens. And if it's in the chickens, it's in the eggs. Elevated dioxin levels were found in chicken eggs too. When the source of the feed contamination was identified, the USDA estimated that less than 1% of animal feed was contaminated, but 1% of egg production means over a million eggs a day. But the catfish were the worst. More than a third of all U.S. farm-raised catfish were found contaminated with dioxins thanks to that ball clay. So the FDA requested that ball clay not be used in animal feeds. They even asked nicely, writing "Dear producer or user of clay products in animal feeds, continued exposure to elevated dioxin levels in animal feed increases the risk of adverse health effects in those consuming animal-derived food products... we are recommending that the use of ball clay in animal feeds be discontinued...We look forward to the industry's cooperation." (You can see the original letter in my video, Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish).

So how cooperative did the industry end up being? Half a billion pounds of catfish continued to be churned out of U.S. fish farms every year but only recently did the government go back and check. Published in 2013, samples of catfish were collected from all over the country. Dioxins were found in 96% of samples tested. Yeah, but just because catfish are bought in the U.S. doesn't mean they came from the U.S. And indeed some of the catfish were imported from China or Taiwan, but they were found to be ten times less contaminated. And indeed, when they checked the feed fed to U.S. catfish, more than half were contaminated, and so it seems likely that mined clay products are still being used in U.S. catfish feeds. Even "just small amounts of mineral clays added to fish feeds, together with the fact that catfish can be bottom-feeders may lead to higher than acceptable dioxin residues in the final catfish products."

The Institute of Medicine suggests strategies to reduce dioxin intake exposure, such as trimming the fat from meat, poultry, and fish, and avoiding the recycling of animal fat into gravy, but if almost all dioxin intake comes from animal fat, then eating a more plant-based diet could wipe out about 98% of exposure. Thus "a vegetarian diet or even just eating more plants might have previously unsuspected health advantages along with the more commonly recognized cardiovascular benefits and decreased cancer risk."

This is a good illustration of how we can't necessarily rely on regulators to protect our families' health. More on dietary dioxins and what we can do about it in Dioxins in the Food Supply and Counteracting the Effects of Dioxins Through Diet.

Even wild fish are exposed to industrial pollutants spewed into our waterways. See, for example:

Farmed fish is the worst, though: Farmed Fish vs. Wild-Caught.

Other pollutants in our food supply and how to avoid them:

Though the best way to detox is not to tox in the first place, our bodies can eventually get rid of much of the toxin load:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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How Learning to Cook Can Save Your Life

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The eating habits of modern Americans have been described as, "eating breakfast in their cars, lunch at their desks and chicken from a bucket." Within the last few decades, Americans are eating out more and more, and cooking fewer meals at home, which are typically healthier. Home-cooled meals tend to contain less saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and more fiber. Therefore, the benefits to preparing healthy food at home may include the prevention of chronic disease. Just because food is prepared at home doesn't mean it's healthy, though. Microwaving a frozen pizza isn't exactly home cooking.

One of the problems is many people no longer know how to cook. For example, one study reported that 25% of the men in the study had absolutely no cooking skills whatsoever. Another study in the UK compared the nutritional content of meals created by television chefs to TV dinners, and both were then compared to the nutritional guidelines published by the World Health Organization. The researchers looked at a hundred of each, and not a single one complied with the nutrition standards. And the TV chef recipes were even less healthy than the TV dinners!

Many people don't know how to make healthy food taste good. This is not a new problem; an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association bemoaned the same issue back in 1913. In the United States, "vegetables are frequently boiled in a way which deprives them of their characteristic odor and their toothsomeness. 'Villainous and idiotic' are the only adjectives that can describe our methods of cooking vegetables."

Researchers in Taiwan recently found that in a group of elderly Taiwanese people, those who cooked their own food were not only healthier, but also lived longer. In a ten year study, highlighted in my video, Cooking to Live Longer, those who cooked most frequently had only 59% of the mortality risk. This took into account the exercise people got grocery shopping, physical function, and chewing ability. So why did they live longer? Those that cooked typically ate a more nutritious diet with a higher consumption of vegetables.

The effect on mortality was much more evident in women than in men. It turns out that "men were, with doubtful justification, more positive about the nutritional value of convenience foods compared with women." Women who cooked made better food choices in general.

As one author noted in the book Something from the Oven, over the last century:

"we began the long process of turning over to the food industry many of the decisions about what we eat...Today our staggering rates of obesity and diabetes are testimony to the faith we put in corporations to feed us well. But the food industry is a business, not a parent; it doesn't care what we eat as long as we're willing to pay for it. Home cooking these days has far more than sentimental value; it's a survival skill."

With the onslaught of health information out there, access to simple, healthy recipes has never been easier. While cooking at home requires more effort, energy, and cleaning, the results, health aside, are often more rewarding. Learning to cook is a simple art, and with the right amount of patience and delicious ingredients, it can help us take back control of our own lives.

Check out your local public library for cookbooks--I've been amazed at the selection in all of the cities I've lived. Or for those for which books are just so 20th century, the online Rouxbe Cooking School holds healthy cooking classes.

More on fast food:

Some other unsavory bits about the food industry:

I think this is the only other mention of celebrity chefs I have:
Paula Deen: diabetes drug spokesperson

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Picture by Moyan Brenn on Flickr

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How Much Longer Do Fruit and Vegetable Eaters Live?

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Probably the least controversial advice in all of nutrition is to eat more fruits and vegetables, which is to say to eat more plants since the term vegetable basically means all parts of the plant that aren't fruit. We've known that eating more fruits and vegetables helps us live longer, but a new study helped us see exactly how much longer (featured in my video Fruits, Veggies, and Longevity: How Many Minutes Per Mouthful?).

Researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed people and their diets over time to create a dose-response curve between fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality. Subjects who consumed five fruits and vegetables a day lived an extra three years compared to their non-plant-eating counterparts.

Compared to those eating five servings of fruits and veggies a day, those who ate four lost a month off their lifespan. Those who ate three servings lost three months. Then the curve started going off the cliff. At two servings a day, subjects lived seven months shorter, and at one serving a day, practically a year and a half, at half a serving a day, subjects lived nearly two years less, and at zero servings subjects lost three years.

This study mostly looked at people in their 50's and 60's. Is it too late by our 70's? No. Women in their 70's with the most carotenoid phytonutrients in their bloodstream were twice as likely to survive five years than those with the lowest. This means doubling one's likelihood of survival merely by eating some more fruits and vegetables.

In a study out of Taiwan, researchers concluded that spending just 50 cents a day on fruits or vegetables could buy people about a 10% drop in morality. That's quite a bargain. Imagine if there was a drug that--without side-effects--could lower our risk of death 10%. How much do you think drug companies would charge? Probably more than 50 cents.

The more plants we eat the more antioxidants we get. Why is this important? See The Power of NO and the Mitochondrial Theory of Aging. Or in terms of specific diseases, Food Antioxidants and Cancer and Food Antioxidants, Stroke, and Heart Disease.

Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score to see how one might maximize the intake of protective foods.

Nuts are technically just a dried fruit with (typically) a single seed so no wonder Nuts May Help Prevent Death.

Botanically speaking beans are fruit too. Check out Increased Lifespan From Beans.

Also, the more healthy foods we eat, the less room there is for less healthy foods:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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