Tuesday 16 July 2019

Patricia Casey: 'Killjoy diet would starve us of our intrinsic zest for life'

Activist: Gunhild Stordalen, the multi-millionaire vegan and animal rights activist who set up EAT Foundation, which produced the report. Photo: Getty Images
Activist: Gunhild Stordalen, the multi-millionaire vegan and animal rights activist who set up EAT Foundation, which produced the report. Photo: Getty Images

Patricia Casey

The controversial EAT-Lancet report on global food consumption sustainability was published last week to a huge fanfare. It was penned by a group of 37 scientists headed by Dr Walter Willett, of Harvard. The 'Lancet' is a highly prestigious old journal but in many areas highly politicised. It is unclear if the paper was peer reviewed.

Before the science is considered, it is important to establish who is involved in writing this paper and if there are any conflicts of interest. What is the EAT Foundation, which teamed up with the 'Lancet'? It was founded by a Norwegian multi-millionaire vegan and animal rights activist Gunhild Stordalen. It has close ties to the London-based Wellcome Trust also. Its name has recently been associated with FReSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health). This in turn is associated with Kellogg's, Unilever, PepsiCo and Barilla, organisations which produce vegetarian or vegan-type foods.

The report was entitled 'Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems'. Lead author Prof Willett has been promoting vegetarianism since the 1990s and has published three public-interest books promoting this.

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He is reported as having produced more than 200 papers showing an association between red meat/animal fats and poor health while claiming that a diet of grains, fruit and vegetables is better. It is possible that he is correct but the nutritional epidemiology studies that he and others rely upon have been roundly criticised. According to Edward Archer, writing in 'Frontiers in Nutrition', in November 2018, the problem with this type of research is that "in lieu of measuring actual dietary intake, epidemiologists collected millions of unverified verbal and textual reports of memories of perceptions of dietary intake… transformed (ie, pseudo-quantified) into proxy-estimates of nutrient and caloric consumption". In other words, complex statistical analyses were used to create usable data. The causation of health problems by diet can only be demonstrated by clinical trials and there are none, according to critics.

The focus is on both health and sustainability and the key message of EAT-Lancet is that we need to reduce red meat for better health and the good of the planet, aiming to achieve this by 2050. The commission recommends we triple consumption of beans and quadruple nuts and seeds while reducing our intake of red meat by 90pc. It recommends a meat tax. In terms of calories, the writers recommend around 800 calories each day should come from rice, wheat, corn etc, 350 from vegetable oils, 15 should come from pork or beef (a small, thin slice), 19 from eggs (a poached egg contains about 70) and 40 calories from fish (100 grams contains 82 calories). This is not just a radical departure for the world, but if followed by a compliant public, would result in most of the world becoming vegan, or almost so.

Focusing on the nutritional aspects of the recommendations, Dr Georgia Ede, in 'Psychology Today', comments that the EAT view of protein being essential but cancerous is contradictory, while conceding that amino acids and "animal sources of protein are of higher quality than most plant sources". The EAT authors go on to say that high-quality protein is especially important for certain groups such as babies, children and older people losing muscle bulk. The authors of EAT also suggest that these good amino acids may cause cancer but when Ede reviewed the paper on which it was based, proteins, meat and amino acids are not mentioned even once, making this a hypothesis rather than a fact. The authors recommend plant alternatives to omega-3 oils contained in fish, but say they're unclear about how much of the substitute (called ALA) plants can provide. The authors also concede that strict vegan diets require vitamin and mineral supplements for certain groups and especially pregnant mothers and adolescent girls.

Even groups supportive of sustainable food such as the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) criticise the recommendations of the document for showing a lack of agricultural understanding. In its response, the SFT points out that regarding protein and fat consumption, the recommendations depend so heavily on plant sources and poultry rather than red meat and unsaturated fats compared with saturated fats. It says these are fundamentally flawed. "Humans have evolved as red meat eaters and, providing this is part of a balanced diet, beef and lamb provide superior types of protein and fat to plant sources," the SFT stated.

This killjoy diet will destroy any zest for life that we have, and thrust us into becoming the first hibernating humans since the appearance of homo sapiens on this earth. We will forsake our reality of kale, quinoa, chia seeds and beetroot juice and escape into a dream world of red wine, ice cream, Irish stew and runny camembert.

In order to sell the idea, EAT ought to have taken account of the competition that exists between taste and nutrition, between cost and environmental protection, between health and nutrition and so on. It has done a disservice to the public by conflating science with ideology in this puritanical document.

Consider the joy of those with eating disorders who will shout from their scales, "I told you my meatless, eggless, high-grain, low-carb diet was healthy". This would be better termed the Anorectic Charter.

  • Patricia Casey is consultant psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at UCD

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