Have you ever received conflicting information about the health value of a particular diet? Of course - well all have!
In this article I want to share my viewpoint about low carb diets vs. high carb diets (and vegetarian vs. carnivorous diets).
Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live is an excellent health and nutrition book in my opinion. Dr. Fuhrman favors vegetarian diets with little or no animal products. A diet like this will automatically be relatively high in carbohydrates.
The debate between these two fellows is interesting reading, but it is possible to read both sides and still be confused. This is a good example of conflicting information from "the experts". The best research is on Dr. Fuhrman’s side. In my opinion, he is the more reliable source of information between these two. And if the only two dietary choices were Fuhrman’s or Grove’s I could recommend Fuhrman’s without hesitation. The person following his recommendations will have a far better chance of maintaining excellent lifelong health than the person following Grove’s recommendations.
However, what prompted me to write this article is that, in my opinion, neither Dr. Fuhrman nor Barry Groves have the optimum diet. As I said, Dr. Fuhrman’s diet is much closer to ideal, but what makes this debate so interesting is that Barry Groves is closely linked to the very source of information that could solve the problem with Dr. Fuhrman’s diet.
Barry Groves is affiliated with the Weston A. Price Foundation, which is an organization that promotes some unhealthy foods and recommends (as far as I can tell) a lifelong high protein, low carbohydrate diet. Groves’ own diet is squarely in this camp. However, Price himself focused his research on micronutrients, so the foundation that bears his name is promoting macronutrient dietary guidelines (high protein, high fat) that I don’t believe Price himself ever researched directly or deeply.
However, Price did extensive research on an unnamed micronutrient -- and this factor is what I think is possibly missing from Dr. Fuhrman’s diet. Before I get into the details, let’s see if we can quickly agree that something is missing from diets similar to Dr. Fuhrman’s based on our personal experiences.
Whether we are motivated by the nutrition research or by personal ethics or religious reasons or other reasons, many of us have wanted to eat a healthy vegetarian diet like what Dr. Fuhrman recommends and many of us have tried such a diet with the best intentions and the greatest hope and expectations of good results. I was personally motivated by the scientific research starting almost 28 years ago, and when I started I was sure I was going to feel great on this plant-based diet.
My cousin, who is a well-known celebrity, is an example of someone who wanted to be a vegetarian for ethical reasons. My friend Gary is a medical doctor who was motivated to become a vegetarian for reasons similar to mine. Yet another example is Martina Navratilova. I read in her recent book that she became a vegetarian for a while several years back.
In the case of each and every person I mentioned, and many, many more people I have come into contact with over the years, the healthy vegetarian diet did not work well, in spite of the best intentions (and even the strong belief in the diet).
Martina Navratilova says in her book that she had to include poultry and fish in her diet in order to perform at her peak on the tennis court. My cousin the actress also had to include some meat and fish in order to perform and feel her best. My friend Gary the medical doctor found himself cooking up steaks because he felt better when eating meat. His personality is such that he wasn’t timid about going back to real meat once he discovered that the vegetarian diet left him feeling weak.
In my own case, I found myself adding protein powder supplements or eggs to my diet in spite of the overwhelming research showing that low protein diets are healthier. On the pure vegetarian diet my energy was low and I just didn’t feel that good. However, I kept reading the research on the subject and I never stopped wondering why I didn’t feel as good when I was supposedly eating better. (I had enough background in nutrition, health and biochemistry to know that the low carb diets were not the right long term answer, so I kept investigating.)
If you have ever had a poor experience with a healthy vegetarian diet, then you probably already know that Dr. Fuhrman’s diet doesn't work for everyone. And Dr. Fuhrman, I hope you are reading this, because you are on the right track, and you are doing good work. A few small changes in your recommendations will help a lot of people.
Now that it is clear that I am generally on Dr. Fuhrman’s side in his debate with Barry Groves, I want to go into some detail about what Weston A. Price researched many decades ago. Price focused a lot of his work on an “Activator X” micronutrient factor that was found in butter (and was more concentrated even in a purified or clarified butter – something I think is similar to the ghee of Ayurveda). Dr. Price recorded significant improvements in the health of many patients as a result of supplementing their diets with this purified butter (and he also fed his undernourished patients other meat products, but that seems more like something he did out of habit or assumption rather than as a result of any substantial research).
My own experience, and the experiences of many people like those I mentioned above, tells me that it is a critical oversight to disregard the value of all animal foods, as Dr. Fuhrman seems to be doing.
Now that I have added some ghee (clarified butter) as well as other healthy fats including coconut oil, I find that I do not need to eat eggs or take protein powders. I can keep my protein intake low for optimum long term health (just like Dr. Fuhrman and other good experts recommend) and yet I have the energy and well-being I was always missing on a vegetarian diet previously. I had tried lacto-vegetarian diets before, but I never included ghee. My very good experience with ghee is what makes Weston Price’s research so interesting. And it is why this particular debate between Barry Groves, who is an honorary board member of the Weston Price Foundation, and Dr. Fuhrman caught my attention. I saw the opportunity to jump into this debate as a chance to show an ironic synergy between these two opponents. Each has something the other needs, yet they are entrenched in fighting positions. (However, in all fairness, Dr. Fuhrman has posted an article about including some meat in the diet and I will respond to that in another post.)
Dr. Fuhrman is not alone in his oversight. I just finished reading "The China Study" by Colin Campbell, and as impressive as Campbell's body of work is, I think his decision to simplify nutritional things into "plants vs. animals" is too limiting. It is an over-simplification -- and it is the basis for a serious flaw in Campbell's dietary recommendations (in my opinion). Campbell carries a strong bias against anything of animal origin in the diet. Even though I support most of Campbell’s conclusions, I believe his comprehensive anti-animal foodstuff view distorts the conclusions he draws from his basic research and his epidemiological research.
Dr. Campbell’s condemnation of all dairy products is an example. He looks at various pieces of research (his own and others) and jumps to conclusions that are questionable. What he is doing is fundamentally no different from the faulty conclusions of other researchers that he correctly cites in his book as examples of what not to do in nutrition research. I believe that if Dr. Campbell actually asked the right question and carried out the right research, he would find that his current negative opinion of all dairy products would need to be modified.
Because of this "plants vs. animals" oversimplification, Campbell is forced to compromise his own strong position against nutritional supplements by admitting that supplements of Vitamins A, D and B12 may be required on a his version of a modern vegetarian diet. Campbell also seems to imply that if we ate a little dirt along with our plants that we would be doing ourselves a favor. I strongly suspect that his rationale is off base in that regard.
Rather than eat a little dirt, I would be much more confident in betting that future scientific research will confirm that Weston Price was onto one thing that has merit: the value of a small amount of clarified butter in the otherwise predominantly plant diet. Regardless of the other areas where Price may have made incorrect conclusions, I am confident that his research into the unidentified factors in clarified butter will bear fruit if someone with Campbell’s skill and integrity pursued it further.
Dr. Fuhrman carries much of this same "plants vs. animals" bias over to his own recommendations. (Indeed, Dr. Fuhrman was strongly influenced by Campbell’s good research.) I challenge Dr. Fuhrman to review the China Study research (and other research) with a more open mind in regard to the possibility that a small amount of dairy products (specifically Price's clarified butter) are necessary for optimal health. I don’t think there is anything in the (good) research that contradicts this, and there are other observations (such as healthy cultures or traditions) that support this view. In particular, if including ghee in a predominantly plant-based diet allows one to reduce or exclude meats (including fish) while maintaining optimal well-being then the result will actually be a big win on many fronts.
If one is not eating any animal foods at all on Dr. Fuhrman's diet, I would advise you to include a small amount (maybe a teaspoon a day) of ghee. The result would still be a diet that is low in overall protein (with zero to very little animal protein), relatively low in fat, and rich in complex plant carbohydrates. I am confident that this small change represents an improved version of Dr. Fuhrman's diet.
My recent reading has reminded me of a nutritionist from several decades ago: Dr. Paavo Airola. While reading "The China Study", I came across names such as Voit, Rubner and Chittenden in the story about protein recommendations. Recalling that I had read a very similar narrative many years ago where each of these same people were described in very similar ways, I pulled out Are You Confused? by Paavo Airola (copyright 1971). Right there on pages 28-37 is essentially the same information that Campbell presents as a "new understanding". Paavo Airola beat Campbell to the knowledge by about 30 years and fortunately for me, that gave me a several decades head start on eating well. If you find value in Dr. Fuhrman's work, you may enjoy taking a look at some of Paavo Airola's books. Are You Confused? can be found on Amazon.com (used) for $0.24 at this moment! At that price, it is worth reading! It is also worth reading just because Airola was so far ahead of his time and it is instructional to see what research methods he used.
Originally posted on July 15th, 2006. Edited and updated.