High-protein diets a dangerous ‘myth’ – is Dr Dean Ornish right?

As soon as I spotted the article in the New York Times this week, headlined ‘The myth of high-protein diets‘ piqued my interest is by Dr Dean Ornish, a prominent US physician and president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, as well as clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, I was intrigued. From my own investigations, it seemed that Ornish’s views go against the grain (no pun intended) of the most up-to-date scientific research. It also appeared to go against recent changes recommended by his own government’s official nutrition advisory committee.

Ornish is clearly no fan of low-carb, high-fat eating regimens. On the contrary, he believes they are killers. Since I’m not a scientist, medical doctor or nutrition expert, I decided to get comment via email from one of my favourite sources of good health information, another prominent US physician, Dr Michael Eades, who has been in  full time practice of bariatric, nutritional, and metabolic medicine since 1986. Here, Eades dishes up a caustic review of what Ornish has to say about nutrition and health. – Marika Sboros

By Michael Eades*

red meatDr Dean Ornish strikes again with an editorial lambasting what he calls high-protein diets in today’s New York Times.

I got an email first thing this morning from a South African journalist (Marika Sboros) enquiring as to what I thought about it. Monday mornings are killers for me, so I thought I would jot off a quick response and be done with it. Forty-five minutes later I was still writing.

So, I figured I would at least post what I wrote to her here so all could read it.

As seems to be typical, Dr Ornish’s stance is argued using half truths, obfuscations and all the other slippery tricks in his playbook of deceit.  I don’t have time to go through the full thing, especially on a Monday morning when I have so many other obligations.

As per usual for him, he is relying on observational of epidemiological studies to try to imply causation, and as every decent scientist knows, they do no such thing.

Just to show how disingenuous he is, take a look at how he quotes the statistics in the USDA publication he links to in his editorial.

From the third paragraph of his article:

Although people have been told for decades to eat less meat and fat, Americans actually consumed 67 percent more added fat, 39 percent more sugar, and 41 percent more meat in 2000 than they had in 1950 and 24.5 percent more calories than they had in 1970, according to the Agricultural Department. Not surprisingly, we are fatter and unhealthier.

The message Ornish wants the reader to take away from this is that excess meat and fat consumption are driving the health problems we’re facing as a nation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But this is typical vintage Ornish: citing statistics and even giving the reference to find those statistics and assuming no one will bother to actually look them up.

Here is what the statistics really say in the USDA publication cited:

USDA publication


Added fats DO NOT include the fat in meat and dairy products (see yellow above).  Added fats are basically oils or shortenings of plant extraction, the very oils Ornish, Neal Barnard, CSPI and others of the vegetarian persuasion have promoted continuously since the 1980s.  And a great quantity of these oils are used in processing cookies and pastries.  But what Ornish wants you to believe from reading his editorial is that these added fats come from meats.

In the same third paragraph, after telling us we are eating 41 percent more meat, he tells us that we are eating 24.5 percent more calories than we did in 1970, implying, of course, that most of those calories came from meat.  Let’s look at what the document actually says:

USDA publication-2


More than one third of the caloric increase (39 percent to be exact) comes from an increased consumption of refined grain products, a change Ornish would be proud of.  (See his book, Eat More, Weigh Less, in which he basically tells people to eat all the high-carb, low-fat foods they want to lose weight.)

In fact, grain consumption overall is up 45 percent:

USDA publication_3

Another 37 percent of the increased calories comes from added fat, which, remember, is not fat from meat or dairy.  This is the very vegetable oil fat Ornish has recommended since day one.  And is used along with the increased refined grain products to produce the pastries, cookies, etc. mentioned previously.

Added sugars account for another 19 percent of the increased calories.

If you read the part marked in yellow above, you’ll see that meat and nuts together contributed one percent of the increased caloric intake.  Notice that meat and nuts are considered together.  For whatever reason, the USDA likes to put meat and nuts in the same category.  After about 15 minutes of searching, I found one chart that separated the two. Turns out that since 1970 nut consumption has increased by 27 percent, so I would imagine the one percent attributed to meats and nuts together would mainly come from nuts, a plant food Ornish embraces.

From the Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005 / EIB-33 Economic Research Service/USDA

USDA doc_3.5

And egg and dairy consumption, which represents a negative 1.5 percent increase, is down.  So the total calories represented by those foods reprehensible to Ornish actually are a negative number.

So, overall, what Ornish wants us to believe is that the increase in obesity and diabetes in the United States come from increased meats and animal fats from dairy; but the US government statistics tell a different tale.  Here is the graph showing fat consumption over this time period:

USDA publication_4

As anyone can see, the only increase in fat comes from vegetable oils, the very oils Ornish promotes.

All this obfuscation and we’re only at the third paragraph.  But you don’t even have to read that far. His very first sentence posits:

Many people have been making the case that Americans have grown fat because they eat too much starch and sugar, and not enough meat, fat and eggs.

Many people would be right according to the very government statistics Ornish presents.  Starch and sugar consumption is way up while that of meat hasn’t really changed and egg and dairy consumption has actually decreased.  Ornish needs to learn to interpret the data he cites.

Wish I had time to do more because this is just for starters.  But it points out a pattern all too familiar to seasoned Ornish watchers.

*This blog appears on Protein Power by Dr Michael Eades.

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