Denise Minger

It’s Susan’s and my eighth wedding anniversary tomorrow, and at the beginning of August it’s nine years since we met.  Happy and interesting years.  Within a very short time of meeting Susan I became aware of her fascination for nutrition and her insatiable appetite for every different nutritional theory, and I have long since got used to living in a house where both cupboard space and nutritional budget is taken up more by nutritional supplements than by nutrition.

I tried to take an interest for a while, but couldn’t get my head around the multiple apparently contradictory theories that were out there.  And it wasn’t that I didn’t need this information.  As the title of this blog will attest, obesity is my problem, and Susan’s is Chronic Fatigue, or M.E.  But I would read first this book, then that, and each would contradict the other, and I’d just throw them both in the bin and give up.

But then our very good friend, the lovely Kali Harmen introduced me to Gary Taubes and I was awakened to the world of nutritional bad science.  It totally opened my eyes, and since then I have been coming across examples everywhere, as well as a rapidly growing awareness happening across society.  And it falls out very simply at the moment, with the “low fat, high carb” people on one side, and the “low carb, high fat” people on the other.  It’s the low carb, high fat people who have the science behind them, and the low fat, high carb that has the politicians, big business, and even most of the public health and medical profession behind them, as Jaques Peretti‘s new BBC program “The men who made us fat” is explaining.

But things are changing.

I’m old enough to remember when people weren’t convinced that smoking was bad for you.  My GP, when I was first married in the very early 1970′s, used to carry around a tin (yes, a round tin) of 50 Player’s cigarettes in his pocket.  But gradually the science changed, and then the politics, and now we all know that smoking kills.  Not everyone (my Dad smoked all his adult life, and lived until he was 91), but the science is solid enough that we all know that anyone who smokes is endangering his or her health, badly.

And it’s the same with drink and driving.  When I was a teenager we thought it smart and fun to drive when very drunk.  We knew it wasn’t a good idea, but we did it anyway.  Now, my own (grown up) children won’t even have a glass of wine if they come round to dinner, and I’m amazed at how “grown up” they are.

Dr Ben Goldacre

Anyway; I digress.  I’m now delighted that, bit by bit, the nutritional quackery is being exposed, and the latest bit I came across concerns Dr Gillian McKeith, who I had always supposed was on the side of the angels.  Apparently, I’m wrong.  Apparently, for instance, she’s not a doctor.  I hadn’t given much thought to whether that “Dr” meant that she was a fully-qualified medical doctor, or whether it meant that she had a PhD in some relevant subject from an accredited university or college.  Apparently, neither.  Just a piece of paper from a correspondence course from a non-accredited American source.

If you have been a follower of “Dr” McKeith (she was recently taken to the Advertising Standards Authority for using the “Dr” title, and agreed to stop using it), you might like to read Dr Ben Goldacre‘s article in the Guardian about her.  It’s called “A Menace to Science” and is pretty hard-hitting.

I wanted to brighten up this post with a picture, and had thought of putting in a picture of “Dr” McK, but after reading a few articles about her, I discovered that she, or her staff, have been threatening people with law suits, so I chickened out, and decided that I’d put in a picture of Dr Ben (he really is a doctor: a medical doctor: studied at Oxford and UCL Medical School, and is currently an academic epidemiologist.  He’s also the son of Michael Goldacre, professor of public health at the University of Oxford.

So I guess he knows what he’s talking about.  Not that all epidemiologists do: there are a lot of them guilty of confusing correlation with causality, but I’m not aware of anyone catching Dr G at that yet.

I blog about this stuff because it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we have to educate ourselves as best we can on this stuff, because we are being fed bad food and bad information by just about everyone around us, and it’s not clear who you can trust.  I’m not a scientist, by any stretch of the imagination, but I did have enough of a scientific education that I can recognise good science and bad science when it’s pointed out to me.

And I’m not an apologist for all scientists.  There’s a lot of science that doesn’t take into account other factors, and a lot of science that has led us down unhelpful paths over the years.  But suddenly, here in 2012, there is an upswell in good nutritional science, that may just change awareness in the same way that most of now will stop smoking if we can, and won’t drink and drive if we can help it.  Soon we will be cutting down on sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other dietary carbohydrates, and eating more protein and dietary fat.  And we’ll be better able to judge for ourselves which advice to follow, and which not.

Denise Minger

[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="0307474259" locale="us" height="110" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Ni96jsZzL._SL110_.jpg" width="72"] [simpleazon-image align="left" asin="0865479186" locale="us" height="110" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51%2BnNG7qPoL._SL110_.jpg" width="74"] [simpleazon-image align="left" asin="0865478007" locale="us" height="110" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51JxCbEPXPL._SL110_.jpg" width="75"][simpleazon-image align="left" asin="0307450724" locale="us" height="110" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51YTfTtR%2B%2BL._SL110_.jpg" width="71"] So, get yourself educated.  Read Taubes, Goldacre, the Drs Eades, and especially Denise Minger (yes, I know it’s an unfortunate name, but Americans don’t use the same jargon as us Brits) then decide whether you want to get obese, type II diabetic, increase your risk of cardio-vascular disease and Alzheimer’s, or whether you’d rather have bacon and eggs for breakfast and a good rare steak for dinner!

Having read Taubes exhaustively, and tried the regime he recommended, and having read Atkins and Gabriel, and starting to read Holford’s Low GL regime someone said, “but this high protein, high fat, low carb diet causes cancer and heart disease … have you read The China Study?”

And, of course, I hadn’t.

So I checked it out:

The science is clear. The results are unmistakable.

 

Change your diet and dramatically reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

 

Respected nutrition and health researcher, Dr. T. Colin Campbell reveals the truth behind special interest groups, government entities and scientists that have taken Americans down a deadly path

 

Even today, as the low-carb craze sweeps the nation, two-thirds of adults are still obese and children are being diagnosed with Type II diabetes, typically an “adult” disease, at an alarming rate. If we’re eating healthier, why are Americans stricken with heart disease as much as we were 30 years ago?

says their website.  Oh dear: Gary was SO clear, SO persuasive, and here’s a “respected nutrition and health researcher” contradicting all I had just learned.

What to do?  Because I don’t have the skill, clear thinking, and research ability that Gary has, so I went searching.
First thing I came up with was the Diet Detective interviewing Gary, and asking him about the China Study.  Gary says:

Diet Detective: What if you’re mistaken, too? What about all the research showing that saturated fat may cause cancer — the China Study, for example? And the research showing that whole grains are good for the body? Was there any leap of faith in your interpretation of the scientific literature, or were you just reporting on evidence that should be perfectly clear and obvious to everyone?

Gary Taubes: Well, if I’m mistaken then I apologize. I do say in my books that this is a hypothesis that has to be tested, but I also say that the evidence — in my mind, at least — is sufficiently compelling that it should be treated as the null hypothesis. That is, the hypothesis that needs remarkable evidence to reject. As for the China Study, the study itself — not to be confused with Colin Campbell’s book by that title, which I will discuss shortly — is just a list of associations between hundreds of variables and health conditions in different counties in China. If you actually look at the raw data (page 106 of the massive academic publication on the data, Diet, Life-styles and Mortality in China, which I own), there is no association between animal protein and mortality from cancer. None. People who ate more animal protein did not have more cancer, or at least no more of them died from cancer than people who ate less. And it’s cancer that the Colin Campbell is concerned with in his book, The China Study.

In that book, Campbell massages the evidence through a series of steps until he can make the opposite claim. So he doesn’t tell you that animal protein is not associated with cancer in this study, but he says that blood markers of protein consumption are so associated, even though he gets this wrong as well. He never makes the claim, nor do any serious researchers anymore, that saturated fat causes cancer. Although it’s always been an open question whether poly–unsaturated fats do.

(the emphasis is mine.  You can read the entire Diet Detective-Taubes interview here).

Denise Minger

Denise Minger

Wondering if I was getting a little too committed to my hero, Taubes, I started to look at what other people have been saying about Campbell and The China Study, and came across a truly remarkable young woman, Denise Minger.  She is as sharp as Taubes in her ability to spot bad science and to analyse bad statistics.  She did a really thorough, point by point critique of Campbell’s work, which he then critiqued in turn.  She then provided a really comprehensive analysis, and posted it on line.  Here’s what Denise says in her introduction:

When I first embarked on an analysis of T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, I did not anticipate the range or magnitude of responses it would invoke—reactions that have been at times controversial, at times impassioned, and at times downright heated, but above all else intellectually provocative. It seems “The China Study” is a book that, in many cases, is either intensely revered or vehemently criticized, and its ability to generate ongoing discussion signifies a deep-seated division in the scientific community.

 

I would like to thank Dr. Campbell for his cordial response to my critique, as well as for the time he has taken to elucidate his philosophy of nutrition and his approach to research. While I do not agree with some of his conclusions, I honor his contributions to the field of health and nutrition, and deeply admire his courage to promote an unpopular message amidst a research sector dominated by special interests and opposing views.

 

I propose that Campbell’s hypothesis is not altogether wrong but, more accurately, incomplete. While he has skillfully identified the importance of whole, unprocessed foods in achieving and maintaining health, his focus on wedding animal products with disease has come at the expense of exploring—or even acknowledging—the presence of other diet-disease patterns that may be stronger, more relevant, and ultimately more imperative for public health and nutritional research.

 

Having lit a proverbial fuse, I feel called and compelled to make the sum of my findings available to the public so that they may add, in whatever extent or direction, to the symphony of voices engaged in this discourse. My intent with this paper is not to discredit Campbell as a scientist, nor to promote or discourage a particular diet—but rather, to present new ways of looking at the China Study data and related research while highlighting the shortcomings in Campbell’s specific conclusions. I hope this information can be valuable to readers while—above all else—encouraging the use of independent, critical thought to advance our understanding of health.

She has oodles of stuff about the China Study on her blog, as well as stories about her contributions to Wikipedia being summarily deleted.  You have to understand that Campbell’s book provided all the evidence that Vegetarians and Vegans needed to persuade us all to follow their paths to health and happiness, and here was a raw-food aficionado and one-time vegan preaching apostasy.  It got some people really mad at her.

However, I would say, having read through her stuff until very late at night, and given myself a severe headache from studying her statistics (never my strong subject), that all she is doing is showing us what Gary has already told us: there’s a lot of really bad science in the field of public health!

Here’s Denise’s final response on the subject, and here’s her blog page that summarises all the various claims and counter-claims.

One last thing.  If the logic and science and math and statistics in Taubes’ work, and Denise’s work (I’m sorry, I just can’t call her “Minger” … it’s a slang word in British English, and anyone less of “a minger” I find it hard to imagine!) … if they faze you, here’s a quick summary of what it’s all about.  To quote from Denise’s paper “The Truth About Ancel Keys” (the man who started the whole “fat is bad for you” shtick):

Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t a cucumber. (Just making sure you’re awake.)

Let me give you an example.  Aspirins alleviate headaches.  Taking daily low doses of aspirin has been shown to lower the risk of stroke.  So, clearly, if aspirin cures headaches and aspirin prevents strokes, it must follow that headaches cause strokes.

Not.

That was a correlation, not a causation.

You may also find both Denise and Gary using the term “confounder”.  Here’s an example.  We do some research and discover that a high proportion of the residents of Town A die from cancer.  We also discover that a high proportion of people in Town A eat red meat.  So we draw the conclusion that eating red meat causes cancer.  But we fail to mention (because it doesn’t suit our cause) that Town A is heavily industrialised, has chemical factories whose effluents are poorly controlled, and has a nuclear plant.  And a high proportion of the residents smoke.  You see, adding in some extra data confounds our original hypothesis.  Of course, it may still be that it’s red meat that’s causing the cancer.  But is it because the red meat comes from cattle that graze on pasture downwind of the chemical plant?

That’s enough … I just wanted you to get the idea that a lot of these diet books are based on what is NOT sound science, even when their authors have impressive-sounding academic qualifications.  One last quote from Denise:

In rebuttals to previous criticism on “The China Study,” Campbell seems to use his curriculum vitae as reason his word should be trusted above that of his critics. His education and experience is no doubt impressive, but the “Trust me, I’m a scientist” argument is a profoundly weak one. It doesn’t require a PhD to be a critical thinker, nor does a laundry list of credentials prevent a person from falling victim to biased thinking. Ultimately, I believe Campbell was influenced by his own expectations about animal protein and disease, leading him to seek out specific correlations in the China Study data (and elsewhere) to confirm his predictions.

 

It’s no surprise “The China Study” has been so widely embraced within the vegan and vegetarian community: It says point-blank what any vegan wants to hear—that there’s scientific rationale for avoiding all animal foods. That even small amounts of animal protein are harmful. That an ethical ideal can be completely wed with health. These are exciting things to hear for anyone trying to justify a plant-only diet, and it’s for this reason I believe “The China Study” has not received as much critical analysis as it deserves, especially from some of the great thinkers in the vegetarian world. Hopefully this critique has shed some light on the book’s problems and will lead others to examine the data for themselves.

Lastly, since I first wrote this, both my wife and I have fallen head-over-heels with Denise Minger.  This might give you an idea why:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ft_SqZuvhME

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