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Jan 18, 2012

Who owns the new Australian dietary guidelines?

For those who missed the announcement, Australia's 24,000 GPs and 3500 dietitians will soon have a new weapon in their battle against big bellies and hard arteries, writes Geoff Russell.

For those who missed the announcement, Australia’s 24,000 GPs and 3500 dietitians will soon have a new weapon in their battle against big bellies and hard arteries. Junk food can be fast and greasy from multinationals with multimillion dollar advertising budgets or wanky and ever so slow and creamy from obese chefs with inexplicable TV pulling powers. Either way, the consequent early onset of ill-health is miserable and expensive.

The current weapon of choice against premature ill-health is nought but a post-hoc response. We have a vast and miraculous hospital system with a silo of subsidised medication so that older Australians can continue to greet the day with a zipper in their chest and bacon and eggs on their plate.

The new weapon is 300 pages of paper … yes, it’s our new draft Australian dietary guidelines!

It’s backed up by almost 2000 more pages of paper in the form of computer modelling and carefully selected readings on the state of nutritional science.

This is important stuff. Healthy eating really can make medical costs plunge and quality of life soar. Consider Cuba, which now has a First World life expectancy that has passed that of the US and is closing on Australia’s. Cuba’s cancer incidence (new cases per capita per year) is less than two thirds of Australia’s but the mortality rate is 20%. Uh? How does that work? Cuba is a poor country, it does a great job at preventing cancer but doesn’t have our expensive treatment regimes. Our approach to cancer is exemplified by the army of public-minded local community groups using barbecues to raise money for the Cancer Council’s courageous battles against the cancer those barbecues cause. The Cubans just have less barbecues and less cancer. It’s kind of obvious.

During any five-year period only 783 of every 100,000 Cubans will battle cancer compared to 1835 Australians. Diet isn’t the whole story, but the Cubans eat double the fruit, far more veggies, almost twice as many cereals, a quarter the milk and a quarter the meat. It’s carbs, carbs and more carbs and their overweight and obesity rate is about half of ours. All that and not a single low-carb high hype protein bar in sight.

So healthy eating can be a really big thing. While many senior Australians live out their twilight years managing a little bowls and a daily pill sequence memory test, the Cubans are still doing the salsa.

But how much difference can a really big report make? More importantly, how much difference will this particular report make?

The report begins with a lie.

Last week’s Sunday Mail (Body and Soul liftout, January 16) repeats and emphasises it:

“In a world first, the focus of the guidelines is on food rather than nutrients to make it easier for health professionals and the public to understand.”

So what is guideline 2?

“Limit intake of foods containing saturated and trans fats, added salt and sugars and alcohol”.

Last I checked, saturated and trans fats were nutrients. According to a 2007 CSIRO survey of children’s food intake, about 80% of children are eating 50% too much saturated fat. Why? Where is it coming from? What foods should children avoid?

What the guideline authors should have said was that they focus on foods unless they are bad foods coming Meat and Livestock Australia or Dairy Australia — in which case the guidelines revert to the inscrutable language of nutrients.

New York’s whistleblowing professor of nutrition, Marion Nestle, got it right in her 2002 expose of the meat industry’s control of nutritional advice in the US — “Food Politics”. Describing her appointment to a committee rather similar to the dietary guidelines committee she recounts:

“My first day on the job, I was given the rules: No matter what the research indicated, the report could not recommend ‘eat less meat’ as a way to reduce saturated fat …”

Some things haven’t changed.

If you need any further indication of who was pulling the strings on these guidelines, all you need to do is check the references to “vegetarian” or “vegan”.

The word “vegetarian” is used 29 times in the report, but, apart from a technical definition, it never appears without some kind of warning. The guidelines make it sound like you need to be a bloody genius to balance your nutrient intake on a vegetarian diet. In UK and US, studies of many thousands of people, vegetarians have lower rates than the general population of almost all major diseases. So why all the warnings? What is it about normal diets that sees so many people bugger them up? Clearly there aren’t enough warnings or the warnings are singularly obscure like “Eat less saturated fat”. My favourite piece of warning idiocy is about protein combinations.

“Those following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet need to choose a variety of protein sources throughout the day to get an adequate mix of amino acids (p.31)” … and “For lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, the Modelling System used a ratio of a 5:1:1 ‘legume:egg:nuts/seeds’ ratio [as] these foods would provide an adequate amino acid balance”

Gosh! I’ve been a vegan for three decades and regularly cycle 100-plus kilometres in the Adelaide Hills. How the hell did I manage without knowing this ratio?

I know this report is just a draft, but surely somebody did a little preliminary checking? You don’t expect this kind of bullshit in an expert document.

But it is an expert document, so it’s best I go into a little detail. Proteins are made of amino acids, some of which are essential. If you don’t get the essential ones in adequate amount, you could end up in hospital with an amino acid deficiency. I checked a decade of data on the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website and couldn’t find a single case of any deficiency that looked like an amino acid imbalance or deficiency. I asked a dietitian friend. She’d never heard of one. Somehow the almost 900,000 vegetarians or vegans manage that balancing of 22 amino acids … to a person.

Now consider the other 21 million or so Australians. During the past decade almost half a million have had major heart surgery, generally because of too much saturated fat … either from meat and dairy foods directly or from the excess fat removed from carcases or milk and used to make other foods dangerous. So most Australians only have to follow one simple rule but regularly bugger it up.

Are veggos really that smart? I decided to check. So I wrote a computer program to compare the amino acids in foods against the latest amino acid requirements. I confirmed in excruciating detail exactly what my dietitian friend had told me in general terms … it takes a really bizarre food intake pattern to flunk the essential amino acid requirements. Suppose, for example, you ate nothing but bananas all day? Would you get enough of the essential amino acids? Yes. Bread? yes. Potatoes? yes. Zuccini? yes. Broccoli? yes. Any mixture of these? Yes … obviously. You don’t actually need to eat any “protein foods” or any tricky mix to get enough of the essential amino acids (although you may want to eat them for other nutritional reasons). All you need to do is to eat enough food to maintain your body weight. Vegan athlete Harley Johnstone regularly eats 30 bananas a day, when he can afford them(!), and wins bicycle and running races. Harley’s diet is unusual for sure, but how weird do you have to be to get an amino acid deficiency? One hundred per cent chips and Coke should do it. Or trying to live entirely on corn flakes … without soy milk of course.

So as far as I can tell, of the million or so vegetarians in Australia during the past decade, not a single one has ever been so bloody silly and we aren’t all bloody geniuses. The “protein combining” myth was started in the 1970s, with the best of intentions, by one Frances Moore Lappe. But it was bullshit then and it’s still bullshit.

For comparison, do the new guidelines contain warnings about the risks of rabbit starvation (which can kill you) for people wacko enough to try living on lean meat? Of course not. So why did the guideline authors deliberately target for blanket warnings a diet which is demonstrably, on average, healthier than the Australian norm?

Australia needs a powerful weapon against the forces making our children fat and sick. Those forces control the mass media with huge budgets and tiny consciences, but I reckon it will take rather more than 300 pages of paper to defeat them … even assuming they get the obvious meat and dairy industry biases removed before the draft goes live.

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36 thoughts on “Who owns the new Australian dietary guidelines?

  1. kerry russell

    Thank you for this article, the belief that there is higher quality (animal) and lower quality (plant) protein has long been firmly fixed in the community, on top of this the many TV ads confirming the belief. The facts of nutritional science in opposition seems like just a squeaky mouse. I am usually at a loss to explain when asked “but what about the protein!” and getting Calcium, that is seen as even a bigger danger “you would need a barrow load of broccoli” I am told, so I generally try to keep my veggo beliefs to myself.
    I hope your studies can get out there a bit more. Kerry

  2. Geoff Russell

    Thanks Kerry (no relation … that I know of).

    The history of the protein myth is fascinating and told well by Prof. Kenneth Carpenter,
    Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Berkeley:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3528432

    The problem is that the advertising industry keeps repeating the same protein lies and
    the history is forgotten and has to be relearned. In the world of medical intervention in developing
    countries, the protein myth is old news. Consider this study of malnutrition in
    developing countries (published in 2000), there is not a single mention of protein in
    the whole 100+ page study. It’s simply not relevant. People are malnourished if they
    don’t get enough food or are fighting infections because of dirty water.

    http://www.ifpri.org/publication/explaining-child-malnutrition-developing-countries-0

    The weapon of choice to bring children back from the brink of death isn’t steak, but fortified peanut butter … plant protein. In the early stages, a LOW protein formulation is used, later as the child’s
    organs start to function better, a slightly higher level is used.

  3. AR

    I’ve been vegetarian for over 40 years (and also a farmer, willing to slaughter, and skin, stock for those keen on eating dead animals), and am happy to arm wrestle, lift & carry, or whatever macho claptrap is deemed necessary by the carnivore lobby to demonstrate fitness.
    I’m especially keen to try it in 20yrs time, if any shiteaters still exist.

  4. drsmithy

    During any five-year period only 783 of every 100,000 Cubans will battle cancer compared to 1835 Australians. Diet isn’t the whole story, but the Cubans eat double the fruit, far more veggies, almost twice as many cereals, a quarter the milk and a quarter the meat. It’s carbs, carbs and more carbs and their overweight and obesity rate is about half of ours. All that and not a single low-carb high hype protein bar in sight.

    How do the levels of physical activity compare ?

  5. Geoff Russell

    I don’t have any hard data … just guessing activity levels are higher. Cuba made conscious decisions to change its food supply over the past couple of decades … under extreme pressure caused by Soviet collapse and US sanctions. Calories from animal products plummeted and huge increases in fruit and veg. Heart disease rates dropped very quickly in response. Cancer has a much longer lead time so reflects long standing differences. Meat has always been at about a quarter of Australian levels, most
    of the drop in animal product calories came in reductions in dairy. Total calories in the
    food supply is almost identical to Australia … hence my guess that activity levels must
    be higher if obesity is half.

  6. drsmithy

    For comparison, do the new guidelines contain warnings about the risks of rabbit starvation (which can kill you) for people wacko enough to try living on lean meat? Of course not. So why did the guideline authors deliberately target for blanket warnings a diet which is demonstrably, on average, healthier than the Australian norm?

    I suspect it’s recognising that the number of people “wacko” enough to try living only on a diet of only lean meat is so close to zero it’s irrelevant, whereas the number of people prepared to try and live on a diet of lettuce and green tea (or something equally extreme on the vegetarian side) is not at all unheard of (even if the motivation is not specifically to avoid meat – eg: Anorexia).

    A properly nutritious and balanced vegetarian or vegan diet is more difficult to achieve (without artificial supplements) than an omnivorous one. This is particularly true for children and teenagers. It makes sense that any nutritional and dietary guidelines take that into account.

  7. Geoff Russell

    I’d agree it was more difficult to achieve good diet if there was ANY evidence that vegetarians lived shorter sicker lives. They don’t. So either 1) veggos are smarter, 2) leaving out meat makes a good diet easier to achieve for some weird reason or 3) some or all meat is bad for you. There is clear consensus now that processed meat is bad for you. There is very wide acceptance (but not consensus) that red meat causes bowel cancer and that most red and white meat causes heart disease because of its high saturated fat levels … which is why the Dietary Guidelines doesn’t have most of the red and white meat found in supermarkets in ANY of its food groups. It only has LEAN meat in its food groups and most supermarket meat, by volume sold, isn’t lean. Precise data on this is absent … nobody wants to know, my claim is based on the little numbers on the
    meat trays in Coles indicating how much of which meat is sold.

    The bottom line is that while it may be counterintuitive, leaving meat out of your diet makes a healthier
    diet easier.

    When I wrote my amino acid testing program I tested for 71 kg adult male requirements and for 8.1 kg female child requirements. It was EASIER to meet the amino acid requirments of the small girl. Children need to eat more energy dense foods for other nutrient requirements, but it isn’t for the protein.

  8. drsmithy

    I’d agree it was more difficult to achieve good diet if there was ANY evidence that vegetarians lived shorter sicker lives. They don’t. So either 1) veggos are smarter, 2) leaving out meat makes a good diet easier to achieve for some weird reason or 3) some or all meat is bad for you.

    Sorry, that doesn’t follow. I’ll also point out that you are conflating two extremely different conclusions in your #3 option.

    Vegetarianism – and especially veganism – is an explicit and active dietary choice. It rarely occurs naturally without an external constraint on dietary options. Someone making an explicit choice about their diet is typically going to do so in a positive manner – ie: they’re going to make an effort to “eat the right foods”. Anecdotally, I’ve never known a single vegetarian who simply stopped eating meat – they all explicitly went out and investigated what they needed to do to _healthily_ replace meat in their diet. A decade or more later – for the few who remained vegetarian – most of them have forgotten they ever went through the process and now make the necessary nutritional substitutions automatically.

    Or, to put it another way, the issue is not so much the conceited “veggos are smarter”, it’s that “veggos have made an explicit choice to change their diet, and like most other individuals who do that, they have tried to make it healthier”.

    Thus, a valid comparison is not “vegetarians and everyone else”, it’s “vegetarians and people who actively manage their diet”. How does the health and lifespan of vegetarian or vegan and omnivorous elite sportsmen and women compare ? Any significant differences ?

    Dietary Guidelines doesn’t have most of the red and white meat found in supermarkets in ANY of its food groups. It only has LEAN meat in its food groups and most supermarket meat, by volume sold, isn’t lean.

    Yet the evidence – including from several links already posted – suggest that if you are going to eat meat (and other animal products), lean meat is actually a worse choice.

    Let’s also not forget the “French Paradox” in this discussion. “Vegetarianism will solve your ills” is a ridiculously simplistic answer to an extremely complex and barely understood system.

  9. Geoff Russell

    “…several links already posted” where? The saturated fat theory has vast support at both the epidemiological level and the mechanistic level. Scientists understand the mechanisms of atherosclerosis pretty well.

    Here’s a nice case study of what can happen to a person on a high fat Atkins diet:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19559147

  10. drsmithy

    “…several links already posted” where?

    Your “rabbit starvation” link, I believe it was. I think I found a couple more searching along similar lines (lean meat vs fatty meat in the diet).

    The critical point, of course – as with most things – is moderation.

    (Not to mention simple enjoyment. Fatty foods taste better.)

    Here’s a nice case study of what can happen to a person on a high fat Atkins diet:

    It’s not freely accessible, and I’m not paying $30 for the sake of an internet argument.

    “Can” happen or “will” happen ? These are two very different outcomes.

    The Atkins diet has a pretty good record for enabling weight loss and maintaining ongoing weight control, which is a fairly critical part of overall health and quality of life. It’s hard to get out and do anything if you weigh 200kg+. Given two extremes of being an idle, obese vegetarian who lives to 80 and a fit Atkins-dieter who lives to 70, I’m sure most people would go for the latter (especially in the context of living for 80 years without cheese and bacon). Which is not to say there aren’t consequent risks, but they need to be taken in context and as part of a larger picture.

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