Fake news affects vegans, too (UPDATED 2017)

Fake news is all the rage these days. It’s an epidemic and vegans have definitely gotten the raw end of the deal a few times.

If you’re one of my five loyal readers (fake news alert! I’m pretty sure my five readers are all actually me, after reloading the website five times), you’ll know I’ve been clamoring about anti-vegan fake news for a long time.

I previously wrote about that made-up “study” about how vegetarians get drunk and cheat on their diet by eating meat. The “study” went viral. It turns out, there was no study. It was completely fake. Basically, some random guy in the UK writes press releases about entirely fake surveys and studies, then claims his company is behind the study, and somehow gets reputable news sites to publish them. He does this to increase his company’s visibility on the Internet so that it pops up higher in search engines. And this still goes on. I just googled his website (which you can read about here) and it looks like he just released a new “study” about how ‘almost half of video gamers admit to cheating.’ Speaking of cheating . . . I feel confident in saying that this new study is a premium cut of 100% Grade F Fake News.

These stories wouldn’t be a big deal if the news outlets did their job and vetted their sources. Worse yet, many of these news outlets don’t even care. These fake studies are purposefully provocative and generate clicks and views, and that’s all that matters to the news websites.

It’s the news websites lack of vetting and due diligence in posting these stories that is very troubling, especially for vegans. In the last couple of years, a new crop of fake stories have popped up. Unlike the ‘drunk vegetarians’ one, these are all based on real studies by real organizations. The problem is, the news outlets completely misinterpreted them, and unequivocally turned them into fake news. As you’ll see, the whacky, inaccurate news coverage even befuddled the authors of the studies themselves.

Lettuce is NOT worse for the environment than bacon

In December of 2015, news outlets infamously reported that “Lettuce Produces More Greenhouse Gas Emissions Than Bacon Does.” That headline came from Scientific American, a reputable publication. The article is based on a real study from Carnegie Mellon University. Even Carnegie Mellon’s own press release had the same point: “VEGETARIAN AND “HEALTHY” DIETS COULD BE MORE HARMFUL TO THE ENVIRONMENT”

Obviously that’s a highly surprising and provocative finding. How can the simple lettuce plant create more greenhouse gas than the process breeding pigs, bulking them up with tons of feed, and slaughtering them for bacon?

It turns out, the lettuce/bacon study was completely taken out of context. The study compared foods like bacon and lettuce on a per calorie basis.

That is an incredibly misguided way to to compare foods. Think about it. How does 1 calorie of bacon compare with 1 calorie of lettuce? And how many calories of these foods do people typically eat?

Bacon is a very calorically dense food, especially compared to lettuce. One slice of bacon has 40 calories. How much lettuce would you need to match that number of calories? At least five entire cups. And that’s of shredded lettuce. (I went with shredded lettuce because, compared with whole leaves, shredded lettuce will fill in even more air pockets of a measuring cup). When it comes to calories, one slice of bacon equals five cups of shredded lettuce. That’s a massive amount of lettuce. And who limits themselves to just one slice of bacon? Let’s say bacon eaters eat a modest three slices of bacon. That’s now 120 calories. You’d have to consume 15 cups of lettuce to match that! No one is eating that much lettuce! No one! Fake news!

The study authors and news websites ignored how much these foods people actually eat when they eat them. It’s almost the same flaw that all of those anti-almond milk articles were making a couple of years ago. They didn’t consider how many almonds people actually eat.

It’s been said that you shouldn’t compare apples to oranges. Well, comparing lettuce to bacon takes that fallacy to a whole new level. Any time you come across an article or study comparing the impact of foods on a per calorie basis, factor in how much of these foods humans actually eat.

Even if you assume it’s true that lettuce makes more greenhouse gases than bacon (spoiler alert: it doesn’t)–for Carnegie Mellow’s own academic website to say vegetarian foods are more harmful to the environment than other diets is so completely off base. Greenhouse gases are only one single aspect of environmental damage. Sure, it’s a big one. But there’s no way lettuce is worse than bacon in any of the other areas of pollution: water pollution; air pollution; land use; waste; and so on. There’s no conceivable way lettuce is in the same ballpark as breeding and slaughtering pigs. Yet Carnegie Mellon’s own website says vegetarian foods are worse. No. Effing. Way.

To be sure, I shared my thoughts with the authors of the study and this was their response:

Co-author Michelle Tom said “Unfortunately, the titles of many of these press articles do not reflect the purpose of our study very well.”

A few days after publishing their original article, Scientific American issued a semi-correction at the bottom of the website: “*Editor’s Note (12/18/15): The headline of this article was changed to clarify that the comparison between lettuce and bacon is on a “per calorie” basis.” (Weirdly, I don’t see that they changed the headline, but still, at least they kind of admit they goofed, albeit in the fine print at the end of the article.)

 

Vegetarian diets are NOT worse for your health than previously thought

Just a few months later, in March of 2016, another anti-vegan story hit the headlines. This headline is from the British tabloid The Daily Express: “Long-term vegetarian diets could lead to CANCER and heart disease, warn scientists” (The Daily Express did the capitalization, just to show you what kind of editorial standards we’re dealing with here.)

Interestingly, this study appears to have been reported almost solely by tabloid newspapers (the kind of websites and newspapers who are in the business of posting shocking, exaggerated, sensationalized headlines). These include The Daily Express, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the New York Post, all of which wrote similarly sensationalized headlines–and sadly, they all get a lot of readers.

These stories were based on a real study from Cornell University. The study is actually very interesting, but it’s complicated. And most important, despite the headlines, it is definitely NOT anti-vegan. (I did the capitalization this time).

Here’s what the study actually found. Some people have ancestors who were primarily vegetarian. These people have a gene that makes their bodies very good at producing omega-6 fatty acids. That’s not a good thing, because if you consume too much omega-6 fat through your diet (when your body already has this gene that already makes it extra good at producing omega-6 fats) that can, arguably, cause more disease–because too much omega-6 fat is bad for you.

The study compared people whose ancestors were primarily vegetarian (ie, people from South Asia) and found that 70% of them have this gene. Only 17% of people who descended from Europe (ie, whose ancestors were not primarily vegetarian) have this gene.

This study is not about current vegetarians. It’s about people whose ancestors were vegetarian, and how they might have this gene that makes them too good at producing omega-6s. The warning here isn’t to vegetarians. It’s a warming to anyone who might have this gene. And the warning is this: if you have this gene, be careful not to eat too many omega-6 fats.

Which raises a crucial question. What the heck are omega-6 fats and what foods contain them? The biggest sources of omega-6 fats are oils made from corn, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, soy, and sesame. And basically every class of meat has significant quantities of omega-6 fats in them: especially sausage, bacon, turkey, pork, ribs, lamb, among plenty of others.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of low omega-6 fats people can cook with, including canola, olive, avocado (yeah!), peanut, walnut, flaxseed and coconut. Veganhealth.org has a helpful table with some related info.

As the authors of the study say, if you have this gene, “a balanced omega-6 and omega-3 in the diet is very important.” Again, this means if you have this gene, it’s best to opt for fats and oils that are low in omega-6 fatty acids.

How on earth does this mean a vegetarian diet leads to disease? Sure, corn oil and soy oil have loads of omega-6 fatty acids, and those are technically vegan foods. But turkey, bacon and lamb also have significant quantities of this fat. So you could be the furthest thing from a vegetarian and have this gene, and suffer from the negative side effects of it.

Just a few short days after the articles ran, Vice.com posted a response article titled “How the Media Got a Study About Vegetarianism Really, Really Wrong.” Vice interviewed one of the co-authors of the study, Kaixiong Ye, who said: “In the beginning, we were pretty happy to see our research getting so much attention. But over the last few days I have found that most of the news coming out right now [on our study] is wrong. It’s kind of frustrating. Indeed it is. To be sure, another set of authors of the same study were interviewed by the newspaper Indian Express and said the news coverage was a “misinterpretation of our findings.”

 

People don’t know what a “vegetarian” is.

There’s another study that’s popped up on various news websites every few months since 2014. In fact, it’s popped up as recently as this month (February 2017). The study is about how vegetarian diets are bad for your health. This time, it’s not just the news websites that got this wrong, but also, apparently, the researchers themselves. That’s because (and this is weird) the researchers published two articles about the study with conflicting conclusions.

Here’s what happened: the researchers (who are from the University of Graz in Austria) took data from a survey conducted in Austria in 2006. And then, on February 7, 2014, they published two competing articles about it in two different journals. The first article was published in a journal called The Central European Journal of Medicine. The second article was published in the journal PLOS ONE. Again, what makes this totally bizarre is their two articles reached seemingly opposite results. The first one was pro-vegetarian. The second one was anti-vegetarian. The anti-vegetarian article, of course, got way more attention in the news and social media. Yay.

In the first article (the pro-vegetarian one from The Central European Journal of Medicine), the authors concluded: “Our results show that a vegetarian diet is associated with a better health-related behavior, a lower BMI, and a higher SES. Subjects eating a carnivorous diet less rich in meat self-report poorer health, a higher number of chronic conditions, an enhanced vascular risk, as well as lower quality of life. In conclusion, our results have shown that consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with better health and health-related behavior. Therefore, public health programs are needed for reducing the health risks associated with a carnivorous diet.

But the second article (from the journal PLOS ONE) concluded: “Our study has shown that Austrian adults who consume a vegetarian diet are less healthy (in terms of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), have a lower quality of life, and also require more medical treatment.”

What?! How and why did the authors report seemingly contradictory things based on the same survey?

Even in the introduction of the PLOS ONE article, the authors note: “Studies have shown a vegetarian diet to be associated with a lower incidence of hypertension, cholesterol problems, some chronic degenerative diseases, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes, gallstones, stroke, and certain cancers.” So how could they possibly conclude that vegetarians are reporting worse health (particularly cancer) with more frequency than non-vegetarians?

Long story short, the first article was a summary of the results of all 15,000-plus people who were surveyed. The second article in PLOS was a subset of 1,300 of those people, split into four different dietary groups of about 300+ people. They did this because only about 340 or so of the original 15,000 reported themselves as vegetarian. Seems fair on its face.

Digging a little deeper, it turns out the survey is highly flawed. There’s the overarching issue that this survey isn’t a reliable piece of data, in general. The surveys were conducted by non-scientists and, as with any survey, you hope the participants actually told the truth–or even more importantly, knew what they were talking about in their responses.

In this case, a key question for the participants is identifying whether they were vegetarian or not. That seems simple enough.

Yet in my nearly 10 years of becoming a vegetarian (and later a vegan), I discovered that a lot of people don’t know what a vegetarian is. Despite their good intentions, there’s a lot of people who are excited to share that they, too, are vegetarians, although they eat chicken, turkey and seafood. The sheer number of people who (at least anecdotally) define “vegetarian” to include poultry and fish, is pretty staggering. I think that’s because, somewhere along the line, people define vegetarian to mean ‘no meat.’ And they define ‘meat’ to simply mean beef from a cow, and maybe other red meats, too. But that’s not the actual definition of vegetarian, which is a diet without meat of any type, whether, beef, poultry or seafood. I assume–and hope–that scientists, government researchers, and the vast, vast majority of people use that definition.

But maybe they don’t. Because here’s what I discovered: of the 340 or so “vegetarians” the researchers studied, more than half were quote-unquote “vegetarians” who ate seafood, in addition to eggs and dairy. (What?!) So, if this survey is any indication, more than half of vegetarians eat fish. That completely ruins the study. In other words, someone could eat a McDonald’s fish filet for every single meal and still be a vegetarian, according to this survey. Again, the whole point of the PLOS ONE study is to compare vegetarians to non-vegetarians, yet the survey defines ‘vegetarian’ to include, well, non-vegetarians!

So this survey has basically no bearing on cause and effect, and is quite possibly flawed from top to bottom. Unfortunately, when bloggers and news sites shared the PLOS article, their headlines aren’t so nuanced. The headlines were more like: “Vegetarians are ‘less healthy and have a lower quality of life than meat-eaters’, scientists say” (that’s from the newspaper The Independent). Geez.

This whole debacle leaves me wondering how many other surveys (whether pro-vegetarian or anti-vegetarian) should be called into question because the authors and/or participants don’t use a consistent definition of vegetarian. That’s pretty disconcerting.

Fortunately, the lead author was questioned on a PLOS ONE journal message board and explained the differing results of the two articles: “In our opinion, it seems not far to seek that persons with worse health consume a vegetarian diet because they try to develop a better health and eating behavior, and not the opposite, that a certain diet (vegetarian) leads to worse health. We therefore state in our discussion that we can neither say anything about causes or effects, nor about long-term consequences.”

Oh. So, in other words, the author isn’t concluding that vegetarian diets cause worse health, but rather, vegetarians reported worse health because these were possibly people who already had bad health, and then adopted a vegetarian diet to try to improve their health. That’s nuanced, but it makes more sense. People adopt vegetarian diets for health reasons all the time, and many of them start off in not the healthiest of conditions (like, a cancer diagnosis, for example).  This survey did not ask that crucial follow up question: did you become vegetarian before or after your diagnosis? That might be helpful to know. Either way, this nuance does not really make for a catchy headline on an online newspaper.

In any event, after analyzing the PLOS ONE article, the UK’s National Health Service concluded: “Despite the media headlines, the results from this Austrian cross sectional survey provide no proof that vegetarians are in poorer health than meat eaters.

 

New massive study doesn’t mean we should eat fewer vegetables and more animal fat

[This section added 9/5/17]

In August of 2017, news websites and low-carb lovers celebrated the findings of a large, ongoing study out of McMaster University in Canada called the ‘PURE’ study. The PURE study is a multi-year research project that aims to “examine the impact of urbanization on the development” of things like physical activity, nutrition, obesity, and so on. They do this largely by surveying people from mostly low-income countries. Every few years, the researchers publish some of their findings.

The most recent PURE reports led to news headlines like “Huge Diet Study Shows Carbs, Not Fats Are the Problem . . . PURE also challenges belief that more is better for fruits and vegetables.” (This is from a website called MedPage, which is apparently a news blog meant for medical professionals). Either the PURE study is accurate, and the conventional wisdom that we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and less saturated fat, is wrong. Or, the PURE study is inaccurate, and tons of people, including health professionals, are receiving highly misleading information.

Turns out, it’s probably the latter: the study appears to have been a colossal mess. A few days after these headlines were shared by the thousands on social media and over email, several reputable nutrition authorities released articles criticizing and downplaying it. By the looks of it, the PURE findings are deeply, deeply flawed. The best take down was written by Yale University’s David Katz. Harvard’s School of Public Health also released a response, calling the study “misleading” and “fraught with methodological problems.”

Again, the whole point of the PURE study is to look at the impact of urbanization on nutrition. Yet according to Katz and Harvard, the researchers apparently dropped the ball on properly factoring in socioeconomic status. Does an unhealthy low-income person in Bangladesh who doesn’t have good access to hospitals, and who eats a diet of mostly white rice (a food that is devoid of nutrients, yet is high carb and vegan) prove that high carb diets are bad? Does a wealthier and healthier person in Bangladesh who eats a more varied diet, including more butter (saturated fat), and has good access to hospitals, prove that saturated fat is the key to good health? As the Harvard School of Public Health puts it, “In this situation, it is extremely challenging if not impossible to separate the effects of diet from poverty and undernutrition.”

From Katz: “On the basis of all of the details in these published papers, the conclusion, and attendant headlines, might have been: “very poor people with barely anything to eat get sick and die more often than affluent people with access to both ample diets, and hospitals.” One certainly understands why the media did NOT choose that!”

 

There you have it. And now you’re caught up on at least some of the major fake news stories disparaging vegetarians and vegans.

One Comment

  1. This was a great explanation. I too saw the Austrian study and couldn’t figure out how they came up with the result that vegetarians are less healthy than meat eaters. I even had non-vegetarian friends who sent me the link and said that I should give up being a vegan (which started out for health reasons and then evolved into more ethical-based reasons). Again, thank you for the post – this helps me.

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