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Vail Daily column: Look at the big picture

Ryan W. Richards
Make It Count

Here we go again. Last week I detailed a simple solution for longterm weight loss. I quoted author and strongman Arthur Saxon who wrote a book in 1906 detailing his opinions on wellness. I awoke the next morning with hate mail from readers who apparently didn’t like Saxon’s view on moderation and the promotion of eating beef and mutton.

Arthur Saxon suggested that we eat and drink moderately. Saxon proposed that all types of food can, and should, be incorporated into a healthy diet. He did suggest that starches, sugars, pastries, spirituous liquors and smoking were probably injurious to human beings.

I thought we could agree on that. Apparently Saxon and I are misinformed, and some readers let me know how mistaken I am. I might be. As I drink my second cup of black coffee as I am writing this and tasting the remnants of the bacon I ate this morning, I will take my chances that I probably won’t die of heart disease. Even after drinking a stiff cocktail last night and eating two steaks from an animal I killed and hauled out of the woods this past fall, I still consider myself a person who is at low risk for developing heart disease or Type 2 diabetes.

THERE’S A WAR HAPPENING

There are too many variables and behaviors that contribute over several decades to ultimately promoting or protecting against disease. It’s too simple to say that meat eaters are more likely to suffer from heart disease than vegans.

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We have a war going on between vegans and paleo followers. We have some doctors claiming that cholesterol is the enemy of heart disease and the China Study is the end-all-be-all investigation that concludes a plant-based diet is the only way to reduce heart disease.

Doctors such as Chris Masterjohn and Uffe Ravnskov have documented that cholesterol dangers are a myth, and they have some very compelling research to suggest this. Most of the cholesterol myth is seemingly perpetuated because of the very poor study performed by Dr. Ancel Keys in the 1950s that put the American Heart Association on a rampage against animal products in favor of a higher carbohydrate, low-fat diet.

I have some strong opinions on all of this. I will get into that next week. Today I want to suggest a phenomenon that occurs through all of this controversy that is rarely taken into consideration when debating diet trends: the healthy user bias.

HEALTHY USER BIAS

A great example of the healthy user bias is demonstrated in Chris Kresser’s article “Why you should think twice about vegetarian and vegan diets.” During scientific studies, it can be difficult to deduce causality of certain outcomes because of other variables that may reflect the outcome.

For example, as Kresser’s article demonstrates, it’s a bit silly to suggest that vegans live longer or are somehow healthier than carnivores partly because of the healthy user bias. In other words, it’s safe to assume that vegans make better lifestyle choices compared to the general population who may or may not eat meat. Making the active decision to not eat animal products immediately classifies this population as people who probably make great lifestyle choices in general. People who eat hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato chips might also smoke, eat hydrogenated oils, not exercise regularly, participate in risky sexual behavior, drink to excess and not wear a seatbelt, all of which can increase the risk of pathology or an untimely death and can be accounted for by these other risk factors other than the consumption of animal based products.

COMPARING APPLES TO APPLES

Comparing a health-conscious vegetarian to the average human who consumes meat isn’t a fair comparison factoring in the healthy user bias. We must compare apples to apples to get a better picture. An ingenious study did just that. It compared the mortality of people who shopped in health food stores (both vegetarians and omnivores) to people in the general population. People who shop in health food stores are more likely to be health conscious, regardless of whether they eat meat, which reduces the likelihood that the study results will be thrown off by the healthy user bias.

What did the researchers find? Both vegetarians and omnivores in the health food store group lived longer than people in the general population — not surprising given their higher level of health consciousness — but there was no survival difference between vegetarians or omnivores. Nor was there any difference in rates of heart disease or stroke between the two groups.

The point is that unless we all live in a bubble and commit ourselves to strict scientific observation over several years, we’re never going to be completely certain what specifically causes disease and mortality in the context of this discussion. There are too many variables and behaviors that contribute over several decades to ultimately promoting or protecting against disease. It’s too simple to say that meat eaters are more likely to suffer from heart disease than vegans. We can’t say beyond a shadow of a doubt that people who consume sugar vs. people who don’t are more likely to suffer from Type 2 diabetes. Look at the big picture, folks! Let’s keep talking about this.

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at http://www.r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.


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