Today's article, To Cut Fat, Eat Less Meat, is just another example of how dangerous it may be to follow the recommendations of food writers with an agenda to promote only low-fat options rather than nutrient-density. But, I'll get to that in a minute.
Her evidence today was...[a] new study of some 55,000 healthy, middle-aged Swedish women finds that those who ate little or no meat weighed significantly less than their more carnivorous counterparts. The findings are some of the first to show a direct link between a plant-based diet and a lower body mass index, or BMI.
Curious, I wanted to look at the data myself and found it online - Risk of overweight and obesity among semivegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women.
Data analyzed in this cross-sectional study were from 55459 healthy women participating in the Swedish Mammography Cohort. Women were asked whether they considered themselves to be omnivores, semivegetarians , lactovegetarians, or vegans, and this question was the main exposure variable in this study. In secondary analyses, some women were reclassified as lactovegetarians on the basis of food intakes reported on the food-frequency questionnaire.
Sounds like a large number of women were followed, doesn't it? Just how many from each category though? This is where the numbers get interesting...
- omnivores - 54257
- semivegetarians - 960
- lactovegetarians - 159
- vegans - 83
The findings showed that in the above categories, the incidence of overweight or obesity was:
- omnivores = 40%
- semivegetarians = 29%
- lactovegetarians = 25%
- vegans = 29%
Personally, I'm not surprised by the findings when the numbers show that the vast majority included are in just one category - omnivores. Every group, including the vegans, actually reported that they include animal products from time to time - so none of the groups were truly eating an exclusive "plant based" diet.
The study looked at BMI. What it did not look at is important - nutrient-density and overall health. While the data can support a finding that those eating a diet that is rich with plant foods weighed less and had a lower BMI, it cannot extend to a finding of better overall health because no one looked at cholesterol, bone density, blood pressure, nutrient intake or other health markers in the women followed.
Yet, Sally Squires jumped on the data as "proof" that eating a lower fat diet is healthy and even offered up a recommendation on how to eat "semi-vegetarian" sometimes.
Go semi-vegetarian sometimes . You may be doing it already. Breakfast on shredded wheat with berries, slivered almonds and skim milk. Have a large Greek salad with feta cheese and a crusty bread for lunch. Snack on fruit and yogurt and eat a couple of bean burritos with a little low-fat cheese and some rice for dinner. Have fruit for dessert and you've had a semi-vegetarian day.
What's wrong with such a recommendation?
It's painfully inadequate for essential nutrients - those vitamins and minerals considered critical for long-term health!
By inputing her recommendations into FitDay.com and using 1/2 cup of blueberries as the fruit in the morning, 2-medium slices of Greek/Armenian bread and 4-tbs of low-fat dressing in the lunch, a peach and 8-ounces of low-fat fruit yogurt as the snack and a medium apple for dessert, the calorie load worked out to 2016-calories for the day - right on target for the 2000-calorie RDA recommendations.
So how did her recommendations fare for nutrients?
At the high-level - that is the percentage of calories from each macronutrient (fat, carbohydrate and protein) the day looks spectacular! Fat accounted for just 25% of calories, with just 9% from saturated fats; carbohydrate provided 60% of calories and protein accounted for 15% of calories. All well within the US Dietary Guidelines.
The question begs - how did the recommendation fare for nutrient-density?
In a word - miserably!
Based on the 2000-calorie RDA's
- Sodium intake was high - 2876mg - 476mg over the 2400mg limit
- Vitamin A fell short, with just 618mcg of the 800mcg RDA
- Vitamin C RDA was almost met with 59mg of the 60mg RDA
- Iron fell short of the 18mg RDA with just 15.8mg
- Vitamin D was lacking with just 2.46mg of the 5mg RDA
- Niacin was lacking with just 13.9mg of the 20mg RDA
- Vitamin B-6 fell short with just 1.2mg of the 2mg RDA
- Vitamin B-12 fell short with just 3mcg of the 6mcg RDA
- Magnesium was lacking with just 358mg of the 400mg RDA
- Zinc fell short of the 15mg RDA with just 10.4mg in the day
- Copper was lacking with just 1.75mg of the 2mg RDA
- Vitamin K was painfully lacking with just 3.6mcg of the 80mcg RDA
Failing to provide adequate levels of 11 essential nutrients is not a "healthy" recommendation!
Honestly, what is more important - maintaining "acceptable" macronutrient percentages of calories OR actually eating a nutrient-dense diet that meets or exceeds RDA's?
In your quest to find a dietary approach that works for you, remember, it's not just the macronutrient percentages that matter - in fact they matter little at the end of the day if you're leaving your body malnourished for essential nutrients it needs to function and thrive! Next time you see a food writer providing a sample menu, take the time to really look at it carefully - look beyond the ratio of fat:carbs:protein and see if it really is providing nutrient-density!