Dr. Dean Ornish

The Latest Dietary Study, Misinterpreted

The media has grown adept at inaccurate and misinterpreted reporting about dietary studies. These results do not lend themselves to 15 second sound bites or USA Today blurbs - the subject is more complicated than that. The latest Harvard study on the Mediterranean diet and its reported conclusion offers the latest example of the trend.

There is much discussion about the results of the Harvard study of the Mediterranean diet, which reportedly demonstrated a reduction in vascular disease. Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer, reports these “behind the curtain” facts and conclusions following his interview of the study’s author and moderator.

While the Med diet limits its fat to olive oil and fish, and is considered “low fat”, the author, Dr. Dean Ornish, reports that “low fat” was not actually followed by the participants — “in the end, it was not a low fat diet at all”. However, it is clear to the author that the dietary key to good heart health is the presence of Omega 3 fatty acids, found in abundance in olive oil and to varying degrees in fish (salmon, a lot; every other fish, less so; farm-raised fish, none at all and that is mostly what is available. Know your fish!)

So what do I take away from this study? Several points, but the primary one is this:  it must be the addition of Omega 3 rich foods that make the difference, not the elimination of red meat. Here is why:

  • In every study of the Med diet, it is always noted that diets “high in olive oil and fish and low in red meat” can be beneficial to heart health. My question: is it really just the olive oil and fish that is adding the benefit because of their high Omega-3 content? I have not seen the study where olive oil, fish and red meat are eaten together to see if the same results obtain, but this might be the hidden truth about this latest study if the designer is to be believed. How do they know which one is the controlling factor when they always eliminate red meat but add omega 3 foods? It may simply be the addition rather than the subtraction that drives the benefit.
  • Since 99.9% of the red meat in the US is grain-finished, and since it is known that grain drives out the Omega-3s and drives up the omega 6s and saturated fats, then they must necessarily be comparing the Med diet to a diet that includes grain-finished beef in the control group. When will they study the grass-finished beef that is high in omega 3s? Until they do, they really have no business denigrating red meat as a whole. They should make it clear that they are suspicious of grain-finished beef at best.
  • In addition, shouldn’t they distinguish between wild fish and farm-raised fish if they consider omega 3 to be the key to the benefit? They don’t tell us. Again, if they are supplying farm-raised fish, then the fish aspect of the Med diet probably is not a contributor to the benefit. And that leads to the parallel conclusion that the elimination of red meat is not a contributor either. Right? Right. It may well be the olive oil, not the fish, that delivers the benefit.

The aspect I agree with wholeheartedly is the importance of Omega-3s in our diet. So let’s consider the Jolie Vue diet of beef, pork, chicken and eggs, all free range on organic pasture and woods, and all served in proper proportion to your vegetables and fruits. All of the JVF meats are demonstrably high in omega 3s. Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief that has been so wrong for so long, our pork may provide the highest omega-3 portion of all the meats. Why? Because the pig converts the oils of nuts to oleic oil, which is the same as found in olive oil. JVF pork dines on many things in their omnivorous life, including greens, acorns, pecans and roasted nuts. There you have it.

So, it is important to go beyond the media-reported conclusion of any dietary study and consider the underlying factor or factors that might have led to the conclusion. And my dietary conclusion is this — buy the very cleanest, properly raised and unprocessed whole foods you can find and eat them in great variety as often as you can. That’s a diet you can live with - as Thomas Jefferson did all the way into his late 80th years.