Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Better ≠ Best linked to an April 15 Washington Post article about New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman. The author of the Post article recounts Bittman's decision to "go vegan before 6:00 p.m.", then eat anything he wanted thereafter.


This kind of thinking amazes me when it comes from people like Bittman who is one of the most informed people about food in America. He has written good cookbooks and good books on food in general (e.g., Food Matters) and written positively about the need to incorporate more plants in one's diet. But like the other classic example of an unwillingness to commit to what he knows is best, Michael Pollan ("Eat food, mostly plants, not too much"), Bittman settles for better instead of best. And this in spite of his doctor telling him, "I think you should become a vegan." (Three cheers for that doctor, whoever s/he is.)

Pollan and Bittman know more about food and health than 99.9% of the people in America, but still insist on holding out a few hours or meals during the week in which the unhealthiest foods on the planet—animal products—play a part on their plates. Doing better (vegan for most of the day) is fine for a neophyte who is trying to "cut back" or gradually move towards a healthier diet. But people like Pollan and Bittman are high priests, not acolytes, who should be setting a higher standard. This is the equivalent of Pope Benedict announcing he's only going to sin "a little."

"Better" as the enemy of "best" has been fully exposed by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn in his book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. In his controversial chapter on oils, in which he says that extra virgin olive oil is not a heart-healthy oil, he explains why better is not the same as best. EVOO is healthier, not healthy. And the difference is important.

EVOO gained heart-healthy status in studies on the "Mediterranean diet" in which people in the Mediterranean countries were found to have a lower than average incidence of heart disease. Because of their inclusion of lots of EVOO in their diets, suddenly this oil gained "heart healthy" status. But the problem is that EVOO only lowered heart disease—it didn't eliminate it. Yes, it probably contributed to the lowering of heart disease compared to other oils, but that only meant it was "better," not "best." Esselstyn demonstrates how the Brachial Artery Tourniquet Test—a test that measures the elasticity of arteries based on the presence of nitric oxide in the artery—shows extreme impairment in the presence of any processed oil (oil separated from its whole food carrier)—even extra virgin olive oil.

So, EVOO is better than lard or corn oil or canola. But it illustrates the fallacy in thinking that because something is better it is also the best.

There is a danger in my arguing this way, since Pollan and Bittman may be simply trying to encourage people to "do better," thinking that raising the bar to the "best" nutritional level—a 100% plant-based diet—might be too much for most people; if people are faced with "all or nothing," they might choose nothing and make no efforts to eat for the better.

Maybe so. But I would like to see people like them use their bully pulpits to encourage people, on the basis of science and reason, to strive for what's best and not settle for less. This is a battle even vegans fight, of course: vegan processed foods vs. whole foods? Alcohol or not? Raw vs. cooked? etc. But those decisions are sub-chapters on the overall theme of what's best: a 100% plant-based diet.

Addendum: This post wasn't about oil -- it was just an illustration. But if you want an excellent summary of what plant-based docs say about oils in the diet, read this post by a medical librarian who collated their findings. I was pleased to see that Dr. Dean Ornish uses the same "better vs. best" argument as I used above.

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