Medical Meat Bias

When famed surgeon Michael DeBakey was asked why his studies published back in the 1930s linking smoking and lung cancer were ignored, he had to remind people about what it was like back then. We were a smoking society. Smoking was in the movies, on airplanes. Medical meetings were held in “a heavy haze of smoke.” Smoking was, in a word, normal. Even the congressional debates over cigarettes and lung cancer took place in literal smoke-filled rooms. (This makes me wonder what’s being served at the breakfast buffets of the Dietary Guidelines Committee meetings these days.)

I’ve previously talked about a famous statistician by the name of Ronald Fisher, who railed against what he called “propaganda…to convince the public that cigarette smoking is dangerous.” “Although Fisher made invaluable contributions to the field of statistics, his analysis of the causal association between lung cancer and smoking was flawed by an unwillingness to examine the entire body of data available…” His smokescreen may have been because he was a paid consultant to the tobacco industry, but also because he was himself a smoker. “Part of his resistance to seeing the association may have been rooted in his own fondness for smoking,” which makes me wonder about some of the foods nutrition researchers may be fond of to this day.

As I discuss in my video Don’t Wait Until Your Doctor Kicks the Habit, it always strikes me as ironic when vegetarian researchers are forthright and list their diet as a potential conflict of interest, whereas not once in the 70,000 articles on meat in the medical literature have I ever seen a researcher disclose her or his nonvegetarian habits––because it’s normal. Just like smoking was normal.

How could something that’s so normal be bad for you? And, it’s not as if we fall over dead after smoking one cigarette. Cancer takes decades to develop. “Since at that time most physicians smoked and could not observe any immediate deleterious effects, they were skeptical of the hypothesis and reluctant to accept even the possibility of such a relation”—despite the mountain of evidence.

It may have taken 25 years for the Surgeon General’s report to come out and longer still for mainstream medicine to get on board, but now, at least, there are no longer ads encouraging people to “Inhale to your heart’s content!” Instead, today, there are ads from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fighting back.

For food ads, we don’t have to go all the way back to old ads touting “Meat…for Health Defense” or “Nourishing Bacon,” or featuring doctors prescribing meat or soda, or moms relieved that “Trix are habit-forming, thank heavens!” You know things are bad when the sanest dietary advice comes from cigarette ads, as in Lucky Strike’s advertisements proclaiming “More Vegetables––Less Meat” and “Substitute Oatmeal for White Flour.” (You can see these vintage ads from 2:34 in my video).

In modern times, you can see hot dogs and sirloin tips certified by the American Heart Association, right on their packaging. And, of all foods, which was the first to get the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ “Kids Eat Right” logo on its label? Was it an apple? Broccoli, perhaps? Nope, it was a Kraft prepared cheese product.

Now, just as there were those in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s at the vanguard trying to save lives, today, there are those transforming ads about what you can do with pork butt into ads about what the pork can do to your butt: “Hot Dogs Cause Butt Cancer—Processed meats increase colorectal cancer risk” reads an for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s “Meat Is the New Tobacco” campaign, which you can see at 3:56 in my video. As Dr. Barnard, PCRM president, tried to convey in an editorial published in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics, “Plant-based diets are the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking.”

How many more people have to die before the Centers for Disease Control encourages people not to wait for open-heart surgery to start eating healthfully?

Just as we don’t have to wait until our doctor stops smoking to give up cigarettes ourselves, we don’t have to wait until our doctor takes a nutrition class or cleans up his or her diet before choosing to eat healthier. No longer do doctors hold a professional monopoly on health information. There’s been a democratization of knowledge. So, until the system changes, we have to take personal responsibility for our health and for our family’s health. We can’t wait until society catches up with the science again, because it’s a matter of life and death.

Dr. Kim Allan Williams, Sr., became president of the American College of Cardiology a few years back. He was asked why he follows his own advice to eat a plant-based diet. “I don’t mind dying,” Dr. Williams replied. “I just don’t want it to be my fault.”


I find this to be such a powerful concept that I have come at it from different angles. For other takes, check out Taking Personal Responsibility for Your Health and How Smoking in 1959 Is Like Eating in 2019. Are the health effects of smoking really comparable to diet, though? Check out Animal Protein Compared to Cigarette Smoking.

The food industry certainly uses the same kind of misinformation tactics to try to confuse consumers. See, for example:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Consider the Evidence When You Make Life-or-Death Decisions

In the 1940s and ’50s, the American Medical Association was not only saying that “smoking in moderation” wasn’t a problem, but that, on balance, it may even be beneficial. After all, most physicians themselves smoked, so how bad could it be? With such a position taken by one of the country’s leading medical groups, where could you turn if you just wanted the facts?

According to one tobacco company ad, “science advances new data that may completely change your idea of cigarettes!” And what might those new data tell us? “She was too tired for fun…and then she smoked a Camel.” (You can see the unbelievable ads in my video Evidence-Based Eating, starting at 0:29). In another ad, baseball legend Babe Ruth told us, “Now! Medical science offers proof positive!” that the brand he was hawking is the safest to smoke of all the leading cigarettes—well, he told us, that is, when he still could talk, before he died of throat cancer.

Now, some of the science-based evidence did leak out, causing a dip from an average of 11 or so cigarettes a day per person down to 10, as you can see at 0:50 in my video, but those who got scared of possible health risks from smoking could always choose “[t]he cigarette that takes the FEAR out of smoking!” Even better, why not choose the cigarette that “gives you the greatest health protection?”

Had a SmokingFacts.org website existed during the time of these outrageous ads making such outrageous claims—a site that delivered the science directly to the people, bypassing commercially corruptible institutional filters—it would have featured a study of Seventh-day Adventists in California in 1958 that showed that nonsmokers may have at least 90 percent less lung cancer than smokers. With so much money and personal habit at stake, there will always be “dissenters.” Given the seriousness of these diseases and the sum total of evidence, though, we shouldn’t wait to put preventive measures in place.

If you’re a smoker in the 1950s in the know and privy to the science-based realities of smoking, you realize the best available balance of evidence suggests your smoking habit is probably not good for you. So, what do you do? Do you change your smoking habits, or do you wait? If you wait until your physician tells you—between puffs—to quit, you could have cancer by then. If you wait until the powers that be officially recognize it, like the Surgeon General did in the subsequent decade, you could be dead by then.

It took more than 7,000 studies and the deaths of countless smokers before the first Surgeon General report against smoking was finally released in the 1960s. Wouldn’t you think that after the first 6,000 studies or so, they could have given people a heads up? One wonders how many people are suffering needlessly right now from dietary diseases.

Let’s fast-forward 55 years to a new Adventist study out of California warning Americans about the risks of something else they may be putting in their mouths: “Vegetarian diets are associated with lower all-cause mortality.” It’s not just one study either. According to a recent review, a total sum of evidence suggests that mortality from all causes put together, including many of our dreaded diseases were significantly lower in those eating more plant-based diets. As well, “[c]ompared with omnivores, the incidence of cancer and type 2 diabetes was also significantly lower in vegetarians.”

So, instead of someone going along with America’s smoking habits in the 1950s, imagine you or someone you know is going along with America’s eating habits today. With access to the science, you realize the best available balance of evidence suggests your eating habits are probably not good for you. So, what do you do? Do you change your eating habits, or do you wait? If you wait until your doctor tells you—between bites—to change your diet, it could be too late.

Just like most doctors smoked back then and didn’t tell their patients to change, despite the overwhelming evidence published for decades, most doctors today continue to eat foods that are contributing to our epidemics of dietary disease.


For more on this topic, check out my series of videos on parallels to smoking and the tobacco industry’s tactics, including:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

The Best Source of Vitamin D

If one is going to make an evolutionary argument for what a “natural” vitamin D level may be, how about getting vitamin D in the way nature intended—that is, from the sun instead of supplements? I run through the pros and cons in my video The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons?. Though supplements may only cost about 10 dollars a year, sunlight is free. We never have to worry about getting too much vitamin D from sunlight, since our body has a way to regulate production in the skin, so if we get our D from the sun, we don’t have to trust poorly regulated supplement companies not to mislabel their products. Indeed, only about half the supplement brands that researchers tested came within 10 percent of their labeled amount.

Sunlight may also have benefits beyond vitamin D, such as how our body may use the sun’s near-infra-red rays that penetrate our skin to activate chlorophyll by-products in our bloodstream to make Co-Q10. (See my video How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally for more on this.) There’s another way our body appears to use the sun’s rays to maximize the effects of the greens we eat: Within 30 minutes of exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight, we can get a significant drop in blood pressure and improvement in artery function, thanks to a burst of nitric oxide-releasing compounds that flow into our bloodstream. We can even measure the nitric oxide gas coming straight off our skin. Of course, we have to eat greens or beets in the first place, but that combo of greens and sunlight may help explain some of the protection that plant-based eaters experience.

Morning sun exposure may help those with seasonal affective disorder, as well as improve the mood of wheelchair-bound nursing home residents. Previously, I’ve talked about the benefits of avoiding light at night—see my video Melatonin and Breast Cancer if you’d like to know more—but underexposure to daytime sunlight may also affect our melatonin levels, which don’t only regulate our circadian rhythms but may also be helpful in the prevention of cancer and other diseases. Older men and women getting two hours of outside light during the day appear to secrete 13 percent more melatonin at night, though we’re not sure what, if any, clinical significance this has.

The downsides of sun exposure include increased risk of cataracts, a leading cause of vision loss, though this risk can be minimized by wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses. Sunlight also ages our skin. In my The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons? video, you can see a dramatic photo of a truck driver who spent decades getting more sun on the left side of his face—though his driver’s side window. “The effects of sunlight on the skin are profound, and are estimated to account for up to 90% of visible skin aging”—that is, wrinkles, thickening, and loss of elasticity. Things like sun exposure and smoking can make us look 11 years older. Cosmetic surgery can make us look up to eight years younger, but a healthy lifestyle may work even better. Doctors don’t preach about sun protection for youthful facial looks, though, but because of skin cancer. Medical authorities from the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, to the Surgeon General warn about excess sun exposure and for good reason, given the millions of skin cancers and thousands of deaths diagnosed every year in the United States alone.

The UV rays in sunlight are considered a complete carcinogen, meaning they can not only initiate cancer, but promote its progression and spread. Melanoma is the scariest, which “makes the rising incidence of melanoma in young women particularly alarming.” This increase has been blamed on the increased usage of tanning salons. Tanning beds and UV rays in general are considered class 1 carcinogens, like processed meat, accounting for as many as three quarters of melanoma cases among young people and six times the risk of melanoma for those who visited tanning salons ten or more times before the age of 30.

The tanning industry is big business, bringing in billions of dollars. There may be more tanning salons than there are Starbucks, and they use those dollars like the tobacco industry: to downplay the risks of their products. Laws are being passed to regulate tanning salons, from complete prohibitions, like in the country of Brazil, to age restrictions for minors. But, unlike tobacco, tanning isn’t addictive. Or is it?

Have you heard of “tanorexia”? Some people tan compulsively and report a so-called tanner’s high. Describing tanning behavior like a substance abuse disorder might seem a little silly—that is, until you stick people in a brain scanner and can show the same kind of reward pathways light up in the brain, thanks to endorphins that are released by our skin when we’re exposed to UV rays. In fact, we can even induce withdrawal-like symptoms by giving tanners opiate-blocking drugs. So, tanning is potentially addictive and dangerous. Harvard researchers suggest that we should “view recreational tanning and opioid drug abuse as engaging in the same biological pathway.” But there’s a reason sun exposure feels good. Sunlight is the primary natural source of vitamin D, and, evolutionarily, it’s more important, in terms of passing along our genes, not to die of rickets in childhood. Unlike natural sunlight, tanning bed lights emit mostly UVA, which is the worst of both worlds: cancer risk with no vitamin D production. The small amount of UVB many tanning beds do emit, however, may be enough to raise vitamin D levels. Is there a way to raise D levels without risking cancer? Yes: vitamin D supplements.


Indeed, we can get some of the benefits of sun exposure without the risks by taking vitamin D supplements. But, for the sake of argument, what if such supplements didn’t exist? Would the benefits of sun exposure outweigh the risks? That’s the subject of my video The Risks and Benefits of Sensible Sun Exposure.

For other videos in this vitamin D series, see:

I also explore Vitamin D as it relates to specific diseases:

Here’s the video about that amazing chlorophyll activation: How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally.

What do greens and beets have to do with artery function? Check out some of my latest videos on the wonders of nitrate-rich vegetables:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: