Putting discussion back on the table

“Senators do not have the luxury that a research scientist does of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in,” Senator George McGovern sneered at a committee of eminent medical researchers in 1977. McGovern was on a crusade to educate Americans about the evils of saturated animal fat, but one obstacle stood in his way: Eight studies involving 5000 patients did not show any correlation between dietary fat and heart disease.

Undeterred, McGovern published a report titled Dietary Goals for the United States, which told Americans to replace saturated fats with grains. Grocery shelves were soon packed with sugary cereal boxes praised for their “low-fat” contents. The FDA issued dietary guidelines encouraging us to eat 300 grams of carbohydrates per day, or about 70 times the amount of sugar we can hold in our bloodstreams at any one time without dropping dead. In 1992, the Department of Agriculture’s “food guide pyramid” recommended a diet loaded with wheat, corn and other grains – the same ingredients that farmers use to fatten their livestock.

Since McGovern’s 1977 decision to issue “recommendations” first and examine research later, obesity has become an epidemic, heart disease is our top killer and 11 percent of all Americans are now diabetic. Despite hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent studying hundreds of thousands of patients, no clinical study has demonstrated that saturated fat consumption causes heart disease. Doctors are still baffled by the “French Paradox” – the fact that the French eat twice as much saturated fat as Americans and have one third as many heart attacks. Dr. George Mann, the director of the largest heart disease study in history, called McGovern’s thesis “the greatest medical deception of this century, perhaps any century.”

While our scientific notions about the ideal human diet are still under constant revision, no acknowledgement of this ambiguity can be found in the flier advertising the new “Meatless Mondays” initiative, which I discovered while enjoying a mountain of scrambled eggs, cheese and sausage during breakfast at Mission dining hall. The vegetarian activists who “educated” the dining staff into restricting students’ options at Driscoll this month claimed, “Reduced consumption of saturated fat can also reduce the risk of chronic preventable conditions.” Though I expected them to cite a clinical study, the corresponding footnote led to a web page that, in place of evidence, offers up a list of “major food personalities” – including medical luminaries like Paul McCartney and Gwyneth Paltrow – who endorse what they call “the movement.” The memo also answers crucial questions such as “Why Monday?” with the cosmic revelation that “Monday is the beginning of the week.”

I was a vegan last year for the same conventional wisdom that these vegetarian activists cite. But even as a vegan, I was careful not to confuse “informing” others with forcing my values on them, which can be a dangerous course of action. After all, it was the Center for Science in the Public Interest – a well-meaning vegan activist group – that filed lawsuits against major companies in the 1980s for using saturated fats and forced them to switch to trans fats, which we now know are far worse for our health. When I discovered that the scientific evidence did not support my eating preferences, I decided the only rational course of action was to change them.

Advocates of the new policy insist, “it’s only one evening at one dining hall.” But restricting freedom of choice for even one student is a poor substitute for open discussions and rational persuasion. If the same group of activists convinced Security to run around campus enforcing “Thirstless Thursdays” or “Celibate Saturdays” on the moral compromise that “it’s only one day a week,” the campus would be in an uproar. Moreover, if the vegetarian activists’ arguments were convincing, the mere presence of meat would not prevent the entire campus from voluntarily participating in “Meatless Mondays.” But rather than argue their case in the court of public opinion, the program’s proponents worked with administrators to literally take options off the table. Sure, it’s only one night a week. Then again, George McGovern was only one man.


Jack Noelke ’13 is a history major from Chatham, N.J. He lives in Thompson.

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