You Are What You Eat?: A Call for Integrity and Scientific Rigor in Exploring Beyond Meat’s Influence on Nutrition Science

The cover photo for You Are What You Eat

In the wake of the controversial "Game Changers" documentary from 2018, a mainstay argument the vegan community uses as evidence for the merits of their diet—fueled by a prominent pea protein manufacturer and later wildly debunked—the fitness and nutrition community found itself once again entangled in a web of skepticism with Netflix's latest offering, "You Are What You Eat." Sponsored by Beyond Meat, this Netflix top-10, blockbuster docu-series has raised eyebrows and prompted a closer look at the scientific credibility behind its claims. This in-depth analysis seeks to unravel the intricate web woven by corporate influence on nutrition science and the broader demand for responsibility by the scientific community in delivering honest, unbiased information to the public, who should be able to trust what doctors and scientists tell them. On the backs of the thing we shan’t talk about lest we be subject to algorithmic suppression, restoring the public’s faith in “trusting the science” is a tall order, and made taller by movies like this.

The Game Changers Fallout:

Reflecting on the Game Changers saga, the fitness world engaged in lighthearted banter. The scenario was likened to imagining Welch's producing a film championing grape juice against erectile dysfunction, causing a run on purple beverages that would put Viagra out of business. Fast forward to reality and here we are… Netflix unveils a docu-series funded by Beyond Meat, with the conclusion, based on a single, and arguably insignificant metric, that a vegan diet is better for cardiovascular health.

The Vegan Mafia's Play:

In this documentary, familiar figures like Dr. Michael Greger make appearances, offering what can only be described as comic relief rather than scientific substance. For example… Greger's reliance on a study to prove the cancerous nature of meat becomes a focal point of scrutiny, leading to a deeper examination of the study covered in the documentary. If one with half a discerning eye read the study Greger cites (he’s well-known for propaganda-driven cherry picking and outright lying) to prove that “we are as certain that meat causes cancer as we are that smoking causes cancer,” they’d find said study proves the exact opposite. In the study in question, a study Dr. Greger hopes you won’t read (we read it), the IARC looked at roughly 800 independent studies regarding the carcinogenic nature of only processed meat and not meat in general. After throwing out all but 14 cherry-picked studies that aligned (kind of) with the agenda, they came up with a relative risk score of 1.18. In order to be statistically significant enough to dive deeper, a generally accepted minimum is 2.0. Smoking has a score of 12. So even with the vast majority of the data redacted, the study concludes that you could eat Jimmy Dean sausage and Oscar Mayer hot dogs from sun up to sun down for 20 years and be no more susceptible to cancer than before you began this absurd endeavor.

We highlight this to say that the level of scrutiny and scientific rigor in this docu-series is clearly near zero. Add to that the textbook tactic of assumption without evidentiary support that consuming animals is harmful to the environment and ethically void, and we’ve got a recipe for asinine propaganda. We’ll be visiting the environmental and ethical impact of meat consumption in separate articles in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for that.

The Point of the Film (we think):

Enter Professor Christopher Gardner from Stanford, a long-time advocate of the vegan lifestyle. Gardner, associated with the Stanford Plant-Based Diet Initiative (PBDI), conducted an eight-week twin experiment that concludes in proclaiming the vegan way as the key to superior heart and metabolic health.

How did they decide that the vegan group fared better after a mere 8 weeks? One simple metric: Their LDL-C decreased by more than the omnivore group’s did. Now, even IF you believe that LDL is a significant factor in the probability of cardiac issues (it’s not… AT ALL), considering it as the ONLY factor is incredibly irresponsible and dangerous. Imagine if you were doing a study on dermatological maladies and decided that even though people in one group had slightly less eczema, but had significantly more acne and psoriasis, that group fared better. You’d be the laughing stock of the skincare community. But that’s what happened here and no one seems to notice… or care.

What do we mean? Well… what the show doesn’t tell you is that the omnivore group ended the 8 weeks with higher HDL and lower triglycerides, arguably better indicators of heart health than LDL-C. Further, there is a valid argument that in the absence of low HDL and high Triglycerides, that high LDL-C is actually beneficial, as cholesterol is responsible for critically important body functions, such as immune regulation, hormone production, and countless other functions. Recent studies have shown that, in the elderly population specifically, high levels of LDL is cardio-protective and associated with longevity. An objective look at the data actually shows a wildly different conclusion than the narrative the show espouses.

In addition to cherry-picking the least significant marker of cardiac health and calling it a plant-based win, the show brags about metrics that were not supposed to be part of the study at all. This is generally considered a no-no and is a sign that the original argument is weak at best, and at worst? It’s manipulative.

So what are those metrics? The show brags that the vegan group lost more weight. We don’t know for certain that any of them wanted, or needed, to lose weight. Nor did they consider body composition in the equation, but they bragged nonetheless, leaving out a VERY important point: The vegan group ate 200 calories per day less whilst also reporting low diet satisfaction (likely the reason they ate less) and that they would not consider continuing the diet long term.

The other metric the show mentions, that was not a part of the study was that the vegan group had better blood sugar and fasting glucose levels despite both groups having fairly high-carbohydrate diets, again forgetting to mention that this is likely a result of voluntary calorie restriction due to the misery of the diet itself.

What do we not know?:

What any self-respecting researcher would like to know; metrics both the study and show fail to deliver, is more comprehensive blood work that would include hormone panels, liver enzymes, kidney function, etc. This would shed significant light on the overall health of a vegan group whose diet is inherently void of B12, K2, D3, DHA, cholesterol, choline, creatine, carnitine, carnosine, anserine, taurine, and heme iron. Did this lead to deficiencies in these nutrients that are critical for optimal body and brain function? Why was this left out?

Following the money may shed some light on the agenda and how/why the data points were chosen. Once we’ve understood that, we need to consider why we should care, taking a broader look at scientific research in the modern era and the lack of ethics involved.

Unveiling Beyond Meat's Influence: A Closer Look

Funding Sources and Conflicts of Interest:

The plot thickens as we unveil the aforementioned funding sources behind Gardner's study. Beyond Meat's financial support, channeled through Kyle Vogt's foundation, raises questions about transparency and conflicts of interest. Gardner's influential positions on committees like the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee add another layer of complexity.

The Vogt Foundation: Pro-Vegan Stance Revealed:

Diving into the Vogt Foundation, a key player in Stanford's nutrition research, reveals a pro-vegan stance. With a history of substantial grants promoting veganism, the foundation's ties to documentary funding and advocacy for plant-based diets become apparent. This should not be glossed over. While all studies require funding, potential biases ought to be reported along with the findings and removing the paywall from what should be public information would go a long way in preventing cherry-picking and ill-formed conclusions. This would also allow for replication by other researchers, which is generally how consensus is reached. The status quo of media outlets reporting “findings” void of data could, and should, be an archaic institution by now, but the money that protects this from happening, and the financial barriers to access information serve as a detriment to the general public and their health. 

Scientific Scrutiny:

Gardner's Twin Study:

Gardner's twin study, published in JAMA Network Open, undergoes scrutiny on several fronts. The emphasis on LDL-cholesterol as the primary outcome measure is dissected, revealing a selective focus that does not provide a comprehensive picture of cardiovascular health. Further, if we’re looking at exclusively cardiovascular health without looking at the systemic impact, we’re missing the boat entirely. As we previously mentioned: If slight improvements are made in one area (it arguably isn’t in the docu-series) and detriments are found elsewhere, then the argument loses legitimacy. A single variable is important and that variable in this case was the presence or lack of animal products, but that variable’s effect on comprehensive health was not well determined. That ought to be considered a failure. If it were, this show would not exist, which is most likely the reason that overall health was not considered. 

Deviations from Protocol:

Cherry-Picking and Omitted Endpoints:

The study's deviation from the original protocol and the inclusion of outcomes like weight and fasting insulin, not initially designated as endpoints, raise concerns about cherry-picking data to align with a predetermined narrative. While we just stated we believe these things ought to have been considered, deciding after the fact which metrics support the conclusion you were determined to reach from the beginning is intellectually dishonest and continues an irresponsible trend.

Nutritional Shortcomings in Vegan Diets:

A critical examination of the study reveals nutritional shortcomings in vegan diets, particularly a significant decrease in vitamin B12 intake. This prompts a broader discussion about essential micronutrients lacking in a vegan diet without proper supplementation. Again, this speaks to the need for a systemic look at how dietary interventions affect health outcomes. 

Gardner's Transformation: Researcher to Advocate

Plant-Based Diet Initiative: From Science to Advocacy:

Gardner's journey from researcher to advocate takes center stage. His alignment with veganism for over four decades, coupled with roles in influential committees, suggests a departure from objective scientific inquiry. The Plant-Based Diet Initiative transforms from a scientific institute to a public relations arm of an advocacy agenda. The non-disclosure of his roles and the vegan community as a whole highlight a need for transparency in research science. There is little incentive to report biases and conflicts of interest in a world where subjectivity is met with Netflix specials, notoriety, and above all, wealth.

Ethical Implications: Prioritizing Veganism Without Disclosure:

The ethical implications of promoting veganism without acknowledging its nutritional challenges come to the forefront. The disconnect between Gardner's focus on social justice issues in teaching and the expectation of prioritizing human health in medical research is highlighted. The alignment between the environmental agenda and the vegan agenda muddy waters and stifle the possibility of objectivity on either front, resulting in researchers in both categories offering assumptive musings about the impact of the other, without providing any concrete data. For example, we often see environmentalists act as though it’s a foregone conclusion that animals are not healthy before talking about the environmental impact, and vice versa. Glossing over this has created a landscape where there is no scrutiny by the media in reporting objectively. This assumptive habit is incredibly dangerous to the general public and makes it very difficult to discern the truth. At The Fittest, we try to provide comprehensive data without overlap so that you can make informed decisions. Last week we gave you a look at the difference between animal and plant protein, exclusively. We will discuss the environment and ethics separately as well, making no assumptions about the other topics as we deliver you data. We believe there is integrity in that process. 

Gardner's Admission: A Shift in Focus:

Gardner's admission that health is not a primary focus in his courses at Stanford raises concerns about the integrity of his findings regarding nutrition science. The lack of attention from media and public health officials to these revelations underscores broader issues in the field.

Beyond Meat's Agenda: Corporate Influence on Research

Corporate Influence: Beyond Meat's Financial Backing:

Delving into Beyond Meat's agenda, the influence of this major player in the plant-based food industry becomes apparent. Beyond Meat's financial backing of Gardner's study and its alignment with the Vogt Foundation raise questions about the motivations behind promoting a vegan agenda.

Industry Funding and Research Integrity:

The funding provided by Beyond Meat prompts a closer look at the relationship between corporate interests and scientific research. The potential impact of industry funding on study design, outcomes, and the overall narrative of research is a concern that extends beyond Gardner's study.

Rise of the "Vegan Lobby": Influence on Public Health:

The rise of what critics dub as the "vegan lobby" raises questions about its influence on public health recommendations. With prominent figures like Gardner shaping dietary guidelines and advocating for plant-based diets, the potential bias towards veganism in public health messaging demands far more scrutiny.The health of the general public depends on it and the same general public should demand it.

Plant-Based Diet Initiative: A Case Study in Advocacy

Advocacy-Driven Research: Beyond Meat's Support:

Gardner's Plant-Based Diet Initiative is examined as a case study in industry-driven advocacy. The focus on promoting plant-based diets, with Beyond Meat's financial support, raises questions about the objectivity and impartiality of research conducted under such affiliations.

Ethical Considerations: Transparent Disclosure Needed:

The ethical considerations of promoting veganism without transparently addressing its nutritional challenges is detrimental to all research science as the reward for this type of dishonesty is wildly evident, incentivizing sensationalism and a lack of ethics. The potential consequences for individuals who adopt a vegan diet without proper supplementation and awareness of potential deficiencies raise ethical concerns about the advocacy agenda.

A Call for Integrity: Evaluating Nutrition Science

Beyond Meat's Impact: A Broader Discussion:

As the influence of Beyond Meat and advocacy-driven research comes under scrutiny, there is a pressing need to reevaluate the integrity of nutrition science. The potential conflicts of interest and the prioritization of advocacy over objective health research raise questions about Gardner's role in shaping dietary guidelines for the nation. A transparent and unbiased approach is crucial to restoring trust in nutrition science.

Industry's Role: Shaping Dietary Recommendations:

The overarching impact of Beyond Meat's involvement in nutrition research prompts a broader discussion about the role of the food industry in shaping dietary recommendations. The need for transparent funding disclosure, rigorous study design, and unbiased interpretation of results becomes paramount for ensuring the credibility of nutritional science.

Achieving Nutritional Integrity: A Collective Effort:

The unraveling of Beyond Meat's influence on nutrition science reveals a complex landscape where corporate interests, advocacy agendas, and scientific inquiry intersect. The call for integrity in nutrition science is not just a demand for transparency in funding but a plea for evidence-based recommendations that prioritize human health over ideological agendas.

Balancing Interests: Toward a Collaborative Future:

Balancing the scales between industry interests and public health is a challenging but necessary endeavor. As consumers navigate the landscape of nutritional information, they deserve unbiased, evidence-based guidance that considers both individual health and the broader impact of dietary choices on the environment and ethical considerations.

Transparent Research: A Crucial Imperative:

The imperative of transparent research extends beyond individual studies to encompass the broader institutions and committees shaping nutritional guidelines. Gardner's case serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the potential pitfalls of allowing advocacy-driven agendas to overshadow the pursuit of objective, evidence-based nutrition.

A Collaborative Future: Prioritizing Human Health:

Ultimately, achieving nutritional integrity requires a collaborative effort from researchers, institutions, policymakers, and the food industry. Transparent funding, rigorous study design, and a commitment to prioritizing human health in nutrition science can pave the way for a future where dietary recommendations are grounded in evidence rather than influenced by external agendas.

Navigating Complexity: An Informed Approach:

While this analysis sheds light on the intricate web of Beyond Meat's influence on nutrition science, it is crucial to acknowledge the complexity of the issues at hand. Nutrition is a multifaceted field, influenced by various factors, and achieving a balance between competing interests is an ongoing challenge.

Empowering Individuals: Informed Decision-Making:

Individuals play a significant role in shaping the nutritional landscape through their dietary choices. As consumers, being informed, critical thinkers empowers them to make decisions aligned with both personal health and broader ethical considerations.

Navigating Nutritional Nuances: A Discerning Approach:

Navigating the nuances of nutritional information requires a discerning approach. Recognizing that scientific research evolves and findings may be subject to reinterpretation over time, individuals are encouraged to stay informed, question assumptions, and seek diverse perspectives.

Continued Dialogue: A Call for Scrutiny:

This analysis serves as a call for continued dialogue and scrutiny within the nutrition community. As the landscape evolves, ongoing discussions about funding transparency, research integrity, and the ethical considerations of dietary recommendations are essential for fostering a trustworthy and evidence-based nutritional environment.

A Dynamic Nutritional Science: Embracing Change:

In the pursuit of nutritional knowledge, individuals are urged to engage in critical thinking, seek out diverse sources of information, and consider the broader context of dietary recommendations. Informed decision-making empowers individuals to navigate the complexities of nutrition with a nuanced understanding.

Shaping the Future of Nutrition: Collaborative Efforts:

As we conclude this comprehensive exploration, it is essential to acknowledge that the field of nutrition is ever-evolving. Scientific research, dietary guidelines, and public discourse will continue to shape and reshape the nutritional landscape.

Vision for the Future: Transparent, Evidence-Based Practices:

In envisioning the future of nutrition, a vision for transparent, evidence-based practices emerges. Stakeholders across the spectrum—researchers, institutions, industry players, and consumers—collaborate to prioritize the health and well-being of individuals while considering the broader impact of dietary choices.

Concluding Reflections: Prioritizing Health and Objectivity:

In closing, this in-depth analysis illuminates the multifaceted landscape of nutrition science, with a specific focus on the influence of Beyond Meat. The call for integrity resonates beyond individual studies, urging a collective commitment to transparent research, evidence-based practices, and informed decision-making. As the nutritional journey unfolds, the pursuit of a balanced and nuanced understanding remains at the forefront, shaping the future of nutrition for generations to come.

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