The Garnish Diet: Telling People to Eat Plants is a Cop-Out

It is fashionable to give the following dietary advice: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. This is Michael Pollan’s formulation. He believes this is a good summary of reasonable opinion on the topic.

I won’t pick on the “eat food” part of this which is almost certainly meant to suggest we eat real foods, or fewer processed foods. I guess that’s fine. And saying “not too much” is meaningless and tautological, but whatever.

It’s this last part that baffles me. Which plants? Cucumbers, and tomatoes, and lettuce? Harmless and delicious vegetables, certainly, but almost completely devoid of the stuff that we need food for – energy and (usable) protein.

To get a large amount of energy from plants, you would eat grains and sugars – precisely the refined carbohydrates you should be eating less of.

If you want to get quality protein from vegetables, well good luck:

  • Beans are a hard-to-digest, incomplete protein that is high in carbohydrates (if you were trying to get a minimal allotment of protein from beans, you would consume about 150 grams of carbohydrate along the way).
  • If you are an adult then you can decide if you are willing to risk eating soybeans, but please don’t give it to your kids – the NIH is finally re-investigating the negative effects of soy on infants. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but the U.S. is both a) the largest soy producer in the world, and b) lagging far behind the UK, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel, in restricting soy infant-formula and advising pediatricians and parents to not give soy to kids.
  • And I guess you could be a quinoa guinea-pig, though given what we now know about soy (which was also supposed to be harmless), I don’t see why you would risk it.

This “mostly plants” thing is a cop-out. It is like telling people to eat the garnish on their plate. Parsley consumption, after all, has not been linked to heart disease or diabetes, so there you go. Build your diet around garnish. Problem solved.

Before the last decade’s big randomized clinical trials on diet had been completed, dietary advice was based largely on cohort studies. Those cohort studies suggested that meat and fat were bad for you, and grain-based diets were healthy. So the proponents of grain based diets proclaimed their advice to be the apotheosis of scientifically grounded dietary guidance.

Now that advances in scientific inquiry have flipped the script – showing that saturated (animal) fat is harmless, and that Atkins-style, fat and meat-heavy diets are the healthiest – we hear a different tune.

Now – according to Pollan and others – we shouldn’t care so much about science, and the study of how different nutrients affect our bodies and our health. Since the science did not tell them what they wanted to hear, they are now exhorting us to stop listening to science. And to eat mostly plants.

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