Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
22 May

My Escape from Vegan Island

Every once in a while, I am alternately stunned and amused by what I see being promoted in the name of good health. I had one of those “stunningly amusing” episodes when I took an eight-day vacation with my family to an all-vegetarian health and adventure retreat in Costa Rica several months ago. We had joined a group of 125 headed by Dr. John McDougall, an accomplished and well-respected physician who uses a strict vegetarian/vegan lifestyle to address disease states in his patients and (ostensibly) to promote better health among the general population. I wasn’t too keen on attending, strict carnivore that I am, but I’m always up for an experiment of one and, moreover, I was convinced by my mostly-vegetarian wife and her vegan parents that our extended family would enjoy a nice tropical vacation together. And the food promised to be so yummy… so I made the leap with my wife, two kids, the in-laws and some cousins.

Beautiful Costa Rica

First off, I must say, I did have a very enjoyable time in Costa Rica with my family, rafting, diving, zip lining and hiking…but after what I witnessed during my stay, I can assure you that I have never been so certain that the Primal Blueprint way of eating – which I have embraced for over 30 years now – is the best way to achieve and maintain excellent health. Frankly, I was appalled at both the information being disseminated during this event and at what I saw being served at every meal in the name of “health food.”

I am an omnivore and always have been. Carrie, my wife, was a vegetarian for fifteen years until I convinced her about five years ago to starting adding fish to her diet to get more protein. She still considers herself, in the words of the Outback Steakhouse guy, a “semi-veg.” My wife’s parents have been strict vegans for nearly thirty years and are ardent followers of Dr. McDougall. McDougall’s own story involves having had a severe stroke at age 19 from which, at 59, he still limps. He became an MD and eventually realized that diet was an important part of the health equation. He’s a very likable and charming guy. I had a few superficial discussions with him, even attended a few of his nightly lectures. His heart is certainly in the right place, but I fear he is leading people down a wholly inappropriate dietary path. At the risk of oversimplifying, the basis of his program is that almost all starch is good, all fat is bad and meat of any kind is deadly. It is, in his words, a “starch-based” diet, high in grains and legumes.

The attendees were generally divided into two groups: those who were fairly new to the program – many of them had some serious weight to lose – and those who had been on the McDougall program for several years. Many of the latter group, I gathered, had come to McDougall originally with one or more chronic diseases and on multiple medications. Each evening, after the adventure activity of the day (all of which were pretty sedate), Dr. McDougall would deliver a lecture intended to inform the group of the evils of traditional medicine and big pharma – much of which I generally agree with – and to demonize beef, pork, chicken, fish, dairy of all kinds and most forms of soy. I got the general gist after the first evening. He’s not a fan of supplements either. But he does imply that when you eat vegetarian, you can have all you want…and therein lay the source of much amusement for me.

The lecture would adjourn and everyone would line up for the buffet line which would, at virtually every meal, include copious amounts of breads and rolls, rice, potatoes, pasta, beans, some anemic-looking steamed vegetables and a romaine-only lettuce salad. No dressings allowed. The only fat I could see was in the guacamole that served as a spread. The desert table had a variety of fruits and at least two choices of so-called “healthy” cakes. The drinks were generally overly sweetened fruit drinks.

Now I’m not one to judge. Okay, I am, but I usually keep my mouth shut – except herein. I watched at every meal as overweight, unhealthy people piled their plates with at least two pounds of bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, desert cake, and a glass of fruit juice. Sometimes they went back for more. By my calculations these people were consuming 200 to 300 or more grams of (mostly simple) carbohydrates at each of three meals. There was no way these folks were going to lose fat on this trip. It was, in my view, a type 2 diabetes epidemic in-the-making.

In fending for myself, I focused mainly on the salads and the black beans mixed with a little rice. As you regular readers know, I don’t “do” breads, potatoes, pasta, desserts or fruit drinks. I think they are unhealthy. Go figure. I have to say, it sure got old after a day or two.


This is Kina’s Flickr Photo

Of those who had already been on the McDougall program for years, I had the following general observation: they don’t look too healthy. People who subsist on grains and simple carbs at the expense of quality protein for any length of time tend to lose muscle mass, regardless of their exercise regimen. They are what we call “skinny fat“. Essentially, they have no lean tissue and yet they have surprisingly high body fat levels, despite their loose “skin and bones” appearance. Lean body mass is a major defining criterion of good health; and these folks were sorely lacking. Excess carbohydrate turns to fat pretty easily, but you can neither build nor preserve muscle with it. Herein lies the confusion for many folks: while glucose serves as short-term fuel for muscles, it does not build nor maintain them. One woman, a 62-year old triathlete who trains hours a day and competes almost every weekend authoritatively suggested that I was a fool to eat meat and that I should embrace the McDougall program as she had for 15 years. Problem was, she looked like hell. No muscle tone at all and, I suspect, a fairly high body fat for someone who fancied herself an athlete. It took all I had to keep from saying something that might have spoiled her trip!

As with any diet regimen, Dr. McDougall backs his theories up with studies. But that’s the biggest problem with the “science” of nutrition: anyone can find a study here or there that supports almost any premise. To wit: Fish is great because it’s a source of important Omega 3 fats, but fish is bad because it’s a source of toxic heavy metals, but fish is great because the heavy metals are not actually present at realistically dangerous levels, but fish is bad because the fish lobby was the one funding the study on relative safety, and on ad infinitum.

If there were a right answer, everyone would be doing it. I guess the best any of us can do is to align the “receptivity filters” in our brains with our current belief systems and create habits that reinforce those beliefs – and that, hopefully, result in healthy bodies and minds. Ultimately, I have chosen to believe that we were programmed to eat primarily small portions of meat and vegetables, with a little fruit thrown in occasionally. It works for me (53 years old, 5’10” 165 lbs and 8% body fat).

Life's a beach!

Problem is, if you have no understanding of biology or chemistry, you can easily fall for that old vegan argument that meat is bad (notwithstanding the fact that there has never, in the entire history of man, been a country, culture or race that subsisted entirely on vegetables without animal flesh of some kind). Many people do fall for it. They also fall for the old “protein leaches calcium” argument, completely ignoring the fact that bones require protein as well as weight bearing activity to promote bone density and prevent osteoporosis. Or that stress has a far greater impact on preventing absorption of calcium than excess protein in the diet. But here I am giving you my opinion again and it’s only based on studies that my filters have shown align with my own beliefs…

I was fascinated by what I saw to be the complete antithesis of a healthy diet being offered up as the healthiest way to eat. And by people willing to accept that they could eat all they want of this high-carb fare and regain their lost health in the process. Try as I might, I couldn’t avoid losing a few pounds of hard-fought muscle myself over the week. Luckily, I was able to regain homeostasis shortly after returning home. And ultimately, I was left with a confidence that following Primal Blueprint path is exactly what humans were designed to do.

What are your thoughts on vegetarianism, carbohydrates, and protein?

Be sure to stick around for today’s Tuesday 10.

Best of MDA

(This piece was originally posted at my friend Art DeVany’s blog.)

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. An interesting note, when I started the McDougall program I was extremely overweight. I would have been one of those at the McDougall buffet putting loads of food on my plate. But then after a few days of loading up on food something happened to my appetite, it got much, much smaller and then I ate less naturally. For the first time in my life, I might add.

    By the way I love meat, I love starch, hey I love it all! (especially sugar + fat combination foods)

    I do think that we need some meat to be healthy. By meat I mean fish, chicken, tofu, beef, pork, etc. However the only way for me, with my metabolism and genetic history of obesity in the family and on my person, to be near a normal weight is to stay mostly starch based.

    When I try to shift towards paleo. primal, etc. or “processed food diet” I end up being unable to control my eating and binge eat. When I stay predominantly on McDougall I lose the desire to binge eat.

    Maybe different people need different sorts of diets? My Asian friends who maintain a traditional diet stay very slim and eat a lot. They just use small amounts of meat as a seasoning and rely upon starch and vegetables.

    Personally for me it is about managing the brain status. I did not know I could be craving free! So to everyone who reads this, if you suffer like i have being dragged around chasing food by your brain– don’t give up hope. You just need to find what works for you.

    Kay wrote on April 17th, 2015
  2. The book Thrive by Brendan Brazier is a much better guide toward eating vegan, and has a lot of very good principles in the book. I have been eating a primarily plant based diet, with some fish, eggs, and meat, and I’ve been getting into better shape. Vegan diets can work, the key is to emphasis the vegetables, nuts, and seeds with modest amounts of quality grains (wild rice, quinoa). Just look up Mike Mahler or look at some of the pictures in this group:

    That being said, eat what best works for your body, unless of course, it’s something that doesn’t work for anyone (like loading up on grains and legumes).

    Anthony P wrote on May 9th, 2015
  3. The thing that’s been lost is anyone who cuts sugar, refined carbs and processed foods is a lot healthier than someone that doesn’t. Natural food, meat, butter, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, fish, nuts etc are healthy, and nutritious. Surely we all agree on this, I’ve yet to see someone who eats high fat, moderate protein, low carb that’s obese or even over 15% body fat, I’ve seen plenty of vegetarians that are over weight, what’s the common denominator here, I’d have to say carbohydrates in excess, not nutrisitious saturated fat, the very thing that our cells are made from. Sugar is the biggest cause of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and strokes. The proof is here, and you will see governments all over the world apologise for mass geniside by giving the wrong advise for so long. Low fat diet has been the worst thing to happen to the human race, I wonder how many deaths could have been prevented, millions is my guess

    Kennyglasgow wrote on May 22nd, 2015
  4. I was recently a member of Dr. McDougall’s forum. They are VERY weird about any criticism or even discussion of the science behind different diets. I understand that it’s Dr. McDougall’s forum, but still. I left the forum after the moderator accused me in PM’s of “stirring things up”. I am, and was then, on the McDougall diet and a strong supporter. But apparently I was too open-minded regarding paleo/low carb science.

    The reason I’m posting this is because I took a look at the forum today and one of my last posts is gone. A thread was started by a poster who was upset about people like Happy Herbivore selling meal plans. She said “Does paying for that exact same information make following it easier when you have to pay for it?” I replied something along the lines of “Ask Dr. McDougall. He sells programs for up to $5,000.” Didn’t think that was controversial. The info is all there on his website.

    My post was removed! Why? Is Dr. McDougall trying to hide the fact that he charges for his information? Frankly, most of the members there talk about him as though he were a life-giving saint. Creepy. Glad to be gone.

    LuLu wrote on July 9th, 2015
  5. I’m vegan and gained muscle in a year. I am tiny, but have a lot of muscle. You CAN gain muscle as a vegan. My friend witnessed me doing yoga yesterday and couldn’t get over how strong I am.

    That being said, I’ve never not paid attention to protein intake. I make sure I’m getting adequate. I have seen unhealthy McDougallers who look ashen and are fat skinny, but that doesn’t have to be the case. I just recently (less than a week) switched to a vegan-paleo type diet due to a chronic pain problem (heard getting off grains, etc. helps with inflammation and at this point, until doctors can figure out if I have Chiari Malformation or not, I’m desperate for less pain). I do have to say that there are good signs regarding life-long digestive issues, the headache is down a tiny bit, and I feel more alert. I’m thinking that grains may not be a great thing, and I’ve been off gluten for a long time. I am living on fruits, vegetables (raw and cooked), nuts, seeds, one dose of soy protein powder, and some peanut butter.

    Atheria wrote on August 29th, 2015
  6. (I am soon changing my website)

    Mark – I read TONS of your articles. I am a certified Expert through your program……. I just feel compelled to say a very sincere thanks. Just a thanks for you being you. I appreciate your style of communication and I believe deep down you are out to help others.

    Thanks Mark – now go eat some Ribeye steak, Bone broth, bacon and short ribs, Climb some trees, throw some trees, and gain those couple of lbs of muscle back!

    Matthew Zastrow wrote on September 25th, 2015
  7. back in 1999 I lost around 80 lbs from being on a low carb diet. Then I decided to go vegetarian then vegan and lost another 20 lbs or so.
    I kept it off ever since. Since low carb worked for me, I simply was “Vegan Low Carb”. I had one meal that was higher carb like oatmeal. the rest of the day was low carb higher protein and had as many non starchy vegetables as I wanted.

    My bodytype wanted low carbs. It does’n’t matter if you are vegan or not you can still do low carb.
    I tried the Mcdougall diet and it just didn’t work for me. And I totally agree that when you tell somebody who gains weight easily to “eat in unlimited quantities” then they will. This is the problem.

    Mark, those people should have been eating the blackbeans with salad. The best diet for those types of people because I am one is: raw vegan.

    Raw Vegan is natually LOW CARB. If you go to a raw vegan restaurant, you can get a bean burrito that has a very low carb wrap because it is made out of flax and spinach usually.

    So yes I agree the problem is that people who gain weight easily probably do better on low carb. If they go vegan, they should go Raw Vegan.

    Plus they need to take their B12, Vitamin D3, Carnosine (for anti aging), Omega 3 DHA (UDO brand for Vegan), and Zinc.

    I also have Vegan sport protein with Almond Milk and I don’t have Soy

    Spencer wrote on October 15th, 2015
  8. there has never, in the entire history of man, been a country, culture or race that subsisted entirely on vegetables without animal flesh of some kind

    I take issue with this, because before the flood of Noah’s day, no one ate meat. But we had a stronger upper-atmosphere protecting us from the sun. Perhaps the sun leeches our bodies of nutrition? And therefore God said to eat meat to supplant it? Who knows.

    Anyone else find it weird that there are no paleo/primal people who believe in God?

    m1t0s1s wrote on January 25th, 2016
  9. IMHO, the proof should be in the, um, pudding. McDougall, Joel Fuhrman, Dean Ornish et al claim, as physicians treating patients, that they have great clinical success. Reportedly, people come to them with crushing chest pain, diabetes, high blood pressure etc., and in order to avoid a life of chronic medication,stents or bypass surgery, follow their vegetarian, low fat recommendations (although Furhrman allows small amounts of meat and fish and foods high in fat like nuts and avocados). And, they would claim, they invariably get much, much better. Some critics, like Chris Masterjohn PhD, acknowledge that they have clinical success, but point out that selection bias may be a role. My impression is that these doctors probably are having clinical success, although I would like to see controlled studies that actually involve their recommendations, rather than so called “low fat” (which don’t come close to their diets) versus SAD diets. I hear individuals claiming to be doing very well on paleo diets, but I don’t see paleo doctors who claim the same degree of clinical success. Or are they just more modest? Of course, there have been studies done of populations which eat a pre-industrial diet (such as the Staffan Lindeburg’s Kitava Study) which suggest eating whole foods, including animal foods, results in very healthy people. And that suggests to me that maybe we should be looking at the similarities of diets that result in healthy people, rather than the differences. If you eliminate refined carbs, junk foods, dairy, extracted oils (especially vegetable oils) and industrialized farm meats, and vastly increase your intake of a variety of healthy plants and food in its natural forms, maybe that’s the key to clinical success. Isn’t that essentially what Michael Pollan concluded?

    Butch wrote on February 16th, 2016
  10. Watch the British doc Sugar Versus Fat. I would love, love, love, love for someone to take take a pair of twins and put one twin on a low carb diet (basically in Ketosis throughout the experiment) and the other on a low fat high carb vegan diet. Then have them train and compete in various athletic events, as well as mental/IQ tests, and check their overall health.

    Lance Armstrong followed the 80-10-10 diet towards the end of his career. Sure the guy was a doper, but he was also a guy who wanted every edge possible to win. He chose high carb over low carb.

    In fact I don’t think there’s a single pro cyclist who competes while in ketosis. They do train on low carb meals, and when they do their power numbers just plummet to laughable levels. I would definitely question the nutrional advice they’re given, often by nutrionist who have a weight problem themselves.

    Larry wrote on March 16th, 2016
  11. I completely understand your misgivings in going to that retreat, and admire you for trying it! It’s always good to challenge our own beliefs and conclusions, and especially sweet when we’re proved right after all. Keep it up!

    Rohvannyn wrote on April 9th, 2016

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