By Marika Sboros
In the US, they call themselves the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). The PCRM’s latest study with Czech scientists, concludes that plant-based, vegan meals may be a “more effective tool” to prevent type 2 diabetes (T2D) than meat-based meals.
Critics say that the study is irresponsible, misleading – and that the PCRM should call itself the Physicians Committee for Irresponsible Medicine.
The study authors claim to have used a “randomized crossover design”. And to have compared effects of two different meals on gastrointestinal hormones, and satiety (feeling of fullness) on healthy, obese and diabetic men.
Male participants were given either a processed-meat and cheese meal and a vegan meal with tofu.
On his Twitter feed, PCRM president and vegan MD Neal Barnard welcomed the new study. He said that it adds to the evidence that plant-based diets are “beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes”.
US psychiatrist Dr Georgia Ede says that whoever designed the study “has some explaining to do”. US physician Dr Tro Kalayjian is more forthright and calls it “biased bullshit”.
The authors do acknowledge differences between the two meals: in saturated fat and fibre content. They also acknowledged that these differences “may have influenced our results”. However, Ede read the fine print “buried at the bottom of a table” that the researchers published in the journal.
It shows “numerous other differences between the two meals”, Ede says. The plant-based meal consisted of a tofu burger and unsweetened green te; the meat-based meal consisted of a processed pork cheeseburger and a latte sweetened with 21 grams of added sugar.
“That’s a whopping five teaspoons of sugar spooned into that 10-oz coffee drink,” Ede notes.
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Therefore, the authors had designed the study in a way that cannot say anything about the hormonal differences between animal and plant protein, she says. Consequently, for the experiment to be valid, the researchers should have kept all ingredients in both meals the same, except for the protein source .
“They could have done so simply by comparing a meat burger to a soy burger,” Ede says.
Was that just innocent oversight?
“Unlikely,” Ede says. As is so often the case with studies attempting to demonstrate that meat is unhealthy, sugar is a “glaring confounding variable”. It is one that the researchers have not openly acknowledged or accounted for. A more responsible title for this study, Ede says, might read something like this:
“A tofu burger and green tea is a healthier meal for appetite hormones than a processed pork cheeseburger and latte sweetened with five teaspoons of sugar. We really, really want you to think it’s because of the tofu, but most reasonable people would blame the sugar.”
US science journalist Nina Teicholz is author of the seminal book, The Big Fat Surprise, Why Butter, Cheese and Meat Belong in a Healthy Diet. She is similarly critical of the PCRM study.
Teicholz took to Twitter to point out that the PRCM is an animal rights group and the study is “junk science”.
“If you want to compare two burgers, (you) must isolate the burger as the only difference,” Teicholz tweeted. “There is no reason to match nutrient content. That difference is part of what (you are) testing.”
The same PCRM group has since published a second study using the same dietary protocol: “A Plant-Based Meal Stimulates Incretin and Insulin Secretion More Than an Energy- and Macronutrient-Matched Standard Meal in Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Crossover Study.”
They include in this report an exact comparison of grams of sugar in each meal (21g vs 4g). And they come to the same conclusion: that their study suggests “a therapeutic potential of plant-based meals for improving beta-cell function in T2D”.
The US-based Humane Watch, a project of the US Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), has a very jaundiced view of PCRM. On its website, Humane Watch carries the CCF’s document titled Seven Things You (probably) Didn’t Know About PCRM.
PRCM ‘not a real MD group’
Among these is that PCRM is an animal rights group, not a real “physicians committee”, says the CCF.
And contrary to what its name implies, less than 4% of PCRM’s members are actual physicians.
The CCF says that Barnard is among PCRM’s relatively few active physicians and also a former PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals)Foundation president. It describes Barnard as a “vegan psychiatrist” who calls cheese “dairy crack” and “morphine on a cracker”.
The CCF also says that the wealthiest animal rights activist in the US, Nanci Alexander, has bought and paid for PCRM’s anti-meat activism. Through her personal foundation, Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, Alexander provides more than two-thirds of PCRM’s $9-million budget, CCF says. PETA has steered another $1.3 million to PCRM.
“This explains why the (PCRM’s) platform has more to do with the ‘rights’ of animals than the health of people.”
The CCF itself has come under criticism as a front for industry. And in a Los Angeles Times report, CCF executive director Rick Berman has acknowledged funding in part by food and beverage companies. Berman also declined to name contributors.
The report quotes Berman as saying: “It doesn’t matter who pays as long as what I’m saying is truthful.”