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A Failed Nutrition Quiz and a Dire Warning Against Deadly Chicken Breasts (courtesy of The Huffington Post and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)

by Marge Perry on April 15, 2012

The Huffington Post published a nutrition quiz from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) that warns against the perils of consuming chicken, eggs, salmon and milk.

PCRM, an organization with a reassuring name that belies its radical agenda, advocates an extremely low fat (10-15%) vegan diet. They vigorously promote an anti-meat, anti-poultry, anti-seafood, anti-eggs and anti-dairy diet through media outreach, legislative lobbying and small sensationalized studies like this one debunked by experts in the New York Times last week.

The quiz HuffPo ran looked innocent enough, but it was designed to strike fear in our hearts—and kitchens. The take-away messages from the ten questions are below. (Hint: #10 is where things get really juicy).

1. Skim milk has the same number of calories as cola.

So what? That doesn’t make skim milk a bad choice or cola a good one. We need calories, and we should get them from foods that have nutritive value, like milk. Oh, I get it: PCMR thinks milk is bad for us.

2. Cheese and steak have the same amount of cholesterol.

We are no longer living in the 1990s, when scientists believed eating cholesterol (dietary cholesterol) raises the cholesterol in your body (serum cholesterol). Science has progressed in the intervening decades, and it is now a well-accepted fact that saturated fat has a far more profound impact on raising our serum cholesterol. In other words, lower your intake of saturated fat, not dietary cholesterol to reap heart health benefits. PCRM draws a comparison between steak and cheese to drive home the idea that cheese is as bad for our health as –gasp– red meat.

3. Cheese is 70% fat.

Yup, that’s what makes it taste so good.

4. Frequent consumption of hot dogs and bacon makes it more likely you will get colon cancer.

Does anyone think eating hot dogs and bacon every day is good for you? On the other hand, an occasional strip or two of bacon isn’t going to land you in the oncologist’s office. But in the quiz, PCRM writes,Processed meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats are so closely linked to colorectal cancer that the recommended intake is none.” PCRM may recommend we eat none, but the USDA says occasional consumption is okay.

5. Women who regularly eat soy have lower cancer risk.

This is a gross oversimplification of what has become a very thorny issue. Initially, researchers looked at Asian populations where soy consumption is high and breast cancer occurrence lower than ours. But there are other differences in lifestyle and diet, too. More controlled studies (as opposed to population studies) have shown mixed results. We currently do not know if soy is protective or actually harmful when it comes to hormonal cancers. One well-known soy researcher I spoke to said that if his wife were diagnosed with breast cancer he would want her to stop eating all soy foods.

6. Salmon has cholesterol and fat

In case you have been living in a cave, most of the fat in salmon is really good for you—and is difficult to get in meaningful quantity from plants.

7. An egg has more cholesterol than a Big Mac.

We went over the whole cholesterol thing above. But PCRM is implying an egg is as unhealthy as a Big Mac, so I’d like to point out that a Big Mac has 540 calories and a large egg has 71; a Big Mac has 29 grams of fat and an egg has 5; and a Big Mac has 10 grams of saturated fat and an egg has 2. They aren’t even in the same nutritional solar system.

8. Milk, beans and broccoli are all high in calcium.

Point well-taken: dairy is not the only dietary source of calcium.

9. Fish and beef have no fiber.

Right, and spinach and tomatoes barely have any protein, but we don’t say they are unhealthful. Different foods contribute different nutrients, plain and simple.

10. A skinless roasted chicken breast has more calories per ounce than soda or white rice.

It’s a silly comparison, given their relative nutritive value, but at least it is accurate. But not this, which follows: “The percentage of fat from roasted, skinless chicken breasts is about the same as steak, contributing to its high calorie content.”

Not true. Period.

I emailed PCRM to point out the factual mistake. I supplied nutrition data for the chicken breast and porterhouse steak. Their director of nutrition education, Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., emailed back, defending the statement. She suggested two leaner cuts of beef would make a better comparison: eye round (which is not served as a steak) and top sirloin. Okay. I emailed her a comparison of the nutrition facts for skinless roasted chicken breast and top sirloin steak: chicken breast gets 20.6 % of calories from fat, 5.8% of which are saturated. Top sirloin gets 30.9% of calories from fat, 11.8% of which are saturated. Those are not “about the same” percentage as PCRM states on the quiz.

I also pointed out to Ms. Levin that 74.7% of the calories in almonds are fat, because she does not object to nuts. (For the record, neither do I, but she skewered chicken for its high percentage of calories from fat, so it seemed worth mentioning). And then she wrote this back to me:

“Doctors who prescribe “chicken and fish” instead of red meat to sick patients are simply kidding themselves and not doing their patients any favors. As long as people think they are going to improve their health by eating chicken, they are going to end up returning to their cardiologists wondering what went wrong, if they make it for the return trip alive.”

I was stunned. She used outright scare tactics to promote her self-righteous dietary extremism. If you eat chicken, you might not make it back to the doc alive?!

It is one thing to talk about your beliefs and it is another to present incorrect and misleading information in a very public forum like the Huffington Post, and then defend it by suggesting that eating skinless roasted chicken breasts can lead to death. Ms. Levin has every right to believe in and follow a vegan diet—but why try to terrify and threaten others into doing so?

This post is not a diatribe against vegans or veganism. The choice individuals make about their diet is theirs alone. (Besides, many vegans I know eschew eating animals for moral, not health reasons. I have as much business in that part of other people’s lives as I do in their religious choices.) This is about misleading, untrue information presented as fact. It is about a major media outlet not bothering to retract factually incorrect information*. It is about frightening people into following an agenda; it is about sending a loosely veiled message of “Do this or die.”

And on that note, ladies and gentleman, I have an unusual craving for a great big glass of very naughty ice-cold skim milk.

* I also wrote to the HuffPo editor to point out the incorrect information. She went back to PCRM, who stood by the original claim. And then, I was so incensed, I did something I never do: I offered to write a rebuttal for free. HuffPo declined. (To any of my editors reading this: the whole “free” thing was a one-timer, and we’re past the expiration date.)

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