Denise Minger is perhaps most noted for her comprehensive rebuttal of “The China Study” some eight years ago. She’s heavily vested in the vegan versus omnivore battle, having cycled through vegetarianism and raw veganism, finally coming full circle to being an omnivore.
Minger took to vegetarianism when she was just 7 years old. “I was eating steak one night at dinner and almost choked on it. I developed some kind of phobia surrounding things with meat textures and went vegetarian overnight,” she explains.
Raw Veganism Took a Toll on Health
However, during the 10 years she remained a vegetarian, she began developing food allergies, including wheat and dairy allergies. “By the time I was a teenager, I was really health-conscious,” she says. “I had to get into that whole scene just to stay healthy.” At age 15, she discovered the raw vegan movement and got on the 80/10/10 diet, promoted by Dr. Douglas Graham. The diet is based on the hypothesis that we should eat what other primates eat, particularly frugivorous chimpanzees and bonobos.
“I was reading about it online at the age of 15 without having any background in human biology, physiology or anthropology … I fell into this trap of logic, that humans are the only animals that cook our food. We’re the only animals that eat this species-inappropriate diet, [so] I went raw vegan overnight,” she says. “For one year straight, [I ate] nothing but fruits, vegetables and some nuts — all uncooked.
I did great for the first month, as most people do when they stop eating crappy foods. After that, I started losing weight and muscle. My hair was falling out. My energy levels were fluctuating like crazy. I was in high school at the time, taking the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). My brain fog got so bad at one point that when I was taking the SAT, I would read the question and by the time I got to the end I couldn’t remember what the first part said …
The kicker for me, because I’ve always taken great care of my teeth, was at the end of this period of raw veganism I had 16 cavities in my mouth, after a lifetime of what had previously been perfect dental health … It was actually the dental health issue that really turned my mind around … At that point, I had to let go of the vegan philosophy. I had to start questioning things …
That’s when I came across things like the Weston A. Price Foundation, which [details] what humans have been eating that has supported health in the past. I learned about the paleo movement — different forms of health-conscious omnivory. That’s where I ended up. It was a process.”
Debunking ‘The China Study’
As mentioned, Minger produced a very comprehensive critique of “The China Study” which is the scientific justification for many vegan positions. Her analysis — which some suspected to be funded by the meat industry — was actually undertaken while recovering from an accident. At the age of 22, she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle and shattered her elbow. Her convalescence afforded her the time to work on this project.
“I got a huge book of the raw ‘China Study’ data. I love numbers. I have fun with correlations. I have fun looking at patterns. My brain gets happy. I spent about two or three months poring over the data. I needed a project, because I had nothing else to do.
I was poring over the data and that’s when I realized I needed to write a critique of the book. So much of what [author T. Colin] Campbell said was not supported by his own data. I just felt like if there’s anything I needed to do in life, it was going to be this.
I didn’t expect anyone to read it. I had a little blog. I like to say I had six readers, five of which were my mother on different computers. I didn’t realize at the time how much interest the critique would gather; how much interest there was in that book itself. I hadn’t really seen the rivalry upfront between the vegan and the paleo worlds. When I released this critique, I didn’t know it was going to be that influential,” she says.
Minger developed quite a bit of notoriety as a result of that critique, especially in the vegan community. She’s been vilified by many, including Campbell, who wrote personal rebuttals to her commentary on his work. Some have gone so far as to characterize her as someone who’s promoting processed food.
The Case for Lowering Protein Intake
For all its drawbacks, there are benefits to veganism. The biggest one, from my perspective, is that vegans have — compared to those who eat the standard American diet — a significantly lower protein intake. I think there are valuable insights that can be drawn from that, which can be integrated into a low-carb paleo approach. Minger agrees, saying:
“For the protein issue, what I find interesting is that whenever we look at the actual China Study, for example, when you look at their food intake, it’s much different in terms of the types of animal parts they consume than what we see in America.
The protein issue is complicated, but I will say that high methionine intake — for example from muscle meat — [needs to be balanced with] glycine. You get that by eating the entire animal, the skin, tendons, connective tissue — all the stuff that Americans typically discard …
In the China Study, you don’t see them eating steaks and chicken breasts at every meal. Even the lower animal product-consuming societies, a lot of them eat insects. A lot of them eat the weird parts of the animal. I think that’s imperative for staying healthy on an omnivorous diet. Because the way we eat meat in America is pathogenic. It’s not healthy. But it’s not necessarily because animal products are bad for you …
What was amusing to me, because it was completely left out of ‘The China Study’ book, was that the healthiest populations were the seafood eaters … They had the best health outcomes. The only disease that they had more of was liver cancer. That was because they were living in humid areas where aflatoxin was more prevalent … But it wasn’t because of the animal protein. It wasn’t because of the fish.”
This makes sense considering the importance of long-chained omega-3 fats: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Those who restrict themselves to a plant-based diet are only getting alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which, while being a precursor for EPA and DHA cannot be converted at significant, therapeutic levels.