Whenever a study makes extraordinary claims, one of two things are happening; the study author is pulling a fast one, or the research is being misrepresented for clicks. So it is with the work of University of California at San Francisco researchers, who are stuck explaining to journalists that they just found a correlation between plant-based diets and better cognitive function in the elderly, and that their study justifies further research, instead of proving you shouldn’t be eating pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Specifically, the study looked at the “Mediterranean” and “DASH” diets, and at older Americans who were currently eating those diets versus those who weren’t. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a diet designed by the National Institutes of Health to be an ideal eating plan for all Americans, and the Mediterranean diet is, well, what it sounds like — eating like somebody from the region. These diets aren’t designed to make you smarter or fight mental decline, per se, they’re designed to improve cardiovascular health. Both are plant-based diets with some animal proteins, like eggs and fish, but no added fats or red meat. But “Eating More Plants Makes You Smarter” is much more clickable than “Study shows there may be some unanticipated health benefit to a plant-based diet but we really need to do more research to figure out if it’s true, and if it is true, we have no idea why this would be in the first place.”
This isn’t to say plant-based diets aren’t a good idea. Doctors are big fans of plant-based diets, which entail eating whole plant-based foods and cutting back on red meat, dairy and eggs. And they’ve got good reason to be. Leaving aside books claiming women of certain nationalities don’t get fat, the majority of the planet eats a plant-based diet. It’s been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and may help reduce body weight. Even nutritional “renegades” will tell you point blank to eat more salad. That’s not the issue, though — the issue is that we’re constantly told that a diet is “best” and has been “scientifically proven” to heal all our ailments, even when the researchers studying the diet would agree with much more careful and conservative claims.
The problem is that the real science, as it’s being conducted, is making the issue more complicated, not less. Our genetics may dictate our diet (partly, at least), for example, and it’s beginning to look like some of us have a genetic destiny to be vegetarians while others need a more omnivorous diet. There’s also the matter of access. As we noted when Amazon bought Whole Foods, the issue of food deserts, places where it’s difficult, expensive, or just outright impossible to find fresh vegetables and fruits, is now more urgent than ever.
And as more data comes up implying it’s better for our health, access is going to be a more and more pressing issue. If healthy food determines our overall health, that means communities without access to that food face potentially severe economic setbacks. Researchers are finding that socioeconomic class can have staggering impacts on your health, which creates a spiral: the poorer you are, the less able you are to eat healthily, which leads to more medical problems, which means less money available for necessities, which makes you less able to eat healthily.