On March 12, 2012, a press release by the Harvard School of Public Health called, “Red Meat Consumption Linked to Increased Risk of Total, Cardiovascular, and Cancer Mortality“, ruffled a lot of feathers. Even of some of my friends! The Harvard study basically followed over 120,000 men and women for over two decades and this is what they concluded:
“Boston, MA — A new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers has found that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality. The results also showed that substituting other healthy protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, and legumes, was associated with a lower risk of mortality.”
This stemmed a lot of activity out in the world and I heard a lot of it. Of course, the American Meat Institute quickly sent their press release called, “American Meat Institute Foundation Says Red and Processed Meats Are Safe and Healthy Components of a Balanced Diet,” as one would expect. Here is a little excerpt from their statement:
“Red and processed meat continues to be a healthy part of a balanced diet and nutrition decisions should be based on the total body of evidence, not on single studies that include weak and inconsistent evidence and stand in contrast to other research and to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, said Betsy Booren, AMI Foundation Director of Scientific Affairs.
Beyond the major weakness of this being an epidemiological study which uses survey data – not test tubes, microscopes or lab measurements–the researchers method of collecting and analyzing their data is highly inaccurate. The information in the report indicates that estimates of red and processed meat intake were only 27 – 35 percent accurate versus actual measurements. The researchers also inserted estimated data where an actual survey measurement was missing and also stopped updating the dietary information once participants reported a diagnosis. All of these factors could have significant impacts on the results.”
Fair enough. I believe in second opinions. In March 2009, a study called “Meat and Mortality“ - A Prospective Study of Over Half a Million People was published. They followed over half a million people for a decade and concluded:
“Red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality.”
Then, I just came across this one in the Journal of The National Cancer Institute called, “Dietary Fatty Acids and Pancreatic Cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study“. This one actually indicates all animal products are associated, and they concluded:
“In this large prospective cohort with a wide range of intakes, dietary fat of animal origin was associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk.”
The funny thing is, in my research, I come across similar studies & findings all the time. Like the AMI, I do not base my beliefs on a single study. I like to use common sense, some self experimentation, life observations, and I also like to look at trends. I have spent the last two years researching and reading about food and nutrition and how it relates to weight loss, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a host of other chronic diseases. The overwhelmingly (even excluding the above 2 studies, which are by far the largest number of participants I have seen) common thread I see by all these educational institutions, researchers and doctors I can sum up like this:
We need to eat more fresh whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and less animal products.
As the AMI recommends, let’s have a look at the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Here is something I found interesting. This is from Page 1 of the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010:
“Poor diet and physical inactivity are the most important factors contributing to an epidemic of overweight and obesity in this country. The most recent data indicate that 72 percent of men and 64 percent of women are overweight or obese, with about one-third of adults being obese.
Even in the absence of overweight, poor diet and physical inactivity are associated with major causes of morbidity and mortality. These include cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer.”
They spend a lot of time pointing out that Americans are over weight and this is causing us to be sick, causing cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer. Now on page 45 it states this:
“Research on vegetarian eating patterns
The types of vegetarian diets consumed in the United States vary widely. Vegans do not consume any animal products, while lacto-ovo vegetarians consume milk and eggs. Some individuals eat diets that are primarily vegetarian but may include small amounts of meat, poultry, or seafood.
In prospective studies of adults, compared to non-vegetarian eating patterns, vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes—lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality. Several clinical trials have documented that vegetarian eating patterns lower blood pressure.
On average, vegetarians consume a lower proportion of calories from fat (particularly saturated fatty acids); fewer overall calories; and more fiber, potassium, and vitamin C than do non-vegetarians. Vegetarians generally have a lower body mass index. These characteristics and other lifestyle factors associated with a vegetarian diet may contribute to the positive health outcomes that have been identified among vegetarian.”
So they state we have this “epidemic” of obesity which is causing all these health problems. They also state, oh by the way, people that eat less meat and more vegetables are healthier. However, the actual recommendations to Americans are to still eat meat and dairy? If it was your job to help relieve this “epidemic”, would you not recommend an eating pattern, as they state, that is “associated with improved health outcomes—lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality”? It seems like it that would make a lot of sense? Of course, the USDA also has a second job and that is to sell food, which includes meat and dairy products. So, there you go.
Look, I am not saying meat is the cause of our problems. I do think the type of meat we have available today and the amounts of meat we are consuming are certainly not helping to fix the situation.
Our main problem is processed foods, ANY processed foods (including processed meats). The more processed the food is, the more of a problem it is for our bodies. This is our biggest issue.
So what is my take on red meat?
Let me start by saying this. I do not preach any specific nutrition orientation. I feel the best nutrition is specific to the individual and there is no perfect nutrition plan that is right for everyone. Having said that, I feel there are things everyone should eat and there are things no one should eat. My philosophy is based on a whole foods diet (which may include a certain amount of meat if that fits into your genetics and your ultimate long term health goals). I have clients that perform very well with some meat in their diet (I prefer that meat to be lean meats, such as chicken (not factory farmed) and wild Alaskan Salmon, in moderation).
People will argue – Well, we have been eating meat millions of years. That is true, but here are a couple of things to think about.
Our meat is no where near the same as it once was. The meat our ancestors ate was very lean compared to the common factory meat that is widely available today.
Today, I sit behind a keyboard all day and I work out 45 minutes, 3 days a week. If my job was to hunt and gather all food day, I think I probably could afford to eat a little meat on the rare occasion I actually caught something.
Lastly, our life expectancy is much greater than it once was. Heck, my dad is in is 80′s. How do we know the paleolithic man was not going to have problems if he ever made it past his 30s or 40s? I think it makes sense to look back on what our bodies were designed to eat and take that knowledge and apply it to our current lifestyle, environment, health, and fitness goals.
Based on everything I have read and researched the last couple of years, it leaves a lot of questions in my mind about the role of red meat in my diet. I think there is plenty of evidence that processed red meats are harmful (here is a fun video summary - by Dr. Michael Greger) and I would avoid those for sure. Now it is up to you to do your own research and discover what is right for your body.
As always, I am more than happy to help you discover what is right for you. With the guided help of a nutrition coach, you can do some experimentation of your own and see what nutrition is best for your unique body and situation.