Red Meat is Not the Villain

redmeathealthHuge new AARP and NIH study lurches away from the truth about red meat.

The Research: National Institutes of Health–AARP Diet and Health Study, March 23, 2009, Archives of Internal Medicine.

The Claim: Eating red meat increases the risk of dying.

We’ve heard it a hundred times before—eating red meat increases the risk of dying from heart disease and cancer. The problem is that nobody has ever done a truly intelligent and straightforward study of diet and lifestyle in relation to chronic disease. The most recent of these misguided studies examined the diets and lifestyles of half a million people, aged 50 to 71 at the start, over a period of ten years! Wow! That’s huge! It should be an invaluable gold mine of information!

Here’s the Beef—Where’s the Sugar?
The conclusion of all this money (mostly taxpayer money), time and work is that eating red meat, even in moderate amounts by American standards, modestly increases the risk of death. When coming to this conclusion, the authors took into account lifestyle factors such as age, HRT use (in women), smoking, body mass index (BMI), exercise, family history of cancer, and diet. The dietary factors measured in this study were intake of energy (calories), fruits, vegetables, alcohol, total fat, saturated fat, fiber and vitamin supplement use. Ooops. Something’s missing here. Where are the carbohydrates and sugar?

How can any conclusions about diet, death and illness be drawn when carbohydrates and sugar aren’t factored in? What possible reason could there be for leaving it out? One possible reason may be that the results were different when sugar and carbohydrates were factored in. Maybe red meat didn’t look so bad.

And where’s the comparison between people who ate the least red meat and people who ate no red meat? It’s not there. The study only compared people who ate the least red meat with people who ate the most red meat.

Don't Blame it On the Meat
Looking at the overall data the authors chose to share in this study, it’s clear that people who eat the most red meat also have the unhealthiest lifestyles. Most likely those overweight burger eaters who never exercise or eat vegetables are also having a large order of fries and a super-size soft drink or milk shake. There’s the sugar and carbohydrate, and there's the higher risk of death associated with red meat research.

I want to see the data on red meat that compares people who eat fast food burgers more than twice a month compared to those who don’t. Let’s say dinner includes a modest serving of red meat, a fresh, colorful salad and corn on the cob. Can that be compared with a fast food cheeseburger with its dripping sauce and white bread bun, served with french fries and a soft drink? It’s a different universe.

Change the Food Paradigm, Change the Risk
It’s inarguable that the way red meat is normally consumed in the U.S. is unhealthy and bad for the environment, but it’s a distraction and an over-simplification to make red meat a nutritional villain. Pork may be a risky food right now—see Does MRSA Bacteria in Pork Endanger Pork Chops? Cured meats such as bacon, sausage and ham should not be a staple of anyone’s diet. If Americans started eating free-range, hormone- and drug-free red meat once or twice a week in small portions, it wouldn’t be an issue.

We don't need more flawed research funded by taxpayers on the relationship between food and illness. We need lawmakers who aren't held hostage by food industry lobbyists, early education about healthy eating, and greater access to locally grown, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, and drug- and hormone-free meats and fish.

Two of my favorite books on the subject of nutrition and eating habits are Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, and Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Both are entertaining, informative, inspiring stepping stones to a new paradigm in our relationship to food. The Animal, Vegetable, Miracle audio book is delightfully narrated by Kingsolver.