Posted on April 10, 2012 - No Comments
As one who hasn’t eaten red meat for over 30 years I find myself oddly critical of a new study saying that eating meat will increase your risk of premature death.
This study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, followed over 110,000 people for just over 20 years, observing their health and eating habits (based on food frequency questionnaires). The lead author of the study, Dr. An Pan, went so far as to state “Any red meat you eat contributes to the risk (of premature death)”. (Study)
So, just how much will eating meat shorten your lifespan? According to this study, simply adding one 100g (less than a quarter of a pound) serving of unprocessed red meat to the daily diet increases your chances of dying prematurely by 13%. If that amount of additional meat is processed (hotdogs, bacon, etc), it is even worse, increasing the risk of death by 20%.
However, those who replaced a serving of meat with a serving of nuts found that their risk of dying during the study dropped by a healthy 19%. So replacing a serving of meat with a healthier choice was shown to reverse the risk factor. Substituting poultry or whole grains for a daily serving of meat was linked to a 14% reduction in risk, while substituting legumes or low-fat dairy products dropped the risk of early mortality by 10%. Surprisingly substituting fish for meat only lowered risk by 7%.
In earlier studies a high intake of red meat has been linked to many health problems including diabetes, heart disease and cancer (prostate especially). The current assumptions are that the problem lies with the saturated fat, the high iron, the nitrates used to preserve processed meats and/or the carcinogenic chemicals created by high temperature cooking.
In fact, the researchers in this recent study were expecting the link between death and meat to only occur with processed meats, already widely believed to be a health danger, and so they were surprised to find that even unprocessed red meat was so linked. Current scientific beliefs call into question the idea that the problem with meat is caused by iron, saturated fat or even the nitrates. I don’t have space to go into the counter arguments here but, suffice to say there is data that questions the validity of those three agents as being culpable. But, there is currently no doubt about the high temperature cooking and the resulting carcinogens from browning and blackening animal proteins.
These days, meat is back on the map in the health field due to a combination of the influence of the Weston Price Foundation (http://www.westonaprice.org/) and the popularity of the Paleolithic Diet (http://paleodiet.com). So, when a study like this comes out it just adds more confusion to a topic already rife with it.
Let me add a personal perspective here. I stopped eating red meat just over 30 years ago during my initial study of Macrobiotics, a Japanese, Buddhist-based philosophy built around a natural diet. I continued to eat fish, eggs and some dairy products (though dairy is frowned upon by pure Macrobiotics), so I can’t call myself a vegetarian per se, but I’ve definitely not eaten anything with legs for that length of time, and don’t feel I am missing anything.
Yet, I’ve known people to be vegetarians for years, and then go back to eating meat and feel better as a result. I remember one friend who was a vegan for years and he still clearly remembers the first can of tuna he ate, at my behest, when he broke his vegan vows. He felt great and went on to a more balanced diet that included some animal proteins, including meats that I would not eat. But he was a large physically active fellow and so probably needed the extra protein.
While I started out arrogant like many vegetarian types (now vegans have that distinction), taking the attitude that not eating meat was more “spiritual”, eventually I gained a more balanced viewpoint. One thing that helped here was reading that the Dali Lama ate red meat, even though he did not wish to, because he became sick if he did not. (Source)
And, it is very difficult to live in the high North without the calories provided by meat and saturated fat, so Tibet, where his form of Buddhism is from, is not big on vegetarianism, the way Buddhist groups from more tropical countries are.
But, the final explanation for me occurred when the Blood Type Diet became popular. Then I understood why I was fine with a diet low in animal protein, and others were not so fine. My blood type (AB) is one that, according to this system, is best avoiding red meat (along with type A blood), whereas those with blood types B and O, have higher requirements for protein and do less well with grains and a plant based diet.
I still consider myself to be a Macrobiotic. Now, Macrobiotics advocates eating low on the food chain, following a diet based on mostly whole grains, beans, vegetables, sea vegetables, and small amounts of fish. They also advocate eating what grows within 500 miles of where you live, in season or naturally preserved, in order to keep in tune with your environment. This diet worked for some, like me, when it was brought over to North America, but for others it seemed ridiculously restrictive. My suspicion that the majority of Japanese would have a blood type suitable for this diet is supported by the fact that about 40% of Japanese have type A blood, one suited to such a diet.
The Macrobiotic approach to meat in the diet is quite interesting, so I shall briefly touch upon it. First, they believe that the amount of animal protein in our diet is indicated by the amount of canine teeth that we have. Since the 4 canine teeth, designed for rending and tearing, amount to about 10% of our total teeth, they feel that this is the evolutionary indicator of how much animal protein we require in the diet. Though they, again, do not consume much higher than seafood as far as animal protein goes.
From this Oriental perspective, remembering that it is foremost a philosophy of life with some dietary aspects, meat is too “yang”. In this definition “yang” is a grounding, earthbound, materially-oriented tendency, as opposed to “yin” which is uplifting, and spiritually-oriented. Too much yin leads to the ultimate denial of the material by leading to death, but too much yang creates the kind of world we have: one where spirit is replaced by the mammalian territorialism of politics and religion.
So, from their perspective, as mankind started eating more and more meat they became more warlike and less spiritual in nature. At first meat was balanced by potatoes, considered too yin to be a healthful food by the Macrobiotics. (From a Western perspective we can point out that meat is high in sodium, considered yang, and potatoes are high in its opposite, potassium, considered yin, one reason they go well together from a dietary perspective.)
As time went on, the potatoes were not enough to balance out the heavy yang of meat, so sugar was brought on board (being much more yin that potatoes), and still the spirit could not find balance in the face of this ongoing heavy meat consumption. (Starting to sound like a fairy tale isn’t it?) Finally the Western youth turned to psychedelic drugs (marijuana and L.S.D.) to bring some spirit back to their overly materialistic lives.
Now that we understand why we do drugs, and how bad meat eating is for our spiritual lives, let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. And the Dali Lama eats meat. So where does that leave us? Back looking for some balance.
If we live in cold climates we may need some animal protein to remain healthy, whereas if we live in a tropical or semi-tropical climate, we can be healthy on a diet lacking in animal protein. Of course, things like indoor heating and air conditioning allow us to follow any diet we like, in any climate, since we’ve freed ourselves from the restrictions of nature.
Our blood type indicates for most (but not all) of us who will thrive best on a diet low or high in animal protein, and then we have to listen to our bodies, see how we digest something and how we feel after eating the foods in question. Also, how physical our lifestyle is will influence this choice. A logger just needs more protein, and can process more protein, than a desk worker.
How much, if any, animal protein we choose to eat often is an emotional decision, since most of us concerned with a healthy diet are well aware of modern factory farming of animals. Most commercial eggs, milk and meat are produced in extremely crowded, inhumane and unsanitary conditions. And factory farming has concerns over and above the ethical ones.
Meat today is not like meat used to be. Animals raised on antibiotics and growth hormones carry residual chemicals, that are passed on to the consumer in the meat, and these animals also become resistant to e-coli infections, passing the bacteria on to consumers. Animals fed grains instead of grasses, the norm in factory farms, not only are lacking in vitamin K2, important for preventing heart disease (Vitamin K), but are also higher in omega 6 fatty acids, that cause inflammation in the body, and is linked to cancer and heart disease.
It may be that the increase in mortality found in the study we opened with may be due to the common poor quality factory farmed meats, eaten by the majority of the population. And, that at this point in time, the unprocessed meat just isn’t even that much healthier than processed meats.
We also have to ask what did those people in the study eat along with the meat? While a hotdog is considered “processed” meat, lean ground beef would be considered non-processed, yet both are likely to be consumed with a white bread bun and perhaps even ketchup, fries and soda pop. What was the vegetable intake of these meat eaters, and what did the rest of their diet look like?
The conclusion offered to the general public by Dr. Pan was: “If you want to eat red meat, eat the unprocessed products, and reduce it to two or three serving a week. That would have a huge impact on public health.” I would also suggest that if you want to eat meat you also make every effort to find locally raised, non-medicated, ideally grass-fed, meats from small farms or local butcher shops. Find out where your meat comes from, or buy it in a health food store, looking for grass fed or “organic” meats.
I will close with a perspective from Adam O’Meara, the professional tri-athlete sponsored by NutriStart.
“As a professional athlete I am very conscious about the foods that I put in my body, and due to the nature of my sport (triathlon) I consume more food than the average person. This also means that my protein requirements are increased as well. When I eat red meat I like to choose meats that “clean”, and by clean I mean (ideally) grass fed, free range, organically grown and hormone free. I often buy beef from a farm in Mill Bay, they raise their own cows in a pasture and have control over how the meats are processed. The end result is meat that is of a higher quality and this is distinctly noticeable in the taste; my wife and I won’t (can’t bring ourselves) to eat any other ground beef – the flavor is just so superior in the Mill Bay meat.
The flavor difference between mass produced and humanely, pasture raised pork is perhaps even more noticeable. On one occasion I purchased 1 rack of ribs from the island company Tanadice Farms and since there was only 1 rack left for sale I settled for an Alberta, mass produced rack to fill our dinner quota. When it came time to eat the ribs, we couldn’t even palate the mass produced pork while having it directly beside the Tanadice Farms product. We literally couldn’t eat the poor quality meat it tasted so awful in comparison.”