Meaty Risks

September 29, 2015 in Foodland Chronicles, Health Claims, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

If you don’t already subscribe to the Nutrition Action Health Letter (NAHL) from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, now might be a good time to begin. If you eat beef frequently, don’t delay; consider making your new subscription begin with the October 2015 issue. The cover story is called; Bye Bye Beef? Less Red Meat Makes Diets Greener and Healthier.

The NAHL devotes four pages of interview questions and answers with Walter Willett the Fredrick John Stare professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. NAHL mentions in their introduction of Dr. Willett that he is one of the most cited researchers in clinical medicine. I’ve personally cited his work a minimum of seven times in the Dr. Grandma’s website. Bonnie Liebman of the NAHL interviewed Willett for the October 2015 issue of NAHL.

Right off, Willett is asked if people who eat more red meat are more likely to die prematurely. His direct answer is, “Yes.” The answer is supported by years of research. A recent one last year is a study published in Cell Metabolism (Volume 19, Issue 3, p407–417, 4 March 2014) on March 2014, in which the researchers followed 6,381 adults aged 50 and older for 18 years. The researchers found that eating a diet high in meat during middle age increased the risk of dying from any cause by 74 percent and the risk of dying from cancer by more than four times, compared to eating a diet low in meat. Willett cites another study done by the National Institute of Health that found the risk of dying during a 28-year study to be roughly 37 percent higher in men who ate about 2 servings of red meat a day, compared with those who ate about 2 servings a week. (A serving is 3.5 ounces – 100 grams; NOTE: that is not the standard 12-ounce Porterhouse, even with the bone removed it is not considered a single serving.) That study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (now called JAMA Internal Medicine 2012;172(7):555-563. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287). Careful studies over 18 and 28 years should not be ignored or scoffed at because of the publicity and ‘research’ supported by the meat industry that hypes meat in any number of ways, while ignoring or contesting the evidence obtained independently of their influence.

The preponderance of evidence now seems to be predicting the dire consequences of excessive meat eating. Fortunately, we are consuming less red meat than we did 30 or 40 years ago. One thing that Willett spells out is that it’s not just eating less red meat. If people eat less red meat and more of the rest of the typical American diet (refined starch, sugar, potatoes, white rice, sweets and soda) we don’t expect any benefit. It’s just changing one type of unhealthy food for another type of unhealthy food. He tells Bonnie Liebman that if you compare red meat to alternative protein sources, like poultry, fish, nuts, beans, or low-fat dairy, then red meat is consistently linked to a higher risk of mortality or cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

Willett ranks sources of protein saying that plant protein is the best. He says that nuts and beans and whole grains contribute some quality protein. It’s a little humorous to me how typical Americans think. To illustrate the lack of understanding of whole grains, we just had a generally very well informed houseguest for the past five days. I was inquiring of our houseguest about his breakfast preference. He said that he thought that he should have eggs, because he was worried that the cereal breakfast that he had the day before was protein deficient. He was interested in how the Shredded Wheat compared with an egg. He was truly surprised to see that the Shredded Wheat (3 biscuits), had more protein than one extra large egg; and that was before the non-fat milk, was added to the cereal. I guess that my point is that I believe (1) that people are still very worried that they are not getting enough protein. And (2), that they believe protein to be mainly or only from animal sources. They see protein in meat (including fish and poultry), milk and milk products, and eggs. I think, that we in public health nutrition have a way to go in helping the public understand that beans (including tofu), nuts, grains, vegetables, mushrooms have quality protein. The foods from plant protein sources also lack cholesterol, and heme iron (NAHL explains why this is a concern with diabetes prevention). While lacking these harmful components, plant protein does have fiber, essential to health in many ways, which meat does not have.

If you’re motivated by the huge cost that beef has on the environment, then be sure not to miss the NAHL article. NAHL published two of the Meatless Monday organization’s posters; One tells that skipping a burger can save enough water to shower with for the next 2.5 months; another tells that for every burger skipped you can save enough energy to charge your iPhone for 4.5 years. If you, or someone you know, care about the environment, these are very motivating thoughts. I am an enthusiastic advocate of ideas like Meatless Monday and applaud the work and good PR this organization is providing for public health. The important messages in my little 2013 blog post Downsizing Meat Consumption are greatly amplified by their work.

Willett and Liebman end the article by discussing antibiotic use in beef and the monocultures of soybeans and corn – how much is going to animal feed; global warming; emissions and water footprint. It’s really an interesting article. So if you want to actively reduce your risk of heat attack, stroke, diabetes, and colon cancer, then find a copy of the October 2015 issue of Nutrition Action Health Letter and see if you can motivate yourself to move away from red meat. Start with a meal a week or even a day a week and ease into some yummy meals made without red meat. Your pocketbook for food and for health care will thank you. The planet will quietly thank you. And in all likelihood, your loved ones will thank you down the road for being there for them in your later years.