You may have seen the recent headlines proclaiming that eating red meat can reduce your lifespan by 20%. If you read the previous newsletter on hormones, antibiotics and pesticides in meat, it’s not a great leap to imagine that a diet heavy in such foods could have a health impact.
Closer review of the headline reveals that the 20% reduction being broadcast is for a diet heavy in processed meats, such as ham, bologna, salami, hot dogs: typical luncheon meats. We learned in the prior newsletter that these foods also contain sodium nitrate, a proven carcinogen, or cancer-causing ingredient. So 20% doesn’t seem extreme if those are items you consume regularly.
The reduction in lifespan for a diet of unprocessed beef, pork or lamb is actually 13%, according to the study. This category of food choices, however, also includes hamburgers. Given the recent “pink slime” headlines, and the use of ammonia (in the meat in addition to the hormones, antibiotics and pesticides found in these meats), 13% doesn’t seem that bad. And let’s face it: if you are eating hamburgers you are likely also consuming high-fructose corn syrup laden buns and french fries fried in oxidized omega 6 heavy oils, which have health concerns of their own that were not tracked in the survey.
In addition, if you are eating steaks, whether at home or out, they are often grilled to get those burn marks on the skin, a process which results in the creation of carcinogens as well. We’ll talk more about the dangers of grilling and how to do so healthily in a coming newsletter. But for now, you can see that even at the highest level, there are additional considerations that were not evaluated in the study lurking behind this headline.
In addition, the study doesn’t differentiate between the consumption of traditional factory-farmed meats and grass-fed or organic versions. It would not be a stretch to postulate that given all we know about factory farming and the way animals are fed, raised, and slaughtered, the statistics being touted could result purely from the impact of those practices. There could possibly be little or no impact on lifespan if participants ate high-quality grass fed meat instead.
However, we will likely never know that for sure as it would take many years of following a group of informed meat eaters to be able to reach such a conclusion and no such study is likely to occur as the money isn’t there to fund it. Organic or grass fed meat producers are struggling to provide high quality meat and to compete against the costs of large factory farms so they are not sitting on a pile of cash to fund a longitudinal study of this sort. (And it’s clear that factory farms and government agencies have no interest in funding such a study!)
So when I read those numbers and know that they reflect traditional processed, chemically-laden meats, I don’t jump to the same conclusion that red meat is bad and we should eat less: my reaction is simply that processed meat is harmful and we should eat less of that and replace it with organic and grass fed meat instead. And that could be the end of a helpful look at a widely publicized research study headline if we stopped right there. But there’s more.
The first concern is that this is an observational study, not a controlled study. In a controlled study, all variables are fixed except for what researchers want to assess. Then the scientists would explore the impact of making that one change on participants’ health. Controlled studies can make claims regarding the impact of meat because everything else is held the same across the participants’ diet. In this case, there are many food variables that were not tracked in the study that could easily explain the reduction in lifespan.
The second concern is that the food habits are self-reported. It has been shown repeatedly that people tend to over-report good, or what they think they should be eating, and under-report what they think they shouldn’t. Which just reconfirms that we can draw some hypotheses from the study results that can be tested further, but we cannot draw any firm conclusions because the data is likely skewed.
And before you think that automatically means that the self-reporting works to further support the red meat conclusion, it’s not that simple. We do not know the attitudes of survey participants toward meat: some may believe a portion or two a day is good for you because it’s an important protein source and that may cancel out those who under-report because they think meat is bad.
In addition, contrary to what you might think, another study showed that people with “diagnosed medical conditions” such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, high tryglycerides or cholesterol and diabetes tended to over-report the meat that they ate. We do not fully understand why this occurs, but researchers surmise that perhaps people who are more sick pay less attention to their diets and so don’t accurately track their consumption.
Next we have to explore other lifestyle behaviors. The study reveals that the highest percentage of meat eaters were also significantly more likely to smoke, be overweight, be less physically active and not take a multivitamin than those who ate the least amount of meat. These other variables have been shown to correlate to a number of health conditions and cannot be ignored.
The study also showed that the highest meat eaters took in a significantly greater number of calories than the least meat eaters. In fact, there was an 800 calorie gap between the highest and lowest groups. If that is actually accurate, that is an extremely important variance as calorie restriction has been linked to longer lifespan. And if it is not accurate, it’s just another example of why we cannot completely trust studies where people are self-reporting their food intake.
One interesting conclusion the study found related to cholesterol. In the study, the lowest meat eaters had almost twice the cholesterol level of the highest red meat eaters. If you have read my prior article on cholesterol, you understand why: eating cholesterol does not raise your cholesterol. In fact, if you don’t eat enough cholesterol in your diet, your body will step in and overproduce it to compensate, and your cholesterol levels will seem high even though you are actually cholesterol deficient. (More on this to follow: we’ll be looking into cholesterol and heart health in depth in the coming weeks). But the scientists so quick to jump on the bandwagon and chastise red meat didn’t feel compelled to report a sensational headline that eating red meat reduces cholesterol, but yet, that is what the study showed.
Lastly, the study fails to correlate the overall risk of death to the increase during the study time period in absolute numbers. As we saw when we looked at cholesterol drug advertisements in the last newsletter go-round, Lipitor was able to claim a 36% increase because 3 people on a placebo had a heart attack vs. 2 on the drug during the study trial. The overall number is of consequence as well as the increase because the ones taking the drug suffered heavy side effects. (If you missed this article last time, we’ll be covering this topic in greater depth shortly.)
In this study, for example, if 5% would die anyway, and 6% of the heaviest processed lunch meat eaters died, you could claim a 20% increase in death. But the truth is the difference between 5 and 6 people out of 100 may not be great enough to cause you to give up something you love, especially since there are so many other possible contributing factors or direct causes that were not assessed in the study.
Now you can see how misleading headlines can cause a stir in the media but there is more to the story than the sexy headline. Hopefully, this will encourage you to question and to dig deeper into the details around how those attention-grabbing news stories are created. As for me, I will continue to enjoy small amounts of grass fed meat as a good high quality source of protein and necessary (healthy) fat.
To your wellness and health: your true wealth!
Author: Inger Pols is the Editor of the New England Health Advisory and Author/Creator, Finally Make It Happen, the proven process to get what you want. Get a free special report on The Truth About Sugar: It’s Not All Equal at www.IngerPols.com
Photo Source: Microsoft Clip Art