In this post, I lay out 5 reasons that make me question the ‘meat is bad for you’ narrative. If you have some other reasons, which I haven’t mentioned, I would love to hear them. Please comment below or send me an email.
1) Cancerous Meat or Statistical Manipulation?
A claim I often hear from people who have either read a nutrition article in a newspaper or have watched a vegan documentary on Netflix: ‘processed meat causes cancer’ or ‘processed meat is as dangerous as smoking cigarettes.’ Is this true? Or is this statistical manipulation? A lot of money can be made in the nutrition world if you can statistically twist risk.
The World Health Organization’s 2015 report on processed meat and cancer risk is a great example of how data can be twisted. The research shows that if one consumes processed meats every day, for one’s whole life, the absolute risk for developing colon cancer is estimated to be 6%. BUT. The background risk for colon cancer is 5%. This means everyone has a 5% risk. So the findings actually show that eating processed meats every day increases this chance by 1%.
This is where the sneaky statistical manipulation between relative and absolute risk takes place. This is where anti-meat advocates blow this risk claim out of proportion. For example, the difference between 5% and 6% is 1 %. But 1 is 20% of 5. So, this get’s reported as a ’20% increase in cancer risk.’
To be more accurate it should read: out of 100 people consuming processed meats, over their lifetime, 1 more person, so 6 out of 100 vs. 5 out of 100, may get cancer if they consume processed meat, vs. if they didn’t consume processed meats. Is that a statistically significant result to warrant fear and make me want to reduce my consumption of bacon? For me no and that’s why I question this narrative.
With all that said, that is not even discussing the flaws nutritional epidemiological studies - see next point.
2) Eye spy with Ioannidis’ eye a problem with Epidemiology
John Ioannidis is a professor in disease prevention, medicine, health research, and policy. He has a robust background in statistics and data science, having written many papers and articles on the issues of nutritional epidemiology. A viewpoint paper he wrote, called The Challenge of Reforming Nutritional Epidemiologic Research, argues nutritional research needs radical reform. This is because, as it currently stands, it is misguided to use these findings to inform public health policy and guidelines. The issue is when a reader sees a nutritional article that says ‘Scientists find that meat causes cancer’, they likely equate an epidemiological study with a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Epidemiological efficacy is nowhere near on par with a double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
In his paper Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, John argues due to the way most studies are designed they lead to their research claims being more likely to be false than true, and that the claimed research findings can often be accurate measures of the prevailing bias.
Overall, John’s arguments do make me question the sureness of often-cited nutritional claims. And when you factor in bio-individuality, I start to question the efficacy of these claims – it reminds me of a quote from Scott Adams:
“The main thing I learned is that nutrition presents itself as science but is perhaps 60% bullshit, guessing, bad assumptions, and marketing.”
3) The Spurious Truth of the Meat Killer
I find it quite incredible how certain ‘truths’ become gospel within society. ‘Red meat kills’, or ‘red meat causes cancer’, or ‘red meat leads to heart disease’ is one of these ‘truths’. The vast majority of people I have conversations with about diet and nutrition will at one point mention this ‘truth’ and they will mention it with the same conviction to the truth as 2 + 2 = 4. This is a ’truth’ whose foundations are built on sand; and to defend that, I will list some pretty reputable studies that call the red meat kills ‘truth’ into disrepute - well they at least did for me.
Sydney Diet Heart Health Study
We have been told through the media and worldwide dietary guidelines that to reduce our risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and cardiovascular disease (CVD) we should consume less saturated fats and more polyunsaturated fats. To this end, this study analysed the effects on CHD and CVD mortality with the substitution of saturated fats for polyunsaturated fats in the form of omega 6 linoleic acid. The study concludes:
“Substituting LA in place of SFA increased all-cause, CVD, and CHD mortality. Advice to increase LA or unspecified PUFAs merits reconsideration.”
A conclusion like this makes me less likely to switch my steak for a salad drenched in rapeseed oil.
Calling into question the diet-heart hypothesis
This hypothesis, made popular by Dr. Ancel Keys in the 1950s, argues by reducing dietary saturated fat, you reduce your serum cholesterol, and thereby, reduce your risk of CVD. However, a meta-analytical study published in the British Medical Journal found that the evidence to support the diet-heart hypothesis is not there.
The WHO’s Guidelines on Saturated Fats needs reviewing
A review paper published in the British Medical Journal, and co-authored by 19 researchers, argues guidelines on saturated fat set out by the WHO needs to be amended. As they “work against the intentions of the guidelines and weaken their effect on chronic disease incidence and mortality”.
The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study
This study spanned 18 countries and looked at the dietary intake of over 135,000 individuals. The study’s primary focus was to assess the associations between the consumption of carbohydrates and fat with CVD and total mortality. I will let the studies conclusions speak for themselves:
“High carbohydrate intake was associated with a higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality. Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke. Global dietary guidelines should be reconsidered in light of these findings”.
Evidence does not support current dietary fat guidelines
This study, led by Zoe Harcombe, is a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials (RCT). The study assessed the relationship between dietary fat, serum cholesterol, and the development of CHD. In short, the evidence does not support the current dietary recommendations to restrict dietary fat, because there is no significant difference in all-cause mortality or CHD mortality. Again, I don’t think an extra steak every now and again is going to prematurely kill me.
Long live HONG KONG!
The people of Hong Kong have the longest life expectancy in the world at 84.8 years, as well as having the highest per capita meat consumption, of over 600 grams per day. The meat consumed in Hong Kong isn’t lean ‘healthy’ meat; it is predominantly fatty cuts of meat, such as pork belly, pork shoulder, fried pork chops, roast goose/duck/chicken with skin and beef brisket just to name a few.
Building on this, the recent historical trend of Hong Kong is a real thorn in the side of the meat vilification narrative. Especially when compared against the western dietary narrative over the same period.
Hong Kong from the 1970s has transformed from a poor nation, where life expectancy and per capita meat consumption was considerably lower than the USA in the 1970s to now where life expectancy and per capita meat consumption is higher than it is in the USA. These two factors have trended inversely over the same period.
Correlations don’t necessarily mean causation, but this pattern does make me question the ‘meat kills you’ narrative. Here is a little study focused on Asian 8 countries (it didn’t include Hong Kong) and concluded “Red meat intake was inversely associated with CVD mortality in men and with cancer mortality in women in Asian countries”.
4) Evolution Says We Ate Meat
For this point, see my longer post on the subject: Meat is BAD FOR YOU! - it doesn’t make evolutionarily sense…
And also this post: A Meat Based Diet | Part 1
In short, evolutionary evidence makes a pretty good case we have been eating meat for a long time.
5) Meat Diseases
The premise of this reason is not too scientific; it is based more on my anecdotal observations, with a little bit of research on nutrition and certain medical conditions.
From my research and life experience, I have never come across a specifically red meat caused disease or one directly linked to metabolic illnesses. There are meat-related diseases/infections such as:
• E. coli from ground beef
• BSE (bovine spongiform encephalitis) from beef cattle aka. mad cow disease
• Trichinosis from pork
• Salmonella from poultry
• Alpha-gal syndrome from Lone Star tick bite
However, these diseases are from bacteria, parasites, prions, etc. that arise due to poor food hygiene and animal husbandry techniques. They are not inherent in the food themselves. Other meat sources such as fish and shellfish do have conditions associated with them, for example, intolerance to proteins in fish and shellfish that manifest as an allergy. Histamine intolerance can be triggered by red meat, but again, this is triggered by bacteria, not the meat.
Whereas I know and have met many people with specific diseases and metabolic illnesses related to and triggered by vegetables and carbohydrates. Here is a list of just a few:
• FODMAP intolerance
• Celiac disease
• Baker’s Lung
• Nut allergies
• Lectins, saponins, and phytic acid intolerance
• Crohn’s disease
• Non-celiac gluten sensitivity
• Oxalate toxicity
• IBS & SIBO
Overall, this makes me think that I am more likely to get an intolerance, allergy, gastrointestinal disease, or metabolic illness from consuming ‘healthy’ vegetables and carbohydrates than I would be consuming red meat. It is not the soundest argument, but it is one that makes me shrug my shoulders and question the meat vilification narrative.
So there you have it - 5 reasons that make me question the ‘meat is bad for you’ argument. This post aims to have hopefully shown you a few arguments that may lead you to question the current nutritional dogma around red meat and to rid you of guilt when you choose to eat a steak on ‘Meatless Monday’.