Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is Red Meat Intrinsically Bad?

One of the most common questions I am asked by my patients is if red meat is bad for them. The answer to this question could fill a book, but I will try to give a more concise and succinct answer here.

I will not address the moral issues associated with eating red meat; rather, I will only focus on the health consequences.

Here's what I have gleaned from my research.  From an evolutionary perspective, man's becoming a carnivore is what allowed the human brain to develop into its current form. Apparently, the addition of animal protein to early man's diet allowed the brain to further develop and evolve to its superiority in the animal kingdom.  At one point in evolution when meat became scarce, allegedly the human brain also degenerated. When the animal population regained its numbers and meat became more readily available, the brain regained its stature. Therefore, the immediate answer to the question above is that meat is not intrinsically unhealthy.

However, there is no question that the meat that was eaten by our ancestors is not the same meat we eat today and most likely not the same quantities. Today's meat is mass produced by feeding cows all sorts of additives such as hormones, antibiotics, corn feed, etc.  According to T. Colin Campbell, PhD, in his controversial book, The China Study, bovine (cow) meat and its byproducts such as milk and cheese are the root cause of most cancers and autoimmune diseases in the world.  (As an aside, every person I have met in my life who told me they had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a degenerative nerve disease, had a history of taking animal derived amino acid supplements and using protein powder products to build muscle. This is not a scientifically valid sample, but one hell of a coincidence. Of note, Campbell claims that MS is one of the consequences of using animal derived protein.)

The other problem with meat is the quantities we consume. Our forebearers had to hunt for their meat and so it was not as readily available as being on a supermarket shelf. It also had less saturated fat because the animals were leaner and more active than the pasture dwelling, sedentary, fattened cows from which we derive most of our meat today. 

The other problem with meat is how it is prepared. Processed meats like salami, bologna, pastrami, etc. have always been notoriously unhealthy because of added nitrites, a known carcinogen.

Furthermore, according to a new study involving more than 2,000 men performed by the University of Southern California and the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, pan-frying red meat may increase man's risk for prostate cancer by up to 40 percent.

"We found that men who ate more than 1.5 servings of pan-fried red meat per week increased their risk of advanced prostate cancer by 30 percent," study leader Mariana Stern, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, said in a university news release. "In addition, men who ate more than 2.5 servings of red meat cooked at high temperatures were 40 percent more likely to have advanced prostate cancer."

Hamburgers, an American favorite, in particular, were linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer, the study found. If people knew how most hamburger meat is prepared and processed here in the U.S., including the nature of fillers added, they would probably never eat a hamburger again. I know I've stopped eating hamburger's based on two videos I saw, one that dealt with the cardiovascular effects of the hamburger in regards to clotting arteries and another that demonstrated what is typically added to them such as other parts of the cow that should be discarded.

The reason for the increased rate of prostate cancer demonstrated by the USC study is not known and may have to do with the formation of DNA-damaging carcinogens -- known as heterocyclic amines -- during the cooking process.

So what's the bottom line?

In my study of longevity and the cultures that seem to enjoy the highest rates, one thing is certain. If they eat any meat at all, it is always as a side dish.

For the record, I am not a vegan and I have no plan anytime soon to become one. First, because as you know I am wild about wild salmon. Vegans don't eat any meat, fish, chicken or otherwise. Second, vegans need to supplement with Vitamin B12, which tells me that it's not natural for us to be vegans if we need a pill made in a plant to maintain our health. Third, because I'm not convinced that a bite here or there of some unprocessed red meat is the poison that some people would have you believe it is.  Fourth, most of the time I come across it when invited to a meal and I don't want to insult my hosts. Having a strong social network is more important to my overall good health and longevity that sticking to an uncompromising position on red meat.

For those looking for yet another reason to minimize red meat and/or have an ecological focus, scientists have calculated that reducing red meat consumption would decrease global warning. So if you've been keeping score, there are a lot more reasons to limit your red meat consumption than maintain it.

In conclusion, I don't think that the red meat we generally have available to us is too healthy from both a heart-wise and overall health perspective (and don't forget ecological). So if you insist on eating red meat, I suggest you think of it as a side dish.

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