Meat is bad for you. Wait, it’s OK

Contrary to decades of work, researchers from Dalhousie and McMaster Universities recently found that red meat, including bacon, is not harmful. It wasn’t a new study but rather a “study of studies,” a meta-analysis of existing studies.

image: Foreman Grill Recipes

It was a perfectly flawed study. Perfect because it offered a veneer of the scientific method; flawed because of what it didn’t include.

It didn’t include studies that found the opposite of their conclusion. Those well-researched studies found a link between meat consumption and coronary heart disease, heart attack, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular death and all-cause mortality. That’s quite an exclusion.

As well, the researcher’s conclusions were contrary to those of the World Health Organization, the Canadian Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and the American Heart Association. Their findings also diverged from Canada’s new Food Guide which suggests eating less animal protein.

Why did the researchers not include studies that concluded the opposite of their report? They weren’t funded by the cattle or pork industry. The reason that they didn’t include the studies was technical. The self-selected 14 member panel decided that these findings were not of sufficient quality.

What they did include is suspect. For example, they included one trial that dominated their analysis; a trial involved almost 49,000 women. But that trial was designed to examine dietary fat intake, not meat intake says nutritionist Leslie Beck (Globe and Mail, October 2, 2019).  It seems to me that a study purporting to investigate the relationship between meat consumption and health shouldn’t include fat consumption.

And the researcher’s findings were flawed in another way. They did not distinguish between the consumption of red meat and processed meat, despite evidence that processed meat such as bacon is more harmful.

It’s not surprising that their study should come to the conclusion that it did. Obviously, what’s included will determine the outcome.

The researchers at Dalhousie and McMaster Universities were exhaustive in a peculiar way. They were exhaustive in the number of findings: they conducted not just one review but five.

Three of the reviews analyzed more than 100 observational studies involving more than six million participants. These types of studies link associations between consumption and health by following people for decades to see if participants who became ill or died.

Another of the five reviews analyzed randomized controlled trials, studies that show cause and effect of eating more or less red meat.

The researchers were thorough enough to appear scientific but blind in excluding accepted knowledge. They couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

The authors acknowledged their lack of confidence in their data. They conceded that their recommendation was weak but judging by the headlines they received, you wouldn’t know it.

Finally, studies on groups of people don’t necessarily predict outcomes for individuals. Leslie Beck says:

“A large body of evidence suggests that a high intake of red and processed meat increases the risk of ill health. I acknowledge that the risk on an individual level may be small, and that it’s your overall diet that matters most when it comes to health, not one food.”


How to market sugar water

There’s no doubt that consumption of pop is harmful, even deadly but you’d never know it from the soft drink industry. Professor Paulette Nestle, nutritionist at New York University, is blunt:

“The science is clear. Kids and adults who drink pop tend to be heavier and have a higher prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay.”


Studies funded by the soft drink industry find the opposite: roughly 85 per cent of them find pop to be harmless. And if there is a problem, they say, it’s your fault. No one is holding a gun to your head and forcing pop down your throat. The problem lies on the shoulders of individual consumers. It’s a matter of choice. If only consumers would exercise more.

However, consumers make choices on what they perceive about a product and the sugar water industry is persuasive. They spend millions of dollars on Super Bowl ads that avoid the product itself. Instead, they market deep emotional connections to friends and family. If I can find happiness in a can of Coke, why wouldn’t I drink it?

And if I can find my identity in a can of pop, all the better. Coke sells cans with my name on it and words such as Love and Superstar. Who wouldn’t want to support a corporation that supports the arts, community projects, and cleaning up the environment?

“When Philadelphia was considering a soft-drink tax, Coke offered to give the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia $10 million. It’s that kind of thing,” says the author of eight books in a newsletter from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

It’s a standard tactic used by the merchants of misery. You see it used by proponents of Ajax mine in Kamloops. They don’t address the problems that the mine will create: like toxic dust, groundwater contamination, potential sludge spills, the environmental headache created by the mountain of tailings when they leave.

No, Ajax mine tells us how important copper is to our daily lives, how they will create jobs, how they support our university and the arts. To oppose the mine is to oppose family and community, they would have us to believe.

The sugar water industry has learned from the tobacco industry that you can counter science by creating doubt. Sure, 99 per cent of studies might find that consumption of tobacco causes cancer but if only one study is inconclusive, then maybe tobacco is not that bad. It’s human nature to hope that something we want will be OK despite mounting evidence to the contrary, something we are addicted to or feel a deep emotional connection to, something that will create jobs.

Another tool in the toolbox is to fund groups like the Global Energy Balance Network. The group employed scientists of considerable stature who found that lack of exercise, not diet, was responsible for the obesity epidemic. Then a reporter for the New York Times discovered that these scientists had been taking millions of dollars in research grants from Coca Cola including funding of the website.

One of these scientists said not worry about eating less, gobbling junk food, drinking pop. Just be more active. Would it were true.

High-fat marketing is likely to win over low-fat reasoning  

For the first time in recent history, our children will die sooner than we do.  Modern medicine has managed to increase the life span of each generation. But modern medicine has failed to find a cure for obesity or an answer to the puzzle of why we are eating ourselves to death.  We know we eat too much of the wrong things and exercise too little, but that insight hasn’t saved us.

Part of the problem is that modern food is too good for our own good.  Along with the essentials of air and water, we are hard-wired to seek and consume food.   Not only is eating essential, it is enjoyable.  How many other basic needs can be fulfilled so easily?  We love to eat.  And delicious, high calorie food is plentiful and relatively cheap.

The complications of obesity are going to prematurely kill the next generation and we are helpless.  It used to be called adult-onset diabetes because it was a problem for mature adults.  Now it’s called type 2 diabetes because it’s affecting younger people.

Our health care system will be hit by two generations.  Aging baby boomers will be requiring medical attention about the same time as their obese children.  Obesity is already costing us billions of dollars a year and that number will skyrocket.

The price of obesity will be paid by all of us but low income families will bear the greatest burden. Low income families already have poorer health.  They will also suffer the most from obesity.

Harvey Levenstein is a social historian who has studied two centuries of North American eating habits.  “Normally an epidemic hits a huge swath of people, and to call the obesity rise an epidemic implies that everyone is being affected by it.  But much of it is concentrated among lower income people, that it’s very much class related,” Levenstein says.

The fast food industry can hardly be blamed for making delicious food.  Health is not their mandate, marketing and profits are.  Hamburgers, shakes and fries are wonderful.  We will go a long way to get them.  The Bushman of the Shuswap (aka John Bjornstrom) would walk 35 km for a Big Mac.   Even the good life of living in the Shuswap gets a bit tiresome.  Bjornstrom hunted squirrels and gathered cans of beans from the cabins that he pillaged but eventually he succumbed to the lure of fast food.

Our prehistoric ancestors hunted and gathered food as well.  Just getting enough to eat was a constant challenge.  They didn’t have the luxury of raiding nearby cabins or a McDonalds restaurant to take the kids.  They ate mostly high-fiber, low calorie food.  Their digestive systems are designed for processing a large volume of food.   Even when hunters brought down a mastodon, it was with the great expenditure of effort.   And without refrigerators, you better barbecue those steaks pretty fast or you’ll have a smelly mess on your hands.

We have the same high capacity digestive systems as our ancestors and we have the same grazing instincts.  The problem is that we are not grazing on roots, seeds, and berries. Our food is a mismatch for our guts.  It’s high in calories and low in fiber.  So we eat and eat because of a biological imperative.  Primitive urges kick in.

We want to blame someone else – – fast food restaurants for making cheap delicious food, our kids for sitting in front of the TV or computer too much, our parents for not passing on their good eating habits.

We imagine that there was a time when families ate right and that we just need to return to the good old days.  Rena Mendelson, one of Canada’s leading nutritionists, says, “You know, if we look back to the golden days of the 50s and think about what people actually ate. People deep-fried their own French fries in those days, they even deep-fried doughnuts. The table had large servings of meat. So sometimes we glamorize the past.”

Faced with possible government regulations, the fast food industry is reacting. In a series of highly publicized moves, they’ve announced new labeling and new lower fat choices.

We know what we should be eating, and we know we should exercise more, but will we?  Primitive instincts and the marketing of high-calorie food will probably win over reason.