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Attack of the Evil Harvard Vegetarian(s)?

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | March 16, 2012

Red meat will kill you and you’re all going to die with a hamburger shoved in your gob.

No, not really, but a new study out of The Harvard School of Public Health suggests that you red meat eaters might want to dial it down a little. “Our study adds more evidence to the health risks of eating high amounts of red meat, which has been associated with type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers in other studies,” said lead author An Pan, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, who should not be confused with Pan Am, the recently cancelled ABC televisions about the golden age of air travel. (No need to thank me for clearing that up. I’m here to help.)

I’m not going to dig too deep into the study. I read it. It’s a little confusing, but still pretty interesting. I’ve downloaded the PDF and have stored it in my “studies I refer to at cocktail parties to prove I’m smarter than you are” Dropbox folder. You can read the complete text here or the handy-dandy press release here.

What I’d rather discuss is the savage reaction by the folks out there who really want you to eat cows. it flummoxes me, given the study doesn’t take an anti-meat stance. It just says, “We estimated that substitutions of 1 serving per day of other foods (including fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains) for 1 serving per day of red meat were associated with a 7% to 19% lower mortality risk.” It also stresses that processed meats are worse for you than unprocessed meats. See? No one is telling you that you can’t still kill things and eat them, so quit swinging your kettlebells o’ fury and relax.

Some beef-o-philes seem to have breezed over this message of moderation and declared battle stations, my favorite being Betsy Booren, director of scientific affairs for The American Meat Institute Foundation, who told NPR, “I don’t think there are a lot of risks associated with those processes [used to produce hot dogs or bacon]. They’re made from meat, which is needed in the body.”

Wow, that’s one cutting-edge, science-like quote there, Betsy! Nothing wrong with nitrates, huh? Along those lines, I believe we all might benefit from daily cyanide intake, since it’s derived from health-giving almonds. Although we’re not made from almonds, so maybe that logic is flawed.

(For the record, the American Meat Institute Foundation is a non-profit group set up by the American Meat Institute which, in turn, is a “trade association that represents companies that process 95 percent of red meat and 70 percent of turkey in the US and their suppliers throughout America.”

In other words, non-profit, my ass.

Writer Zoë Harcombe also slams the study in this blog post which, frankly, I find even more confusing than the research itself, albeit in a Sicilian battle-of-wits sort of way. From what I can gather, Zoë disses the study because the scientists failed to properly account for confounding factors such as alcohol intake, BMI, and activity level. She then offers her old alternate math for interpreting the data that supposedly prove the research flawed.

To repeat, I had a hard time understanding her post. The actual study took me about two reads to grasp. Her thing, I’m still a little baffled by, but I think she’s trying to say one of two things. Either, A) she’s better at extrapolating data than a team of Harvard researchers or B) the study was a propaganda piece given “one of the authors (if not more) is known to be vegetarian.”

Gasp! Not the Green Hoard! They’re a plague, worse than the commies! Maybe she has a point, as anyone who’s ever had to scrub down their grill at a BBQ because the one vegetarian you invited wants to grill his tofu after someone else grilled a pork chop. Still, I’m guessing the 7 meat-eaters involved with the study kept a cap on the one anti-meat crusader.

Even if the results from this study are debatable, I think people are missing the big take-away: Americans eat too much poor-quality red meat. Some detractors point out that the study didn’t account for people who eat high-quality, grass-fed meat. True, but still, it completely misses another larger point: too much of any single food is bad. I think it’s extremely short-sighted for “experts” to scream and yell about how we, as a culture, consume too many grains, but it’s okay to consume too much meat. And don’t give me that whole Paleo argument because if you seriously think that primitive people had some sort of stone-aged McDonalds where they could grab a McBison Deluxe 24/7, your knowledge pants are down around your ankles and your ignorance underpants are showing.

Have you ever tried to catch a bison? I have! It’s hard! (Full disclosure: I was a little drunk at the time and the only weapon I had was a spork. I don’t really like to tell that story, but it proves my point here. The fact that I was clad in an orange, fur toga is irrelevant, so I won’t include that detail.) Primitive people ate what they could find when they could find it – and that made their diets pretty varied. Somedays, red meat. Somedays, fowl. Somedays, fish. Somedays, veggies. Somedays, nuts. Most days, a mix of several foods. And, believe it or not, there were some SUPER HEALTHY primitive cultures, such as the Pacific Islanders, who didn’t eat red meat at all!

So stop sputtering and take this study for what it is: a reminder that variety is crucial for healthy living and that processed crap will, if over consumed, kill ya.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to pick my toga up from the cleaners.

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5 thoughts on “Attack of the Evil Harvard Vegetarian(s)?

  1. Scott Cannon

    Your posts are really fun to read! I’m trying to figure out where you got an orange fur toga. Maybe Tony the Tiger? How dare you for stopping his incessant “They’re Great!” vocalization.

    Reply
  2. Popcorn

    Hi Dude.
    I was reading this blog when all the sudden I realized one thing: Nowhere in the New Testament is there mention of Jesus or his Disciple even eating meat . The only animal product mentioned is fish.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    This is just another correlation =/= causation “study”.

    There are no controls. There is only a questionnaire where the participants are supposed to be ‘truthful’ and then they (the ‘scientists’) cherry pick based on what they want the outcome to be.
    They could have easily said people who are left-handed and prefer the color blue to pink have a 90% chance of developing vertigo. And the Headline would read: Dizzy? Color Choices and Their Consequences.

    All Baloney. (mmmm… processed meat product…)

    Reply

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