The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, updated every five years, never fails to cause a stir. For the current revision, released in February, a federally appointed scientific committee — after a two-year review of the latest research and numerous public hearings — has recommended (PDF) lowering consumption of red meat and processed meat.
Despite being fairly tepid, this advice set off a media firestorm, driven by a defensive meat industry and others who have been muddying the waters for some time on the role of meat in the diet. The meat lobby is taking full advantage of the current “debate.”
Adding to the confusion is Nina Teicholz, the best-selling author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” whose recent attempts to discredit the committee’s recommendations on meat have been published in The New York Times, alongside meat industry trade publications such as Beef Magazine and Cattle Network.
Most of the discourse around red meat has largely focused on two issues: whether or not saturated fat is unfairly vilified as contributing to heart disease, and how, despite lowering their intake of red meat, Americans continue to gain weight.
The nutritionally myopic approach to meat-eating’s relationship to heart disease and obesity plays right into the meat lobby’s game. It’s a strategy honed by the tobacco industry decades ago: Create enough doubt to maintain the status quo — in this case, the promotion of red meat by the federal government.
Currently, federal dietary advice is to “choose lean meat,” a politically safe message that is itself the product of meat industry lobbying to undermine previous committee findings that Americans should lower red meat intake. The meat lobby is desperate to keep this friendly message in the revised dietary guidelines, but it’s a confusing recommendation that falsely attributes health advantages to foods that should (at best) be limited. A look at the science on red and processed meat reveals that fat content is far from the sole cause of concern.
Claims that lowered red meat consumption has resulted in higher obesity rates are pure obfuscation. Although beef intake has declined in recent years, consumption of other types of meat (mainly poultry), along with cheese and highly refined foods, has significantly increased, providing a surplus of calories. Lowered beef intake in and of itself is not responsible for the obesity epidemic.
Another common argument we hear from the meat lobby is that red meat is “nutrient dense,” a phrase that refers to the amount of nutrients available in food on a per-calorie basis.
But plant foods contain all nutrients available in animal foods (except for vitamin B12), as well as fiber (not found in any animal foods) and thousands of phytochemicals, compounds made by plants that offer an array of health advantages, including reducing inflammation, protecting the cardiovascular system and acting as antioxidants.
Just as important but rarely mentioned are the numerous health-damaging components found in meat. For example, Trimethylamine N-Oxide (produced when a compound found in red meat called L-carnitine is metabolized) is associated with inflammation, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke and death. Neu5GC, a sugar molecule found in red meat, metabolically accumulates and has been found to promote chronic inflammation. In addition, when meat is cooked, compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heterocyclic amines (HCAs), and advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are formed. These compounds are carcinogenic, pro-inflammatory and pro-oxidative; they also contribute to chronic disease.
Also missing in the “my science is better than your science” framework of the red meat debate is this major health concern: cancer.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found the evidence that diets high in red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, sausage, deli meats, etc.) increase the risk of colorectal cancer “convincing” — a word the committee used sparingly throughout its report. Many epidemiologic studies have reported a significant association between high intakes of red and processed meats, with increases in cancer incidence and death in a dose-dependent relationship.
Processed meats (think Oscar Meyer) are so harmful that the American Institute for Cancer Research says, “Eating even small amounts of cold cuts or other processed meats on a regular basis increases the risk of colorectal cancer,” and recommends “avoiding these foods, except for special occasions.” In other words, no amount of processed meats is safe. How is it we never hear about that from either the meat lobby or best-selling authors?
This advice applies to all processed meats, regardless of fat content. So a “choose lean meat” message is counterproductive, confusing and even potentially deadly. Lean ham, for example, is a processed meat. Ham’s lower fat content in relation to other processed meats such as bologna does not make it a healthful (or even safe) choice.
Moreover, as long as Americans continue to keep meat at the center of their plates, they are not making room for healthier plant-based options. Indeed, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s strongest finding was that Americans should increase their intake of fresh fruits and vegetables. In their words, “Vegetables and fruit are the only characteristics of the diet that were consistently identified in every conclusion statement across the health outcomes.” Once again, the pro-meat cabal ignores this science.
According to a recent article co-authored by Harvard nutrition professor Walter Willett, Americans’ health can directly benefit from lowering intake of animal-based foods and consuming more plant-based foods (emphasis added):
The current diets of Americans have a huge potential for improvement, with a high consumption of highly processed and animal-based foods at the expense of plant-based foods. The average American consumes 45 percent more meat per week than is recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Plant-based foods are more than just meat and protein substitutes. They are health-promoting foods that hold the key to better health. Dietary guidelines should not only promote plant-based foods; they should also contain explicit language recommending limited intake of red and processed meats, regardless of leanness, alleged “nutrient density” or what the latest fad diet-promoting authors have to say.
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