Should we (ignore the evidence showing how harmful it is to) eat meat?
In last night’s Horizon programme ‘Should I Eat Meat? - The Big Health Dilemma’, Dr Michael Mosley investigated the health effects of red and processed meat. He was to conduct an admittedly unscientific experiment on himself by eating an increased amount of red meat for a month and then assess the effects. In 2012, Michael’s Horizon programme ‘Eat, Fast & Live Longer’ kick-started the 5:2 diet craze so I was eager to see if this new programme would inspire a huge swing towards vegetarian or vegan eating?
The agenda seemed fairly apparent from the off with a limited number of nutrition ‘experts’ including one from the industry-funded British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) saying how meat is an important source of nutrients such as protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. (BNF receives funding from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Coca-Cola, Danone, DuPont, Sainsbury’s, Kelloggs, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Tate & Lyle, The ABF Grocery Group, Unilever… and more). This was misleading as plenty of studies show that meat is not an essential component of the diet and that plant-based diets can support good health and actually help lower the risk of many illnesses and diseases.
In his quest to answer the question ‘should we eat meat?’ Michael then flew off to California to meet a health-conscious Seventh Day Adventist vegetarian family tucking into their veggie sausages and scrambled tofu before talking to Professor Gary Fraser, the principal investigator at Loma Linda University conducting research on veggie and non-veggie Seventh Day Adventists. Professor Fraser is in no doubt that meat harms saying that men who eat beef three times a week (less than 60g per day) have double the risk of fatal heart disease compared to vegetarian men. Next up was a healthy salad-bar style lunch with the father of nutrition epidemiology, Professor Walter Willett, at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Professor Willett’s research concurs that red and processed meat is linked to premature death; 85g of red meat per day increases the risk of premature death by 13 per cent. Even worse though is the 20 per cent increased risk seen in those eating just 35g per day of processed meat – that’s just two rashers of bacon! The programme used the example of two 40-year-old men; one eats a bacon sandwich every day, while the other eats no bacon. The bacon-eater is predicted to die at age 78, two years before the non-bacon-eater. Losing two years over 40 years is, pro-rata, the same as losing one hour a day! That’s like the clocks going forward every night for 40 years!! Just how important is that bacon sandwich? Professor Willett is not a vegetarian – he confessed to eating red meat on just a few occasions per year! Michael looked at some research that suggested the harmful effects of red meat may not be down to the saturated fat but a substance in meat called L-carnitine. Either way, it seemed fairly conclusive – people who eat red and processed meat die earlier.
However, when Michael returned home he turned his attention to a European study looking at the links between meat and early death. The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study has over half a million participants from ten European countries. The EPIC study also found that processed meat (bacon, pork sausages, ham, salami etc) increases the risk of early death but, in contrast to the US studies, found no link between the moderate consumption of red meat and early death. Another EPIC study found that British vegetarians had a similar risk of bowel cancer as meat-eaters but many other studies provide convincing evidence that plant-based diets protect against bowel cancer. Indeed the link between red and processed meat and cancer is so well-established that the World Cancer Research Fund has set the public health goal of “population average consumption of red meat to be no more than 300g a week, very little if any of which to be processed”). So why might these EPIC studies suggest that red meat isn’t as bad as other studies clearly show?
There may be several reasons… It’s a shame Michael didn’t meet with any of the academics involved in the EPIC studies (some of whom are based in London, Cambridge and Oxford in the UK). The EPIC study participants include members of health insurance programs for school and university employees, blood donors, employees of several enterprises, civil servants, participants in mammographic screening programs and ‘health conscious’ subjects from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It may be that the ‘health conscious’ behaviour of the meat-eaters in the EPIC group, goes some way in explaining the discrepancies between the US and European studies. For example, a good intake of fruit and vegetables (and therefore fibre) can help combat some of the potentially harmful effects of meat by reducing the formation of N-nitroso compounds which can lead to cancer. So the moderate consumption of meat may be compensated for to some degree by the beneficial components of the diet – over time how sustainable this is remains to be seen (the US studies were conducted over a longer time period).
Many other studies show that both red and processed meat increase the risk of early death. The evidence red meat causes bowel cancer is so strong now that the World Cancer Research Fund say that people should eat mostly foods of plant origin, limit their intake of red meat and avoid processed meat altogether! Vegetarians have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and lower rates of type 2 diabetes than meat-eaters. They are 30 per cent less likely to develop heart disease. Vegetarians tend to weigh less and are less likely to get cancer.
A new meta-analysis of over 13 studies including over 1.5 million people, published recently in the British Journal of Nutrition, concluded that those who ate the most processed meat had a higher risk of early death; they were 18 per cent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who ate the least processed meat. However, red meat was not far behind; those who ate the most red meat were 16 per cent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. Not much in it really. They also found that increasing the intake of processed meat by 50g per day and red meat by 100g per day increased the risk of early death from cardiovascular disease. The Department of Health advises people who eat more than 90g of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70g. According to UK dietary surveys, four in 10 men and one in 10 women eat more than 90g of red and processed meat every day.
After a month of eating 130g of red meat per day (around 20 per cent of people in the UK eat this much every day) the health check revealed that Michael had gained three kilos around his tummy (the worst place to carry extra weight as it can lead to diabetes and heart disease), his blood pressure went up from 118/69 (very good) to 141/81 (high) and his cholesterol went up from 6.2 (on the high side) to 6.8 (pretty darn high!). At the end of the programme Michael and his wife agreed they would cut back on processed meat but continue to eat red meat a couple of times a week… that’s like fag-free Friday for smokers!
Not only is meat bad for you, it is bad for the planet too as there simply is not enough food to go around as we are constantly deforesting the rain forests to grow plant food for animal feed, plus livestock farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. If people living in the UK reduced their consumption of red and processed meat to the amount eaten by the bottom fifth of the population, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by the equivalent of 28 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year - and more than 70,000 of the life years lost to ill health every year in the UK could be averted.
In summary, the bulk of the evidence shows us that meat is harmful to us and the planet and celebrity medical journalists should not be encouraging people to eat even small amounts, we should be urging people to omit all meat from the diet.