New research says that eating meat is healthy and helps you live longer. But is that true? Well, yes and no. Here’s what you need to know.
A large study of 175 territories/countries (roughly 90% of the earth) just declared that eating meat makes you live longer. They said it right there in the abstract:
“Worldwide, bivariate correlation analyses revealed that meat intake is positively correlated with life expectancies.”
I just know that some of you will run with this news and start lording it over all those holier-than-thou vegetarians. Well, put that on pause for now because you need to read the whole meat-makes-you-live-longer study to understand what it’s really saying.
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve got no horse – nor cow, fish, pig, or lamb – in this race. If meat is proven to make humans live longer, great. If the opposite proves true, fine. I’m an open-minded and adaptive omnivore. Let the nutritional cards fall where they may.
Now, let’s look at the actual study.
The prevailing notion is that vegetarians have greater life expectancy than the people lined up outside Outback Steakhouse. Meat eating has often been shown to have adverse health effects.
But you’ve got to look deeper; you’ve got to play 3-dimensional nutritional chess rather than Hungry Hippos. Some of those studies that showed the life-expectancy advantages of vegetarianism were performed on Seventh-day Adventists, many of whom avoid meats, or at least certain kinds of meats.
However, Seventh-Day Adventists don’t drink, they avoid stimulants of any kind, and they believe in rest, fresh air, sunlight, and good nutrition in general. They also probably avoid hookers, blow, Mountain Dew, Jack Daniels, or BASE jumping. Of course they live longer. The fact that they largely avoid meats is probably incidental to their long(er) lives. Using them as examples of the rich benefits of vegetarianism or semi-vegetarianism makes for a poor argument.
But never mind the vegetarians, for now. The authors of the study uncovered a lot of statistics that support meat as a life extender. For one, they found out that the relationship between eating meat and extended life is independent of the effects of caloric intake, socioeconomic status, obesity, urbanization, and education.
They reason, correctly, that meat is a complete protein that’s rich in vitamins – particularly in the often hard-to-find B12 – and all essential minerals. Eating it promotes better physical growth and development: “Simply put, a human animal consuming a body of another animal gets practically all constituent compounds of its own body.”
But what about all those other studies that found eating meat makes your heart congeal into a hockey puck, or that it causes cancer, canker sores, bad breath, an inability to love, or any one of another dozen maladies that plague humans?
Phooey, say the authors of the meat/longevity study. They point to another research paper published by Lancet Public Health advocates that posits that the saturated fat in meat might actually be cardio-protective.
Further, Wenpeng You and his colleagues on the meat study point out that all those “findings” are based on epidemiological studies and not clinical trials.
The problem with epidemiological studies? Confounding factors. They’re like the studies on the Seventh-Day Adventists. How do we know that some category of food influenced life span in a particular subsection of society when the benefits might have been related to lifestyle (avoidance of alcohol, for instance) or economic status (people with money live cleaner, eat better, and have access to doctors)?
In most cases, we don’t know, so the value of these studies is always slightly suspect.
So now we’re all on board with the life-extending qualities of meat, right? Wenpeng and his colleagues have shut the door on the meat locker of this argument, and there’s no need for further discussion. Feel free to organismically incorporate the living energy of countless beings without guilt.
Or maybe the argument’s not over? Again, we need to look deeper into the study.
Wenpeng and his colleagues, unfortunately, present a rather limited definition of vegetarianism. Their study didn’t really compare meat-eating to a diet consisting of a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Instead, they compared groups who got most of their energy from meat with groups whose primary energy sources were cereals, starchy roots, and sugars.
So, can we agree that regularly eating meat is healthier than regularly gnawing on potatoes? I hope so because meat – any kind of meat – provides more of a well-balanced assortment of nutrients than a gnarled tuber.
But here’s the quote where the main, headline-grabbing point (meat equals longer life) of his study collapses:
"Studies looking into the diets of wealthy, highly-educated communities are looking at people who have the purchasing power and the knowledge to select plant-based diets that access the full nutrients normally contained in meat. Essentially, they have replaced meat with all the same nutrition meat provides.
"Proteins are easy to obtain by incorporating nuts and beans into the diet. Vitamin B12 can be absorbed adequately from cheese, eggs, milk, and artificially fortified pills, and iron can be found in legumes, grains, nuts, and a range of vegetables.
“Relying on meat nutrient replacements and available food products, well-planned vegetarian diets, including vegan diets, are nutritionally adequate and are appropriate for various individuals during all stages of life, but it is only because their nutritional composition adequately imitates and replaces what is commonly provided by meat.”
Ack! So, this study of 175 territories/countries revealed what any 6th grader could figure out: It’s good nutrition in general rather than any particular food or food group that promotes longevity!
Despite what Wengpen You asserts, I’m going to tell you how meat CAN negatively correlate with life span. Oh, the clinical trials might not support my assertions (yet), but there are plenty of studies that point to meat-related or meat-induced downstream chemical reactions that would likely shorten life span rather than lengthen it.
But just so you don’t hemorrhage during my meat expose, I’ll also tell you how you can fix these meat problems. First up, the problems with meat.
You’ve probably heard about lipid oxidation. Aside from mucking up the flavor and nutritional value of various fats, the oxidation of dietary lipids can lead to the production of carcinogens, DNA-damaging hydroperoxides, and carbonyl compounds that interfere with cellular signal transduction, all contributing to the initiation of a host of diseases typically associated with old age and rotten health.
But the effects of protein oxidation are a lot less well known. It has to do with the oxidative degradation of particular amino acids instead of lipids. It occurs during the handling, processing, storage, preparation, and even digestion of muscle meats.
Once it occurs – and it almost always does, at least somewhere along the line between slaughter and digestion – it can expose organs to the cytotoxic and mutagenic potential of these free radical species. This could possibly contribute to the development of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, inflammatory bowel disease, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, premature aging, and a host of other stuff you don’t want.
When you cook meat, it turns brown. It’s a process called the Maillard Reaction, which is simply the cross-linking of sugars to protein, resulting in the production of something called advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
AGEs are common in food, especially meats, and these meats are especially prone to the formation of new AGEs during cooking processes like broiling, grilling, roasting, searing, and frying. Incidentally, it’s also virtually identical to what happens to your body when you habitually keep blood sugar levels above approximately 85 dl/mg.
If blood sugar levels are kept high enough, long enough, or if you ingest enough AGEs, you’re effectively slow cooking yourself, leading to diabetes, kidney disease, joint deterioration, stiffening of connective tissues, cataracts, and atherosclerosis.
You know those char marks every barbecue expert prides themselves on? They’re nothing but cancer stripes. Each one is indicative of the high-heat formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are carcinogenic.
I’ll admit, though, that it might take ingesting a lot of HCAs to cause cancer in a human, but no one has yet looked at the cumulative effects of eating most of your dinners at Billy Bob’s Rib and Pig-Chuckle Hut.
Luckily, there are ways to safeguard your meat so that it really is life-extending.
The freer your meat is from any human handling or processing, even if that processing just involves freezing and thawing, the less protein oxidation it suffers. Pretend you live in New York City in the 1940s and don’t have a refrigerator in your apartment, so you have to make daily trips to the butcher to get your protein.
While buying a “clean” sausage is possible, most of these things are so heavily processed that they’re an oxidative nightmare. That goes double for processed lunchmeats. However, the fact that many of these monstrosities contain protein-oxidation-reducing spices might be their saving grace (see below).
Several spices reduce protein oxidation: marjoram, sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary, mint, turmeric, curry powder, chili powder, black pepper, parsley, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary, cloves, and ground cinnamon.
Each of these is rich in protective polyphenols. Use any of these to flavor up your meat while bulletproofing it against oxidation AND the formation of HCAs.
Use cooking oils with a high polyphenol content like extra virgin olive oil to prepare your cut of meat. You might also want to use meat condiments like jams or fruit purees to add protection against oxidation, along with providing some pizzazz.
Cured meats have had their moisture removed through the use of salt or other chemicals. Representatives include beef jerky and, unfortunately, bacon.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to turn your back on the latter, though. Bacon is just too nutritious (while possessing a good amount of unsaturated fat) to give up without a fight, so try to eat it along with a glass of orange juice so its polyphenols can offer some protection against the heavily oxidized meat.
Repeat after me, “I will never order any meat well-done.” Neither will you eat meat that is burnt or blackened. Use low to moderate heat to cook meat. Likewise, avoid simmering meat at 220 degrees for long periods of time.
If you have one of those vacuum pack machines that serial killers use to preserve their uneaten body parts, consider using it on your freshly bought meat before storing it in the freezer.
Meats with lower fat content have fewer cross-reactions between oxidized fats and oxidized proteins. If the meat you’re cooking has a high drip loss (it loses a lot of its mass when you cook it), it’s indicative of a low-quality piece of meat and more prone to protein oxidation. Choose lower-fat red meats or lower fat meats like chicken and fish.
It may be a culinary drag, but cooking methods like poaching, steaming, stewing, and boiling can significantly reduce the formation of AGEs in meat. Okay, maybe the idea of ordering a boiled steak from Ruth’s Chris doesn’t sit well with you. Don’t kill yourself just yet, though. You can also limit AGE production by using acidic meat marinades like lemon juice or vinegar, common in Asian and Mediterranean cooking.
What struck me as odd about Wenpeng You’s paper was that it focused almost exclusively on the vitamins and minerals in meat vs. those in cereals and starchy roots. His group didn’t even consider the polyphenol and carotenoid content of plants that, as is becoming clearer every day, play a significant role in human health.
Neither did they consider the relative percentage of macronutrients ingested by the populations studied. Is he suggesting fatty acid ratios don’t matter when it comes to life span? What about protein content? If meat-eating really did equate to longer life spans, wouldn’t meat’s protein content have a big part to play?
The hormones and enzymes that regulate most of your bodily functions are made of protein. Proteins comprise antibodies and transmit signals between cells, tissues, and organs. They form the scaffolding upon which cellular constituents are built. Since protein isn’t stored, the body starts stealing it from the muscles if the diet doesn’t provide it.
This leads to a lack of mobility and the inability to manufacture all the aforementioned hormones and enzymes. Healing slows. Chronic disease grabs a foothold. Mental functions decline. Death says hello.
All this points to what Wenpeng You’s group alluded to but didn’t explain fully: That it’s not specifically meat that contributes to good health and a long life span but all-round proper nutrition, and whether the essential vitamins and minerals, polyphenols and carotenoids, fatty acids, and optimal protein intake that makes for proper nutrition comes from a diet that incorporates both meat and plants or just plants – with appropriate provisions made for the absence of meat – is irrelevant.
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