Is Red Meat Really Bad For You?
Don’t fall into the common trap of thinking of foods as “good” or “bad.” How to interpret the latest nutrition studies.
A couple of months ago, I did a series on the three most common nutrition traps—mistakes that even health savvy people make. Today, I want to add a fourth one to the list.
As one of my clever readers once quipped:
“There are two types of people in the world: Those who divide everything into two groups, and those who do not.”
I’ve noticed that people often feel a powerful urge to think of foods as being either “good” or “bad.” I guess it’s a way to make this complicated business of food and nutrition a little simpler. But this is just silly.
Obviously, something that is good for you in small quantities can be harmful in large quantities. I have some examples of that phenomenon in my episode on Quality vs. Quantity. And something that is bad for you in large quantities can be perfectly harmless—even beneficial—in small quantities.
Is Red Meat Really Bad For You?
Last week, for example, the Harvard School of Public Health announced the latest in a series of studies finding that people who eat large amounts of red meat have increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and a shorter life expectancy overall. This unleashed a predictable media storm about red meat being “bad” for you.
Completely lost in the shuffle was the part about the quantities involved. The increased disease risk was seen in people who ate two or more servings of red meat every single day. That’s a lot of beef! Researchers found no increased risk in people who ate red meat two or three times a week. So is red meat really “bad” for you—or should we simply avoid eating it twice a day?
Does White Rice Give you Diabetes?
Just today, I came across a headline item suggesting that white rice increases your risk of Type 2 diabetes. But when I clicked through to the study, it turned out that eating a lot of white rice can modestly increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes. Is it really white rice (as opposed to brown rice, bread, or other carbohydrate foods) that’s causing the problem--or it is simply excessive consumption of any grain or carbohydrate? I have my suspicions.
See also: The Whole Truth About Whole Grains
Questions to Ask About Nutrition Research
The next time you hear a news item about a food or ingredient being “bad,” I want you to tune into the details. Is it harmful in any amount whatsoever or only when consumed in excess? If it’s being consumed in large quantities, are there other important foods that are being left out of the diet? What’s being consumed along with it?
The folks who are eating red meat twice a day, for example, how many vegetables are they eating, on average? How many French Fries? Could that play any role in the observed outcome?
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
Another thing to ask is what you’re going to replace this “bad” food with? After all, back in the 1980s when we all got it into our heads that fat was “bad” for us, we went hog-wild on low-fat foods that were much higher in sugar. In retrospect, it’s clear that we jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
Today, grains seem to be in the spotlight. Many people claim that grains are responsible for all kinds of diseases and that no-one can really be healthy until they eliminate them completely. But as I wrote on the Quick and Dirty blog earlier this week:
“Whether eliminating grains can cure lots of health problems depends on what else gets eliminated along with them, and what you replace them with. And you can substitute any other food, food group, or ingredient for the word ‘grains’ in the previous statement.”
In other words, eliminating any major component from your diet is probably going to have a fairly profound impact on the overall nutritional composition of your diet. Any benefits you get may or may not have to do directly with eliminating that component.
The Sum is at Least as Important as the Parts
We spend a lot of energy these days talking about what’s right and wrong with the modern diet. Although the villains may change from decade to decade, we continue to fall into the same trap—and I’m including researchers, policy makers, media, and consumers here. We keep trying to single out individual foods or nutrients as either “The Problem” or “The Solution.” Instead, we need to focus on the overall dietary pattern. How do all the foods we eat fit together? Do they add up to a complete balanced diet? Is anything missing? Do they perhaps add up to too much of a good thing?
We’ll never find one diet that’s ideal for everyone. A lot depends on our biochemistry but also on our food preferences, what’s available to us, lifestyle, and even our beliefs and values. The good news is that there are a lot of ways to build a healthy diet—and few foods that can’t be accommodated.
Keep in Touch
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