March 12, 2009

Seeing red: a meaty topic

I don't want to make anybody see red -- I know this is a topic that has some people gnashing their teeth -- but I have two studies that Made Me Think.

This post is in three parts:

The first is a study quoted by my doc-crush, Dr. Mirkin. (Oh, get a hospital room already, Merry! ) The second was a fairly large study that was published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal.

And the third is a rant -- me sounding off proactively at people who might disagree with my conclusions re study #1 and study #2. (Why? Because I have a headache.)

Headaches make me cranky. You got a problem with that?

The reason I think people might not like these studies is that both of them offer different reasons why we shouldn't eat red meat.

Sudden stampede of all the meat-lovers heading for the door...

Okay, Dr. Mirkin's study first.

There's a molecule called Neu5Gc. Professor Ajit Varki, of the University of California, San Diego discovered that this molecule appears in the tissues of every mammal except humans (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 29, 2003).

To quote Dr. Mirkin verbatim:
"Since humans cannot make Neu5Gc, any amount found in human cells come from the mammals that they have eaten. Neu5Gc is found in high levels in tumors, with the highest levels in metastasizing tumors. In our food supply, Dr. Varki found very high levels of Neu5Gc in beef, pork, lamb and goat, and moderately high amounts in milk and cheese. Low levels are found in turkey, duck, chicken and eggs; and negligible amounts occur in plants and seafood."

My summary: red meat = not good for humans.

The second study was a fairly large study -- 4680 adults aged 40-59 -- published by a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. For the researchers to flatly state, at the end of their abstract, that "An unfavorable effect of red meat on blood pressure was observed" -- that's a strong statement. I have to say that I'm impressed by this study.

Yeah, that's really interesting news, Merry. Ain't going to stop me from ordering prime rib next time I eat out though. So why should I care?

Humans are omnivores; we can eat all kinds of food stuffs that herbivores can't handle. We can take it.

Yeah, those skinny model types just love to eat 1000 calorie hamburgers...
Photo credit: Kate Raynes-Goldie

The proactive rant

Humans are omnivores, we can take it. Indeed, as you can verify by standing outside any Burger King at lunchtime, humans quite frequently do take it. To go. We eat meat. (I am making the assumption that the hordes of people darkening the doors of BK aren't going there for a salad -- at least, not the majority of them.) Then again, humans can also inhale tobacco smoke. Because we can do something does not seem to me to be a sufficient argument to say that it's an intelligent or healthy choice.

I have a feeling that I'm going to get people mad at me by saying red meat is something to maybe possibly consider avoiding. I don't want to get the Primal people going postal on me -- I really do like the Mark's Daily Apple blog and enjoy reading his blog regularly.

I agree that yes, Grok the caveman probably did hit up the local Mammoth King, i.e. he ate meat when he could catch it. I don't think that means he ate meat every day, or that he ate only meat, or that he skipped the veggies because he'd already had a snack on the way home. If your meat meal is still standing on its legs and doesn't really fancy being eaten, sometimes you're going to go without. Ask any lion pack. (From a safe distance. A hungry lion isn't really going to feel like having a debate.) I'm going to go out on a primeval limb and claim that cavemen ate any food was easiest to catch and in most seasons of the year, in most climates of the globe, that would have been fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Unless you're out on your own trying to reenact Survivor, you've got it fairly easy. You don't have to catch the meat, you don't have to gather the nuts or vegetables. You can walk into a convenient store and pick up a package that's already slaughtered, sliced and diced. Just heat and serve. Try to do all the hunting & gathering, curing & cooking on your own and you might well end up like the guy in the book Into the Wild , who died up in Alaska after trying to live off the land. There's debate over what exactly killed him, but the autopsy results showed a man who was well on his way to starvation anyway.

Mark's Daily Apple does not advocate eating the food without walking the workout, but even so I worry that some people will adopt the caveman diet while keeping the modern, sedentary lifestyle. (The guy behind this blog comes from the perspective of someone who could knock of a few triathalons before breakfast, fer pete's sake.)

Anyway -- the point of my rant? The studies that impressed me so much both suggest that humans should not eat red meat. I do not think these studies contradict the basic message of primitive diets such as advocated by certain cool blogs, because a real primitive lifestyle would involve eating all kinds of protein: fish, fowl, or even duck-billed platypus if that was what was available locally.

I grew up firmly believing that I needed the occasional meat meal to survive, so I understand if people don't want to agree with these studies.

Tell me if you think they're wrong.

Or if you think I'm wrong.

Or if you think posting pictures of Paris Hilton pretending to chow down on a burger is wrong. (Anybody seriously believe she actually ate the burger? Really? Cool! Listen, I've got this prime location swampland in Florida that you're just going to looooove. Let me tell you all about it...)


  1. I read the wiki page on that Into the Wild guy. What an idiot! He was asking for it. He obviously didn't have the wits of Survivorman.

    Red meat has been so undesirable to me lately. I may just give it up completely now.

  2. I love red meat...but, I just started it up again last year after a 17 year drought...for iron... However, I only eat it MAYBE once a month and only when its prepared so it costs enough where I can eat it nice and bloody :) mmm...steak


  3. I believe red meat is a necessary part of every person's diet. You're right on target in that our prehistoric progenitors ate whatever they could get their hands on, as a matter of survival. But they didn't survive on red meat. It was a small portion of their diet, as it should be in ours. That's where so many of us get it wrong. We overconsume meats.

  4. You won't get any grief from me, I'm quite happy to stay away from red meat (much to my husband's chagrin). But please don't ask me to give up dairy - I need my cheese and yogurt!

  5. I don't eat it. Therefore, those around me rarely eat it (BK will only bring it into the apartment if I've got a stomach bug that stops me from eating. Which is different from stomach bugs that don't stop me from eating).

    But I'm not giving up dairy

  6. Whew! I thought I was going to be attacked by a bunch of Paris Hilton admirers. What a relief! :)

  7. Sheesh, Merry, are you trying to put me out of business? Cattle ranching is hard enough.....

    First McDonald's decides they are going to buy all their meat from Argentina (because it's cheaper, but they don't tell you that the food safety rules are nowhere near as stringent as in North America) and now Cranky Fitness is advocating everyone give up red meat. Dang, what are you trying to do to me? LOL
    (must go now and read about the Into the Wild guy.)

  8. Oh, Bag Lady, Burger King and millions of people out there all want you to keep going! I think you're safe. Or at least, I hope you and the Rancher thrive -- no matter how cold it gets up there.
    Besides, even if people switch from red meat, there are enough dairy fans to keep you going :)

    I'm sorry to say the "Into the Wild" guy was idealistic to the point of being unrealistic. I read this book, and to me what really killed him was his refusal to want to follow maps.

    He had the idea that it was more 'real' if you discovered things yourself. He got trapped by a river in flood, so he couldn't get back to civilization when his food supply began to run low -- but if he'd kept his map, he would have seen that a mile up from place he'd tried to ford the river, there was a bridge.

  9. Greg, I agree with you -- we (our society) definitely consume too much meat (and fish, fowl, and yada). Mostly plants is the way to go.

  10. I eat red meat nearly every day, but mine is of the venison variety because I am married to Daniel Boone. Venison is a lot leaner than beef, but honestly it wouldn't hurt my feelings to cut back on the meat. I may have to start sneaking some meatless meals into the menu rotation.

    Good post Merry!

  11. I don't eat red meat and I don't miss it. It never excited me - I usually preferred chicken before I went vegetarian. I still eat fish on occasion plus eggs and dairy.

    I would consider eating poultry and beef if I could afford the really good, humane stuff but as I can't, am getting proper nourishment from other sources and don't crave it, I'm cool.

  12. I actually was raised as a vegetarian until I was around 6, when me and my younger brother were introduced to McDonalds by friends. Red Meat has remained something that's not a main part of my diet, strangely. I do have the occasional burger, but because my mind puts it firmly in the "treat" category, it better be a damn good burger, ie NOT one from McHeartattack.

    I'm going to go with Greg, in that I think eating Red Meat *occasionally* is good for the body. But that might just be because I don't wanna give up my burgers ^_~

  13. I've always tried to go easy on red meat because of the colon cancer and heart disease link--though I do enjoy when I have it. I also try to buy the fancy-ass grass-fed hormone free etc type but the that stuff is EXPENSIVE!

    I personally do not care what cavemen did. Why should we emulate them when they didn't live anywhere close to our idea of "old age," when all the lifestyle stuff really matters? While I love Mark's take on a lot of issues, and think natural is generally better than processed, I think the whole "do what caveman did" premise is bogus. I think I have a long cranky blog post coming on that subject someday!

    But the thing that really concerns me is the finding about dairy! I consume a lot of dairy. Must look into this more carefully.

    I wonder if there are any studies linking cancer to dairy consumption in real humans and not just cells? Yikes! (she said, sipping her enormous morning cafe au lait made with nonfat milk).

  14. I don't eat meat or dairy, and I don't need no stinkin study to make me not do it either!

    It feels so much healthier to live this way.

  15. Yeowzers! Guess I'm gonna join the Bag Lady in the minority here. I'm a red meat lover. But there may be a bit of a link here...I also grew up in farming country.

    Living like a caveman does not exactly sound rational in this day and age, but I think the basic idea is summed up thusly: skip the processed crap. And I'm sorry but that applies to red meat as well.

    We should not be buying our meat at mega grocery chains. We should be buying choice cuts direct from small family farmers who raise cattle sensibly, not in feed lots, and without all the drugs. I think folks would be surprised just how much better it tastes, and also it's *got* to be healthier, eh?

    (And yes, now-a-days you can get organic beef in most supermarkets. But you're typically still supporting the mega-industrial-farmers.)

    Of course, sustainably raising cattle means it's pricier. That means you'll naturally eat less of it. Especially in this stinking economy.

    (For transparency's sake: my family eats red meat probably 3-4 times a week. And I follow my own advice.)

  16. bdaiss - hear, hear!! Supporting the local farmers is a terrific idea. Unfortunately, marketing their product is a problem for a lot of small ranchers - it is very expensive and time-consuming to market directly, so a lot of small ranchers sell their calves to those big feedlots. If the government would make it easier for small producers to market directly, the whole world would benefit.
    Sorry, Merry, I know this is far off-topic.
    I'll stop now.

  17. Although I love steak, red meat scares me. Particularly what goes into the cows these days. I agree that if we're gonna eat it, moderation is best.
    And I LOOOOOVE my Greek yogurt! And cheese! I don't drink cow's milk, but I can't seem to give up dairy entirely.
    I guess I'll just have to stick with, again, moderation.

  18. I don't eat a lot of red meat, but what we do we get from local farmers...happy cows, lean good quality meat. I'm about 70% vegetarian...but more for variety than anything else...
    I think if we consume too much red meat it could be a problem.
    The geek in me is off to read those references...I want to know how that protein can be in a tumour if we don't produce it. We may just not know the pathway yet...
    Inquiring geeks want to know...

  19. OK, just want to ad: skinny girls eating burgers=awful stereotype. REAL men eat MEAT, and women exist solely for male "consumption."

  20. I eat red meat occasionally and then only organic, grass fed. No more hormones and chemicals than necessary. I'll take my own hormones over anyone else's. Thanks.

    I doubt the cow business is going to go belly up. The biggest meat eaters out there aren't going to be on their computers reading a blog called Cranky Fitness.
    If anything they'll be reading Beefblogs. I know people who say no matter what, they'd never give it up.

    My husband was a big red meat eater (and sausage/bacon etc.) during his short life and died at age 50 of colon cancer.

  21. These are fascinating articles-- thanks for sharing them! I will pass them on to my veg. friends to gloat over. ;)

    I love hearing all perspectives, but I'm curious where the studies are that show that occasionally eating red meat is healthier than cutting it out altogether. Of course, I think everybody should do the best they can based upon their belief system and preferences. But I bristle when people tell me I should incorporate meat into my diet just as much as they would bristle if I told them they should never eat it (which I don't!).

  22. I think all things in moderations. Including red meat. Which means I eat too much of it.

    This is another message (I've been getting lots of them lately) that points to a need for me to alter my diet. I was happier, more energetic, more clear headed when I got most of calories from fruits and veggies. It's just easier and more pleasant to consume meat.

    I gotta change this thinking. Thanks for some reinforcing information.

  23. Crabby, I can't wait for the "Bogus Cavemen" post. Bring it on!

  24. Bag Lady, I think everything you have to say on this subject is On Topic! You're one of the few people around who do not deal with meat as pre-packaged :)

    And I love the idea of supporting local farmers. (Um... not that I'm planning to move to a place where 40 below is the norm. I support the local farmers 'round these parts instead.)

  25. I can take or leave the meat, what disgusts me is what goes into our food whether it's animal or vegetable - chemicals, horomones, antibiotics - and the majority of Americans don't want to know or care.

    I try to live by the everything in moderation mantra, but I'll take my food without a side of horomones thank you very much.

  26. I'm a fake vegetarian (I eat fish occasionally), so I don't eat red meat.

    I do eat cheese and eggs, but when I do, I feel heavier and more...bleaugh...than when I don't. So I can believe that heavy consumption of animal products is bad for you.

  27. I started cutting back on red meat when I was in high school. That was a quarter-century ago and my body doesn't seem to know what to do with meat any more because it sits in my gut like a rock and makes me miserable. I can have very small portions on occasion, but I never have any desire for it.

    If I had a nutritional deficiency that eating meat could correct, I'd go with grass-fed, hormone-free beef, no matter what the price. It's got more of what you want and less of what you don't, so what's not to like?

    Studies of modern-day nomadic people show that they don't eat big-game foods on a daily basis. We can therefore safely assume our own ancestors didn't either. This isn't to say they were vegetarian, but they were more likely to get protein from a variety of sources, including eggs, insects, fish, birds, and rabbits.

    A varied diet, heavy on veggies, without weird chemicals and processing is best. For those who want or need it, a little lean meat is fine, but it shouldn't be the biggest part of anyone's diet.

  28. I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but unless someone has lived their entire life in a controlled environment, there is no way to pinpoint what causes any given cancer or cause of death.

    Yes, there might be something in beef or other red meats that will be found in tumours, but, how much meat do you have to eat to develop said tumour? That they never tell you. Where were the animals they tested from, were they grain fed, or hormone fed, were they raised next to the "Love Canal"? Or just next to a factory that pumps contaminates into the air 24 hours a day?

    As you can tell I am a bit of a fatalist/cynic and don't believe a whole lot of what I read. I believe in common sense, which tells me to eat red meat, but not every night.

  29. Reb, that's not bubble-bursting, that's an honest opinion!

    One of the best things about Cranky Fitness readers is that even when I don't agree with their viewpoint, I still really like hearing it. It's good to hear both sides of an argument.
    Especially since CF readers have the knack of disagreeing peacefully. Maybe it's because so many of them are Canadians :)

    Some blogs out there, I have seen flame wars break out over lesser topics. shudder

  30. Thanks for the heads up regarding these studies.

    I'm amazed by the shroud of denial. With cancer rates at one out of every two people, um, seems we should be alert to anything that can help prevent cancer.

  31. I'm a vegaquarian (fish-eating vegetarian) most of the time and find that suits me very well. I'm not surprised at the findings of the studies as they pretty much backup the existing research. Weirdly tho, I have to eat meat when I'm pregnant. My iron levels get low and supplements don't do the trick...

  32. Interesting stuff. I don't plan on giving up meat - but I do practice moderation. And typically, I tend to favor chicken and eggs over red meat.

  33. My daughter and boyfriend forced vegetarianism on me but I draw the line at dairy, eggs, and fish. Jeez, give a poor meat eater a break. It's not that I miss red meat so much, it's that I get tired of trying to figure out what to cook, I'm not exactly an "inspired" cook (in fact I hate it). I agree with the idea that occasional red meat is okay but not all the time. That said, my boyfriend has had some problems getting enough protein and iron and his doctor's been having him take supplements and doing regular bloodwork. And believe me, I'm contantly trying to incorporate iron rich foods and protein into our diets. I personally think it would help him to eat red meat once a week but I'm still working on our menu.

  34. I'd get cranky if anybody tried to force me to go vegetarian /or/ carnivore. Just the idea of forcing someone to eat sounds wrong.

    Unless chocolate eclairs are involved. Can't really imagine myself saying "No, no, please don't force me to eat that chocolate eclair, anything but that..." Not happening.

  35. The main problem I found when I was a vegetarian was that people around me just didn't know how to cook without meat being the 'main' dish. I think that is what freaks people out about not eating it. I worried a bit at first but then discovered the wonders of veg. cooking and how many more flavours are possible compared to a hunk of steak with steamed veggies.

  36. Here's an interesting take on the subject:

  37. Hmmm. I don't particularly LIKE eating meat of any sort - I'll eat lamb occasionally because I need the iron. Actually, even with iron tablets daily my iron levels (blood and stored) are always low - but I don't think I'll increase the amount of meat I eat anytime soon.

  38. Oh - PS - we do also sometimes eat kangaroo - because it's cheap and lean and has a small environmental footprint - obviously I live in Australia, so shipping isn't an issue, LOL!

  39. not a red meat fan, thankfully. great post.

  40. Wow, fascinating post!

    I particularly love the part about the caveman eating red meat when he could get it.

    I've been a vegetarian for 11 years now, and one of the most common things that people try to use to convince me to eat meat is the argument that "we're meant to, we evolved that way, it's the food chain: animals are there for humans to eat". I have enough to worry about without caring about what annoying people who try to pick fights eat for dinner, but my standard response is "fine, if want to argue that you have evolved to eat meat then show me that you can go hunt, kill, and cook a cow with your bare hands. If you can do that, eat it with my blessing." And then leave me alone and stop trying to convert me, cause I'm certainly not trying to make you vego.

    My problem with the argument that we have evolved to eat meat is that we are no longer at a stage where we need to kill animals to survive, and most of us don't have the knowledge or skills to do so. Likewise, your point is brilliant, and one that doesn't occur to most people: eating meat every day is not the way humans evolved. It's only very recently in human history that we have had the resources and infrastructure to mass produce and distribute meat products.

    As such, it makes sense that it wouldn't be good for the body to be consuming large amounts of it. Thanks for posting articles that illustrate this point.

  41. Good post. I like seeing different points of view on these issues, especially since we "Dinner Club" with a vegetarian couple, which always makes it challenging to find dishes to cook that we all like. But I'm always up for it.

    However, on the note of "studies" and what they "prove": any scientist, PhD, doctor, lawyer, philanthropist, (you get the idea!) wanting to prove a point in a study will seek out those facts that support what they're trying to prove. So I somewhat agree with Reb on that note (it's no secret to those who know me that I'm a cynic, though I prefer the term "realist!").

    But just like everything else, moderation is key. Our excessive society has learned and is clinging tightly to its newly-found principles of overindulgence...

    Thanks for the post!

  42. When looking at "studies" to see what they "prove" it's a really good idea to look at the "numbers."

    I've seen studies that took 5 or 6 subjects and attempted to prove a hypothesis based on their results. A study like that, I wouldn't pay much attention to. The second study that I linked to in this post had almost 5,000 people in it. That many people, I would take seriously.

  43. Don't eat it very often; it's one of my indulgences. But I really prefer seafood and such for eating meat and I agree that it's better to eat minimal amounts of red meat. I think it's still good to incorporate into our diets occasionally in moderate amounts- but not nearly to the extent that our culture DOES eat the stuff.

  44. Wait a second - so red meat is bad - but according to the survey, milk and cheese are nearly as bad!

    No one seems to suggest that we cut dairy out of our diet - and indeed we need the calcium etc. that dairy provides (with a tip of the hat to creative vegans who find other ways to get calcium, it just isn't as easy to do as drinking a glass of milk!)

    So why cut red meat completely out? We do need iron in our diet and red meat is a great way to get it. It doesn't seem to me that either survey suggests cutting meat out completely. Rather, as many have already suggested, moderation is key.

    Whether you eat red meat every day, or lots of candy every day, or lots of carrots every day (hello orange people!), too much of *anything* can be bad for you!

    I personally have (hormone-free) red meat about once a week - seems to work for me!


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