Red Meat: A Healthy Choice?

An award-winning journalist says not red meat but refined carbohydrates are responsible for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and many other maladies of civilization. He and other experts weigh in.
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In the wake of the meteoric rise and fall of the Atkins Diet, the concept of eating red meat in recent years has taken a beating in the wider public consciousness.

From books like Fast Food Nation — which brought to light the foul quality of much of the meat in fast food — to attack ads like a recent PETA campaign portraying Inconvenient Truth-teller Al Gore as a portly hypocrite for eating meat, the general message has been that meat is bad. Even environmentalists have joined in, stressing that a calorie of cow has a much larger carbon footprint than a calorie of carrot.

Moreover, many nutritionists and doctors have for decades warned that eating too much red meat is unhealthy.

“The less red meat, the better,” Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Time magazine in 2001, in an article titled “Red Alert on Red Meat.” “At most, it should be eaten only occasionally. And it may be maximally effective not to eat red meat at all.”

At the same time, vegetarianism is increasingly associated with going green and living healthfully. In What to Eat — a widely praised book that came out in 2006 — leading nutritionist Marion Nestle says vegetarians are “demonstrably healthier than meat eaters.”

But are steak dinners really so bad for our health? A controversial, award-winning journalist who is making the rounds on the university lecture circuit says no. In his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes isn’t so much endorsing red meat as he is challenging the very foundation on which the nutrition establishment bases its advice.

“(The balanced diet) has the advantage of being politically correct,” he wrote. “Whether it is healthier, however, than, say, a mostly meat diet absent any refined or easily digestible carbohydrates … is still anybody’s guess.”

His 450-page book, which came out in the fall, hypothesizes that the maladies of western civilization — heart disease, cancer, obesity and even Alzheimer’s — are caused not by the red meat and saturated fat we’ve been told to avoid but by the refined carbohydrates that until recent years were largely overlooked and in many cases even encouraged.

The book isn’t necessarily setting out to vindicate the Atkins Diet, which encourages people to eat meat, eggs, cheese and animal products and abstain from white bread, sugars, potatoes and other carbohydrates. Still, its conclusions amount to a tacit endorsement.

To some extent, Taubes’ book, which delves deep into the history of nutrition research, is bolstered by a surprising spate of recent studies indicating that the Atkins Diet not only may be the most effective weight-loss method but may also protect against heart disease.

Nonetheless, experts of all stripes say long-range studies are still lacking.

Agreement — Up to a Point

Speaking with Miller-McCune.com, Taubes, a self-described carnivore, said his research has led him to believe that humans can thrive on all-meat diets. Indeed, he says, some of the world’s healthiest populations lived this way for centuries.

“The fuel for the low-fat dogma was a kind of anti-meat movement that started in the 1960s,” he said. “I think back to the ’80s, when I was eating skinless chicken breast, pasta and burritos and believed if I had a steak I was going to kill myself. But there never was any particularly compelling evidence that red meat, per se, was particularly bad for you.”

Taubes’ ideas are shunned by much of what he likes to call the nutrition establishment. By now, most of the experts in the field know his name, and many resent his characterization of their life’s work as fatally flawed. His 2002 New York Times article, “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?,” is widely credited for single-handedly reviving the Atkins craze — for a time. The headline alone suggests today’s nutrition experts might be about as wrong as the ones who once insisted that the sun rotates around Earth. In fact, it’s an analogy that Taubes regularly invokes to illustrate how backward he thinks many dieticians have it.

For all of Taubes’ contrarian views, some experts are coming to his defense. His book has been endorsed by Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In his latest book, In Defense of Food — published this year — Pollan refers to Good Calories, Bad Calories as an “important new book.”

To Taubes’ own shock, his work has been publicly praised by Dr. Andrew Weil, the alternative-medicine guru who has long warned against eating too much red meat. In October, shortly after the release of Good Calories, Bad Calories, Weil, who shares a publisher with Taubes, was the lone expert in a group of three on Larry King Live who spoke favorably of the book. The TV moment created a mini-stir in the diet world and was streamed on YouTube.

“I think this is a very important book; I have been recommending it to my medical colleagues and students,” said Weil, eliciting a somewhat relieved-looking nod from Taubes, who had spent the first segment of the show sparring with Oprah Winfrey’s doctor. “He raises big questions, and I think there are some very big ideas in this book. One of them is that there is absolutely no scientific evidence for the belief that fat is the driver of obesity.”

(Later in the show, Winfrey’s doctor, Mehmet C. Oz — co-author of the best-selling You: On a Diet — called Taubes “psychotic” adding, “I think you really believe it’s true.”)

Both Pollan and Weil embrace one of Taubes’ biggest points: that the science leading to the government’s enduring recommendation to eat less fat — and in particular less saturated fat — was flawed, and alternative hypotheses, such as the one condemning simple carbohydrates, were pushed to the margins.

However, both Pollan and Weil stop short of sharing Taubes’ enthusiasm for red meat. Pollan urges people to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Weil repeats his praise for Taubes on his own Web site, which produced a deferential article called “The Surprising Reason People Get Fat,” but says he draws the line at the recommendation to eat a lot of meat. Instead, he steers people toward eating fish.

At least one meat-endorsing expert finds this paradox puzzling. Sally Fallon, who co-authored Eat Fat, Lose Fat with longtime nutrition maverick Dr. Mary Enig, criticized Pollan for not taking a stronger stance, even though his book gives props to the work of Enig. “He talks about (the merits of) traditional foods. Then when you get to his recommendations, they are the opposite of what he just said,” Fallon told Miller-McCune.com. “It's like he forgot what he said.”

Disagreement Is the Spice of Life

Taubes is lecturing at more and more universities and academic conferences. The growing list includes the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, Canada’s McGill University and the University of Southern California.

Taubes also may speak soon at the University of Minnesota, the birthplace of the now increasingly questioned notion that saturated fat and red meat cause heart disease.

One of Taubes’ critics is Willett, chair of the nutrition department at Harvard University, who was quoted in the Time article. Speaking to Miller-McCune.com, Willett stood by his statement from seven years ago on the dangers of red meat.

He said he agrees that sugars and starches, from candy to potatoes, are problematic. In fact, he said, now that trans fats are on the run, refined carbohydrates have replaced them as the No. 1 nutritional problem in the United States. But just because those carbohydrates are bad, he said, does not mean red meat is good.

“You’ve got two bad things being compared,” said Willett, author of the best-selling Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. “Empty calories increase weight gain. … If you replace that with red meat, it’s just about a wash.”

When it comes to heart disease, Willett, one of the leaders of a decades-long project called the Nurses’ Health Study, said he agrees that a diet heavy in red meat is no more dangerous than a diet heavy in refined carbohydrates. But he said red meat seems uniquely correlated to other ailments, such as colon cancer.

“It does look like you would be better eating less red meat,” he said, “particularly processed red meat.”

Willett recommends a diet high in polyunsaturated fats, the kind found in olive oil, fish, nuts, beans, poultry and “maybe some eggs.” Asked to comment on Taubes and his thesis, Willett said, “Taubes has simplistic answers, but there is no simple path to truth.”

Another expert, Dr. Diana Schwarzbein, says eating too few carbohydrates can be just as damaging as eating too many. Unlike Willett, Schwarzbein, an expert on hormone replacement therapy, says there is nothing wrong with eating red meat in moderation. But she says a dearth of carbohydrates leads to a shortage of the insulin needed to keep serotonin levels normalized in the brain. This, she says, can lead to such side effects as sugar cravings, depression, weight gain around the midsection and sleep disturbances.

In general, she believes people should consume two carbohydrate grams for every protein gram. Back in the high-carb craze of the 1980s, she says, the ratio was more like 10-to-1 or 20-to-1. But now “with the pendulum swung to the other end, and the overconsumption of protein, it’s more like 1-to-10 to 20,” she said.

“How ironic is it that the guy (Taubes) who says, ‘Hey, that (high-carb diet) is going too far’ is now advocating something extreme that is low-carb?” she said. “I believe in moderation.”

A Polarizing Figure

A three-time winner of the Science in Society award from the National Association of Science Writers, Taubes studied physics at Harvard and has written well-received books about other scientific controversies, such as cold fusion.

But he touched a nerve with “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” The gist of the article was that Atkins, who had always been widely maligned by experts, might have had it right all along. Maybe the diet was not only the best way to lose weight but also — contrary to what the leading authorities were saying — better for your health.

The article sparked an uproar. Reason magazine printed a scathing article about Taubes called “Big Fat Fake.” And some of the sources in Taubes’ article — including Willett — claimed they were quoted out of context.

In any case, “Big Fat Lie” led to a $700,000 book advance for Good Calories, Bad Calories.

The book took five years to write, and though obviously denser than the article, is no less provocative. While it devotes most of its pages to highlighting the flawed science that led to the many still-existing public notions about nutrition, it does dedicate one section to the possible health benefits of a diet that is 100 percent meat.

In this section, Taubes tells the story of anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who dropped out of Harvard around 1900 and spent a decade with the Inuit, a tribe in Alaska and Canada. The Inuit ate nothing but animal fats — mostly caribou but also fish, seal, polar bear, rabbits and so on. They ate no fruits and vegetables and no carbohydrates.

“The Inuit, (Stefansson) insisted, as well as the visiting explorers and traders who lived on this diet, were among the healthiest if not the most vigorous populations imaginable,” Taubes wrote.

That experience later inspired Stefansson to embark on an experiment in which he and another man — Danish explorer Karsten Anderson — were the subjects. In 1928, overseen by a committee of researchers, the two men ate nothing but meat for one year. After a year of eating 2,600 calories a day, not only did the men lose weight; their blood pressure either dropped or stayed low, their kidneys continued to function without flaw and their mineral and vitamin counts displayed no deficiencies.

“The only dramatic part of the study was the surprisingly undramatic nature of the findings,” wrote Eugene DuBois, the Cornell researcher who summarized the results.

Most striking was the good health of the men despite their deprivation of fiber and Vitamin C — two nutrients lacking in a meat-heavy diet. Taubes explains this by positing a still-untested theory: Perhaps people only need these nutrients when their diets include significant amounts of sugars and starches.

However, the passage about Stefansson is the book’s lone example of an all-meat diet, and Taubes acknowledges that few scientists today will pay much heed to a study containing just two subjects. But few if any other all-meat studies have been done, he added.

“It would probably be considered unethical today,” he said.

In any event, Taubes isn’t convinced that it’s vital for diligent carb-watchers to consume much in the way of fruits, fiber or even leafy greens. “Once you remove (the sugars and white bread), I don’t know if you get any benefit from eating vegetables, other than that it might make your mother happy,” he said.

The best modern-day equivalent to the all-meat studies might be those looking into the merits of the Atkins Diet. Until about five years ago, no such studies existed.

The findings are surprising.

In 2003, a pair of studies from Pennsylvania published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that the meat-heavy, carb-light diet showed not only good results on weight loss but also no adverse health effects. In 2007, a yearlong Stanford study comparing the effects of four different diets on obese women showed similar results: The Atkins Diet was, by a modest margin, the biggest pound-shedder. Also, the cardiovascular health of the Atkins women improved significantly: Their triglycerides plummeted, their blood pressure dropped and their high-density lipoprotein (also known as the “good cholesterol”) rose — all good results.

The study was “pretty much in line with what all the other studies have shown comparing Atkins and low-fat diets,” Bonnie Brehm, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing, told The Washington Post.

And just this month, a University of Illinois study concluded that a high-protein diet with lean meats and low-fat dairy foods was more effective for helping women lose weight without losing bone than a conventional weight-loss diet based on the food-guide pyramid.

“This is an important finding because many people, especially women in midlife, are concerned with both obesity and osteoporosis,” said Ellen Evans, a U of I associate professor of kinesiology, in a statement. “Many people lose bone mass when they lose weight.”

Still, it’s unclear in any of the cases whether the pounds stayed off, and researchers say studies tracking long-term health effects of Atkins are still lacking. Also, the Atkins studies certainly don’t jibe with Schwarzbein’s life experience as a practitioner: She blames the diet for the hormonal problems exhibited by many of her own patients.

The Atkins studies aren’t the only surprising developments of late.

In the book In Defense of Food, Pollan writes that the most up-to-date studies show that “the amount of saturated fat in the diet probably may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease.” He furthermore stated that researchers have been backpedaling from this so-called lipid hypothesis quietly, almost sheepishly.

“The lipid hypothesis is quietly melting away, but no one in the public health community, or the government, seems quite ready to publicly acknowledge it,” he wrote.

Origin of the Thesis

The widespread belief that saturated fat leads to heart disease started in the 1950s. The father of the theory was a University of Minnesota scientist named Ancel Keys, who championed a Mediterranean diet consisting primarily of fruits, vegetables, pastas and bread. His work has enjoyed tremendous staying power.

In 1977, when Sen. George McGovern drafted what came to be known as The Dietary Goals for the United States, he drew heavily on Keys’ research. The first recommendation: Increase carbohydrate consumption. The second (of six) was to decrease the amount of fat in the diet, particularly saturated fat. To this day, such carb-laden grains as bread, pasta and cereals still make up the largest share of the five food groups depicted on the Food Pyramid (now known as MyPyramid). The “Meat & Beans” group is still consigned to the smallest.

When Keys died in 2004 at age 101, The Washington Post published an obituary that — in the first paragraph — stated that he had “discovered that saturated fat was a major cause of heart disease.” (Atkins, by the way, died at age 72.)

If Taubes’ beliefs on carbohydrates are true, wrote Pollan, “then there is no escaping the conclusion that the dietary advice enshrined not only in the McGovern ‘goals’ but also in the National Academy of Sciences report, the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the U.S. food pyramid bears direct responsibility for creating the health crisis that now confronts us.”

Pollan was referring to the oft-mentioned obesity epidemic, which officially began in the early 1980s, the dawn of the high-carb craze.

Willett acknowledges that some of the conclusions drawn from Keys’ studies were “overly simplistic.” But he says Keys’ contribution to science is still valuable. “The main thing that Ancel Keys did was show there was a huge difference in heart-disease rates in different countries,” he said.

As for the results of the recent Atkins studies, Willett isn't surprised. “Those are the studies that compare a high-fat diet with a high-carbohydrate, -starch and -sugar diet,” he said. “Most of those studies show not very much of a difference.”

According to Willett, the real story is how the twofold increase in Americans’ consumption of polyunsaturated fats — fish, beans, nuts, lean meats — has coincided with a 50 percent drop in heart-disease deaths over the past 40 years.

“That was a huge public health accomplishment that was sort of overlooked,” he said.

(Pollan counters this point, however, by suggesting that the lower mortality rates may simply owe to better treatment of heart disease.)

Moving forward, Taubes says he would like to see a study comparing the mostly meat diet to the widely accepted idea of a “balanced diet.” To date, he says, it’s never been done.

He also calls for more studies in what he views as a specific area of neglect: the carbohydrate hypothesis, or the idea that eating too many starches and sugars is the main driver of obesity and heart disease.

“Such trials would be expensive,” Taubes wrote. “But it’s hard to imagine that this controversy will go away if we don’t do them.”

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