A few weeks ago the media was awash with the latest 'Eat meat and DIE" propaganda.
While its true you should always care about the quality of the meat you eat, blanket claims about meat causing cancer is sensationalist media at its finest. Remember;
The better life an animal has had – plenty of time outdoors, eating what is naturally in its diet– the better it is for your health and your conscience.
You always want to avoid livestock that has been brought up on hormones and antibiotics as you'll protect your own sensitive gut bacteria balance.
Curing meats is a form of processing, and we all know that the less processed a food is, the better it is for you. An eye fillet steak from an organic grass-fed cow will always top a stadium brought hot-dog. Thats a no-brainer. But no bacon is not as bad as smoking, and it is not proven to cause cancer.
Firstly bare in mind that large observational studies use food/ meal recall data which is extremely inaccurate. Often participants are asked what foods they ate over a few days, sometimes even weeks. Can you remember all the food and quantities you ate last tuesday?
When confronted with click-bait health claims in a study, the most important thing to determine is whether the study suffers from what is known as a 'Healthy-user-bias'. To this day there is not a single valid study that proves a meatless diet is superior to a omnivorous diet. Not one. Despite how frequently certain self-righteous diet-factions shout about it from the roof tops.
Same thing right? Seems fair...
The large observational studies (like the one the World Health Organisation released recently) all contain a Healthy-user-bias which basically means that participants of one population that engage in behaviours that are (perceived to be) healthy are likely to engage in other behaviours that are also healthy. The converse is also true. Those that engage in an unhealthy habit, are more likely to engage in other unhealthy habits.
For example, people that subscribe to a diet that emphasises large amounts of fresh produce (Paleo, Vegetarian, Vegan, Mediterranean diets) are also more likely to exercise, not smoke, and intake less alcohol than their more care-free counterparts.
So comparing vegetarians to ALL meat eaters is extremely biased and could never be accurate. A demographic that chugs down gallon size soda drinks with their hotdogs in between cigarettes and health conscious meat-eaters can not – and should not – ever be lumped together in the same group within a study. Without differentiation between the other detrimental lifestyle behaviours, the study can not validly prove anything health related.
Instead of comparing the “average” meat eater (who tends to be less health conscious) with the “average” vegetarian (who tends to be more health conscious), what happens when you compare vegetarians and omnivores that are both health-conscious?
These studies have never been done, and should be. Read more on the flaws of the WHO report, here: NYTimes
I should emphasise here that I am not against the vegetarian diet as a whole or vegetarians for that matter. If it works well for someone, great! Each to their own and all that. It is a huge step forward in terms of health compared to the typical western diet.
I just have a big problem with inaccurate science being used (all to frequently) to sell headlines, and mislead an already confused public.
On a final note I do feel it's fair to mention that there is actually one extremely valid and rather large study that proves including unprocessed, free range, organic meat in the human diet does benefit factors such as bone density, brain size, dental health and better lean tissue/ fat mass ratio's in humans when compared to plant based diets and those high in starches and cereals.
It is called the Evolution of Man. (1), (2)
(1) Aiello, L. C., & Wheeler, P. The expensive-tissue hypothesis: The brain and digestive system in human and primate evolution. Current Anthropology 36, 199-221 (1995)
(2) Caries Through Time: An Anthropological Overview Luis Pezo Lanfranco and Sabine Eggers Laboratório de Antropologia Biológica, Depto. de Genética e Biologia Evolutiva, Instituto de Biociências, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil