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Dr Sneh Khemka Headshot

The Vegetarians Win Again - Or Maybe Not...

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It's not exactly breaking news, but the most recent study to link high red meat consumption and early death seems to have gained more light in the media than usual.

Once again, the nation is faced with images of slabs of red meat slapped across the papers and web, with headlines telling us to put down the bacon sandwich or be prepared to risk heart problems, cancer and an early death.

But are the percentages we're being bombarded with really as extreme as the new study is making out? And could such research be encouraging people to cut out an important component of a balanced diet altogether?

The study in question was undeniably large - Harvard researchers followed more than 100,000 people for around 28 years, collecting data about their diet and lifestyle periodically. Analysing the results, the researchers suggest that adding just a single portion of red meat to your daily diet would increase your risk of early death by 13%. For processed meat, the figures came out even higher, rising to a scary 20%.

And the risks associated with developing cardiovascular disease and cancer also came out at equally alarming figures.

Considering similar warnings from numerous studies over the years, I can't argue the fact that red meat should be enjoyed in moderation, and processed meat has been linked time and time again to poor health. But the statistics in the headlines are causing unnecessary alarm and confusion. How much red meat should we actually be eating? Should we even eat it at all?

It would be easy for the everyday reader, glancing over the papers, to take away the message that eating a bacon sandwich everyday would give you a one in five chance of dying. In reality, your risks are nowhere near this - once again an example of the daily papers loving a juicy statistic.

Reading the Harvard research paper, it's hard not to think about 'cause and effect'. In simple terms, was red meat consumption really the cause of the disease and mortality rates observed? In a study where all the participants self-reported their diet, and, as quoted in the paper, "the study did not update dietary information during follow-up", I'd say it's not a guarantee. This is where the phrase 'reading behind the headlines' is highly appropriate.

All this bad press for red meat could potentially cause many to cut it out completely. What happened to the promotion of a balanced diet? Red meat is packed with essential nutrients, such as iron, zinc, vitamin D, B3 and B12, just to name a few. Cutting out red meat could certainly reduce your risk of some diseases, but could all this exaggerated media attention cause the health conscious to become nutritionally deprived?

And let's not forget that this study was conducted in America, a country well known for its high consumption of processed foods. It would be much wiser for us Brits to listen to the advice of organisations on our home soil. The Department of Health recommends that we have no more than 70g of red meat a day. In food terms that's one lamb chop, three slices of ham or a rasher of bacon. Sounds realistic to me...

The British Heart Foundation is also still encouraging the inclusion of red meat in our diet, but with a far more sensible message - keep it in moderation (no more than two or three portions a week), choose leaner cuts and use healthier cooking methods, such as grilling. Surely this is what the population should be reading in the papers, instead of misleading statistics and exaggerated data.

I'm certainly not denying that a high consumption of meat is linked to disease. We are faced with this fact regularly, and it's a wise idea to cut down on the bacon for breakfast if it's become a regular occurrence. But it seems that as soon as we're told something is bad for us, the next morning's papers are saying it's not. So, don't throw out the barbeque just yet. You never know what tomorrow's headlines may bring. It could well be 'Barbequing food is the healthiest option.'

I'm off to enjoy some lightly grilled lamb chops, slightly rare, and I might just have some chips as well...

Around the Web

Red meat - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Red Meat – What are the Negative Health Effects of Red Meat?

Red meat 'increases health risks' - BBC

BBC News - Red meat study: Health risks 'very clear'

Red meat is blamed for one in 10 early deaths - Telegraph