For an overview of the sorry history of food diaries see Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories.” Read it, if for no other reason than to rehearse the details of how politics pollutes science. Argue with his conclusions if you wish but no argument will stand against the very factual telling of the checkered history of epidemiological studies of eating behavior; especially those based on food diaries which, after all, is almost all of them.
How this will bear on what I have to say about the role of red meat and dairy in a sound diet will become clear in a minute. For decades all assessments of the effects of diet on the health of Western man have been derived from food questionnaires administered to particular populations, nurses or docs or firemen for example, and then following the health history of those same or a presumed to be similar population over time.
There are at least two problems later work has found in this approach. The first is formally a kind of observational bias; the questionnaires were phrased in such a way that there was no question-based way to distinguish between bologna and fresh venison: between a hamburger from McDonald’s and one made from grass fed, grass finished fresh ground beef. So if there were any health consequences from eating blood sausage that were different from eating Oscar Meyer hot dogs the epidemiological studies would not have found it; could not have found it. Any bad effects from eating processed meat could not be distinguished from any health benefit of road kill because it was all categorized as ‘red meat.’ It never occurred to those who designed the questionnaires that there could be different effects from foods from different sources. To add insult to injury it turns out that some of those who designed the questionnaires were doctrinaire vegetarians- several of the primary researchers in Framingham are examples- and, for comparison’s sake, in a court of law, would have had to recuse themselves as biased about the outcome. Contamination of any health or illness effect of red meat is scattered throughout the medical, epidemiological and nutritional literature by the fact of this kind of poison at the wellhead. Be thus forewarned about most claims about the ill effects of red meat on this account alone.
The second problem is the rather crude statistical models used in earlier analysis of food related health issues; later analytical models have gone far beyond the simple chi-square test of older data. This is probably more than you care to wade through but a brief look at older nutritional sampling studies and the math they employed and the newer ones will confirm this just by scanning the equations; and I know this is not an adequate guarantee either. For now I just want to get to my next point so please let this problem pass with this sketch.
The problem with dairy studies is very nearly the same, be aware of that, but at least dairy has had a more successful champion: mothers! “Drink your milk” is a nearly mythic maternal injunction. Still the alt-med types love to hate dairy. Forget that several well done studies, e.g. the CARDIA study and the more recent one examining the relationship between a dairy derived trans fat and its inverse relationship with diabetes have supported the benefits of dairy; forget that well done studies support the role of dairy products and especially whole fat dairy products in a healthy diet as I am after other game.
And what might that be? First, one more curlicue. After the 1976 McGovern Committee report adjured the American people to eat less fat we saw an alarming increase in obesity and diabetes. Was this an association or a causal connection? As the dust settles and the death toll is only now being counted it is clear that while Americans in fact began eating less fat they substituted things that were much worse whether or not fat is bad; things like corn derived sugars. Calm down, I am not going to rehearse the dangers of corn syrup except to say that whatever its dangers they far outweigh any we might attribute to dietary fat; fat without distinction, long chain omega threes or medium chain omega sixes for example. The latter distinctions were unaddressed by the McGovern Committee before they began demonizing undifferentiated ‘fat.’ But you know better than that; time may not heal all wounds but it sure can make old science look stupid.
Which is kind of where I am going with all of this.
Look if you don’t eat meat what are you going to eat? Soy? Well, as you know that has been one thread offered to those poor souls deprived of red meat. I won’t rehearse all of the bad things now known to be associated with soy, look it up because soy is bad, but I will remark that we have no idea, no idea whatsoever, what the long term health effects of soy will be on Western diet related health. No idea. Americans already consume more soy per capita than any other nation. But, you say, not the right kind; in the right proportions. Prove it! You can’t and any appeal to historical Asian dietary behavior is completely overwhelmed by the simple fact that they didn’t have enough to eat and we know that a calorie restricted diet has its own known, measurable health benefits. So soy with a high caloric intake may turn out to be dietary suicide. We don’t know. I do know however that it will lower even further the testosterone levelsof Western man. I’m not ‘down with that.’
You have to substitute something if you leave something else out. Blunt fact. The chances are very good that you will pick something worse. Newer arguments against red meat and dairy are based on putative biochemical mechanisms of action that account for the old bad news. Well the old bad news is proving not to be true so newer mechanisms of action to explain something bad that may not exist is a fool’s errand if you ask me.
Well how about being a vegetarian? Even to start this argument is to ignore the overwhelming proof of how bad an idea this in fact is. The proof? The continent of India. The very high incidence of diabetes found in India should put paid to any discussion of the health benefits of vegetarianism. Yet it doesn’t. Apologists claim it is the Westernization of the Indian diet that accounts for the incidence of diabetes. The problem with this argument is that you cannot extrapolate from the monied class of India and their Americanized counterparts here to the incidence among Indians who have felt essentially no practical impact from the Westernized few among them; there are still many millions of Indians who live a life constrained by poverty and who eat the traditional vegetarian diet associated with their spiritual discipline. They still have extremely high rates of adult onset diabetes. It seems to me the only irrefutable argument for vegetarianism is a spiritual one. I honor that. I do not choose it but acknowledge its QED as an argument for vegetarianism.
So my lesson for today is: I/we are just not all that smart. Red meat? Give it to me the way I got it as a child: from the local slaughterhouse from Texas longhorns that lived on scrub brush and occasional grass. Keep the industrial ‘cows’ manufactured out along highway 5, standing in fecal matter and waiting to be scared to death. Milk? Give me my milk cold and full fat unless I am sitting under the cow pulling my own warm cream topped milk and am just thirsty enough to drink it from a dipper in a pail.
I am an advocate of that rarest of things ‘common sense.’ Between the steady stream of scare stories and the ads for ‘magic bullet cures’ that pour into my email inbox I will argue that the smartest, the cleverest, the wiliest thing to do is “eat micro-nutrient dense, whole, real food from as natural a source as possible.” Eat broadly, wildly, deliciously, smothered in herbs, spices, cream and love.
Have Fun, Smile and God Speed,