Dan Murphy: More Meat? Less Meat? Wrong Question.

Drawing conclusions about health, wellness and mortality from self-reported dietary data is suspect, at best.

( Beef USA )

From dietary gurus to academic researchers to self-appointed media ‘exerts,’ the message is simple: The path to good health is forged by eating less meat. And they’re all wrong.

Yett another recent report is being positioned as an indictment of eating red meat.

This latest study, published in BMJ (the British Medical Journal), studied 81,000 Americans, then analyzed both their self-reported dietary data and documented mortality rates. The conclusion: people who “increased their red meat intake by at lest 3.5 servings a week over eight years had a 10% higher risk of death in the next eight years.”

That summary is a little confusing, not to mention who’s upping their beef and pork intake by more than three or four servings a week these days?

What the researchers’ summary basically means is that of the 14,000 people among the 81,000-person cohort who died during the eight-year time period in which researchers analyzed their data, those who ate the aforementioned greater amount of red meat had 10% more deaths than a comparative subset who did not increase their meat consumption.

There are two problems with this and similar studies, the first being that dietary questionnaires are seriously unreliable. Who remembers what they ate for breakfast last Tuesday, much less what they consumed all day every day for weeks on end? But these so-called food diaries that study subjects are required to maintain represent the database upon which researchers in these kinds of retrospective epidemiological studies rely.

And by the way? People lie about what they eat when they know someone’s keeping score. Nor do they usually include a full inventory of snack items or “occasional” treats, like birthday cake at work. Nor do they accurately report portion sizes; “a serving” means totally different things to different people.

Bottom line: drawing conclusions about health, wellness and mortality from self-reported dietary data is suspect, at best.

The three lifestyle spheres

But the second, and much more significant reason, that dietary studies are unreliable is that food is but one component of an optimally healthy lifestyle. In fact, professionals, such as myself, I would modestly note, who are certified as Health Educators or Wellness Coaches identify three expansive “spheres” in which activities and choices have dramatic effects — good or bad — on a person’s well-being.

The first is exercise, and not just an occasional weekend hike with the family or an hour of softball at the annual company picnic (do they even have those anymore?). To maintain good health requires daily movement, stretching and what personal trainers call resistance, or strength training — ie, lifting weights or using a resistance band. Add in regular aerobic activity such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming and you have the exercise fundamentals needed to stay healthy and mobile, particularly later in life.

How many of us do all that? You can answer that question for yourself.

The second sphere is diet and nutrition, but beyond merely which foods are chosen or avoided. Portion size matters greatly, as do limits on snacking, fast food and consumption of soda, diet or otherwise. There’s a difference between eating instant mashed potatoes from a box and baking an actual potato “from scratch.” The media reports on the BMJ study latched onto red meat as a prime culprit, but even the researchers themselves emphasized that adding fruits, vegetables and other natural foods to one’s daily diet is a lot more beneficial than just subtracting meat.

The third sphere is mental health, and not with respect to an absence of overt symptoms of depression, paranoia or some phobia, but more about stress management, sleep quality and even intellectual development. Outside of information we need to process for our jobs or careers, how many of us actively continue as lifelong learners, whatever topic or field of study might interest us?

About the same percentage that regularly engage in vigorous exercise, I’m afraid.

Yet everything noted in those three broad spheres of activities and choices represent a lifestyle that has a vastly greater impact on health and wellness, quality of life and of course, mortality than anything we include or exclude from our personal food menus.

You can literally live on nothing but junk food and stay relatively healthy — as long as you’re willing to exercise like a maniac, pay strict attention to stress levels and sleep quality and rigidly control both the portion sizes and timing of the fast-food that comprises your diet.

That’s not at all an intelligent way to eat, of course, but I mention it to only underscore that the false choice of “more meat or less meat” as some kind of determinant for how healthy you’ll be and for how long you’ll live is in a word, inaccurate.

At best.

And by the way, there is one additional dimension to a healthy lifestyle many of us also neglect, and that’s the third item in a health educator’s checklist, which is body, mind and spirit.

The spiritual dimension is often mistaken to mean religious affiliation and/or participation. That certainly could qualify, but attention to the “spiritual side of life” refers to what we do as family members, community members, co-workers and colleagues to give back of our time and talents.

Community service, charitable giving, volunteering for social or civic causes worth doing are all under-rated contributors to overall health and well-being.

There’s an oft-repeated saying that, “If a food tastes good, it can’t be good for you.”

But with community service, with giving back to others in need, if it feels good, it most definitely is good for you.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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