Dan Murphy: Red Meat Bad...White Meat Bad?

Guess what? Now poultry lovers can enjoy the same heightened anxiety levels — and increased mortality — as red meat eaters! ( Free Images )

Talk about the world turning upside down. After decades of every doctor on Earth telling patients to ditch beef and eat chicken, a new study now claims that poultry is just as ‘dangerous.’

It would be hard to determine which truism is more commonly repeated by the average American:

  • “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  • “The early bird catches the worm.”
  • “Eating burgers will eventually kill you.”

Okay, that last one isn’t literally what people typically say, but its message — that red meat is unhealthy and if consumed over time, will be lethal — isn’t much different from what most Americans are all too likely to believe.

The other side of the beef-is-bad-news coin is that white meat — chicken and turkey — by contrast, is healthy, nutritious protein that can be consumed in virtually unlimited quantities.

Even though most people consume their share of poultry in the form of fried chicken, nuggets and breaded patties stuffed into a white bread bun and slathered with several hundred calories of fat- and sugar-loaded sauces and condiments.

Hey, it’s white, and thus it’s right.

Even if a mealtime choice is super-lean pork chops or an ultra-lean beef roast, we’ve been conditioned by our family physicians, most of whom have seriously limited nutritional training, to embrace the idea that the pathway to a long and healthy life starts with avoiding red meat and instead wolfing down poultry in all of its highly processed forms.

Why the demonization of red meat? Two words: fat and cholesterol.

Beef and pork — supposedly — are loaded with dangerously toxic saturated fat, along with levels of cholesterol (the BAD cholesterol!) that approach the radiation levels of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in terms of their effect on human health.

Lifestyle versus diet alone

But guess what? Now poultry lovers can enjoy the same heightened anxiety levels — and increased mortality — as red meat eaters.

That’s because a new study from researchers at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute suggested that people who consume diets heavy on the chicken and turkey end up with cholesterol levels that are no different from people who consume diets featuring beef or pork.

According to the study’s conclusions, both white- and red-meat diets caused significant increases in cholesterol levels, compared with people whose diets consisted of plant-based proteins.

We won’t bother detouring into a lengthy disclaimer about the limitations of drawing conclusions from dietary studies that by design cannot take into account a host of lifestyle factors. Suffice to say that the media coverage of this particular study only compounds the misinformation fed to consumers over the last 40 years by the Medical-Nutritional Complex.

“When we planned this study, we expected red meat to have a more adverse effect on blood cholesterol levels than white meat,” study author Dr. Ronald Krauss, senior scientist and director of atherosclerosis research at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, said in a statement posted by ABCNews,com, “but we were surprised that this was not the case. Their effects on cholesterol are identical when saturated fat levels are equivalent.”

Yeah, that’s because cholesterol is closely regulated by internal systems within the body. Not only has more recent research debunked the idea that eating foods with higher levels of cholesterol, ie, animal foods, leads to heart disease, but the alleged harm cholesterol intake on health and well-being continues to be seriously misunderstood by the medical establishment.

To briefly review, here are the facts:

  • Of the total cholesterol typically circulating in the body, only 25% comes from our dietary sources; 75% is produced internally by the liver.
  • Dietary cholesterol has minimal impact on blood cholesterol levels for three-fourths of the population. For the other 25% — known as “hyper-responders” — dietary cholesterol modestly increases LDL and HDL cholesterol but doesn’t increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Saturated fat intake can raise blood cholesterol — but only in short-term studies (like this Children’s Hospital study); long-term studies do not show an association between saturated fat intake and blood cholesterol levels.

The takeaway from this limited study — 113 adults eating meat- or plant-based diets for only a month — isn’t that chicken is suddenly bad for you, it’s that NEITHER red nor white meat is unhealthy.

Sure, putting people on plant-based diets for a month might result in marginal changes in blood cholesterol, but that’s not a rationale for suddenly announcing that all animal foods are to be avoided.

Or “consumed in moderation,” as dietary authorities love to counsel people when it comes to everything from lean beef to sugar-loaded cereals to the oceans of diet soda American guzzle by the gallon every week.

Even the “objective” reporters at ABC news weighed in with the obligatory disclaimer at the end of their story warning the world that chicken is just as deadly as beef by stating, That’s not to say that animal sources for protein aren’t good for you. Jensen said that lean cuts of red or white meat can still be a part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.”

Stop it!

The point isn’t the urgency of moderating our consumption of (allegedly) cholesterol-laden animal foods, the point is that running dietary studies on a relative handful of adults tells us a whole lot less about what constitutes a healthy diet than does several millennia of human history.

We don’t know of any Native Americans in pre-Columbian times who dropped dead from a heart attack, even though they lived on a diet centered on meat from a host of animals.

I’ll go with that track record, not some media report that gets the whole cholesterol-saturated fat relationship dead wrong.

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

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