Dan Murphy: When Good News is a Downer

A new study from Purdue is "somewhat positive" on the consumption of red meat. ( Farm Journal )

A recent news story referencing red meat provides good news and bad news.

First, the good news.

As reported in Newsweek.com (among other major media outlets), a recent research study conducted at Purdue University concluded that “red meat can have a place in a healthy diet when consumed in moderation.”

While positive, that phrasing mirrors some of the more blatant dietary hedging employed by food companies to justify the consumption of decidedly less-than healthy foods.

Every heard this one before? “[Name brand] cereal can be a healthy part of a diet plan that may assist weight loss. Include [name brand] cereal into your weight-loss plan as part of a healthy diet and exercise program.”

That statement is promoted by Livestrong.com, the cancer support and wellness foundation originally founded by disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. The statement shows up on Google, Bing, Wikipedia and other online search engines and parrots almost verbatim as the nutrition industry’s standard apologia for virtually every branded food product, no matter how unhealthy it might be.

In this case, the cereal Livestrong identifies as part of a “healthy diet and exercise plan” is Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, which provides 97% of its total calories from sugar and simple carbohydrates, the kind that dieticians caution can trigger insulin desensitivity, which causes excess glucose to be stored as body fat, which causes obesity, which is what a “healthy diet and exercise program” is supposed to ameliorate.

Against that background, a study touting moderate amounts of red meat having “a place in a healthy diet” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

And ironically, the Purdue University study was conducted with obese subjects to see if their biometrics (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) would improve on a diet that included the aforementioned “moderate amounts of red meat.”

At least the headline on Newsweek.com’s story (“Is red meat a health food? New study says it’s okay in moderation”) was a welcome respite from the onslaught of reports about red meat causing cancer, diabetes and/or early death.

But even a cursory read of the details reveals that there’s a lot not to like.

The Lower the Better
For example: The story makes the following rather remarkable statement: “The average American is on track to eat more than 222 pounds of meat before the end of 2018 — nearly 200 pounds more than the American Heart Association’s yearly consumption recommendation.”

I had to read that twice to make sure it wasn’t a typo, because that means people are supposed to consume only 22 pounds of red meat a year. That is accurate, and here’s how AHA arrives at that startling conclusion.

The group recommends that “People limit lean meat, skinless chicken and non-fried fish to 5½ ounces per day, total.” That means a limit of approximately 125 pounds of meat, poultry and fish a year, a little more than 2 pounds a week. Apparently, only 22 of those 125 pounds a year should consist of beef and pork, the remainder being non-fried fish and poultry.

That limit is understandable, given AHA’s pathological fat phobia. The group regards saturated fat the way the rest of us regard those strands of seaweed that can wrap around your legs when you’re swimming in an outdoor lake: While it won’t kill you on the spot, it’s gross to look at, unpleasant to come in contact with and to be avoided if at all possible.

Think I’m exaggerating? Not only does AHA insist that people eat no more than one ounce of red meat a day (on average), here’s its advice on selecting and preparing that single ounce of beef or pork: “Choose lean cuts of meat. Trim off as much fat as you can before cooking, pour off the melted fat after cooking [and] use healthier cooking methods — bake, broil, stew and grill.”

In other words, pretend that saturated fat is radioactive waste, and you’ll behave accordingly.

To return to the Purdue University study, which by the way was funded by beef and pork checkoff programs, the conclusion that “even in slightly greater quantities, lean, unprocessed cuts of red meat can aid in weight loss and heart disease prevention when incorporated into a diet based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains” isn’t exactly news worth shouting from the roof tops either.

And in an echo of AHA’s kill-the-vampire-with-a-wooden-stake approach to saturated fat, the Purdue subjects were confined to eating “small amounts of low-fat cuts of beef and pork tenderloin, along with skinless, white-meat chicken and turkey.”

In terms of its import, the study’s conclusion being trumpeted by the media isn’t much different from any other claims that some less-than-healthy food product “may assist weight loss as part of a healthy diet and exercise program.”

I mean, drinking a fifth of Scotch every night can also assist in weight loss — as long as it’s part of an otherwise healthy program of diet and exercise.

On balance, the Purdue study is way better than the slew of totally negative studies attributing seriously negative consequences to eating red meat.

But it’s hard to get too jacked up about eating a single ounce of meat a day.

As part of a program of healthy nutrition, regular exercise and a big ol’ bowl of Frosted Flakes, of course.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.