I don’t really know why I watched this after the abysmal ‘Fat vs Sugar’ in January (a masochistic streak perhaps). I ran out of patience quite early on but managed to last out the hour. Pop over to here to watch it in full. Alternatively have a read of my post and see if it’s worth the bother. The documentary jumped from one issue to another in a confusing and ultimately pointless manner. Repeating the well-worn mantra of ‘all things in moderation’ and leaving the viewer ultimately frustrated at the lack of hard evidence for any of the scare stories, I felt this programme did nothing to seriously address the question. Let’s hope that the next edition is better than this.
Presented by Dr Michael Mosley the programme questioned whether meat is a nutritious form of protein or an artery clogging danger that causes cause cancer and premature death. ‘What is the truth about meat?’ Dr M asks (in a sort of conspiracy-theory way). He rather guiltily admits to eating meat most days but adds that he is sceptical of the scare headlines about red meat and cancer. Dr M notes that as meat eating has doubled world-wide, we need find out if this is a good thing. For the purpose of the documentary, he decides to go on a ‘high meat diet’ to see the effects on his body.
The requisite experts then appear (British Nutrition Foundation, Interventional Cardiologist, Senior Heart Health Dietician) and give a series of quite positive opening statements regarding meat. Dr M tells us that ‘as a species we evolved to eat red meat, but not that much and not that often’ (so don’t get too excited).
Dr M advises that we need to look at ‘studies’ (although perhaps we need to turn away from studies, academia and experts and start looking at how we feel on an individual basis, but that’s another argument). We hear that chicken and other white meat are ok (factory-farmed, antibiotic-laden chickens are obviously not a problem) but that it is the effects of eating red meat (beef, pork and lamb) as well as processed meat that needs to be considered.
The average meat consumption in the UK is 70 grams of red and processed meat a day, with a quarter of men eating 130 grams. Therefore Dr M decides that his experiment should consist of eating 130 grams of red and processed meat per day.
Dr M gets a health check (body fat, blood panel etc.) but admits that this is a sample size of 1 and so won’t be representative of everyone. He then hops over the pond to meet some very pleasant vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists who (on average) live for 7 years longer than the (average) American. Not all Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarian though; some eat limited amounts of meat. The community extol the virtues of leading a ‘healthy, wholesome lifestyle’ and so are interesting subjects to study for a comparison between meat eaters and non-meat eaters (the half that do eat meat tend not to smoke or have other unhealthy habits).
Extensive epidemiological studies have been carried out to look at the Seventh Day Adventists and their health in relation to meat-eating. We then skip to an interview in a café where Dr M talks to Dr Gary Frazer leading the research (himself a vegetarian). Dr M tucks into some pulled pork and admits guiltily to the clearly concerned doctor (munching a vegetarian salad) that he has also eaten 4 rashers of bacon the same morning. After reflecting on Dr M’s survival outlook if he carries on like this (bleak), Dr Frazer explains that the vegetarians are doing much better in terms of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension and tells us: ‘That whole area is fairly well-established.’ Oh…
We are told that men who eat beef 3 times per week, double the risk of heart disease. At this point we see Dr M consuming a huge, deep-fried onion ring. This behaviour translates to 4-5 years reduction in life expectancy (that’s the beef, not the onion ring – keep up with me here…).
Dr M then goes back to Reading University to find out what it is in meat that is doing us harm. We look at the various nutrients in meat as opposed to vegetarian options. The scientist at Reading tells us that red meat is a ‘good, high quality protein’ but that cheese has the same amount of protein. Pork and vegetarian sausage have the same amount of protein. Tofu has a lot less.
We learn that red meat is made up of amino acids which are essential, many of which the body cannot make. Red meat is a complete protein and is also rich in vitamins and minerals. However, cheese has nearly the same amount of B12. It also has more saturated fat, but as people tend to eat less cheese this is ok. The cheese appears to be coming out tops in all this…
We are told that beef, bacon and sausages all have high amounts of saturated fat ‘which are linked to heart disease’. Then there is some talk about the research in the 1950s on heart disease and saturated fat, with the terms ‘red meat’ and ‘processed meat’ being constantly linked. This really is all over the place.
Dr M admits that recent research has suggested saturated fat is not that bad. He goes to talk to Dr Ronald Krause at Berkeley. Dr Krause was a former adherent to a low-fat dogma but found that his patients did not do well on low-fat diets. He set out to examine the studies regarding saturated fat and heart disease but found the evidence lacking. However, just before we get too complacent Dr M warns us that this ‘doesn’t suggest that saturated fat is a health tonic’ and asks if there is something else in red meat ‘that could be clogging our arteries.’
On to the subject of L-Carnotine found in the lean part of the meat and which ‘potentially’ affects the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries by reacting with the bacteria in the gut to produce TMAO (Trimethylamine N-oxide). We are told by an expert that ‘this has not been proven to occur in our bodies but is a potential mechanism for how this might work.’ Dr M then tells us that we now have evidence that saturated fat isn’t that bad but that ‘lean meat could be doing damage.’ The words ‘potential’ ‘could’ and ‘possibly’ crop up an awful lot over the space of an hour.
Back to the UK experts and I noticed a hint of mild excitement that although they appear to have been barking up the wrong tree regarding saturated fat, there may be this ‘other thing’ that justifies them telling us to avoid red meat.
There is some dramatic music and then Dr M tells us that ‘the jury is still out regarding what it is in meat that increases risk of cardiac problems and how big this risk is’… Then we watch as he tucks into a burger with huge bun and a load of chips.
There is a brief and totally pointless bit about meat and culture, in which the experts link meat and ‘affluence’, and then Dr M goes to Harvard University to interview Walter Willett. Dr Willett has studied 120, 000 people over 30 years and explains the following findings:
Red meat (unprocessed):
- Those who ate red meat had a higher risk of mortality, cancer, etc.
- 85 grams (beef burger) = 13% increase risk of premature death
Processed meat is worse:
- 35 grams per day (2 rashers of bacon) = 20% increase risk of premature death (because of heart disease and cancer)
Dr M warns us that things are ‘looking grim for meat eaters’. But wait! The EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) followed 0.5 million people over 12 years in 10 countries. This found that moderate amounts of red meat had no effect on mortality rates and that eating meat is ‘better than being vegetarian.’
(Incidentally the study showed that ‘Subjects in the highest fifth of blood vitamin D levels showed a 40% reduced risk [of colorectal cancer compared with those in the lowest fifth.’ See here)
At this point Dr M admits that epidemiological observational studies are ‘not certain’ (funny that he didn’t mention it before now) and that we ‘cannot prove that dietary components are causing specific diseases’. At this point you wonder why you bothered watching…
Back to the experts and their final recommendations on how often to eat which ranged from ‘meat-less days’ (if you can’t go vegetarian, which is the ideal), ‘once a month’, ‘in moderation’ to Dr M’s advice that ‘a moderate amount a couple of days per week is ok’.
Dr M then considers colonoscopies and their importance in detecting polyps in the bowel (which may lead to bowel cancer). This leads him to look at why processed meat is a possible carcinogenic. Dr M cures some bacon at Reading University using 12 teaspoons of salt which clearly disturbs him (‘salt is obviously not good for us’), 5 teaspoons of sugar (not particularly bothered) and a teaspoon of nitrates. We are informed that Sodium Nitrate stops us getting botulism but reacts with amino acids. However, ‘we have yet to establish a direct link’ between nitrates and colon cancer. The smoking process (producing chemicals called PAH’s) may be another ‘potential mechanism whereby red and process meats increase our chances of gastro-intestinal cancer.’ As with all of this, there seems to be no conclusive proof. As an aside, the possibility of nitrate-free bacon is not mentioned.
On to the best piece of information in the whole documentary and if you have one ‘take-away’ it has to be this. Dr M recruits a statistician and asks him ‘If we were to nail down what we can really, really say about how long we live, what sort of things are we reasonably certain will cut years off your life?’. The statistician tells us that eating 2 rashers of bacon a day translates to an hour per day off our life. Dr M looks suitably grave at this announcement and exclaims ‘Wow!’ This is science at its best.
Dr M then returns to the hospital for a check-up and finds out the following:
- No change in compounds linked to cancer (we are told that this is possibly because he has been consuming a lot of fibre with his meat)
- LDL cholesterol has increased (no mention of what type here)
- Body fat and blood pressure have increased
Therefore the suggestion is that eating more meat increases ‘bad’ cholesterol, makes you fat and sends your blood pressure up. No mention of anything else that Dr M may have tucked into on his high meat diet (onion rings, chips, burger buns…)
Dr M advises that we should eat unprocessed, ‘fairly lean’ meat on occasions and that ‘if you are going vegetarian make sure that you get all the vitamins and minerals that you need’. An expert adds that a healthy diet is a ‘predominantly plant-based diet, supplemented with meat.’
Dr M then finishes on a plea for more ‘vegetables, vegetables, vegetables’ and then it ends. Phew! Once again, Horizon comes up with the goods regarding cutting-edge science documentaries.
I feel genuinely sorry for those people looking to find an answer in all of this mess. The lightweight treatment of what is a serious subject (the avoidance of diseases such as heart disease and cancer) is frustrating. The confounding factors in all of the arguments put forward simply serve to confuse things even further. Apart from a fleeting comment (we evolved to eat red meat ‘not that much and not that often’), our existence as hunter-gatherers for the majority of our time on earth eating meat, fish, fat, roots and tubers, a variety of other vegetables, with some limited fruit is not discussed or considered relevant. It as if we have all been beamed down from another planet. We need to look at the consumption of meat in the context of a real food diet; quality meat produce eaten alongside healthy fats and vegetables. The lumping together of meat-eating with a high carbohydrate diet for the purpose of ‘scientific’ observational studies such as this will always obscure the benefits of eating meat.
If people are encouraged to cut back their consumption of meat, many will probably increase carbs (as I did), as most people have been scared to death of fat. This has all sorts of implications for health – especially in terms of gluten and excess carbohydrates. The satiating effects of meat, and especially fat, are so important in the context of a healthy diet, particularly if people are struggling to lose weight and come from a background of low-fat, low-calorie eating that the ‘experts’ have pushed on us for many decades. When eaten with sufficient fat, meat portions do not have to be huge to be satisfying (particularly if you are looking to move into ketosis, in which case protein should be limited).
Meat quality was not addressed, although that may be a subject for next week’s edition (but what if you don’t watch that?). I also noticed that the benefits of offal was not discussed which was a shame as it provides some of the best nutrition by far.
I will watch next week’s edition but I wonder how many years of my life I have wasted – and will probably continue to waste – by watching rubbish documentaries such as this. So a bacon sandwich a day takes an hour off your life? In that case I’m sticking to my bacon (without the bread) and if I could just give up watching these hour-long pointless documentaries, things will even themselves out…