Red meat hysteria returns…again

Meat diabetes blog post

Once again the scare stories are surfacing regarding red meat. Barely a week goes by without a newspaper article urging us to avoid red meat for fear of some terrifying consequence. A recent story comes courtesy of the Daily Mail (UK) which seems to be obsessed with these hysterical food scares. While showing the usual photographic cliches of a man chewing a steak and a woman proudly clutching a salad (although it won’t mitigate the effects of all that dangerous meat), the article triumphantly announces:

‘Eating too much meat ‘raises risk of diabetes’ even if they eat lots of fruit and vegetables too’

At first glance, this could seem worrying. The article states that the study focused on 66,485 women and tracked their health for 14 years. It found that those who ate ‘acid-forming foods’ such as meat, cheese, fish, bread and soft drinks were 56% more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. At the end of the study, 1,372 women had developed diabetes and diagnoses were particularly common in those with an acidic diet. The volunteers had given details about their diet.

The ‘culprit’ foods mentioned include bread and soft drinks, two foods that that cause potentially huge rises in blood sugar levels. The experiment is based upon volunteers giving information about their diet, presumable recalling what they ate and when; a notoriously inaccurate way to gather information. At the end of the experiment, 1,372 women developed diabetes out of a total of 66,485 which works out to around 2.1% of those monitored.

The original report, which you can find here, states that ‘With respect to specific food groups, a high-PRAL (potential renal acid load) diet included significantly more meat, fish, cheese, bread and soft drinks, particularly artificially sweetened beverages, whereas a diet with a low-PRAL score included more dairy products, fruit, vegetables and coffee (Table 1).’

How can meat be singled out as a potential diabetes risk in the presence of several other foods that cause massive insulin swings? The report states that ‘Although we adjusted for most of the known and potential type 2 diabetes risk factors, residual confounding cannot be ruled out.

It reports that ‘A Western diet rich in animal products and other acidogenic (acid forming)  foods can induce an acid load that is not compensated for by fruit and vegetables; this can cause chronic metabolic acidosis.’ Ok, so if we accept that excessive acidogenic foods could be a problem, how do we tell which foods are the problem – or is it all of them? Meat shares the list of acidogenic foods with, amongst others, white flour, bagels, croissants, popcorn, pasta, pastries and most grain products including refined cereals, carbonated soft drinks, sweetened juices, sweetened yoghurts, artificial sweeteners and many other products that we would (hopefully) steer well clear of. Fish and seafood are on there too. I don’t see the headlines warning us not to eat fish.

The strange thing is, I googled the report and found an earlier article by most of the same authors here. In this report, it quite clearly states that red meat (beef, pork, veal, horse, and sheep) poses no increased risk of diabetes, but ‘a direct association was observed only for processed red meat and type 2 diabetes.’ It also states that ‘…we observed no association between unprocessed red meat and diabetes risk’ and ‘Our results suggest that habitual consumption of processed red meat may be associated with a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes and that consumption of unprocessed red meat may not.’

Again, even here it would be interesting to know how they isolated processed meat (sausage, salami, bacon, and ham) from other foods such as bread, sweet beverages, and other high carbohydrate foods that could increase diabetes risk.

I find all this is pretty confusing but I cannot understand how it gets interpreted by the Daily Mail as effectively saying that meat causes diabetes. Surely we would expect to see high incidences of diabetes in modern hunter-gatherer tribes whose diet is predominantly meat, if it is such a risk? Instead we are seeing increasing numbers of people diagnosed with diabetes in western societies and in particular developing societies that have adopted a ‘westernized’ diet in place of their more traditional foods. Presumably one needs to add increasing levels of stress and a decrease in physical exercise to this too. Check out this report for some global figures and projections:

All in all, I am not convinced that red meat raises the risk of diabetes, any more than I believe that it causes cancer and heart attacks.

A recent article in the Telegraph claimed that we should eat red meat only once a week: ‘Having analysed the diet of some 120,000 people over a 20-year period, researchers suggested that adding just one daily portion of red meat – steak and burgers for example – increased the overall risk of death by 13 per cent.‘ Presumably that’s the risk of getting hit by a bus on that extra trip to the butchers.

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