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Here's My Beef with the Pro-Meat Study

The problem of what to eat and what not to eat is far too complex to have a simple solution.

This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.

The meat controversy is broiling over. Let’s stew on it.

That’s a good start because stewing produces fewer potentially carcinogenic compounds than broiling. And keep in mind that eating a six-ounce steak is not the same as eating a 12-ounce steak. Eating meat seven times a week is not the same as eating it four times. Eating that steak with french fries is not the same as eating it with a salad. Replacing meat with vegetables is not the same as replacing it with pasta. Grass-fed beef is not the same as grain-fed. Meat consumption by a young athlete is not the same as by an older person with cardiovascular disease or diabetes. And you have to eat a lot of beans to get the same amount of protein as is found in a small serving of meat.

Over the years there have been numerous studies that have tried to evaluate the risk-benefit ratio of eating meat. Most of these have been observational studies based on questionnaires. However, people’s memory can be faulty, they may have trouble quantifying amounts, and may report what they think they should have eaten instead of what they actually ate.

Although each study can be nitpicked, when all the studies are put together, the evidence points toward more moderate meat consumption being beneficial to health. Or at least that has been the conclusion until the recent papers that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine alleging that the evidence for cutting back on meat and processed meat is so weak that people might just as well enjoy themselves without modifying consumption. As one would expect, this recommendation opened up a can of worms.

Weak evidence is not the same as no evidence. For example, the authors conclude that eliminating three meat meals a week can result in health benefits roughly for one person out of 200. Indeed, this doesn’t seem like a huge benefit, but if, let’s say, 100 million people in North America would adopt this regimen, then a few hundred thousand would benefit. And that is hardly trivial.

Add to this the definite benefit for the environment, and the recommendation of the authors that there is no need to change meat consumption habits hardly seems appropriate, especially for people who eat meat at virtually every meal.

As Aristotle famously said, there are often extreme views on issues, but it is best to search for an answer in-between the extremes. That is often difficult to do because researchers are often wedded to the views upon which they have forged careers and are adept at referring selectively to the literature to back up their arguments. Often there may be alliances with vested interests that are not readily apparent.

The problem of what to eat and what not to eat is far too complex to have a simple solution. But when instead of cherry-picking data, we pick all the cherries and mash them together, we come up with the conclusion that a mostly, but not necessarily exclusively, plant-based diet is better for our health as well as for the health of the planet.

Canada’s Food Guide has got it right with the suggestion that half the plate should be filled with vegetables and fruits, a quarter with whole grains and a quarter with protein foods that can be composed of meat, fish, poultry, dairy or plant sources such as beans, lentils or nuts.

I like my eggplant and green pepper sandwiches, my oatmeal with berries and my vegetarian goulash. But I also enjoy the occasional burger, and even a hot dog, as long as there is a good hockey or baseball game in front of it.


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