Bacon and red meat: A hard 'no'?
On Oct. 1, the Annals of Internal Medicine published several studies on the health consequences of consuming red and processed meat. Their conclusion: Cutting down on red meat did nothing to smaller-ish nothing to improve our health.
The scientific and public health sectors are incensed.
The World Health Organization lists processed meat as a carcinogen, red meat as a potential carcinogen. The 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting red meat to one, 3 ounce serving per week (steak the size of a deck of cards). The Harvard School of Public Health pitched a fit. Their 2012 study showed each extra daily serving of processed meat could increase the risk of death by 20 percent.
Haven’t we been here before?
Butter, eggs, coffee, breakfast, no breakfast, low-fat, low-salt … Now the devils are sugar and highly-processed carbs. Yesterday’s news flash: “Cheese causes breast cancer." Today: “Mediterranean diet lifts depression.”
By the way, it’s not clear if white meat or seafood are better. Chicken, the tofu of meat, became the default meat choice in the U.S., even though its health benefit isn’t well studied. Fish oil supplements fail again and again to reduce heart attack and stroke risks in studies.
I belong to the American College of Working-in-the-Real-World. I have limited time to discuss diet and exercise in clinic; you have limited time to diet and exercise. Our struggle is less about sirloin steak versus celery smoothie, and more about prioritizing.
I propose four simple steps to construct a healthy diet:
Step 1: Count calories. You need to know, roughly, how many calories you can consume daily. There are two easy ways to find out: a table at https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-2; or an online calculator at https://www.calculator.net/calorie-calculator.html. Based on age, sex and activity level, I calculated I burn about 1,800 calories daily.
Step 2: Choose your carbohydrates wisely. Americans’ excess calories come mostly from carbs; yet few eat enough fiber. The evidence for fiber’s health benefit is strong. You need about 30 grams per day. What I do: I love a black-bean salad. Takes five minutes to assemble. Two cups (600 calories total) get me close to the 30 gm-daily-fiber requirements. Done for the day.
Step 3: For the rest of your calories, you do you. My neighbor loves a marbled rib eye, can’t live without meat for a day. A friend won’t eat red meat because it’s calorific. My tree-hugger kids don’t eat meat – or fish – because of the environmental impact. Livestock is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas; cows, by far, are the worst. And overfishing … sigh. So, you do you. Whatever the bad-boy-food-of-the-day is, moderation is key. What’s more important: Be mindful of your total caloric consumption. To put things in perspective, research estimates diets high in processed meat contribute to about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide. In comparison, smoking contributes to 1 million cancer deaths; air pollution, more than 200,000.
And finally, Step 4: Pray you got Grandma’s genes. Nana fries eggs in bacon fat, keeps a small garden of heirloom tomatoes, still runs your life at 92. Could see an upside in the end of the world. Please, please let her DNA be your dominant traits.