A recent article bashing consumption of animal protein published in the New York Times by Dr Dean Ornish is causing a frenzy. Similar studies crop up every so often, the latest indicating that red meat is high in Neu5Gc, a tumor-forming sugar that is linked to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of cancer. Dr Ornish is most famous for his vegan and anti-stress lifestyle approach to reversing coronary artery disease, a discovery previously considered physiologically impossible.
Let’s pause here for a moment. First off, medical studies are usually flawed, biased, and contradicted by later research. It’s very difficult to do dietary studies on human subjects because you cannot lock them up in a lab and control for factors like what else they’re eating, stress levels, and lifestyle habits. And more often than not, studies on foods in particular contradict each other. That is to say that certain foods have been proven to both cause and prevent cancer. (source)
With that said, let’s dissect this study. Who is a typical risk factor for cardiovascular disease? Men aged 55 and up who are overweight, sedentary smokers with high dietary intakes of saturated fat, trans-fats, and salt and low intake of fruits, vegetables, and fish, although whether all these associations are causal is disputed.
So this means the typical cardiovascular disease patient is an overweight male (possibly a smoker) who likely has a high intake of processed meats and foods, damaged fats, and low intake of disease preventive vegetables. Take this profile and put him on Ornish’s vegan diet (which is basically a plant-based detox plan), with meditation and stress relief, and yes, you will see improvement.
So then claims about animal proteins and fats (the main foods of choice among males 55 and older at risk for CVD?) are then selected as a causative factor in heart disease risk. Yes, eating processed meats, factory farmed (CAFO) meats with altered fatty acids ratios, and few vegetables and fruits when one is already overweight and sedentary will increase disease risk, no doubt. Are these studies accounting for food quality? Do the same risk factors appear in people eating plant based diets with organic animal proteins? Those who eat good quality animal proteins and exercise and/or meditate?
Ornish’s article is quite misleading. He states in his article that Americans actually consumed 67 percent more added fat, 39 percent more sugar, and 41 percent more meat in 2000 than they had in 1950 and 24.5 percent more calories than they had in 1970, according to the Agricultural Department. He implies that added fats are coming in the form of animal protein, though the literature he cites states that THREE TIMES the added fats are in the form of canola and “salad oil” (vegetable oil), which are the very oils he promotes (including fat-free non-dairy salad dressings, non-stick cooking spray, fat-free margarine spreads. Because those are all real foods.) Vegetable oils are a source of rancid inflammatory fats due to their unstable PUFAs. The article also cites the use of twice as much shortening, a known source for disease-causing trans fats.
Is Meat Killing Us?
But I’m not really interested in cherry picking the data here. What I encourage is to always read these types of studies with a critical eye. Understand that correlation does not always equal causation, and that FOOD QUALITY and lifestyle factors matter so much in these types of studies. Who are the study participants? Are they already at risk for disease? Can they recall what they’ve eaten in the past year? I am a nutritionist, and I can safely report to you that most people can’t recall what they ate yesterday, much less in the past year (as is asked when collecting data on study participants.)
That said, most of my clients come to me wildly confused about what to eat for disease prevention. There is one item no expert will dispute: EAT MORE PLANTS. We know and can all agree that a plant-based diet filled with different types of mostly vegetables and some fruits (maybe legumes if they work for you) has to make up the majority of your diet for good health. Period. One half or more of your plate at 2, preferably 3, meals daily. You don’t have to be a vegetarian, but a varied diet with organic animal proteins and plenty of antioxidant and fiber rich plant foods makes you healthy. We know that from studying people in the Blue Zones who live the longest.
What to Eat to Prevent Disease
If you are eating more animal protein than plant matter LONG TERM, then yes, that may be a disease risk factor, especially if that protein is not organic. If you ate only kale that would be a disease risk factor too. If you are eating large quantities of dairy, especially conventional, hormone-and toxin-rich dairy products, and especially if you have a casein sensitivity, you may be at increased risk for disease. Consumption of conventionally raised animal products puts you at an increased risk for cancer and heart disease. Why? These animal products have been altered to produce a by-product with a skewed fatty acid ratio: one that contains hormones, antibiotics, and toxins that increase inflammation in our bodies. And inflammation causes disease.
Balance is key here: Not too much sugar. Not too much booze. Not too much red meat. Not veggies only; you need protein and healthy, stable fats to help you absorb the nutrients in the veggies, and for tissue repair and hormone production. How much of each of these macronutrients (protein, carb, fat) you need depends on your unique physiology, your activity level, and your health status. If you are under stress or trying to get pregnant or are pregnant, eat more (organic) protein. If you have major risk factors for cancer and heart disease, you may be better off on a Mediterranean type diet plan with minimal red meats and mostly fish, legumes, and vegetables. THERE IS NO ONE DIET THAT IS RIGHT FOR EVERYONE.
But always eat both cooked and raw plant foods daily. Include organically raised animal protein, as it’s the CAFO meats that increase disease risk. Get regular blood work done to make sure all your inflammatory markers are normal.
Is Meat Killing the Planet?
Which brings us to the environment: Ornish polishes off his article by stating Livestock production causes more disruption of the climate than all forms of transportation combined. And because it takes as much as 10 times more grain to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, eating a plant-based diet could free up resources for the hungry.
That all sounds well and good, but it’s not that simple. Factually it is correct that cows in particular eat up (so to speak) a lot of resources in terms of food and water. But there’s another way to look at the same information. If you stop eating beef, you can’t replace a kilogram of it, which has 2,280 calories, with a kilogram of broccoli, at 340 calories. You have to replace it with 6.7 kilograms of broccoli. Calories are the great equalizer, so it makes sense to use them as the basis of the calculation (source). Emissions accounted to produce enough low calorie plant matter (broccoli and tomatoes and almonds especially) to feed the world don’t much make up for beef production.
There’s a reason we have an ecosystem. In an ideal world on a biodynamic farm, chickens for example help with pest control and produce poop that can be used as fertilizer for plants that can be grown to feed people and the animals that feed people. All parts of the animal should be used, from hoof to hide to organ meats (some of the most nutrient dense). But we are so far skewed with CAFO operations and pesticide-spewing agri-businesses that both pollute surrounding groundwater and air quality. Highly recommend this excellent article for more research on the topic.
So, no. Vegetarianism will not solve the world’s problems. What’s the answer then? Eat less red meat if you are overindulging, sure. Our fast food culture loves burgers and steaks in which ruminant animals are fed grain (not their natural diet, making them sick, so that they require antibiotics which you, in turn, ingest) to alter their flesh so that it produces an inflammatory meat. I personally eat beef and lamb once or twice monthly at most, simply because I feel better eating lighter proteins like poultry and seafood. Always choose wild fish and organic and local meat wherever possible so you’re supporting the sustainable models of meat production, the ones that also take animal welfare into account (but don’t forget, vegetables know when you’re about to eat them too). Regardless (sorry, veggies), eat more vegetables. Eat organic vegetables. Eat less sugar and less dairy. Get fresh air, good sleep, clean water, plenty of sunshine. Grow your own food. Those are the pillars of health.
Red Meat isn’t Bad for You, but Shoddy Research Is
A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Research
Will Red Meat Kill You?
Data is bent to meet desired conclusion
The Vegetarian Myth
Vegetables Can Hear Themselves Being Eaten
Vegetarian vs Omnivore: The Environmental Impacts of Diet
What is the Ideal Diet?
How to Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Why is Inflammation Bad?
A Holistic Approach to Cancer Prevention
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.