Dr. Joe Schwarcz: The facts on red meat

Dr. Joe Schwarcz: The facts on red meat


The history of science has been laced with controversies. Does the earth go around the Sun or is it the other way around? Should we eat meat or should we not eat meat? Well that question has been
repeatedly raised recently. Why? Because a paper appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a very reputable journal that suggests that there is no real need to cut back on the amount of meat that we eat. Well, let’s look at this controversy
a bit more closely. There are many issues that come up when it comes to eating meat. First, there’s the ethical issue. A lot of
people feel that it is not right for us to kill animals just so we can consume
them. That issue will not be settled by science. That is an ethical question. But then we have concerns about the effect of eating meat on the environment and of course on our health. As far as the environment goes, let’s face it: Animal agriculture is not an environmentally friendly business. There’s a lot of water that is needed. There’s a lot of land that is needed to grow the crops to feed animals. For every kilo that a cow puts on it requires seven kilos of feed. That means that you have to clear land to grow those crops. We’ve heard stories from the Amazon about the dreadful fires. Well some of those fires were set so
that land could be cleared for growing crops. So when it comes to the
environment, there’s no question that we could benefit from cutting down on meat production and on eating meat. What about the effect on our health? This is where the issue is somewhat murky. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of publications that one can dredge up on both sides of this controversy. For
example there studies like this, which shows that even a small increase in
eating meat results in an increase in diseases such as colorectal cancer. The explanation that is usually given is that meat contains heme iron and heme iron catalyzes the formation of free radicals in the gut and those can lead to cancer. There’s also the question of cooking because when meat is cooked at a high temperature compounds called polycyclic
aromatic and heterocyclic aromatics are produced and those are known carcinogens. So there is really quite a lot of evidence to be concerned about over-consuming meat. Now this paper that I mentioned earlier comes out which says “no, no the evidence is too thin” and these 13 researchers have gotten together and perused the scientific literature and they say they’ve looked at
absolutely every study. That’s somewhat questionable. Critics, of course, have questioned whether they’ve looked at all the relevant studies. They come to the conclusion that there is just not enough evidence to recommend cutting back on meat and cutting back on eating processed meat. I took quite some time to
peruse the papers and I looked at the data that they base their conclusions on. I actually don’t think that those conclusions are sustainable. Why not? They talk about numbers and they say that for every thousand people who would cut back meat eating from let’s say seven times a week to four times a week or from five
to two, cutting out three meat meals a week, four people would benefit in terms
of health consequences whether it be preventing cancer, preventing a heart
attack or preventing diabetes. Now that doesn’t sound like a very big risk, because if four people out of a thousand will benefit, we could say that it’s one out of 250. So we could say “you cut out three meat meals a week and that means that one in 250 people would benefit.” If you say to someone “look, do
this. “The chance that you’re gonna reap any value is one in 250” I think most people would say “no I’m just gonna keep eating the way i’ve always been eating.” However, while the risk for an individual is very small, in North America, if you have 200 million people cutting out 3 meals of meat a week, you’re talking about a huge benefit for the overall population. So I think the researchers’ own numbers don’t measure up to the recommendations that they gave? What do I make of this? As I said at the beginning science is a controversial business in many ways. We don’t always have the exact answer Well, in the case of the earth going around the Sun or the other way around, I think we can say with 100% confidence what that answer is. But when it comes to eating
meat it’s much more controversial. As Aristotle said, the answer when it
comes to such controversies is never one of the extremes. it is somewhere in
between. I don’t think it’s ever exactly in between It’s always closer to one end
than the other. I think that we need to watch the amount of meat that we eat But I don’t think we need to totally eliminate it. It’s a very good source of protein. We need about 50 grams of protein every day and that’s easily
satisfied by a small amount of meat You’d have to eat a lot of kidney beans
in order to get the same amount of protein and there would be a cost to pay
there as well. You’d kind of be jet-propelled if you ate that many kidney beans. So what do I do? I read all of this stuff, but what do I do in my own life? I generally bring sandwiches like this. You may not think this is very appetizing. I actually love it. It’s a eggplant spread with green peppers. It has a great taste and it is
essentially a vegetarian meal. That’s what I will have most days, but not
exclusively. In fact, tomorrow is a Saturday and I just may go out and eat a
hot dog I wouldn’t do it too often, but once in a while a hot dog tastes really good especially when you’ve got a hockey game in front of it.

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