In this column I will explore some of the shocking claims about eating meat that I have seen. As a complement to Paige Pinkston's cogent "Beef: It's what's going to destroy the environment" (CT, Sept. 19) I will examine the health effects of eating animal products as described in "The Food Revolution." In the book, John Robbins, the son of the ice cream magnate, recommends a vegan diet as the best path to long-term health. In criticizing his work we should examine the evidence.
Amazingly, red meat causes 40 out of every 100 deaths from cancer. An 11,000-person, 12-year study published in the British Medical Journal concludes that there is a "roughly 40-percent reduction in mortality from cancer in vegetarians and fish eaters compared with (non-fish) meat eaters."
The American Institute of Cancer Research's metastudy finds that although meat can be part of a balanced diet, one should eat red meat infrequently and stop eating all processed meats (pepperoni, sausage, lunch meats, etc.). Despite what Robbins implies, the Institute maintains "it is not necessary to become a strict vegetarian." Therefore you can reduce your risk of cancer by eating very little red meat or none at all.
Although Robbins' assertions are not backed by evidence, the data about red meat and cancer are frightening.
The American Heart Association observes that "many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer." These are many of the largest killers of Americans every year. But the AHA says that a little meat and some milk can be part of a balanced diet -- a maximum of six ounces of lean meat and a maximum of three servings of low-fat dairy daily. The association discourages consuming red meat and whole milk.
Robbins goes too far in his assertion. Although a vegan diet is included within the AHA's guidelines, the AHA does not only recommend veganism.
The putative health effects of milk are deceiving. The president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine states that, "recent studies, including the Harvard Nurses' Health Study, have shown that milk offers no protection against broken bones. (The study actually found a 45 percent increase in hip fractures for female milk drinkers.) And, unlike prescription drug ads, the mustache ads don't reveal the many unwanted 'side-effects' of milk, among them increased risk of prostate and ovarian cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease."
Interestingly, the dairy industry can deceive us into believing the opposite because advertising is regulated by the FCC, which does not seek the truth behind most ads. The FDA regulates food labels, which must be backed by evidence. Look for the necessary subterfuge on the next carton of milk you buy: "The potassium in milk helps maintain normal blood pressure" or "The calcium in milk helps build strong bones." Milk itself does neither, although low-fat or skim milk can be part of a healthy diet if consumed in moderation.
These facts lead to some shocking conclusions. There could be a historical parallel between smoking and animal products. In 1950 a study in the British Medical Journal linked smoking and lung cancer, a connection that was corroborated by the U.S. Surgeon General. Subsequently, American per capita smoking rates peaked, and the consequent rate of lung cancer deaths peaked two decades later. If the movement against cigarette smoking can reduce the smoking rate by half, then maybe it's time to harness those resources against another health threat: fatty animal products.
A vegan diet certainly falls within the above health guidelines; however, Robbins errs in not stating both sides of the issue. To decrease dramatically the risk of heart disease and cancer we do not have to become vegans. We can consume very little -- or no -- red meat and whole milk.
This column has been endorsed by Virginia Tech Relay for Life. If you're interested in helping, the organization would like the community to know that its efforts "include not only raising money that funds the type of research found in these resources, but also to educate our campus and community on the dangers of cancer and what we can do to fight back against it.
Our goal is to raise money and show the nation that Virginia Tech cares about this fight, but also to educate our students on how they can protect themselves against this terrible disease."