For decades, Americans have been bombarded with “conventional wisdom” suggesting that red meat is unhealthy, dairy foods are undesirable and consumption of saturated fat is a virtual death sentence.
We were advised time after time in each new iteration of USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans to cut down — or better yet, cut out — the consumption of beef and pork, to substitute poultry or fish for red meat and to make sure only low-fat or fat-free foods passed our collective lips at mealtime.
Coupled with the media’s love affair with vegetarian celebrities and the (alleged) power of non-meat foods to create fabulously healthy lifestyles, it’s no surprise that even people who continue to consume the classic “balanced diet” combining meat, dairy, produce and whole grains tend to experience equal parts guilt and anxiety when eating a hamburger or drinking a glass of milk.
The message from leading dietary authorities was clear: beef is bad; soybeans are good. Milk is unhealthy; fruit juice is fabulous.
Innumerable studies over that same time period seemed to endorse the idea that meat — especially “processed meat” — should be considered the culprit in a host of ailments: heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes … you name it. Meat either causes it or makes it worse, hundreds of researchers proclaimed.
Of course, there is a huge problem with that theory. Even as Americans have dutifully reduced their per-capita consumption of red meat — especially beef — the incidence of obesity and its concomitant health effects has increased exponentially. On that basis alone, the Dietary Guidelines have accomplished the exact opposite of its authors’ goal, which was to improve the overall health of the American public.
On occasion, a contrarian study here or there cast doubt on the notion that less meat equals better health, but for the most part, red meat never relinquished its role as a dietary villain to be avoided, if not eliminated altogether.
Contradicting Current Beliefs
Now, however, a new and quite extensive study conducted by researchers Dr. Samuel Yusef and Prof. Andrew Mente at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, found that people consuming higher levels of red meat and dairy products are likely to live longer.
Here’s the best part: People who ate three portions of dairy and 120 grams of red meat (a 4-ounce serving) a day benefited the most.
Don’t just nibble; go ahead and nosh.
In their study, published last week in The Lancet (the British equivalent of the Journal of the American Medical Society and one of the most mainstream, most respected journals in the medical field), the research team acknowledged that their findings run counter to widespread beliefs about diet and health.
“Our findings on full-fat dairy and unprocessed red meat do challenge conventional thinking,” Mente, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology, told attendees at the European Society of Cardiology conference last week in Munich, Germany.
In a release from McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute, it was noted that the study analyzed the medical records and dietary preferences of more than 135,000 people across five continents. The research team concluded that consuming a higher amount of fat (about 35% of calories and higher than current “official” recommendations) is associated with a lower risk of death. In comparison, a diet that provides more than 60% of calories as carbohydrates — i.e., the typical plant-based diet — is associated with a higher mortality rate, although not with greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
In analyzing the data, the researchers noted that people eating the most dairy and red meat reduced their risk of early mortality by 25%, while suffering 2% fewer fatal heart attacks.
The study accounted for differences in income and education, as well as controlling for other lifestyle factors.
The bottom line was stated bluntly, with the authors acknowledging that their conclusion “differs from current dietary advice.”
“Our results show that dairy products and meat are beneficial for heart health and longevity,” said Dr. Yusuf, who teaches cardiovascular disease at McMaster Medical School.
“[Eating meat] is protective up to the serving sizes that we’ve identified,” added Prof. Mente, a principal investigator in epidemiology at the Population Health Research Institute. “We are saying three dairy [portions] and around one portion of red meat [a day].”
As for saturated fat, long labeled a dietary villain, the study suggested otherwise.
“Relative to carbs, I would say that saturated fat is beneficial,” Mente said. “It’s pretty clear from this data.”
And pretty clear from, oh, about thirty thousand years of human history, as well.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.