Last updated on September 7th, 2017
How dangerous is that beef-steak?
Beliefs, dogmas and habits of mind are powerful things. I’d sooner have them on my side in an argument than the puny forces of reason and evidence.
Take the belief that saturated fat is the source of all evil in the modern diet. It’s a deeply and widely held notion in the Western World. Somehow, we all just know that eating red meat will kill us by clogging up our arteries with its saturated fat.
Doctors, nutritionists, media pundits and ordinary people have repeated the idea so often that it has taken on the aura of folk wisdom.
You could hardly be blamed for thinking that people have always believed red meat would kill them. In fact, the dogma is younger than I am.
As award-winning journalist Gary Taubes has recounted in his books Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat (affiliate links), the widespread concept of “artery-clogging saturated fat” has more politics than science behind it. The dubious theory got official U.S. government support in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
I thought of this on Sunday when I read an article in our local newspaper that had been reprinted from The Washington Post (Health and fitness habits can help people keep their youthful good looks, Aug. 1, 2011). The article is a case study by Margaret Webb Pressler of her husband, Jim Pressler, whom she finds to be youthful-looking for his age of 62 years.
Mr. Pressler does, indeed, look good for his age. Mostly I think it’s because his hair is still all black. Ronald Reagan looked relatively young for the same reason all through his presidency and right up until we found out he had Alzheimer’s disease. As far as I know, Mr. Reagan kept his dark hair until he died.
Oddly, Mr. Pressler’s full head of black hair doesn’t get any play in the story. But his diet does. We are told that he eats berries and vegetables that are full of antioxidants, and lots of whole grains and fish, but “virtually no red meat.” This diet is applauded by Dr. Michael Roizen, chair of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, who especially likes that Jim avoids red meat. According to Dr. Roizen, there is something in red meat that increases arterial inflammation and hence premature aging: “It could be the saturated fat; we’re not sure.”
I guess it’s admirable of Dr. Roizen to admit his uncertainty — and the uncertainty of the medical community — about what it is in red meat that causes inflammation. However, his uncertainty — his lack of evidence — doesn’t stop him from pointing a finger at saturated fat. Of course not. Everyone just knows that saturated fat is bad. (And never mind that, according to USDA data, less than half the fat in a beef roast is saturated fat.)
On the Cleveland Clinic’s web site, inflammation is defined as “a process by which the body’s white blood cells and chemicals protect us from infection and foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses” (Inflammation: What You Need To Know). The web site doesn’t mention saturated fat as one of these “foreign substances” that cause inflammation, and for good reason. It’s an unlikely candidate when you consider that people have been eating saturated fat since the dawn of time and that our bodies make plenty of it on their own.
So Dr. Roizen’s admitted uncertainty is justified; his careless finger-pointing is not.
At the least, he could have pointed fingers at more suspects.
I lack any medical or scientific credentials, and I’m not an expert on the American food supply, either. However, when I ask myself what there could be in the modern supermarket red meat supply that might cause inflammation, what “foreign substances” might be in there, I find more and better candidates than Dr. Roizen was able to.
How about the antibiotics, growth hormones and other supplements that our mass-produced, feedlot raised livestock are pumped full of before they are slaughtered?
By nature, cows eat grass. By food industry protocol, they eat corn, soy, grains and whatever else is put in their feedlot mix.
I admit I’m still eating mass-produced red meat, though not entirely. We have bought some that is free of hormones and antibiotics. We would buy more if it were easier to find and cheaper.
Grass-fed beef is much leaner than feedlot beef. So switching to grass-fed, substance-free, pasture-raised beef should make even the fat-phobic happy, despite the inflammation caused by dietary dogma.