Shhh! Don’t tell! Beef is really good for us!
I am a red meat fan. and come from a long line of hardened carnivores. In the early 1960s, when I was a little kid, the nutritional industrial complex convicted red meat of crimes against cholesterol and heart health. Red meat, for eons considered a staple of a healthy diet, was suddenly knocked off its nutritional pedestal. Overnight, if it once mooed, it was booed. My mother ramped up the chicken at the dinner table and tapered down the meat. My dad cried fowl.
I actually went vegetarian for about a dozen years, as part of my idealistic youth. One day, a friend offered me a delicate little chicken drumstick at her apartment. I had an epiphany: I had been a vegetarian fool. I sat down and ate the chicken and nearly chewed through the bone, never to return to the land of exclusively lacto-ovo vegetarianism. Still, I assumed that red meat was like a hunk of Devil’s food chocolate cake: delicious to be sure, but hostile to my health and to be parceled out in small portions on special occasions.
So imagine my joy when I read that red meat has been falsely accused for decades. That it was actually good for me! And for you! The article was from the Wall Street Journal and written by Nina Teicholz, based on her 2014 book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.” I had saved the article and came across it again this week, just when I was getting hungry for lunch and thinking, “Where’s the beef?”
Reading the story will probably make you ready to run out for a burger, if not the fries. Teicholz wrote that there was never (You hear that? Never!) solid evidence that animal fats cause the heart disease for which they were cruelly maligned. “We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias,” she wrote. Imagine that.
True, America suddenly faced a heart disease epidemic in the mid-1950’s. The government and scientists looked for a villain. Teichholz blames, in part, Ancel Benjamin Keys, a scientist at the University of Minnesota, who “relentlessly champion[ed] the idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol and, as a result, cause heart attacks.”
But Dr. Keys had an agenda to put red meat on the grill until it was charred to a crisp. And Keys’ study of nearly 13,000 men in the U.S., Japan and Europe was biased: He didn’t study men in countries where people still ate a lot of fat but had no widespread heart disease, such as France, Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. He did study peasants from Crete, “islanders who tilled their fields well into old age and who appeared to eat very little meat or cheese.”
Other scientists followed like sheep, designing studies poised to malign animal fats. But the studies didn’t always control for smoking and other factors, which made their results “unreliable at best.”
Now the fix was in, and the mighty and powerful in the worlds of science and politics convinced Americans that red meat and butter were the enemy. This led to the famous government-sponsored food pyramid where carbohydrates were king. As a young mother in the early 1990’s, I served and ate pasta dinners most nights believing it was “healthier” than meat. I then wondered why, despite chasing after four kids and going to the gym, I was still twenty pounds overweight.
And far from being a benign change in our diets, moving to carbs and margarine instead of meat and butter, as we were told to do, was harmful, Teicholz says. Carbohydrates break down into glucose and help store fat. Frankly, I have never needed help with fat-storing, thanks anyway. Worse, carbohydrates in excess can lead to obesity and potentially to Type 2 diabetes. These both contribute to heart disease. All those bowls of Grape-Nuts cereal, that frankly tasted like pulverized pine cone, may have been worse for me than had I eaten nice buttery eggs for breakfast! Who knew? Many scientists did, but wouldn’t tell.
The American Heart Association in 1961 proclaimed that shunning butter and lard for vegetable oil-based margarine and vegetable oil led to healthier hearts, yet Teichholz notes that “In early clinical trials, people on diets high in vegetable oil were found to suffer higher rates not only of cancer but also of gallstones. And, strikingly, they were more likely to die from violent accidents and suicides.” Gosh, could people have been so desperate for a steak that they killed themselves?
It was no pleasure to learn that after having ingested a bargeful of margarine in my life for a “healthier heart” that I may have damaged my liver in the process because of all the trans fats, and even raised my level of “bad” LDL cholesterol. This is “not remotely what Americans bargained for when they gave up butter and lard,” Teichholz wrote.
And who remembers that famous Framingham study on heart disease risk factors from 1971? Well, that study, whose results have never been questioned, revealed that women over 50 with high total cholesterol levels live longer, yet women are the ones who have been assiduously upping their fruit, vegetable and grain consumption, wondering why their “good” HDL cholesterol was dropping. Finally, women have achieved equality with men, at least in matching their death rates from heart disease.
Of course, there are many studies that have proven the health benefits of a nice juicy burger or lean steak, but they don’t get much attention. One study, whose results were published in the January 2012 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that a group with high cholesterol following a mostly fruit, vegetable and whole grain lowered their “bad” LDL cholesterol by about 10 percent after adding up to 5.5 ounces of lean beef a day. What’s more, “bad” fat content—called triglycerides—decreased.
Another study of women in Australia who ate 1 to 2 ounces of beef or lamb a day were half as likely to have major depression or anxiety disorder compared to those who ate less than 1 ounce daily. One researcher guessed this was because the typically grass-fed beef and lamb in Australia is higher is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which can protect against anxiety and depression. I say the answer is simpler: Most people simply enjoy meat. And frankly, if anyone allowed me only one ounce of meat as a serving, I might get depressed too.
So if cows are not to blame for our heart health woes, what is? After more than $1 billion spent trying to prove that animal fats were to blame, we don’t know. Too many people have built careers and egos on what might be junk science. The real evidence that meat is bad for you remains as slippery as an omelet sliding off a buttery grill and onto a plate with a side of hash browns.
Here’s to a fat, fresh burger, grilled with onions on top, medium rare. I’ll only eat half the bun.
Laughter is also good for you, and has zero cholesterol. Check out my funny books: Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping, The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement, and Carpool Tunnel Syndrome — a modern-day classic! If you enjoyed this Mirth & Meaning, please forward to a friend!