08 OCT 2019: I hardly ever watch the 6 o’clock news, but now that I’m getting older, I feel that it’s the responsible thing to do. So, last week, I was half paying attention to an evening news story about whether we are prepared for extraterrestrial life on Mars, and then I heard it -

“Recent study finds eating red meat may not pose a negative health risk after all!”

Oh, this should be good.

According to a study that was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, eating red and processed meat doesn’t lead to a higher incidence of diseases such as cancer and heart disease like we previously thought.

It wouldn’t be the first time the mass media has sensationalized a headline or oversimplified a study to the point where it was no longer accurate. And I’m always skeptical of nutrition advice that comes from an entity that exists for the sole purpose of viewership.

But was this the case here? Maybe, maybe not.

Here’s the thing, scientific studies and nutrition don’t exactly go very well together. There are many reasons for this, but it’s mostly because every single one of us on this planet has a unique body composition, metabolism and nutrient requirements, let alone variations in lifestyle and mental health. There are far too many variables that can influence a person's health on any given day to ever be able to definitively identify a sole cause. No one in their right mind would ever sign up to exist within a bubble for 50 years with every single variable in their life controlled within the guidelines of an experiment. Even then, the scientific findings that would come from living alone in a highly controlled environment would never be relevant in the real world anyway.

This particular red meat study (as is the case for most food studies) was an observational study. These kinds of studies involve people filling out an annoyingly long food questionnaire about the frequency and types of food that they typically consume. Then, based on patterns of eating habits and various health markers, a finding is strung together by someone in a professional-looking lab coat (“but he had a clipboard!”). I don’t know about you, but I barely remember what I ate for dinner to nights ago, let alone all the foods I’ve eaten in the past three months. Besides, we’re human. We’re forgetful and we tend to skim over the extra portions of chocolate cake and overestimate how many green drinks we’ve had. So at best, these studies can give us a potential association, or at worst a random coincidence.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. There is good research out there and there is always a benefit in expanding our knowledge in the field of nutrition through science. We just have to be extra critical because there is so much to consider when interpreting results. It’s one thing to add in a pill and follow people to see what happens, it’s another thing when you’re talking about a whole food that has so many different nutrients and influential factors including how it’s grown, the soil quality, how long ago it was harvested, how it was prepared, and the list goes on and on.

Yet somehow, despite the chaos and never-ending fad diets, I always come back to the same recommendations.

Eat real food, mostly plants and most importantly, enjoy your life! It’s okay to eat chocolate cake and steak and hot dogs on the beach. Just don’t eat them every day, and choose quality over quantity. If you want to eat red meat look for grass-fed beef and nitrate-free meat products. Enjoy lots of variety and eat as many colours as possible to cover your bases.

Too much of anything is bad and that includes stress! I’ve said before that the stress and alienation of following a restrictive diet are worse than eating the “bad foods” in the first place. So, don’t get caught up in the headlines, because the placebo effect is real. If you believe something is going to nourish you or harm you, that will influence how your body responds to it at a cellular level. I know it sounds wacky, but it’s true! There is so much more to eating than the food on your plate and no one knows what’s better for your body than you.

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Sabrina Santer

Sabrina Santer uses her academic and holistic nutrition background to share insight and inform readers on travel wellness tips and healthy eating around the world. A witty sense of humour sprinkles her work as proof that healthy need not be boring. 

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