This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Health

Introduction

The first article in this series was a response to a report from the World Health Organization regarding the possible but unlikely carcinogenicity of red meat. I think overall it was a well-written article and it began the conversation here about the general lack of science in main stream nutritional science, which is important. But the article was reactive and I’d like this blog to be proactive. This article is about changing the narrative. Instead of talking about how meat isn’t bad I’d like to talk about why it’s good!

I’m constantly astonished by the discord between mainstream nutritional advice and reality. The most glaring example of this is the French paradox. The French paradox says it’s paradoxical that the French have low rates of heart disease despite eating a lot of saturated fat since we know that dietary saturated fat clogs arteries. Except that the French aren’t a weird outlier, they’re the norm. Most of continental Europe enjoys high consumption of saturated fat and relatively low rates of heart disease. Yet no health researchers ever use this knowledge to question the unproven hypothesis that saturated fat consumption leads to heart disease. Entire careers have been spent trying to find the factor that prevent the French from having heart attacks when an hour on the web (if you know where to look) will show you that France isn’t actually special. This is madness! Maybe they just don’t know where to look. Here and here.

This article is about how meat consumption might actually prevent diabetes. It’s easy to find advice to favor plant based proteins to avoid type 2 diabetes. To take this advice seriously you have to ignore the fact that the part of the world most racked by diabetes is largely vegetarian. And the fact that Europe, once again, has the lowest diabetes rates of modern countries despite high red meat consumption. And you’d have to disregard very interesting research out of India. Once again, reality is conflicting with the prevailing scientific hypothesis. Perhaps we should question the hypothesis?

Background

There is a global epidemic of diabetes underway. The prevailing wisdom is that diabetes (type 2) is a disease of “overnutrition”, a disease that affects rich nations. The reality is that diabetes disproportionately affects the nations of the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. Diabetes rates in these countries can reach up to five times the level of European countries.

Researchers suggest that urbanization, increasingly rich diets and inactive lifestyles are to blame for this growing epidemic. Those factors certainly play a role but something else must be going on because European countries have considerably richer diets as well as urbanization and inactivity.

Diabetes risk is generally accepted to be caused by dietary factors but it’s unclear which ones are the most important. There are theories that it’s caused by consuming too many calories, too much sugar or a long term result of obesity. For instance, sugar consumption is very strongly correlated with diabetes rates independent of caloric consumption or obesity. Still, none of these theories can explain why diabetes rates are so much higher in the Middle East than in Europe.

A major difference between European diets and Middle Eastern diets is that European diets are dramatically higher in meat and other animal-based foods. There is evidence from India that this correlation could be a significant factor in the disparity in rates between the two nearby regions.

A Regional Perspective

The Mediterranean region is famous for it’s love of cured meats. Spain has it’s fabled jamon de serrano. France dotes on pates, rillettes and confits. Italy has prosciutto, salami, soppressata, and capicola. On average the citizens of the Mediterranean region have the highest life expectancy and highest rate of red and cured meat consumption in the world. Here’s a table of countries around the Mediterranean of life expectancy, diabetes rate, red meat consumption and sugar consumption. The United States is added for sake of comparison. This data shows all food that a country uses whether or not it is eaten. These numbers represent all food used in a country whether eaten or wasted, so the caloric numbers are higher than you’d expect. The data is pulled from the Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations, the Diabetes Atlas and Wikipedia.

Country Life Expectancy (years old) Diabetes prevalence Red Meat Consumption (grams/day) Sugar Consumption (grams/day) Total Calories
Italy 83 4.9 172 80 3539
Spain 83 7.9 175 68 3183
France 82 5.2 170 103 3524
Greece 81 4.8 172 75 3433
United States 79 9.4 179 166 3639

Pork is considered taboo by most citizens of the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. Other meat is also not eaten to nearly the extent that it is in Europe.

Country Life Expectancy (years old) Diabetes prevalence Red Meat Consumption (grams/day) Sugar Consumption (grams/day) Total Calories
Kuwait 78 23.1 62 97 3471
Saudi Arabia 76 23.9 34 89 3122
Turkey 75 14.8 39 86 3680
Egypt 71 15.4 40 83 3557
India 66 9.1 6 60 2459

We can see that the people of the Middle East do like their sugar. Not nearly to the extent of Americans (no one does), but as much as Europeans. There is also no real difference in calories consumed between the two regions.

There IS an enormous difference in red meat consumption. European countries consume four times as much red meat as Middle Eastern countries and have less than half the rates of diabetes. What could cause this?

The Pune Maternal Nutrition Study

The Pune Maternal Nutrition Study was done in a rural area of India where the majority of the population were subsistence farmers. Calories and protein were in limited supply. Many mothers never or rarely ate meat, dairy products or green leafy vegetables. The study found that babies born to mothers low in vitamin-B12 and high in folate during pregnancy were more insulin resistant than other babies. This is the same nutritional pattern seen in European vegans. This has given rise to the theory that the epidemic of diabetes in India (and, presumably, the Middle East and North Africa) is being driven by natal undernutrition.

Modern Indians are increasingly urbanized, having access to a richer diet than previous generations. This gives rise to a two part hypothesis. Children born with insulin resistance due to natal undernutrition who then have access to overnutrition as adults are the most likely to develop diabetes. Both Europeans and urban Indians have access to overnutrition, suggesting that the disparity in diabetes rates between Europe and the Middle East is primarily caused by European mothers having more access to meat, dairy and eggs, giving them better neonatal nutrition which causes their children to be less insulin resistant.

Testing The Hypothesis

I have little faith that modern nutritional scientists will give this theory a second look and I don’t have the resources to test it. Fortunately (for me), there is already a huge unintentional international test of this hypothesis happening in front of us. The rising economic powers of India and China have nearly identical current rates of diabetes. The quantity of foods consumed in the two countries 50 years ago were remarkably similar but have rapidly diverged in recent years.

Red Meat Consumption Per Capita (grams/day) 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011
China 6 24 36 62 94 119
India 9 9 9 9 8 6
Calories Per Capita
China 1439 1863 2178 2444 2819 3074
India 2010 1990 2056 2296 2331 2459
Sugar Per Capita (grams/day)
China 6 8 15 23 18 20
India 53 56 54 57 64 60

Adult onset diabetes typically affects older adults. Modern 50 year old citizens of both countries were born at a time of limited calories, fat and protein. Our hypothesis correctly predicts that both countries should have a high rate of diabetes – current adults were born at a time when their mothers would have been undernourished and over their lifetimes dietary calories have increased steadily. The question is what happens over the next 50 years. Red meat consumption, mostly pork, has risen explosively in China since 1961 and the increase is showing no signs of stopping. India has continued to avoid meat consumption for religious reasons. Additionally, India has a higher consumption of sugar than China.

As the decades go on, the diabetes rate in China should stabilize then begin to reflect European rates as the adult population is composed more and more of people who were born to mothers of high nutritional status due to increased pork consumption. The rates in India should continue to increase since access to quality protein sources is still limited. The fact that citizens of China eat less sugar should only accentuate this divergence. For what it’s worth, the powers that be are predicting that this is precisely what will happen.

Red meat is a Remarkably Safe Nutritional Source

Since the publication of Ancel Keys “Seven Countries Study”, which reported a correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease, red meat has been under intense scrutiny as a food. No food has been run through the wringer like red meat has. But we’ve been eating red meat since the dawn of humanity and after 60 years under the microscope, it is still proving itself to be the best source of high quality protein, fat and vitamins for many people. For instance, time has proven that saturated fat consumption is not at all correlated with heart disease rates.

Additionally, lingering concerns about the association between red meat consumption and cancer rates were put to rest by a recent World Health Organization report. The report reviewed 800 papers that studied correlations between red meat consumption and cancer rates. It found that there was no overall correlation between red meat consumption and cancer rates and that only 4 out of 16 cancers showed a correlation with red meat consumption. The best studied of those four correlated cancers was colorectal cancer. The correlation was tiny and probably not causative.

You would be hard pressed to find a better source of easily digestible protein that is high in Essential Amino Acids (the amino acids that humans can’t make and have to be obtained from protein in our food) than red meat. In addition, red meats are an excellent source of b-vitamins, especially the crucial vitamin b-12. They contain heme-iron, which is a very easy to digest, highly absorbable form of iron. Red meats are typically low sources of pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fats, especially when the livestock have not been fed high sources of omega 6 fats such as whole soybeans or distillers grains from ethanol plants. If the meat is from pastured animals, raised with plentiful green grass and sunshine, red meats can also be a good source of Omega 3 fats, both short and long chain, the supposed cancer fighting CLA, and the bone building vitamins D and K2!

Poultry is a great source of protein, although it is significantly higher in Omega 6 fats than red meat and if you buy industrial chicken, it is a likely vector of pathogenic salmonella due to the way large scale poultry plants operate. Seafood is another great source of protein and has the added benefit of high levels of long chain omega 3 fats, but it is likely to be contaminated with mercury and human demand for seafood has led to dramatic overfishing of our oceans. Dairy is an excellent source of protein for most people but many people suffer from allergy to dairy proteins.

Soybeans are the best source of plant protein available but compared to red meat soy protein is 40% lower in the crucial essential amino acid lysine and 60% lower in the essential sulphur containing amino acids methionine and cysteine. Soybeans are not a source of vitamins B12, D or K2 and they are high in Omega 6 fats. They also contain biologically relevant amounts of estrogen mimicking hormones. Beans and lentils are lower in essential amino acids than soybeans and the protein is less digestible. They require long soaking and cooking to eliminate the hard to digest oligosaccharides which can cause flatulence and digestive upset.

Do Your Due Diligence

The flip side of this argument is that most red meat produced in the US has major problems associated with it. The majority of hogs are raised in dimly lit barns, never seeing the light of day and being fed a constant stream of antibiotics, leading to the development of multi-drug resistant bacterial strains. The nutritional qualities of the meat decline. Farm and slaughterhouse workers are horribly abused and the rural economy suffers.

If you do choose to eat red meat, please buy it from a local, conscientious farmer who raises his meat on pasture, in the sunlight, without continual antibiotics.

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