Get­ting un­der meat’s skin

Friday - - Living Health -

We’re hard­wired to eat meat: as much as we can get. Re­search shows that if you give a diet of un­lim­ited meat to om­niv­o­rous an­i­mals, whether a fly, a mouse or a chim­panzee, they will go on gorg­ing un­til they are fat and ill. And that is pre­cisely what has hap­pened to hu­mans.

Meat is cheaper than at any other time in his­tory and, across the globe, we’re all tuck­ing in. Con­sumers in the UAE eat 18 times more meat per capita than the global av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Min­istry of For­eign Trade, and in the UK, most peo­ple con­sume more than their own body weight in an­i­mal flesh at an an­nual av­er­age of around 86kg per per­son: nearly twice as much as health guide­lines rec­om­mend.

But that’s still puny com­pared with the meat feast go­ing on in Aus­tralia and in the US. There, each per­son eats 120kg or more a year: 21,000 an­i­mals each in a life­time. It is not do­ing any of us any good.

In fact, long-term stud­ies on hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple in rich coun­tries show that the more meat – es­pe­cially red and pro­cessed meat – you eat, the shorter your life will be. Bowel can­cer, one of the key dis­eases as­so­ci­ated with meat eat­ing, has risen swiftly to be the sec­ond or third big­gest killer in most de­vel­oped coun­tries.

Even the most con­sci­en­tious car­ni­vores can’t dodge the sta­tis­tics: the new di­etary killers don’t give any credit for shop­ping or­ganic. The dan­ger­ous pro­teins in econ­omy beef­burg­ers are just as present in the most ex­pen­sive grass-fed, rare-breed beef steak.

A sur­vey of sur­veys, done last year by the Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health, puts the risk into sim­ple terms: eat an ex­tra por­tion of red, cured or pro­cessed meat a day and your chances of de­vel­op­ing di­a­betes, heart disease or bowel can­cer soar. Your risk of dy­ing pre­ma­turely goes up by 13 per cent. And if we all kept our­selves to an av­er­age and it is pre­dicted that the num­ber of cases will rise to 2.2 mil­lion by 2030.

What’s in­trigu­ing is that com­par­a­tively few peo­ple in poorer parts of the world suf­fer from this disease; just five peo­ple in ev­ery 100,000 get bowel can­cer in Kenya (al­though, of course, most of those who get it there will die from it). And the more meat a pop­u­la­tion eats, the more bowel can­cer there is.

So, should there be health warn­ings on ev­ery packet of beef­burg­ers? Some academics think that much more must be done to pub­li­cise the new threats in light of the rise of “di­abesity” and diet-re­lated can­cer. But as so of­ten hap­pens when food, health and big money come to­gether, there is still enough con­tro­versy and con­tra­dic­tory opin­ion, par­tic­u­larly over meat and can­cer, to have kept the reg­u­la­tors’ hands off – so far.

Pro­fes­sor Tim Key, a can­cer epi­demi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, ex­plains the prob­lem. “No­body doubts that diet is im­por­tant and we know that veg­e­tar­i­ans suf­fer less col­orec­tal can­cer. More than that we can­not say defini­tively be­cause there’s some­thing we don’t yet un­der­stand: the di­rect mech­a­nism by which meat af­fects the colon.” So does Pro­fes­sor Key eat red meat? He has, he con­fesses, long been a ve­gan – but chiefly be­cause of an­i­mal-wel­fare con­cerns.

To­day theWorld Can­cer Re­search Fund rec­om­mends eat­ing no more than 500g (cooked weight) per week of red meat, and avoid­ing pro­cessed meats all to­gether. The Har­vard study urges meaty moder­a­tion and tak­ing a Mediter­ranean ap­proach to diet, whereby red meat ap­pears only “now and then”.

But the prob­lem is that the re­search, while con­vinc­ing, re­mains cor­re­la­tional – there’s clearly a link, but the cause has not been shown. Ev­ery­one in food sci­ence and pub­lic health knows that the mas­sive changes in diet of the 20th cen­tury have – along with smok­ing – led to a rise in a whole range of dis­eases, from di­a­betes to can­cer, that our an­ces­tors hardly knew of. Mass pop­u­la­tion stud­ies in 1975 first sug­gested a link be­tween bowel can­cer and meat eat­ing, but no one yet has tracked down why it hap­pens. And that is lead­ing some sci­en­tists to doubt they ever will. On the sur­face meat looks pretty sim­ple. By def­i­ni­tion, it is mus­cle, made of 75 per cent wa­ter, 5 per cent fat and 20 per cent pro­tein. But in each slice of a steak lies much com­plex chem­istry. Sci­ence is still strug­gling to un­der­stand the work­ings of th­ese com­pounds, but what is now ac­cepted is that cook­ing can turn some of them

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.