Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

Vegan BurgerAmericans love their meat. In 2018 we averaged over 200 pounds of meat per person. If we just focus on beef, we eat about 54 pounds per year. That’s equivalent to four quarter pounders a week!

But we are also getting the message that too much meat, especially red meat, may be bad for us. Nearly 40% of us are trying to eat a more plant-based diet.

The problem is that we love the convenience of fast food restaurants, and we love our burgers. Plus, in the past the meatless burgers on the market were, in a word, disappointing. Their taste and texture left something to be desired. You really needed to be committed to a plant-based diet to eat them in place of a regular burger.

That all changed a few years ago with the introduction of the and new generation of meatless burgers – the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. They had the taste and texture of a real burger, but they were completely plant-based. What wasn’t to like?

  • Both companies claimed that their meatless burgers were healthier for the planet than regular burgers. For example, Impossible Food’s mission statement is: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems. So, we’re doing something about it: We’re making meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again”.
  • Neither company claims their burgers are healthier for you. However, because their burgers are plant-based, the almost universal assumption has been that they are healthier than regular burgers.

Since their introduction they have taken the world by storm. You can find them in almost every supermarket and in many of your favorite fast food restaurants. Now that they are omnipresent, it is perhaps time to step back and take a closer look at this new generation of meatless burgers. In this article, I will ask two questions:

  • Are they healthier for you than regular burgers?
  • Are they healthier for the planet than regular burgers?

For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the Impossible Burger with occasional comparisons with the Beyond Burger. It is beyond the scope of this article to compare these burgers with the many other meatless burgers that are now starting to flood the marketplace.

What’s In The Impossible Burger?

  • When we think of a burger, the first thing we think of is protein. The Impossible Burger gets its protein from soy, while the Beyond Burger gets its protein from peas.

Coconut OilHowever, soy and pea protein don’t give you the mouth feel, flavor, red color, and texture of a beef burger.

  • The mouth feel of a burger comes from its saturated fat. Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger use coconut oil as their source of saturated fat.
    • Coconut oil has gained a reputation as a “healthier” saturated fat. However, as I have discussed in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, we have no long term studies on the health effects of diets high in coconut oil. We don’t really know whether it is healthier than other saturated fats.
  • The taste and color of a beef burger come from its heme content. Heme does not occur in the parts of plants we eat. However, heme is involved in nitrogen fixation, so it is found in the roots of some legumes.
    • The Impossible Burger has genetically engineered yeast to produce a type of heme called leghemoglobin that is found in soy roots. The Beyond Burger uses beet juice extract and annatto for the color and unspecified “natural flavor” for the flavor.
  • To get the texture of a beef burger, both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger use maltodextrin, modified food starch, and a variety of other ingredients. They are both highly processed foods.
  • Iron is another important nutrient you expect to get from a beef burger. The Impossible Burger contains 4.5 mg of iron and the Beyond Burger contains 5.4 mg of iron.
    • However, that is only part of the story. When iron is attached to a heme molecule, it is more efficiently absorbed by our bodies. Beef burgers and the Impossible Burger contain heme iron. The Beyond Burger does not.
  • In addition, the Impossible Burger adds in the vitamins, including B12, that we would expect to get from a beef burger. The Beyond Burger does not.

What Are The Pluses Of The Impossible Burger?

thumbs upThere are some definite pluses for the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger:

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are made from plant-based ingredients rather than from meat.
  • Both are cholesterol free.
  • Both contain modest amounts of fiber (3 grams for the Impossible Burger and 2 grams for the Beyond Burger), while a meat burger contains none.
  • Both are good sources of iron, and the iron in the Impossible Burger is heme-iron, which is efficiently absorbed by our bodies.

What Are The Minuses of the Impossible Burger?

thumbs downThere are, however, some definite minuses as well.

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are high in saturated fat. The Impossible Burger is higher in saturated fat and the Beyond Burger contains the same amount of saturated fat as a real burger. That’s important because the latest advisory of the American Heart Association warns that saturated fat increases our risk of heart disease (I have discussed this finding in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”).
    • The saturated fat in both burgers comes from coconut oil. However, as I discussed above, we don’t know whether coconut oil is better or worse for us than other saturated fats. The relevant studies have not been done.
  • Both the Impossible and Beyond burgers are high in sodium. They have almost 5-times more sodium than a beef burger.
  • The heme in red meat catalyzes the formation of N-nitroso compounds in our gut which increase the risk of colon cancer. We do not know whether the form of heme added to Impossible Burgers catalyzes the same reaction, but it is likely.
  • Both plant-based burgers are low in protein compared to a beef burger (~20 grams versus 27 grams). On the other hand, 20 grams of protein is reasonable for a single meal.
  • The plant proteins used for these burgers (soy for the Impossible Burger and pea for the Beyond Burger) are highly processed. They lack the phytonutrients found in the unprocessed proteins.
    • The isoflavones found in soy are thought to decrease the risk of cancer and osteoporosis.
    • The phytonutrients found in peas have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. They are also thought to decrease the risk of certain cancers.
  • The Impossible Burger is GMO. The leghemoglobin is produced by genetically engineered yeast, and the soy is also GMO.
  • Neither the Impossible Burger nor Beyond Burger are certified organic. Organic certification refers to how the plant was grown. Both burgers are highly processed. Many of the ingredients in both burgers came from factories, not farms.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Eating Impossible BurgerNow, it is time to return to the original question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for you?” Since it is plant-based, it would be easy to assume that it is healthier than a burger made from beef. However, when you look more closely, it is not clear that it is healthier.

The manufacturers of the Impossible Burger and similar burgers have gone to the laboratory and have been successful at creating meatless burgers with the taste, mouth feel, and texture of real burgers. However, these improvements have come with a price.

  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are higher in saturated fat than a beef burger. This means they may be just as likely to increase the risk of heart disease as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger contains as much heme as a beef burger, which means it may be just as likely to increase the risk of cancer as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are highly processed. That means:
    • The plant proteins no longer contain the phytonutrients thought to be responsible for some of their health benefits.
    • They also don’t contain the vitamins you would expect to find associated with the plant proteins.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are not organic. Even worse, the Impossible Burger is GMO.

On balance, we can’t really assume the Impossible Burger is any healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. Plus, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

For example, I looked up the Organic Sunshine brand South West Black Bean burgers. It only provides half as much protein as an Impossible Burger, but all the ingredients are organic, non-GMO, and minimally processed. Note: I am not recommending a particular brand. However, with a little research I am confident you can find a healthy meatless burger with a taste you will enjoy.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

impossible burger good for planetNow, let’s look at the second question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for the planet?” The answer to this question seems obvious. As the Impossible Burger company states in their mission statement: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems”. It seems logical that any meatless burger would be an improvement.

If we are talking about a minimally processed black bean burger, like the one I described above, the answer is a clear yes. It is healthier for the planet. However, when you look more closely at the Impossible Burger, the answer isn’t as clear.

  • As coconut oil has increased in popularity massive areas of untouched, forested land have been cleared for coconut plantations.
    • These forested areas provide an essential ecosystem for animals and provide natural storm protection by absorbing rainwater. Therefore, coconut oil, like beef, also destroys our ecosystems.
    • In addition, many of the coconut plantations use large amounts of chemical fertilizers which contribute to phosphate pollution and algae overgrowth in lakes, rivers, and coastal ocean areas. This also degrades our environment.
  • The Impossible Burgers and similar meatless burgers contain many highly processed ingredients. Each of these ingredients imposes its own environmental burden. For example:
    • Coconut oil is often processed with hexane, which is categorized as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.
    • In addition, coconut oil is primarily grown in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. Transporting it to this country generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.
    • And, of course, coconut oil represents only one of the many highly processed ingredients in the Impossible Burger and similar meatless burgers.

In short, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

The Bottom Line

Two weeks ago, I wrote about recent headlines claiming that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much red meat as they like. I looked at the study behind the headlines and pointed out the many flaws in that study.

Last week I wrote about headlines claiming that red meat was just as heart healthy as white meat. I looked at the study behind the headlines and showed it was an excellent example of how the beef industry influences the design of clinical trials to minimize the health risks of red meat. It is also an example of how the media misleads and confuses the public about the effect of nutrition on their health.

What the studies I reviewed the last two weeks really showed was that very small amounts (2-3 ounces) of very lean red meat is probably OK as part of a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet. Larger servings of fattier cuts of red meat as part of the typical American diet is problematic.

However, if you love your burgers, what are you to do? Are the meatless burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger that are showing up in your favorite fast food restaurants the answer? Specifically, you are probably asking:

  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for you?
  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for the planet?

I looked at the composition, pluses, and minuses of this new generation of meatless burgers in this article. The bottom line is:

  • On balance, the Impossible Burger is only slightly healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. And, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that are organic, non-GMO, and use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

  • Similarly, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Is Red Meat As Healthy As White Meat?

The Lies of the Beef Industry

Eating Red MeatLast week I wrote about a recent review claiming that the evidence for the health risks of red meat consumption was so weak that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much of it as they like. I pointed out the many flaws in that study.

  • One of the flaws was that the review discounted dozens of association studies showing a link between red meat consumption and disease and relied instead on randomized controlled trials. Normally, that would be a good thing, but…
  • The association studies looked at health outcomes and had hundreds of thousands of participants. They found clear links between red meat consumption and increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • The randomized controlled trials looked at blood parameters like LDL cholesterol and averaged less than 500 participants. These studies were too small to provide meaningful results, and, not surprisingly, the results were conflicting. Some linked red meat consumption to increased risk, while others did not.

Because they had discounted evidence from association studies, the authors of the review concluded that the overall evidence was weak.

This week I want to address why the evidence from randomized controlled trials for health risks of red meat is so weak. More importantly, I want to highlight the role of the beef industry in making sure the evidence on the health risks of red meat consumption is weak.

I will also point out the role of the media in this process because they are equally complicit in spreading misleading information about the health risks of red meat consumption.

You might be asking: “How does the beef industry influence clinical trials to produce outcomes supporting their message that red meat is perfectly healthy?” “Surely they can’t convince reputable scientists to falsify their results.”

  • The answer is they don’t need to convince scientists to falsify their results. They just need to influence the design of the experiments so the results will be to their liking.” I will give two examples of that in this article.

Next you might be wondering: “What is the role of the media in this? Surely they just report what the scientific publication says.” Don’t be deceived. The media isn’t interested in accuracy. They are interested in generating the largest possible audience. They know controversy attracts an audience. They are looking for “man bites dog” headlines even if it isn’t true.

  • If you actually read the studies, you discover that reputable scientists always discuss the weaknesses and flaws in their study. The media either doesn’t read the publication or ignores the weaknesses. Instead they focus on the most controversial headline they can craft. I will give some examples of that as well.

Is Red Meat As Healthy As White Meat?

Red Meat Vs White MeatFor years we have been told that red meat increases our risk of heart disease because it is high in saturated fats. We’ve been told that white meat and plant proteins are better alternatives.

But the latest headlines claim that red meat is just as heart healthy as white meat. You are probably wondering what to believe. Let’s examine the study behind the headline and ask two important questions?

  1. Did the beef industry influence the study?
  2. Did the media distort the study in their reporting?

I will start by reporting the study design and the results of the studies without comment. Then I will discuss how the beef industry influenced the design of the study to produce misleading results.

The Headlines Said: “Red Meat and White Meat Are Equally Heart Healthy.” The study behind the headlines was a 4-week study (N Bergeron et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 110: 24-33, 2019) comparing equivalent amounts of red meat, white meat, and non-meat protein on LDL levels. It did report that red meat and white meat raised LDL cholesterol levels to the same extent, but here is what the headlines didn’t tell you:

  • The authors of this study are heavily funded by the dairy and beef industries. I will point out the implications of this funding below.
  • 4 weeks is a very short time. This study provides no information on the long-term effects of red meat versus white meat consumption.
  • The study only measured LDL and related lipoproteins. It did not measure heart disease outcomes. LDL and lipoprotein levels are only one indicator of heart disease risk. Thus, they are imperfect predictors of heart disease risk. I will point out why that is important below as well.
  • The study was performed at two levels of saturated fat – low (7% of calories) and high (14% of calories).

At the low level of saturated fat, only the leanest cuts of red meat (top round and top sirloin) were used to keep saturated fat low in the red meat group. High fat dairy foods were added to the non-meat protein group to increase saturated fat content. Thus, all 3 groups consumed the same amount of saturated fat.

At the high level of saturated fat, butter and high-fat dairy foods were added to the white meat and non-meat protein groups to increase saturated fat content. Once again, saturated fat content was identical in all 3 groups.

Here were the results:High Cholesterol

  • LDL and related lipoproteins were higher for the high saturated fat group than the low saturated fat group. Nothing new here. This is consistent with dozens of previous studies. We know that saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol levels when other aspects of the diet are kept constant.
  • In both the low and high saturated fat groups, red and white meat raised LDL cholesterol to the same extent. In other words, when saturated fat levels are held constant, red meat and white meat raise cholesterol levels to the same extent.

In interpreting that statement, you need to remember the study design.

    • In the low saturated fat group, only two cuts of red meat were low enough in saturated fat for a direct comparison to white meat.
    • In the high saturated fat group, butter and high fat dairy had to be added to white meat so it could be compared to red meat.

Obviously, this is not the real world. 95% of the red meat the average American consumes is higher in saturated fat than most white meat.

The authors concluded “The findings…based on lipid and lipoprotein effects, do not provide evidence for choosing white over red meat for reducing heart disease risk”. That conclusion is clearly inaccurate.

  • The study did not measure heart disease outcomes. It measured only LDL cholesterol and related lipoprotein levels. That is just one factor in determining heart disease risk. The significance of that statement will be explained below.
  • Red meat and white meat raised LDL cholesterol levels to the same extent only when saturated fat is held constant. We know that most red meat is higher in saturated fat than white meat and saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, the study confirmed that the high-fat red meats most people consume raised LDL cholesterol more than white meats.
  • The accurate conclusion to this study would have been: “Most red meat raises LDL cholesterol more than white meat, which suggests red meat may increase heart disease risk compared to white meat.”
  • Did I mention that the authors are heavily funded by the beef industry?

What About TMAO And Heart Disease Risk?

heart diseaseInterestingly, the authors also looked at another risk factor for heart disease in the same study, something called TMAO. I have discussed the relationship between red meat, TMAO, and heart disease risk in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”).

Let me summarize briefly here:

  • Red meat has 10-50-fold higher concentrations of a compound called L-carnitine than white meat.
  • Meat eaters have a very different population of gut bacteria than people who eat a primarily plant-based diet. It is not clear whether that is due to the meat or the loss of plant foods that meat displaces from the diet.
  • The gut bacteria of meat eaters convert L-carnitine to trimethylamine (TMA), which the liver then converts to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).
  • The gut bacteria of people consuming a primarily plant-based do not convert L-carnitine to TMA, so no TMAO is formed. For example, in one study investigators fed an 8-ounce sirloin steak to meat eaters and to vegetarians. The meat eaters ended up with high levels of TMAO in their blood. The vegetarians had little or no TMAO in their blood.
  • High levels of TMAO are associated with atherosclerosis, increased risk of heart attacks, and death. Therefore, TMAO is considered an independent risk factor for heart disease.

The authors of the study comparing red meat and white meat also found that blood TMAO levels were two-fold higher in the red meat group than in the other two groups and this was independent of dietary saturated fat. However, rather than publishing this in the same paper where it might have interfered with their message that red and white meat affect heart disease risk to the same extent, the authors chose to publish these data in a separate paper (Z.Wang, European Heart Journal, 40: 7: 583-594, 2018).

Did I mention the authors are heavily funded by the beef industry?

Is Red Meat Healthy As Part Of A Mediterranean Diet?

Mediterranean Diet FoodsLet me briefly touch on one other study funded by the beef industry. The headlines said: “You may not have to give up red meat. It is healthy as part of a Mediterranean diet.”

The study (LE O’Connor et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 33-40, 2018) behind the headlines did report that lean beef and pork did not raise LDL cholesterol levels when they were included in a Mediterranean diet. However, it is important to look at what the headlines didn’t tell you.

  • The red meat group consumed only 2.4 ounces of red meat a day. We aren’t talking about 8-ounce steaks or a rack of pork ribs here.
  • The red meat group ate only the very leanest (tenderloin) cuts of beef or pork.
  • On a positive note, while it wasn’t measured in this study, it is likely that TMAO levels would be relatively low because the subjects were consuming a primarily plant-based diet. They were consuming 7 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of fruit, and 4 servings of whole grains each day.
  • Similarly, red meat has several components that appear to increase cancer risk. However, they can be largely neutralized by various plant foods. This is something I have discussed in more detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths”.

In summary, it would have been more accurate to conclude that very small, very lean servings of red meat may be healthy as part of a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet.

The Lies Of The Beef Industry

LiesBoth these studies utilized the very leanest cuts of red meat so they could conclude that red meat is healthy. This is a common design of studies funded by the beef industry. Rather than looking at the health effects of the high fat red meats most people consume, the studies focus only on the leanest cuts of meat.

The studies appear to be designed to purposely mislead the American public. Let’s look at how that happens. When studies like these are incorporated into larger meta-analyses or reviews, investigators often look at the conclusions, not at the experimental design.

Meta-analyses and reviews are only as good as the studies they include, a concept referred to as “Garbage in – Garbage Out”. That is what happened with the review and recommendations I discussed last week. The review relied heavily on short-term randomized controlled trials.

However, this is problematic. Because of the way they are designed, industry funded studies tend to find no adverse effects of consuming red meat. Independently funded studies tend to find adverse health effects from red meat. If you throw them all together without considering how the experiments were designed, the studies cancel each other out.

On that basis the authors of the review concluded that the evidence for red meat adversely affecting health outcomes was weak and recommended that everyone could continue consuming red meat. (That is a recommendation that virtually every health organization and top expert in the field have rejected for the reasons I summarized last week).

The beef industry doesn’t have to influence the design of every study, just enough studies to confuse the science and confuse the media.

The Complicity Of The Media

newspaper heallinesUnfortunately, the media is equally guilty of misleading the public. As I said above, the media is interested in attracting an audience, not in accuracy. For example:

  • The headlines describing the first study should have said: “Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels”. But everyone knows that. Headlines like that are non-controversial. They don’t attract readers.
  • The headlines describing that study could have said: “Very lean cuts of red meat don’t raise LDL levels any more than white meat”. That would have been accurate, but that wouldn’t attract readers either. Most Americans prefer high fat cuts of red meat. They aren’t interested in reading articles suggesting they should change what they are eating.
  • Similarly, the headlines describing the second study should have said: “Very small amounts of very lean red meat may be healthy as part of a Mediterranean diet.”
  • In fact, the authors of both studies admitted in their discussions that they could not extrapolate their findings to the effects of higher-fat red meats. The media ignored those statements. Presumably, they decided the American public didn’t want to hear that message.
  • The first study also found that LDL and related lipoprotein levels were lower for the non-meat protein group than the red and white meat groups at both saturated fat levels. In fact, the main conclusion of the authors was: “The findings are in keeping with recommendations promoting diets with a high proportion of plant foods.” Somehow the media completely ignored that finding.

When the media consistently misleads the public about what constitutes a healthy diet, it leads to confusion. Confusion leads to inaction. At a time when so many Americans are suffering from preventable diseases, this is inexcusable.

Is Red Meat Healthy?

red meat heart healthyLet’s return to the question I posed last week: “Is red meat healthy?” Most of what I say below is identical to what I said last week. However, with the information I provided in the article above it may be easier to understand.

  • The saturated fat in red meat is associated with increased heart disease risk.
  • Red meat increases blood levels of TMAO, which is associated with increased heart disease risk.
  • The heme iron in red meat can be converted in the gut to N-nitroso compounds, which are associated with increased risk of cancer.
  • Benzopyrene and heterocyclic amines are formed when red meat is cooked. And they are associated with increased risk of cancer.

As I said last week, “There are too many studies that show a strong association between red meat consumption and disease risk to give red meat a clean bill of health. We can’t say red meat is healthy with any confidence.”

However, that doesn’t mean we need to eliminate red meat from our diet. As described above, the health risks of red meat are determined by the type of red meat consumed, the amount of red meat consumed, and the overall composition of our diet. For example:

  • Very lean cuts of red meat contain no more saturated fat than white meat.
  • Primarily plant-based diets alter our gut bacteria in such a way that production of TMAO and N-nitroso compounds are decreased.
  • Diets high in plant fiber sweep benzopyrene and heterocyclic amines out of our intestine before they can cause much damage.

So, what does that mean to you?

  • If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat may increase your risk of disease.
  • However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of very lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat is probably OK.
  • If you are thinking about the very leanest cuts of red meat, they are probably just as healthy as white meat.

What About Grass Fed Beef?

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is: “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” Grass fed beef does have a slightly healthier fat profile. It is modestly lower in saturated fat and modestly higher in omega-3 fats. However, grass feeding doesn’t affect TMAO, N-Nitroso, benzopyrene, and heterocyclic amine formation.

  • That means the 8-ounce steak is only slightly less unhealthy and the 2-3 ounces of steak in a green salad only slightly healthier when you substitute grass-fed for conventionally raised beef. It’s probably not worth the extra cost.

Next week I will return with the answer to another question I get a lot. “If plant protein is good for me, what about all those meatless burgers that are popping up in my favorite fast food restaurants. Are they healthy?”

The Bottom Line

Last week I wrote about a recent review claiming that the evidence for the health risks of red meat consumption was so weak that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much of it as they like. I pointed out the many flaws in that study.

This week I provided two examples of how the beef industry influences the design of clinical trials to minimize the health risks of red meat and the media misleads the public about what the studies showed.

The bottom line is that red meat likely has no adverse health effects only if you are consuming very small amounts of very lean red meat in the context of a primarily plant-based diet. Unfortunately, this is not the message you are getting from the media and from Dr. Strangelove’s health blog.

As for grass-fed beef, it is only modestly healthier than conventionally raised beef for reasons I have given in the article above. It’s probably not worth the extra cost.

Next week I will return with the answer to another question I get a lot. “If plant protein is good for me, what about all those plant-based burgers that are popping up in my favorite fast food restaurants. Are they healthy?” Stay tuned.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

 

Is Red Meat Healthy For You?

Why Is Red Meat So Controversial?

fatty steakThe American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization and other organizations have been telling us for years that diets high in red meat are likely to increase our risk of chronic diseases. If you are like most Americans, you have been trying to cut back on red meat.

However, the latest headlines are saying things like: “Red meat is actually good for you” and “Most adults don’t need to cut back on red meat for their health”. Where did those headlines come from?

A group calling itself the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS) has reviewed the scientific literature and said: “The evidence is too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” They have issued guidelines (BC Johnston et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 171: 756-764, 2019) saying that adults really don’t need to change the amounts of red meat they are eating.

As you can imagine, that has proven to be a controversial recommendation. Many of the top experts in the field have questioned the validity of the study and have condemned the guidelines as misleading.

However, most of you don’t care about arguments between the experts. Your questions are: “What does this study mean to me?” Is everything I have been told about red meat wrong?” “Is red meat healthy after all? Can I really eat as much as I want?”

Why Is Red Meat So Controversial?

ArgumentIf you are confused by the latest headlines, it’s not your fault. Over the past few decades you have been bombarded by conflicting headlines about red meat. One month it is bad for you. The next month it is good for you. It is fair to ask: “Why is red meat so controversial? Why is it so confusing?”

Perhaps the best way to answer those questions is to review the scientific critique of the latest guidelines saying we can eat as much red meat as we want and then look at the authors’ rebuttal.

The best summary of the scientific critique of these guidelines is a WebMD Health News report. Let me cover a few of the most important criticisms:

#1: The NutriRECS group was not backed by any major health, government, or scientific organizations. The members of this group self-nominated themselves as gurus of nutritional recommendations. In an earlier publication they concluded that the evidence was too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less sugar. But in that review they stopped short of recommending that adults could eat as much sugar as they wanted.

#2: The review left out 15 important studies showing that diets high in red meat are associated with increased disease risk. If those studies had been included in the analysis, the link between meat consumption and disease would have been much stronger. Even worse, the omitted studies met the author’s stated criteria for inclusion in their analysis. No reason was given for omitting those studies. This suggests author bias.

#3: The authors used an assessment method that prioritizes evidence from randomized controlled trials and downgrades evidence from association studies. As a result, multiple association studies showing red and processed meat consumption increases disease risk were discounted, and a few randomized controlled clinical trials giving inconsistent results dominated their analysis.

Let me state for the record that my research career was devoted to cancer drug development. I am a big proponent of the value of randomized controlled trials when they are appropriate.

·       Randomized controlled trial are perfect for determining the effectiveness of new drugs. In this context it is appropriate. In a drug trial it is easy to design a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. In addition, every participant already has the disease. If a drug has a benefit, it is apparent in a very short time.

·       However, randomized controlled trials are not optimal for dietary studies. In the first place, it is impossible to design a placebo or have a “blinded study”. People know what they are eating. In addition, diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes take decades to develop. You can’t keep people on specific diets for decades.

·       In addition, because randomized controlled trials are short, they can only measure the effect of diet on disease markers like LDL cholesterol. These disease markers are imperfect predictors of disease outcomes. I will discuss this in more detail next week.

·       Consequently, most of the major studies in nutrition research are “association studies” where the investigators ask people what they customarily eat and look at the association of those dietary practices with disease outcomes. These studies aren’t perfect, but they represent the best tool we have for determining the influence of diet on disease outcomes.

confusion#4: The authors included people’s attitudes about eating meat in their analysis. Because many meat eaters stated they would be unwilling to give up meat, the authors downgraded the association between meat consumption and disease risk.

·       That really had the outside experts scratching their heads. They agreed that people’s attitudes should be considered in discussions about how to implement health guidelines. However, they were unanimously opposed to the idea that people’s opinions should be a factor in crafting health guidelines.

#5: The authors ignored the environmental impact of meat consumption. As I indicated in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, this should be a major consideration when choosing your diet.

#6: The authors may have been influenced by the beef industry. The NutriRECS group stated that the Agriculture and Life Sciences (AgriLife) program at Texas A&M provided generous support for their study. While that sound innocuous, the AgriLife program receives financial support from the “Texas Beef Checkoff Program”, which is a meat industry marketing program paid for by cattle ranchers.

#7: The beef industry influenced the studies the authors relied on in their review. The beef industry supports randomized controlled clinical trials on red meat and influences the outcome of those studies in ways that minimize the health effects of red meat consumption. I will give some examples of this next week. Unfortunately, these are the studies the NutriRECS group relied on for their recommendations.

What Did The Authors Say About Their Guidelines?

balance scaleBecause I like to provide a balanced evaluation of nutrition controversies, it is only fair that I summarize the authors argument for their recommendations. However, I will add my commentary. Here is a summary of their arguments.

#1: Nutritional recommendations should be based on sound science. In principle, this is something that everyone agrees on. However, as I noted above randomized controlled trials are not always the best scientific approach for studying the health effects of diet.

My comment: In matters of public health it is better to be safe than sorry. Simply put, it is better to warn people about probable dangers to their health rather than waiting decades for certainty. Smoking is a perfect example. The Surgeon General warned the US public about the dangers of smoking long before the evidence was conclusive.

Smoking is also an example of how industry tries to influence scientific opinion. The tobacco industry supported and influenced research on smoking. Industry funded research tended to minimize the dangers of smoking. Next week I will show how the meat industry is doing the same concerning the dangers of red meat.

#2: It is difficult to get good dietary information in association studies. That is because most association studies ask people what they have eaten over the past few decades. There are two problems with that.

1)    Most people have enough trouble remembering what they ate yesterday. Remembering what they ate 10 or 20 years ago is problematic.

2)    People listen to the news and often change their diets based on what they hear. What they are eating today may not resemble what they ate 10 years ago.

My comment: That is a legitimate point. However, in recent years the best association studies have started collection dietary information at the start, the mid-point, and the end of the study. I agree we need more of those studies.

#3: The authors claim they found no statistically significant link between meat consumption and risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer in a dozen randomized controlled trials that had enrolled about 54 000 participants.

label deceptionMy comment: That statement is highly misleading. One of those studies had 48,835 participants. That study wasn’t even designed to measure the effect of red meat consumption. It was designed to measure the health effects of low fat versus high fat diets. The difference in red meat consumption between the two groups was only 1.4 servings per day, a 20% difference. Even with that small difference in red meat consumption, there was about a 2% reduction in some heart disease outcomes, which the authors considered insignificant.

That leaves 11 studies with only 5,165 participants, which averages out to 470 participants per study. Those studies had too few participants to provide any meaningful estimate of the effect of red meat on health outcomes.

In addition, the meat industry influenced the design of some of those studies to further minimize the effect of red meat on health outcomes, something I will discuss next week.

#4: The authors found a slight effect of red meat consumption on heart disease and cancer deaths in association studies, but said the decrease was too small to recommend that people change their diet.

My comment: This represents the folly of looking at any single food or single nutrient rather than the whole diet. We need to take a holistic approach and ask questions like: “What are they replacing red meat with? What does their overall diet look like?

For example, let’s look at what happens when you reduce saturated fats, something I discussed in a previous issue (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/are-saturated-fats-bad-for-you/) of “Health Tips From the Professor”. When you replace saturated fats with:

·       Trans fats, your heart disease risk increases by 5%.

·       Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American diet), your heart disease risk increases slightly.

·       Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables), your heart disease risk decreases by 9%.

·       Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), your heart disease risk decreases by 15%.

·       Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oil & fish oil), your heart disease risk decreases by 25%.

·       Unsaturated fats in the context of a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet, your heart disease risk decreases by 47%.

While we don’t have such precise numbers for red meat, we do have enough evidence to know that the situation with red meat is similar.

·       Replacing high-fat red meat with low-fat red meat or white meat in the context of a typical American diet will probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

·       Replacing red meat with plant protein in the context of a typical American diet (think Impossible Burgers or the equivalent at your local Fast Food restaurant) will also probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

·       Replacing red meat with white meat or plant protein in the context of a primarily plant-based diet is likely to significantly reduce disease risk.

Is Red Meat Healthy For You?

Steak and PotatoesLet’s return to the question I posed at the beginning of this article: “Is red meat healthy for you?” In the context of headlines saying: “Red meat is actually good for you”, the answer is a clear No!

·       The saturated fat in red meat is associated with increased heart disease risk.

·       However, it’s not just saturated fat. Other components of red meat are associated with increased risk of heart disease and cancer. I will discuss those next week.

There are simply too many studies that show an association between red meat consumption and disease risk to give red meat a clean bill of health. We can’t say red meat is healthy with any confidence.

However, that doesn’t mean we need to eliminate red meat from our diet. The health risks of red meat are determined by the type of red meat consumed, the amount of red meat consumed, and the overall composition of our diet. So:Steak Salad

·       If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not healthy.

·       However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be healthy.

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” I will answer that question next week.

The Bottom Line

A group calling itself the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS) recently reviewed the scientific literature and said: “The evidence is too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” They then issued guidelines saying that adults really don’t need to change the amounts of red meat they are eating.

As you can imagine, that has proven to be a controversial recommendation. Many of the top experts in the field have questioned the validity of the study and have condemned the guidelines as misleading.

When you examine the pros and cons carefully, it becomes clear that the NutriRECS group:

1)    Put too little emphasis on association studies with hundreds of thousands of participants showing a link between red meat consumption and increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

2)    Put too much emphasis on very small randomized controlled trials that had no possibility of evaluating the effect of red meat consumption on disease risk. In part, that is because many of the randomized controlled trials were funded and influenced by the meat industry, something I will discuss next week.

3)    Did not ask what the red meat was replaced with or look at red meat consumption in the context of the overall diet.

Based on what we currently know:

1)    Replacing high-fat red meat with low-fat red meat or white meat in the context of a typical American diet will probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

2)    Replacing red meat with plant protein in the context of a typical American diet (think Impossible Burgers or the equivalent at your local Fast Food restaurant) will also probably have only a minor effect on disease risk.

3)    Replacing red meat with white meat or plant protein in the context of a primarily plant-based diet is likely to significantly reduce disease risk.

That means:

1)    If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not healthy.

2)   However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be healthy.

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” I will answer that question next week. Stay tuned.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

What’s Worse Saturated Fat or Sugar?

What Causes Fatty Liver Disease?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

what is worse saturated fats or sugarThe great American food fight continues. The low fat enthusiasts tell you saturated fat is going to kill you. The low carb enthusiasts tell you saturated fat is fine. It’s sugar that’s going to kill you.

You can find studies that support either viewpoint. And the story keeps changing. One day the headlines proclaim: “The latest study shows…” A few weeks later you see a headline saying: “Wait. That’s wrong. Science now shows…” It’s no wonder you are confused and perhaps a bit cynical.

So, what’s worse saturated fat or sugar?

Perhaps we should step back and ask how we got to this point.

 

Why Is the Saturated Fats and Sugar Dilemma So Confusing?

saturated fats or sugar dilemmaTo understand why the literature around saturated fats and sugar is so confusing, we need to go back to the 1950s. The first studies implicating saturated fats as a risk factor for heart disease replaced saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Everything else in the diet was kept the same. When you do that, the answer is clear-cut. Saturated fats increase heart disease risk and unsaturated fats decrease heart disease risk.

When the American Heart Association first recommended a low-fat diet, they had in mind replacing saturated fats with fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. The remaining fat would be mostly unsaturated. Today, we would call that a Mediterranean diet, which, by the way, has been shown to reduce both diabetes and heart disease risk.

Big Food Inc. took one look at that and panicked. They make their money from processed foods, not from fresh fruits and vegetables. If the American people made the changes the American Heart Association recommended, Big Food Inc. would go bankrupt.

They sprang into action. They had their laboratories whip up processed foods that replaced fat with sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals. Then they told the American people: “Never fear. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods. We have created low fat versions of the foods you love.”

That became the diet that most Americans adopted. Even worse, most Americans continued eating foods high in saturated fats. We ended up with the worst of all possible worlds – a diet high in saturated fat and high in sugar. This became the Standard American Diet (SAD).

This shift has corrupted most of the recent research studies on saturated fat and sugar. Most of the studies on saturated fat or sugar have compared them with the Standard American Diet, not with a healthy diet. When you do that, your results are going to be skewed. Almost anything is better that the Standard American Diet.

Why Was This Study Done?

fatty liver disease causesWhen we think of obesity, we think of the excess fat we can see. But what we have learned in recent years is that the fat you can’t see is far more damaging to our health. I am talking about fat stores in the liver, something called fatty liver disease.

Fatty liver disease has serious consequences. It causes insulin resistance and inflammation, and that increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Even worse, it can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.

Excess sugar is converted to saturated fat in the liver. Therefore, the popular literature attributes the epidemic of fatty liver disease to increased intake of simple sugars. But is it true? Saturated fats require no conversion. They can simply be deposited in the liver as is. Shouldn’t they be at least as damaging to the liver as sugar?

It turns out that no studies have actually compared the effect of excess calories in the form of saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and simple sugars on fat accumulation in the liver. This study (PK Luukkonen et al, Diabetes Care, 41: 1732-1739, 2018) was designed to fill that gap.

How Was The Study Done?

saturated fats or sugar studyThe authors enrolled 38 middle aged (average age = 48), overweight (average BMI = 31) adults for the study. The participants were divided into three groups and were fed an extra 1,000 calories per day of saturated fat (SAT group), unsaturated fat (UNSAT group), or sugar (SUGAR group) for 3 weeks. The composition of those extra 1,000 calories was as follows:

  • The SAT group ate an extra 30 g coconut oil, 40 g butter, and 100 g blue cheese
    • Macronutrient composition = 1% carbohydrate, 86% fat, 13% protein, 0% simple sugars.
    • Fat composition = 76% saturated fats, 21% monounsaturated fats, 3% polyunsaturated fats
  • The UNSAT group ate an extra 36 g olive oil, 26 g pesto, 54 g pecans, and 20 g butter
    • Macronutrient composition = 2% carbohydrate, 91% fat, 7% protein, 0% simple sugars.
    • Fat composition = 21% saturated fats, 57% monounsaturated fats, 22% polyunsaturated fats
  • The SUGAR group ate an extra 9.5 ounces of orange juice, 16 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages, and 200 g of candy.
    • Macronutrient composition = 100% simple sugars.

Compliance to these dietary additions was confirmed by measuring the fat composition of serum triglycerides. As expected, the triglycerides were primarily composed of saturated fat in the SAT and SUGAR groups and unsaturated fats in the UNSAT group.

None of the participants had diabetes or other diseases, pre-existing liver disease, excessive consumption of alcohol (which can also lead to fatty liver disease). They were also not taking any drugs that could influence glucose or lipid metabolism.

Upon entry into the study, the three groups were comparable with respect to age, sex, BMI (a measure of obesity), amount and type of fat stores in the liver, and insulin sensitivity.

The baseline diet to which the extra calories were added was also comparable between the three groups and did not change during the study. That meant that the only difference between groups was the composition of the extra calories they consumed.

 

What Causes Fatty Liver Disease?

fatty liver disease dietsAt the end of three weeks:

  • All 3 groups gained weight, but the weight gain was slightly larger (0.6 pounds) for the SAT and SUGAR groups than for the UNSAT group (0.4 pounds).
  • Fat stores in the liver increased by 55% in the SAT group, 33% in the SUGAR group, and 15% in the UNSAT group.
  • The fat stores were primarily saturated fat in the SAT and SUGAR groups and primarily unsaturated fat in the UNSAT group.
  • Insulin resistance was increased in the SAT group, but not in the SUGAR and UNSAT groups.

Previous studies have suggested that the effect of liver fat stores on insulin resistance might be mediated by fat metabolites called ceramides. Therefore, they also measured plasma ceramide levels.

  • Plasma ceramides were increased in the SAT group, but not in the SUGAR and UNSAT groups.

Previous studies have also suggested that the effect of saturated fat on insulin resistance might be mediated by a change in gut bacteria that produce endotoxins which end up in the bloodstream.

  • A change in gut bacteria and an increase in plasma endotoxins was observed in the SAT group, but not in the SUGAR and UNSAT groups.

 

What is Worse Saturated Fat Or Sugar?

sugar cubesThe authors of this study concluded: “Saturated fat induced the greatest increase in fat stores in the liver, insulin resistance, and harmful ceramides. Decreased intakes of saturated fat could be beneficial in reducing fat stores in the liver and the associated risk of diabetes.”

Is that statement true? This study was well designed. However, this is a very small study. It needs to be replicated by larger studies. In the meantime, we can ask if the findings are consistent with previous studies.

You may have noticed, the authors included three variables in their study (saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and simple sugars), but I focused only on the comparison between saturated fats and simple sugars in this article. That is because the damage caused by saturated fats versus simple sugars is controversial in the popular literature. In contrast, most (but not all) experts agree that saturated fats are worse for you than unsaturated fats.

Let’s start with the relatively non-controversial comparison (saturated fats versus unsaturated fats) before turning to the comparison between saturated fats and simple sugars. When comparing saturated fats and unsaturated fats, the author’s conclusion that saturated fats are worse for you is probably true.

  • In this study saturated fats caused greater fat accumulation in the liver than unsaturated fats, and these differences were statistically significant.
  • The fat stores in the liver mirrored the fat composition of the diet. Saturated fat caused saturated fat stores. Unsaturated fat caused unsaturated fat stores.
  • Saturated fats increased insulin resistance while unsaturated fats did not.
  • This is consistent with several previous studies that have shown:
  • Saturated fats cause greater fat accumulation in the liver than polyunsaturated fats in younger, normal weight individuals.
  • High saturated fat intake is associated with fatty liver disease and insulin resistance.
  • Saturated fat increases heart disease risk, while unsaturated fat decreases heart disease risk.

However, the differences between saturated fats and sugar were less clear.

  • In this study saturated fats caused greater fat accumulation in the liver and more insulin resistance than simple sugars.
  • The conclusion that saturated fats are worse for you than simple sugars was strengthened by the following:
  • Saturated fat caused insulin resistance, while simple sugars did not.
  • Saturated fat caused a change to gut bacteria which resulted in increased endotoxin levels in the bloodstream, while simple sugars did not.
  • The conclusion that saturated fats are worse for you than simple sugars was weakened by the following:
  • The difference in fat accumulation in the liver was not statistically significant. A larger study may have provided a more definitive answer.
  • Previous studies have suggested that saturated fats and simple sugars may be equally bad for you. They both increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Clearly, this study does not end the debate about whether saturated fats or simple sugars are worse for you. However, it does provide a new perspective.

Previous studies have not compared the effects of saturated fat and sugar on fatty liver disease when all other aspects of the diet were identical. If the observations of this study are confirmed in subsequent studies, it could influence how we evaluate the relative risks of saturated fats and sugars in the future.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

When you strip away all the noise, there are three obvious conclusions from this and most previous studies:

  • Excess calories in any form are bad for us. We don’t just store fat in the liver, and fat stores in other parts of our body have bad effects on our health as well.
  • Unsaturated fats are better for us than saturated fats. They reduce the risk of heart disease. This study suggests they also reduce the risk of fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, and possibly diabetes.
  • The jury is still out on the health consequences of saturated fats versus simple sugars. This study suggests that simple sugars may be less likely to cause fatty liver disease. While fatty liver disease can lead to diabetes and heart disease, so can fat stores anywhere else in the body. Other studies suggest that excess calories as saturated fats and simple sugars are equally likely to lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

My recommendation is to avoid both saturated fats and simple sugars. Don’t focus on low fat diets or low carb diets. Instead focus on whole food diets with healthy fats and healthy carbs.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Fatty liver disease has serious consequences. It causes insulin resistance and inflammation, and that increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Even worse, it can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.

Excess sugar is converted to saturated fat in the liver. Therefore, the popular literature attributes the epidemic of fatty liver disease to increased intake of simple sugars. But is it true? Saturated fats require no conversion. They can simply be deposited in the liver as is. Shouldn’t they be at least as damaging to the liver as sugar?

A recent study compared the effect of diets high in saturated fats (SAT group), unsaturated fats (UNSAT group), or simple sugars (SUGAR group) on fat accumulation in the liver. The results were:

  • Fat stores in the liver increased by 55% in the SAT group, 33% in the SUGAR group, and 15% in the UNSAT group.
  • The fat stores were primarily saturated fat in the SAT and SUGAR groups and primarily unsaturated fat in the UNSAT group.
  • Insulin resistance was increased in the SAT group, but not in the SUGAR and UNSAT groups.

The authors of this study concluded: “Saturated fat induced the greatest increase in fat stores in the liver and insulin resistance. Decreased intakes of saturated fat could be beneficial in reducing fat stores in the liver and the associated risk of diabetes.”

My recommendation is to avoid both saturated fats and simple sugars. Don’t focus on low fat diets or low carb diets. Instead focus on whole food diets with healthy fats and healthy carbs.

For more details on the study and what it means for you, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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