Maybe you're the guy at the barbecue who grudgingly peels the skin off your grilled chicken. Or maybe you don't miss an opportunity to enthuse about your lean-ground bison burgers. No matter which end of the meat spectrum you align with, I've got both good and bad news for you.
Let's start with the good. Lean meats aren't better for you than fatty meats when it comes to coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, so you can stop trimming the fat off your steak.
The bad news? They're all equally bad, more or less. But don't take my word for it. Instead, hear out Dr. Michael Greger, a general practitioner specializing in nutrition and author of How Not to Die, and check out the results of studies that followed hundreds of thousands of people over decades of meat eating.
Saturated fat by itself isn't going to give you heart disease
Saturated fat is found in chicken, beef, hot dogs, ribs, and bacon, as well as dairy products and nuts. For a long time, people thought saturated fat was the enemy. Now that we're thankfully past the low-fat, high-carb craze (aka the SnackWell Era), we know fat, including the saturated variety, can actually be part of a healthy diet.
A meta-analysis of studies that followed nearly 350,000 people for decades found "no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease." So if you're buying lean cuts because you think they'll help you avoid a heart attack, well, they won't. In fact, there's no such thing as a healthy meat.
"People say that lean meat is better for you because of saturated fat, but that's like saying, 'We do sugar-free marshmallows' or something," Dr. Greger says. "That's better, but still, marshmallows aren't great."
The problem isn't the fat… it's the meat
It sounds like hyperbole, but if you regularly eat red meat -- which includes beef, pork, lamb, hamburgers, bacon, sausage, salami, and other processed meats -- your life will be significantly shortened. Harvard researchers say so, and not just because they looked at a few friends and family members and decided it was the case.
They followed 122,000 men and women for 28 years. People who ate meat died younger, and it wasn't because they were skipping workouts to drink a bunch and chain-smoke. No, the study controlled and accounted for these lifestyle factors, and even then the meat eaters died at a younger age, on average. The verdict is in: If you eat meat, you're not giving yourself the best chance to live as possible.
"This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death," Dr. Frank Hu, a scientist involved in the study, told Harvard Health Publications.
Lean meats won't help you slim down or avoid heart attacks
Way back in the late '90s, when fat and cholesterol were the Bad Guys (cholesterol turned out not to be the culprit at all, whoops!), scientists looking into red meats versus white meats found that the kind of meat made no difference in their subjects' blood lipid profiles.
Their conclusion -- that patients trying to reduce their cholesterol should go ahead and eat lean red meat, because it made a diet easier to stick to -- may have been way off, but still! They were operating under the assumption that fat and cholesterol, as opposed to sugar, were the primary drivers of heart disease. So you can't really blame them too much for saying, "Go ahead and eat red meat." The late '90s were a strange time for everyone.
Perhaps you're not interested in minor concerns like heart attacks and hypertension. You're just looking to drop a few pounds, so you've switched to boneless, skinless chicken breasts exclusively. You might not be doing yourself any favors -- in a study of overweight or obese people, pork, beef, and chicken had the same effect on waistlines. That is to say, they had no effect.
So why have I always heard that lean meat is better?
It's extraordinarily difficult to separate the effects of lean meat from fatty meat in terms of overall health, a problem admitted by researchers who looked at nearly 40,000 people and found an association between red meat consumption and mortality, i.e., death.
Major population-based studies implicate meat itself; why, then, do major policymakers like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) still say lean meats and processed meats can be part of a healthy diet?
"When it comes to federal guidelines, it's about politics and commercial corruption," Dr. Greger says. "The USDA's purpose is to promote an agricultural product and promote public health. So when those two go together, as with fruits and vegetables, there's no conflict."
But when that agricultural product increases cancer risk, heart disease, and overall mortality, the message gets muddled. The beef lobby, which is subsidized by the federal government, would much prefer you trim the fat off your steak than stop buying steak completely. And recommending lean meat appeals to the common-sense logic of a consumer -- eat less fat, and you'll be less fat.
"What ends up happening is they [the USDA] switch to esoteric [recommendations] like, 'Eat less saturated fatty acids,'" Dr. Greger adds. "That's code for 'Eat less meat and junk food,' but they can't come out and say that, because it's so politically unpalatable." So people keep eating meat, and the American Cancer Society keeps getting super pissed off, or as pissed off as a major charity can get.
But I love meat! What should I do?
Look, meat does taste good, and it's a huge part of American culture, so even though giving it up may be the best thing for long-term health, it's not going to happen for everyone. If you can't bear the thought of a plant-based diet, consider the highly endorsed Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension trial (DASH), which is specifically designed to confer the benefits of vegetarianism without actually requiring people to be vegetarian.
"The goal was to capture the blood pressure-lowering benefits of a vegetarian diet, but contain enough animal products to make the diet palatable for the general public," Dr. Greger says. "They were soft-pedaling the truth, because diets don't work unless you eat them. And they said, 'No one is going to eat plant-based. That's pie in the sky.'"
But maybe those government policymakers were wrong in their assumptions. Maybe that pie in the sky is a raw vegan banana cream version. And maybe, just maybe, it's within our reach, and it's delicious.
At the very least, you can go back to eating chicken skin.