The decision to eat meat can be a question of health, preference, culture, or concern for the environment, which makes this topic as personal as politics. Controversial new dietary recommendations suggesting that adults continue red meat consumption compete for our attention along with marketing of the trendy meatless Impossible Burger that claims to taste “just like a burger, is just as juicy, but is healthier.”
I can’t imagine how confused most people must be about all of this. Questions that come to mind include: Why does dietary advice seem to change every few weeks? Do medical experts really know what they are talking about? Can’t I just enjoy my hamburger in peace?
Good medical advice should involve common sense, but findings based on information obtained from large, well-designed studies can be confusing, especially if the findings are contradictory to established norms. Some studies can have a hidden agenda — for example, they may be funded by a pharma company looking for an indication for a medication. And they often involve the use of complicated statistics. A meta-analysis is a particular kind of study that pools lots of trials together, sometimes leading to different conclusions from the original study, and is the reason for the present dietary conundrum.
Recent meta-analyses published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that eating red meat and processed meat did not significantly change either mortality or the risk of cancer. Contrast this to a study just released in the British Medical Journal stating the exact opposite, that red meat consumption was directly associated with an increased risk of death, and changing to eating more nuts, fish, dairy, eggs, whole grains, and vegetables decreased mortality.
How can a reasonable person reconcile these seemingly opposite conclusions, and can it all be solved by instead eating the Impossible Burger? Complex statistics can lead to different conclusions because of what are called confounding variables. Genetics, smoking, and being sedentary or overweight have a large influence, so the effect of meat intake becomes muddled.
My conclusion: We will get no help from these studies, and the decision to eat red meat should remain a personal one. Here are some facts that may help you make an informed decision between eating red meat and having an Impossible Burger.
Reasons for eating meat can be cultural and can include enjoyment, need for protein, and help with weight loss. In a recent study, mistrust of scientific information was often reported as the reason for not reducing meat consumption.
We need to stop doing meta-analyses of observational research when it comes to eating meat. Confounding variables make data too hard to “digest.”
Ethical concerns need to be acknowledged. Beef consumption has been shown to be the largest factor in food-borne greenhouse gases, water use, and land use in the U.S., and humane slaughtering of animals remains an issue.
Impossible Burgers are not for everyone. There are concerns about its ingredients, which include such potentially allergenic proteins as gluten and soy. An ingredient called soy leghemoglobin is what gives the burger its unique texture and could be a source of iron for vegetarians. It adds to the flavor and makes it “bleed” like a beef burger when cut. Although soy leghemoglobin is approved for use by the FDA, limited studies are available regarding the ingredient’s long-term safety.
The Impossible Burger is not particularly healthy. There are just as much saturated fat and calories, and more salt and carbs, in the Impossible Burger than in lean red meat. A traditional veggie burger is a healthier option, with much less fat and salt.
However, the Impossible Burger seems to have a much lower environmental impact than beef. The website claims that it uses 87% less water and generates less greenhouse gas.
If you choose to go meatless, not all plant-based diets are the same. Improving plant-based diet quality over a 12-year period was associated with a lower risk of total and cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas increased consumption of an unhealthful plant-based diet was risky. A diet full of sugar and junk carbs is vegetarian, but not healthy.
Be sure to get medical advice from trusted sources. Be wary of claims made to help sell a product or that cite unidentified sources or studies.
Most medical experts know what they are talking about, but they could be more mindful about delivering conflicting advice and using common sense.
If you like a hamburger, red meat, or an Impossible Burger, enjoy it without guilt. Moderation is the key. But, a primarily plant-based diet, regular exercise, not smoking, and watching your weight is a healthier lifestyle and more likely to lead to a longer life than eating red meat with every meal.
David Becker is a frequent Inquirer contributor and a board-certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. He has been in practice for 25 years.