In my last column, I highlighted a recent systematic review that found some relatively surprising findings: reducing the consumption of red meat or processed meat had little effect on outcomes such as risk of stroke, heart attack, type 2 diabetes, and all-cause mortality. There were some differences between red meat and processed meat in the different outcomes so for further detail, I encourage you to check out that column on southstrandnews.com.
This systematic review flies in the face of a relatively new Netflix documentary called “The Game Changers” which has been making waves on social media and in fitness and nutrition circles. For those who haven’t seen it, “The Game Changers” proposes that the vegan diet, one in which no animal products are consumed, is far superior for health and athletic performance compared to a diet including animal products such as milk, eggs, and, of course, meat. Unfortunately, like so many of these “documentaries,” “The Game Changers” uses anecdotes and cherry-picked research to sway viewer’s opinions while ignoring research that clearly comes to a different conclusion.
There are many arguments used in film to convince viewers of their point. One of the arguments is that animal protein is linked to higher levels of inflammation versus plant protein. Chronic inflammation is associated with the development of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and more. So, this could be a good argument for going vegan if true. Yet the documentary only includes research that supports it’s viewpoint, ignoring research that contradicts their arguments. So, let’s examine some concepts and research on the topic.
There are many factors that must be controlled for in research comparing vegans or vegetarians with meat-eaters. For example, the vegan and vegetarian diet are strict diets. You must be very committed to your health to eat in that way. So, in general, it is much more likely that vegetarians and vegans are going to be pretty strict in other healthy behaviors, such as getting regular exercise, not smoking, and keeping their weight at a healthy level. So, if we look at meat-eaters versus vegetarians or vegans without controlling for these variables (and others), we won’t know if differences between the groups are due to not eating meat or due to not exercising, smoking, being overweight, or some other variable.
This is significant because, as we know, being overweight or obese puts you at risk for developing all sorts of diseases. If we’re comparing overweight meat-eaters to healthy weight vegetarians, we won’t know if the differences are due to consuming meat or simply being overweight.
Fortunately for us (and unfortunately for “The Game Changers” producers), we don’t have to speculate about this concept. In a meta-analysis/meta-regression of randomized controlled trials (very strong study design) published this year in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition, authors examined the relationship between red meat, BMI, and inflammatory markers. The authors found that eating red meat was associated with higher levels of inflammation. HOWEVER, when the authors accounted for the differences in BMI, the association between red meat and inflammation was no longer significant while associations between BMI and inflammation were. It was the factor of being overweight that was associated with higher levels of inflammation, not eating red meat.
Another study that supports this is a randomized controlled trial published in 2016 in the journal Gastroenterology. This study compared high protein diets made up of either animal protein or plant protein on weight loss and inflammation in people with type 2 diabetes. The diets were matched for the same total calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats. At the end of the study, both groups lost the same amount of weight and both groups decreased inflammation to the same degree. This continues to support that the beneficial effects of vegetarian and vegan diets are likely due to vegetarians/vegans consuming less total calories than meat eaters.
So, if you’re a meat eater, it appears you can continue to enjoy meat and enjoy the same health benefits as vegetarians/vegans so long as you keep your weight at a healthy level and live a healthy, active lifestyle.
Check back at my next column as we continue to dive further into the research on this topic.
For this series of columns, I must give credit where it’s due. Dr. Layne Norton, a PhD in Nutrition, has published an extensive review of this topic so if you’re looking for further detail, I encourage you to look his article up, “The Game Changers Review – A Scientific Analysis.”
Nick McClary earned his doctor of physical therapy from the University of Tennessee. He also holds a masters in business administration. He is a native of Georgetown County, lives in Pawleys Island, and works in Georgetown. Send him your health and fitness questions at: nmcclaryDPT@gmail.com.