April 3, 2012 Dr. Neal Barnard
The recent uproar over “lean beef trimmings”—also known as “pink slime”—has led the maker of this ammonia-treated meat to suspend operations at all but one plant. Beef Products, Inc., acknowledged that the company has taken a huge hit since social media exploded with concerns about this disturbingly unhealthful, chemically-treated substance going into school lunch lines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering removing pink slime from schools, and fast-food companies have even taken the slime out of their burger recipes. The pink slime pandemonium has inspired bloggers to expose the long list of other unlabeled chemicals that end up in almost all industrial meat. Without any labeling requirement, meat processors can lace meat with chemicals used to bleach fabric, disinfect pools and hot tubs, and bleach wood pulp, just to name a few. These revelations have consumers fuming. Some are calling for more labeling, and less processing of meat. The meat industry is claiming that these chemically treated products are safe—maybe even safer than beef not treated with chemicals. But ultimately there is no such thing as safe meat. Meat is loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat, not to mention E. coli and other pathogens that can cause serious illnesses. If treated with chemicals, it then contains substances that may increase the risk of cancer and other health problems. Beef Products, Inc., is desperately trying to rebuild business, taking out a full-page Wall Street Journal ad and launching a website that proclaims that “Beef is Beef.” The company has that right. From ground beef to sirloin steak to rump roast, every cut of beef contributes to more deadly illnesses than the chemicals in pink slime will likely ever cause. Whether it’s pink slime or organic, grass-fed beef, it all leads to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other life-threatening illnesses. The pink slime victory shows just how powerful consumers are when they come together to fight an unsafe product. But it’s hardly the end of the battle: It’s time to face up to the consequences of our meaty diets and move to more healthful ways of eating.
It’s National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and just in time. Awareness is in critically short supply. A new survey commissioned by PCRM showed that 39 percent of people surveyed do not know where their colon is, let alone what might cause cancer to develop. In fact, 70 percent do not know they are more likely to get colon cancer from frequently eating processed meats such as hot dogs.
Here are the facts: Colorectal cancer is one of the leading cancers in the United States, attacking 140,000 Americans every year, with a mortality rate close to 50 percent. In 2007, the body of research on this disease, including nearly 60 independent studies, was deemed to provide convincing evidence—the highest possible level of scientific evidence—that hot dogs and other processed meats cause colorectal cancer. The message has not gotten through. Although cancer organizations have issued media releases and posted public service announcements, the popular press does not pick these stories up and the issue dies then and there. Years ago, anti-tobacco dealt with the same problem, realizing that sterile messages do not work, and they decided to ramp it up with messages that tested the limits of what people wanted to hear or see. Later on, HIV advocates did the same. To gain media interest and public respect, they used sex, gore, shock, and anything else that could cut through the noise. At PCRM, we felt humor was better than shock, and wanted to appeal to adolescents, as well as older people, since processed meats are strongly marketed to children and families, because they are cheap and familiar. Hence our billboard proclaiming "Hot Dogs Cause Butt Cancer." The billboard’s blunt language aims to break America’s dangerous addiction to hot dogs, bacon, and other processed meats. Americans eat 20 billion hot dogs a year. Per capita bacon consumption is 18 pounds a year. Processed meats are a deadly habit. Each daily serving of hot dogs, bacon, cold cuts, and other processed meats increases the risk of dying prematurely by 20 percent, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health. The study emphasized the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Colorectal cancer is not the only processed meat danger. An NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study found that processed red meat was associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer. A study in Taiwan showed that consumption of cured and smoked meat can increase children’s risk for leukemia. A study in Australia found that women’s risk for ovarian cancer increased as a result of eating processed meats. A review in the journal Diabetologia found that those who regularly eat processed meats increase their risk for diabetes by 41 percent. Adults have a right to take risks with their own health. But hot dogs and other processed meats are often fed to children, starting a lifelong habit that puts them at serious risk. It’s time to get serious about health and steer clear of unhealthful foods.
KFC and Pizza Hut’s parent company, Yum Brands, recently announced plans to open 600 restaurants in China this year. Dairy Queen aims to add more than 100 locations. McDonald’s expects to open a restaurant a day in China for the next three to four years. That adds up to a lot of greasy chicken and pizza, high-fat burgers, and cholesterol-laden ice cream.
This fast-food deluge is swamping traditional plant-based Chinese diets—with devastating results. Close to 39 percent of the Chinese population is now overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organization. Type 2 diabetes now affects close to 10 percent of Chinese residents.
But we have a healthful remedy. On March 5, PCRM is introducing our 21-Day Healthy Challenge to Chinese-speaking people in China, Taiwan, and around the world.
Our free online Healthy Challenge program—based on our 21-Day Vegan Kickstart—can help people in China and around the world jumpstart weight-loss and reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.
My colleague T. Collin Campbell, Ph.D., author of The China Study and Healthy Challenge coach, found through his research that traditional plant-based diets have provided some areas of China with protection from these diseases.
PCRM’s National Institutes of Health-funded clinical research shows that low-fat, plant-based diets can help people lose weight, reverse diabetes, and implement long-term changes in eating habits and health. And the best way to do this is to try a low-fat, plant-based diet for three weeks. The Healthy Challenge—offered in Mandarin—is a researched-based, fun, interactive way to do it.
Celebrity coaches, including actress Gao Yuanyuan, musician Louis Cheung, singer-songwriter Khalil Fong, and actress and singer Barbie Hsu, will join long-time PCRM friend Maggie Q in leading our Healthy Challenge. Participants will have free access to three weeks of meat- and dairy-free recipes for traditional Chinese favorites, such as vegan spring rolls, brown rice sushi, and ma po tofu. There’s also nutrition and cooking demonstration videos, a community forum, and an interactive restaurant guide.
The epidemic of obesity has grown dramatically in recent years, most notably in children, one-third of whom have been swept up by weight problems and are at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer, among other problems. Unfortunately, the battle against obesity is getting a lot harder. First of all, people trying to lose weight have been lied to. They have been told that the problem is a lack of exercise, when, in fact, studies clearly show that weight gain in the United States over the past 30 years is almost entirely due to changing eating habits, not a lack of physical activity. They have been lied to about food, with quick-fix, low-carb advocates pointing a finger of blame at bread and fruit, when carbohydrates actually have only four calories per gram, unlike fats, which have nine. That’s why people in Asian countries stayed thin and healthy until Western fast-food chains brought in meat, cheese, and other junk foods that displaced traditional rice-based meals. They have been lied to by some well-meaning, but not-yet-well-informed fat-acceptance advocates who, while helpfully rallying against discrimination, have also sought to minimize obesity’s dangers with phrases like “obese but healthy.” You can also be “a smoker, but healthy,” but that simply means the complications have not yet arrived. But most of all, they have been lied to by the meat and dairy industries, which aim to convince us that we need cheese, meat, and other unhealthful foods. The federal government, traditionally beholden to industry, has joined in the duplicity, not only by subsidizing the very foods that cause weight gain and by dumping them into our children’s school lunch programs, but by issuing dietary guidelines that have been too timid to chuck unhealthful foods out. As a result of this lack of forthrightness, obesity has settled in for the long term, and many people have simply become resigned to it for themselves and their children. The consequences will be devastating: Experts estimate that one in three children born in 2000 will go on to develop diabetes—a disease strongly linked to excess weight. The obesity epidemic is not caused by inactivity, bread, rice, gluttony, weak will, or a bad childhood. It is caused by a tsunami of unhealthful foods, and one of the worst, perhaps surprisingly, is cheese. Typical cheeses are about 70 percent fat, and every last fat gram packs nine calories that no one needs. Most of that fat is saturated (“bad”) fat—the kind that increases cholesterol levels and puts us at risk for diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and other diseases. A 2-ounce cheese serving also packs 350 milligrams of sodium and, ounce for ounce, as much cholesterol as a heart-stopping steak. In 1909, the average American consumed only 3.8 pounds of cheese in a year’s time. Today, that number is pushing 34 pounds. That’s an increase of 30 pounds per person this year, next year, and again the year after that, thanks to the combined promotional efforts of government and industry. Of those extra 30 pounds of cheese we are stuffing into our mouths every year, it would only take one or two to stick in order to explain the entire weight problem in America. Of course, there are other co-conspirators in the obesity epidemic, too, notably the rise in meat and sugar consumption.
A Wake-Up Call
PCRM erected billboards in New York State depicting a heavy-set man and woman and pointing out, clearly and simply, that cheese contributes to obesity. Judging by the press response, it was a message that was badly needed. Many reporters had no idea that cheese was so high in fat and calories. We knew that the dairy industry would object. But the fact is, dairy farmers and their families need this message, too. After all, they run the same risks as their customers. Some overweight people may object, too. Just as cancer organizations have used images of tobacco-damaged lungs and anti-drunk-driving organizations have shown grim accident scenes, graphic visual reminders are painful for the victims of these conditions. Certainly, there is no value in blaming overweight people for a condition that results from a mixture of industry marketing, government promotions, addictive qualities of foods, genetic vulnerabilities, medication effects on appetite, and, in the end, overeating. Instead, it is essential to zero in on the problem foods, expose them, and do what we can to get them off our collective plates. The PCRM billboards are a mirror, showing obesity as it really is, linking it appropriately to cheese, and making it clear that there is a problem here. The worst thing that doctors or the public can do is to slow down the fight against obesity and against the foods that contribute to it. Prying a generation away from tobacco was tough, and prying people away from obesogenic foods today will be far more challenging. People struggling with weight problems deserve understanding and support, and we do them no favors if we hide the problem, sugar-coat it, or fail to address its causes. We have to face the dangers of obesity directly, make it clear that certain foods are serious problems, and do all we can to support the changes that are essential for good health.
A new study will make people think twice about taking fish-oil capsules—or eating fish, for that matter. The American Journal of Epidemiology reports that men with higher levels of DHA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, were at increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Researchers from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center looked at 3,461 participants in the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial and found that men with the most DHA in their bloodstreams were two-and-a-half times more likely to have an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Similar results were found in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study, where men who had the highest omega-3 levels had the highest risk for prostate cancer. In many recent studies, fish oil has not lived up to its marketing claims. Specifically, it is no help for heart patients, does not forestall Alzheimer’s disease, does not prevent depression, and—so far at least—does not make babies smarter. Back in 2005, a Journal of the American Medical Association report showed that fish oil may actually increase the risk of cardiac arrhythmia in some patients. In the same year, JAMA also reported that fish oil does not prevent cancer. The following year, the British Medical Journal reported that omega-3 fatty acids have no heart-health benefit. Among nearly 4,000 heart attack patients, no difference was seen between those who consumed omega-3 supplements and those who took placebo pills. That conclusion was echoed in 2009, when researchers found that consuming fish does not reduce the risk of heart failure. Then in 2010, the New England Journal of Medicine reported similarly dismal results with heart patients given omega-3 fatty acids in addition to standard drug therapy. They had no reduction in cardiovascular events. Surprisingly, Harvard linked fish and omega-3 fats to type 2 diabetes. Following 195,204 adults for 14 to 18 years, researchers reported in 2009 that they had found that the more fish or long-chain omega-3 fatty acids participants consumed, the higher their risk of developing diabetes. Meanwhile, fish oil manufacturers pinned their hopes on brain function. Maybe fish oil will make you smarter, they reasoned. But last year, what researchers found dashed those hopes, too. A group of 867 elderly people were randomly assigned to either a fish-oil supplement or placebo. After two years of supplementation, elderly adults showed no benefit at all in tests for reaction time, spatial memory, and processing speed measurements. A later JAMA report showed that omega-3 supplements do not slow mental decline in Alzheimer’s patients. And at the other end of the age spectrum, babies get no benefit either. A JAMA report showed that consumption of fish oil during pregnancy does not benefit babies’ cognitive development. In these reports, fish oil is starting to look a lot like snake oil. The new findings linking higher DHA levels to cancer add yet another reason to skip fish and fish oil supplements. Are you a health professional? Learn more about diet and cancer for continuing education credits at NutritionCME.org. In case you’re interested in the references for these studies, here they are:
Brasky TM, Till C, White E, et al. Serum phospholipid fatty acids and prostate cancer risk: results from the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial. Am J Epidemiol. Published ahead of print April 24, 2011. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwr027.
Raitt MH, Connor WE, Morris C, et al. Fish oil supplementation and risk of ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation in patients with implantable defibrillators: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2005;293:2884-2891.
MacLean CH, Newberry SJ, Mojica WA, et al. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cancer risk: a systematic review. JAMA. 2005;295:403-415.
Hooper L, Thompson RL, Harrison RA, et al. Risks and benefits of omega-3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review. BMJ. 2006;332:752-760.
Dijkstra SC, Brouwer IA, van Rooij FJA, Hofman A, Witteman JCM, Geleijnse JM. Intake of very long chain n-3 fatty acids from fish and the incidence of heart failure: the Rotterdam Study. Eur J Heart Fail. 2009;11:922-928.
Kromhout D, Giltay EJ, Geleijnse JM. n-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular events after myocardial infarction. N Engl J Med. 2010;363:2015-2026.
Kaushik M, Mozaffarian D, Spiegelman D, Manson JE, Willett WC, Hu FB. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, fish intake, and the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90:613-620.
Dangour AD, Allen E, Elbourne D, et al. Effect of 2-y n23 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on cognitive function in older people: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91:1725-1732.
Quinn JF, Rama R, Thomas RG, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and cognitive decline in Alzheimer disease. JAMA. 2010;304:1903-1911.
Makrides M, Gibson RA, McPhee AJ, et al. Effect of DHA Supplementation During Pregnancy on Maternal Depression and Neurodevelopment of Young Children. JAMA. 2010;304:1675-1683.
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