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To eat, or not to eat red meat

Published September 14. 2013 09:01AM

We dislike the feeling though it's necessary for growth.

No, it's not the burning sensation in your muscles when you increase the intensity of your workout. The "it" is purely mental and somewhat unsettling.

We call it doubt.

Without doubt, however, we wouldn't question ourselves. Without questioning ourselves, we wouldn't grow.

So shouldn't the phrase "plagued by doubt" be reworked? Wouldn't "prodded," "provoked," "aroused," or even "motivated " be a better choice than "plagued"?

I'm asking you to consider this question partially because of a decision I made about my health and fitness over 34 years ago. At that time, except for fat-free dairy products and egg whites, I stopped eating all meat and meat byproducts.

In many ways, the decision has done more good than I could've ever expected.

I'm 10 pounds lighter than when I made the change. What's even better is that I cut my body-fat percentage by half. My LDL cholesterol level has been ridiculously low, my HDL level healthfully high, and I've visited my family doctor because of sickness once.

But more than one medical professional has told me eating fish twice a week and red meat twice a month would make me a better bicycle racer. Add to that my own belief that it's not necessarily meat itself but the way the livestock are treated, the meats produced, and the products overconsumed that create health complications, and it's easy to understand why at times I doubt myself.

My guess is at times you question your dietary choices too, so let's use this column to investigate the pros and cons of eating meat.

The seed for this exploration came from a slew of articles this summer that featured the results of research published in JAMA Internal Medicine, what used to be call the Journal of the American Medical Association. A typical title: "Vegetarians Live Longer Than Meat-Eaters."

While a title like this is technically true, it's also deceptive. The study involved 73,308 men and women who are Seventh-day Adventists and determined that for the meat eaters in any given year the death rate was 7 per every 1,000.

The death rate for all types of vegetarians was 12 percent lower, so their rate was closer to 6 per every 1,000.

Prior studies have shown that the life expectancy of vegetarians is higher than meat eaters, but like the one published in JAMA those studies, found other significant differences in the two groups. On the whole vegetarians tend to be more highly educated, more likely to be married, drink less alcohol, smoke less, and exercise more.

It's difficult to discern to what degree these differences affect the vegetarians' life expectancy. That is not to say, however, that research promoting vegetarianism is lacking.

A study from the United Kingdom found that vegetarians weigh less. Another UK study using 60,000 subjects indicated that vegetarians have a lower risk of cancer.

Other research has discovered a correlation between the vegetarian diet and a lowered incidence of metabolic syndrome (the precursor of diabetes), diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Earlier this year, the BMC Journal released the results of a study involving more than 500,000 men and women that correlated the amount of processed meat eaten and the increase in heart disease and cancer even after eliminating other variables, a finding that supports research published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Yet the difference doesn't appear to be that great. Lead author of the BMC article, University of Zurich professor Sabine Rohrmann believes, "If people ate less than 20 grams of processed meat per day . . . three percent of premature deaths could be prevented."

So what's the purpose in composing a column that waffles as much as this one?

To provide a bit of insight and a boatload of comfort.

I was 18 when I decided to become a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I hadn't read much on the topic at all, but when I ate that way, it felt right.

So I decided to eat that way full-time. Throughout the years, however, I have made significant changes. Now, for instance, I eat virtually no processed grains, but they were part of my diet 20 years ago.

Most who read this would never consider becoming a vegetarian. That's fine. I don't want you to.

But what I do want you to do is be a bit more discerning about eating processed red meat. Eating a little bit less could really help in the long run.

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