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A new study says it's okay to eat red meat. An immediate uproar follows.

Even before publication, health agencies were asking the journal not to publish the research.

Photo by Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

  • A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found little correlation between red meat consumption and health problems.
  • A number of organizations immediately contested the evidence, claiming it to be based on an irrelevant system of analysis.
  • Beef and dairy production is one of the leading drivers of climate change, forcing humans to weigh personal health against the environment.

It is perhaps fitting that just as McDonald's introduces meatless burgers, a new study, published in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, is overturning years' worth of dietary recommendations that we eat less red meat. Not that everyone is taking the study as the final word, however.

A panel of fourteen researchers and three community members from seven countries (reporting no conflicts of interest), directed by Dalhousie University epidemiologist, Bradley Johnson, studied 61 articles on all-cause mortality that included a total of four million participants. The team also reviewed dozens of trials linking red meat to cancer, heart disease, and mortality. The team concluded that the evidence between red meat, both unprocessed and processed, and health problems is "low to very low."

The study took three years to complete. Researchers from a range of cultures were included to ensure diversity of thought, while each professional was vetted for perceived conflicts of interest. When considering both processed and unprocessed red meat, 11 researchers voted for adults (age 18 and over) to continue eating recommended allowances and not cut down. In each study, three researchers offered a "weak recommendation" for reducing intake.

For the record, the average American adult consumes an average of 4.5 servings of red meat per week.

Organizations such as The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society immediately came out against the study, with some groups suggesting that the journal withhold publication. They believed that not only would this information contradict years of findings, but it would "erode public trust in scientific research."

To be fair, that's the nature of science: If evidence overturns pre-existing norms, that evidence should be considered. However, we need to take a more holistic look at this picture.

Gut Bacteria and Red Meat: Highlight from Cancer and Diet

Nutrition science is tricky. Not only do self-endowed "life coaches" and fitness trainers not certified in nutrition offer unsolicited advice, actual scientific bodies find it hard to come to conclusions. One of the biggest issues: It's nearly impossible to isolate macronutrients or entire classes of food given their interactions with all the other food you consume. A burger doesn't have the same effect on your body as a burger with mayonnaise on a bun; whether you drink water or soda to accompany that meal matters too.

The main contention comes from the type of analysis the researchers used. As Harvard nutrition scientist, Frank Hu, says, the GRADE systematic approach was introduced for evaluating drug trials, not nutrition science. Alongside his colleagues, Hu published an article countering the results of the meta-analyses, coming to four conclusions:

  • The new guidelines are not justified as they contradict the evidence generated from their own meta-analyses
  • The publication of these studies and the meat guidelines in a major medical journal is unfortunate because following the new guidelines may potentially harm individuals' health, public health, and planetary health
  • This is a prime example where one must look beyond the headlines and abstract conclusions
  • These studies should not change current recommendations on healthy and balanced eating patterns for the prevention of chronic diseases

Close-up of Impossible Whopper, a meat-free item using engineered, plant-protein based burger patty from food technology company Impossible, during a limited market test at a Burger King restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, Danville, California, June 26, 2019.

Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

As with many topics in American discourse, our diet has become polarized. Those that claim that humans were not designed to eat meat are ignorant of how our biology (and cultures) evolved. As primatologist Richard Wrangham writes, the greatest culinary advancement in history was fire. Cooking made nutrients available much more quickly—a burger on a grill is more nutritious than chewing on raw meat. And meat is something our ancestors definitively ate whenever they could.

What also doesn't help is a sentiment that has been batted around the holistic blogosphere: that meat is toxic. To be fair, growth hormones and factory farming have increased the potential for toxicity in our food supply. But meat itself is not inherently toxic to our digestive system. As Harvard paleoanthropologist, Daniel Lieberman, writes, given our ancestors' adaptation to diverse climates, there is no "optimal diet." We ate what we could source. That said, meat consumption offered a particularly important boon to our biology.

"By incorporating meat in the diet and relying more on food processing, early Homo was able to spend much less energy digesting its food and could thus devote more energy toward growing and paying for a larger brain."

Yet that doesn't mean we need to eat meat, at least not as much of it was we do. Beyond sating our biological impulse, industrial agriculture—specifically, beef and dairy production—is one of the biggest drivers of climate change. Beef is extremely taxing on the environment, much more so than chicken or pork agriculture.

From a climate perspective, plant-based diets are less taxing, though you often run into the problem of nutrient loss due to monocropping. Plant-based burgers might be all the rage, but that also doesn't mean they're healthy, which brings into question whether or not it makes sense to sacrifice personal health for a perceived environmental gain.

An easy answer? Not here.

One thing is clear: The current rate of beef production is unsustainable. Whether or not 4.5 servings of red meat will increase your risk of cancer or heart disease might remain a source of contention. But a more important question remains: If reducing your meat intake is better for the environment (and therefore everyone's health), isn't that a wiser decision to make?

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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