In the latest weekly newsletter (The Nutrition Source) from the Harvard School of Public Health, the lead articles were headlined as follows:

“Three cups of milk a day? That may be too much. Rethinking the recommendations.”

“New evidence for healthier protein. Eating more red meat may increase risk of diabetes.”

Now, both of these health “threats” have ben flogged many times before, by both Harvard researchers who oppose the consumption of animal foods and by activists who latch onto slanted scientific summaries such as these two gems. Fact is, both of these articles actually make a much different point from what the headlines suggest.

Best case scenario, such slanting is called “spin,” and we’re supposed to meekly accept the reality that with modern media, it’s simply what every group or institution does to “clarify” its messaging.

Every group except scientists, that is. They’re supposed to be objective, factual, nonpartisan. Neutrality is the source of their credibility, which for the majority of non-technical people, is all we have to rely on when evaluating the accuracy of medical or nutritional recommendations.

That’s why these two stories are so problematic. Most people will simply scan the headlines and walk away assuming that the experts at Harvard have declared that milk is bad and red meat is worse. End of story.

Here’s the real story.

Less fat vs. less sweetener

The Nutrition Source summarized the milk story by stating that, “For more than a century, American parents have prodded their kids to drink three daily glasses of milk, but now the tide may be turning against this once seemingly essential beverage.”

Really?

No, not really. Contrary to the implications of “rethinking” the recommendations for kids to drink three cups of milk a day, the commentary in JAMA Pediatrics by Dr. David Ludwig, a Boston Children’s Hospital pediatrician, and Dr. Walter Willett, an HSPH nutrition researcher, made the point that low-fat milk or skim milk—versus whole milk—may not be the best choice for children. That’s because the lessened satiety, or feeling of fullness, that results from consuming low-fat dairy may likely triggers additional consumption of refined carbohydrates that are worse than saturated dairy fat.

As for childhood obesity—which is why dieticians are so obsessed with low-fat dairy—the authors concluded that, “A primary focus on reducing fat intake does not facilitate weight loss, compared with other dietary strategies.”

Or in simpler terms: Eating (or drinking) fat does not make one fat.

Even worse, the authors go on to state that, “We’re not arguing that milk should be eliminated from the diet, but that a broader range of recommendations might be more appropriate.”

From that we get “the tide is turning?”

Here’s the basis of the good doctors’ call for “broader recommendations:”

  • Humans thrived for millennia before dairy animals were domesticated
  • Essential calcium can be obtained from sources other than milk
  • Populations that historically don’t drink milk are equally as healthy as ones that do
  • Bone fracture rates in milk-drinking countries are no better than non-milk drinking countries

Fine, but none of the above makes a case against milk. If the question were, can people stay healthy without it, those bullet points would be powerful persuaders. But if the question is, should we rethink our adherence to milk in the diet because it’s bad, nothing in the JAMA Pediatrics article suggests it is.

That’s a far cry from “the tide is turning.”

Piling on the meat

As for the proposition that eating more meat means more diabetes, it takes about 10 seconds of reading to realize two important factors about the second study (published in the June JAMA Internal Medicine):

First of all, although the study’s (alleged) conclusion is based on data from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the Nurses’ Health Study—a total of about 100,000 people—the subset the authors examined consisted of people who increased their consumption of red meat by 3½ servings a week.

Taken at face value, that has to be an extremely small sample. How many people at some point in adulthood these days suddenly decide to start eating more than three additional servings of red meat a week? I’m sure there are some, but most dietary recall studies demonstrate that “heavy” meat-eaters tend to have long-established dietary habits. If anything changes over time, it’s far more likely for people to reduce their red meat intake, due to health concerns, medical recommendations or simply peer pressure.

Second, as the article makes clear, the real risk is consumption of processed meats, such as hot dogs and bacon, not what most people consider “red meat,” meaning cuts of fresh beef, pork or lamb or deli meats, such as roast beef or ham.

Yes, if someone were to actually increase their consumption of hot dogs by 3½ servings a week, it’s likely that other dynamics are in play (food costs, time pressures, etc.), and the result could be a measureable increase in the risk of developing diabetes. But even in that seemingly rare occurrence, the danger results from a problem rarely related to meat-eating: Obesity.

In fact, the study’s authors make it clear that the No. 1 risk factor for developing Type II diabetes, one that vastly outweighs all others, is becoming overweight. Why? The answer’s not forthcoming in the article, but I’ll tell you why: Because getting fat requires eating refined carbohydrates, which creates insulin tolerance, which causes blood sugar to rise unacceptably, which is then diagnosed as diabetes.

Far from demonstrating that red meat causes diabetes, the authors themselves suggest the alternative: Growing obese from a diet overburdened with simple sugars and refined starch leads to diabetic complications. In other words, meat-eating itself is not the cause of an increase in the risk of diabetes.

But you won’t get that “spin” from the slanted stories in which the Harvard crew specializes.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.