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More Confusion: Is Red Meat Really That Bad?

More Confusion: Is Red Meat Really That Bad?
March 15, 2012 Patrick Nemechek, D.O.

Too Much Advice

I was asked recently about the repeated news from Harvard’s Public Health Department that eating red meat, especially processed red meat (i.e., sausages and salami) is bad for one’s health.

The constant stream of conflicting headlines is causing confusion of the general public.

First you have to understand the source. The Harvard people have tons of time, money and prestige invested in promoting the message of “eating more fruit and vegetables is healthy”Ā  and is the one of the main organizations beating the “red meat is bad” drum the loudest right now.

It’s true that Harvard’s research shows that avoiding red meat, especially processed meat, decreases your chances of dying.

But the relative health improvement is extremely minor compared to what I see (and what research supports) with carbohydrate reduction ( i.e, avoiding red meat and eating more fruit and vegetables doesn’t make diabetes or hypertension go in remission while restricting carbohydrates often does).

Not All Things are Equal

I like use the example of a hair tonic to promote the growth of more hair on my balding head to give patients a contextual framework of seemingly conflicting evidence.

If after 6 months, a particular hair tonic (i.e., eating more fruit and vegetables or more fish) only results in 6 new hairs on my head but the claim (and attention-grabbing headline) of increased hair growth by the manufacturer is technically true.

Now lets take a different hair tonic (i.e., carbohydrate restriction, regular exercise and increased omega-3).Ā  After 6 months, this results in a full head of hair.Ā  This other manufacturer can also claim (and produce the same attention-grabbing headline) that this tonic lead to an increase in hair growth.

To the general public, the headlines that both of the hair tonics improve hair growth seem equal when in fact they are very, very different in practical effect.

This is why it is so easy to become confused with the constant health advice poured out by the news services and various healthcare organizations. A great deal of what is being said is technically true but practically ineffective.

They are not provided the relative improvements of one approach over the other.

The Practical Reality When Caring for Patients

I have many patients who have been “eating right” (avoiding red meat, more fruit and veggies, brown rice and high fiber breads) but still have hypertension, diabetes, sleep apnea and an enlarged abdomen.

But what I find time and again, is that it’s only after patients begin consistently restricting their carbohydrate intake do I see significant reversal of all these conditions to the point that many patients go into complete remission over time.

Practical reality trumps headlines.

My Strategy

For me and my patients, things like avoiding processed meat are a refinement step later in the game.Ā  The improvement in health from this is real but so small comparatively that I leave for later.

I tell patients to not worry about the processed meat issue because I want most of their attention initially to be on carbohydrate reduction (less than 100 grams per day total).

This is the quickest road to realizing success. Carbohydrate reduction almost always causes heartburn to resolve and blood sugar or blood pressure levels improve dramatically within a month.

After patients see improvement from this,Ā  they are more motivated to continue carbohydrate reduction and more willing to exercise more consistently or to add fish oil to their diet.

For most people, keeping it simple is the key to success.Ā  Many dietary approaches which inevitably lead to carbohydrtae reduction are often too complex to incorporate into individual’s busy and often overwhelming lives.

Additional successful efforts are driven by the confidence gained from prior success.

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