Red Meat and Sugar: More Similar Than You Think

Last week, it was revealed that the sugar industry secretly funded nutrition research published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967 that downplayed sugar’s role in the development of heart disease and laid all the blame on dietary fat.

While news of the food industry’s influence on academic research is not new, this was a concerted, pre-meditated industry effort to manipulate scientific studies that strongly influenced nutrition policy and federal dietary advice.

Case in point: the first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (published in 1980) linked fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol to cardiovascular disease but only recommended limiting sugar because of its link with tooth decay and dental caries. In fact, that document explicitly stated there was an absence of “convincing evidence that sugar causes… blood vessel diseases.” Hmmm…

Today’s nutrition landscape is largely occupied by two opposing dietary tribes: the “anti-meat” camp and the “anti-sugar” camp. The former claims sugar is a scapegoat and a red herring that distracts from the inherent dangers of cholesterol and animal fats, especially red meat. The latter considers sugar “the problem” with a capital P, sometimes lumps all carbohydrates — everything from soda to oats — in the same basket, and argues that meat, especially red meat, is unfairly vilified.

Somewhere along the way, the nutrition field fell prey to the notion that, when it comes to the negative health effects of red meat and sugar, you can only hold one responsible for all our public health problems. It’s a seductive binary; both camps come with built-in fervent believers. Dietary tribalism is profitable; it’s how “diet gurus” are made. The general public is enamored with the idea that the road to health is obstructed by one big villain.

There are good arguments as to why both red meat and sugar are problematic. For instance, Trimethylamine N-Oxide — produced when a compound found in red meat called L-carnitine is metabolized — is associated with inflammation, atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke (one of the many reasons why the American Institute of Cancer Research recommends limiting red meat to 18 ounces a week). A growing body of research links added sugar to increased heart disease risk (the evidence is strong enough that the American Heart Association has established daily limits for added sugar).

Almost always left out of the debate is what ties red meat and sugar together: what they don’t offer.

That brings us to nutrition and public health data, which tells us Americans need to increase their intakes of:

  • Fiber. The average American eats 15 grams a day (roughly half of the recommended daily amount). Fiber is absent in both red meat and sugar. It is exclusively found in whole, plant-based foods.
  • Magnesium. This mineral, crucial for regulating blood sugar and blood pressure, is underconsumed by approximately fifty percent of the population. The best sources of magnesium include nuts, seeds, leafy greens, wheat germ, quinoa, beans, and legumes. Sugar doesn’t provide any, and three ounces of beef provide six percent of the recommended daily value (compare that to the seventy-five percent in a quarter cup of pumpkin seeds).
  • Potassium. Another important mineral crucial in cardiac function and the regulation of blood pressure; average consumption is so low that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee identifies it as a ‘nutrient of concern’. Potassium is found in a variety of foods, including avocados, leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, fish, oranges, and bananas. Sugar clocks in at zero grams. Three ounces of beef offer nine percent of a day’s worth.

Nutrition goes beyond carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Research has identified — and continues to identify — hundreds of phytochemicals and antioxidants; compounds found exclusively in plant-based foods with unique mechanisms that make them VIPs in chronic disease prevention. Both sugar and red meat are devoid of phytonutrients and antioxidants.

Red meat and sugar — especially at their current levels of consumption — both displace whole, plant-based foods that offer the fiber, magnesium, and potassium Americans need as well as additional health-promoting compounds that can help lower chronic disease risk. A low-sugar, high-meat diet is no panacea. Neither is an eating pattern low in meat but high in sugar.

Alas, this sugar versus meat battle is ongoing. The last kerkuffle took place when the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — certainly not in the pocket of the meat industry, which protested the Committee’s recommendations to lower red meat intake — called to remove cholesterol as a nutrient of concern, stating that “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.”

One camp erroneously pointed to that as proof that — at last! — meat had been exonerated. The other clung to outdated research to keep the arguments against dietary cholesterol alive.

Part of the complexity of nutrition involves the acceptance of multiple truths. A call for a reduction in red meat should not automatically be equated with a recommendation that Americans load up on fat-free cookies, white bread, and sugary cereal. Similarly, voicing concerns about added sugar does not mean someone is a ferocious advocate of low-carb living who thinks bacon is a health food and brown rice is no different than a Pop-Tart.

Dismissing concerns about added sugar as “scapegoating” is just as tone-deaf as recommending that Americans can eat cheeseburgers liberally as long as they don’t eat the bun and skip dessert.

The sooner the “anti-sugar” and “anti-meat” camps recognize their similarities, the more cohesive the food movement will be. Until then, this non-stop discord is music to industry’s ears. Fractured opposition is inefficient, and both the meat and sugar industries have plenty of political power to utilize and money to burn while we bicker.