On Sunday, the Boston Globe Magazine featured a profile of Harvard professor Walter Willett, calling him the “world’s most influential nutritionist.” Willett’s influence comes as much from his ability to debunk or reframe studies about food and nutrition as it does from his original work.
In the long and very interesting article, Globe writer Neil Swidey mentions a recent study of Willett’s that was released in June: A new look at the 123,000 people involved in a 20-year study ending in 2006 found elevated red-meat consumption to be linked with an increase in diabetes.
According to the study, conducted by Willett and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, participants who ate at least a half serving more red meat over a four-year period were 48 percent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes in the following four years. Conversely, those who lowered their meat consumption by more than half a serving per day decreased their diabetes risk. The research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Previous studies have connected red meat intake with an increased risk of diabetes, but Willett’s study was the first to show that eating more meat raises a person’s risk—and vice versa. Red meat is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as that which comes from mammals, while white meat comes from poultry and fish.
Not surprisingly, the meat lobby strongly refutes such claims—“nothing to see here, folks!”—and frequently attempts to dismiss studies that are critical of meat on propaganda websites like MeatPoultryNutrition.org and MeatSafety.org.
“While some recent studies have generated headlines linking meat to different ailments, it is important to remember that conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes are complex conditions that cannot simply be caused by any one food,” American Meat Institute spokesman Eric Mittenthal told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
On the FAQs page of MeatPoultryNutrition.org, a site run by an industry lobby group called the American Meat Institute, pleads for readers to not give up their meat: “The wisest course of action is a balanced diet, weight control, plenty of exercise and a healthy degree of skepticism about the ‘study of the week,’ ” the site reads.
But Willett’s four decades of research and consistently reliable findings are difficult to dismiss wholesale. And while he admits further study is necessary to account for lifestyle and other health factors, Willett and his colleagues believe the strong connection found between red meat and diabetes warrants people cutting back on their consumption of beef, pork or lamb (giving up meat on Mondays may be a good place to start).
And as we’ve reported numerous times, we are eating less meat, overall. Americans’ meat consumption dropped by more than 12 percent between 2007 and 2012—an amount that equals a half-pound of meat per person, per day.
If Willett’s findings hold true, the result of a less meat-centric diet may be a reduction in the instances of diabetes among Americans, which has skyrocketed in recent years. And that will be great news indeed.