How Can Hot Dogs Be Bad For You?
Never deny the force of genetics or fate – yet the trick to being healthy is staying healthy. Which means another American icon may soon leave your school cafeteria.
Regularly eating hot dogs increases your chance of getting diabetes – by quite a lot.
So does bacon, sausage, deli meats – and this news comes just as the Hormel corporation is trying to sell Spam into China as a luxury food.
The new results come from a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, with senior author Frank Hu. The work comes from pooling data from from the Nurses’ and Health Professions’ Studies, including a whopping 442,000 total participants over decades.
The most recent reported results – eat 50 grams (less than two ounces) of processed food and you increase your risk of diabetes by 51%. That’s big – America is expected to be 30% diabetic inside twenty years, engaging economic, social and psychological costs that make our present budget shortfalls look small. More of a surprise was that 100 grams a day of unprocessed, “natural” meat increased diabetes risk by 19%. Since unprocessed red meat has already been implicated in increases in cardiovascular disease and total mortality (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/2011-releases/red-meat-type-2-diabetes.html), this was not a red letter day for the beef industry.
You Never Heard of the Nurses’ Study?
You should have. Started by Frank Speizer at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1976, the Nurses’ Study is starting Stage III – letting a new group of younger nurses track their health for our greater good.
The original study enrolled over 100,000 nurses for follow-up – and did not always get things right. When I was at the Harvard School of Public Health in the 1980’s, the preliminary data argued that hormone replacement therapy (estrogen and progestin) cut cardiac risk by as much as 50%. It seemed a no-brainer – you can cut women’s risk of the major cause of death by half? Let’s get on the bandwagon. When I told my mother of the results, she was indignant – “I’m not going to take hormones. Who knows what they’ll do.”
She was right. The complicated mathematical epidemiologic techniques had underestimated, among other things, the “healthy volunteer effect” – lots of people using HRT were also the same people who did almost anything they could to further their health – eating vegetables, walking and running, for example. Estrogens did not save lives – they increased cardiac and breast cancer deaths.
Human studies must contend with too many variables – especially the really important ones that nobody yet even knows about. Researchers attempt to compensate with mathematical modeling of data that relies on assumptions about probability and causality that normal human behavior often does a good job of overwhelming – without even trying.
So when looking at clinical studies, you always have to look under the hood.
It pays to have a healthy skepticism about human scientific results – especially when the results appear contrary to fact, history, and experience.
Even adopting a skeptical approach, previous research has already pointed a finger at processed foods in provoking higher mortality. Why it happens is speculation – there’s a lot of different chemicals and metals in processed foods, like iron, and their effect on the body’s information flow is not presently understood.
But there’s also good news.
Foods represent thousands of different substances with innumerable effects on brain and body. Most effects are unknown. We don’t know what the hundreds of substances inside that sautéed broccoli or cauliflower mean to the brain or the immune systems. We know even less when we put a bunch of foods together in a meal.
But population studies can tell us that eating some foods produces good and bad outcomes – even if you don’t know why.
Based on their epidemiologic models, the authors (including lead author An Pan) did find something very useful – that substitution of other foods vitiated the negative diabetogenic effect of red meat.
From their data, it appears that if people replace the red meat in their diets with whole grains, nuts, or low fat dairy foods, the increase in diabetes disappears.
Your Health and Everyone Else’s
Lots of people love bacon. Many fanatically devour spam. Who doesn’t want to have a hot dog at a baseball game?
The body lives through processing information. Food is also information – quite a bit of it. It has a big impact on your regeneration.
It also affects the regeneration and thus survival of the economy and the environment. It takes about 8 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat. It also takes a lot of energy – much of which comes from countries that are not exactly our friends.
All the energy and work needed to create meat does more than make jobs for inventive chefs and pig farmers – it also does its bit for global climate change. And since diabetes provokes lost limbs, lost sight, weakened hearts, strokes, horrendous and innumerable other miseries, you may want to cut down your consumption of processed and unprocessed meat.
Instead, reserve them as treats. Food is about more than taste – it’s about culture, meaning, love, and the preservation of traditions.
Most of us don’t go to the ballpark every night, nor celebrate Thanksgiving every day of the year.
But in a nation facing a food of obesity and diabetes, recognize that food is about far more than pleasure.
We’re more than what we eat – but rarely less.
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