Dietary DogmaGreetings from Boston! I’m here for Oldway’s Finding Common Ground conference, and the timing is a bit ironic in light of some of the emails I’ve received commenting on my column in yesterday’s Seattle Times, “Don’t give up your steak just yet: How to have red meat and prevent cancer, too.” I’ll share a few highlights from my favorite email:

“Your article today about red meat is not only irresponsible, it is downright harmful. …The tragic consequence of your article will be to reassure your readers they can safely go right on smoking their cigarettes…I mean eating their grass-fed beef. And why? Because you are too stubborn, or weak, or dull witted to change your habits. What a shame that you are considered a responsible voice in the pubic forum.”

I’m considered a responsible voice in the public forum? Aw, shucks. But equating smoking cigarettes with eating red meat? Not quite. I know the power of good nutrition for preventing chronic disease and promoting vibrant health, but I also know that the number one thing that anyone can do for their health is to quit smoking (or ideally, never start).

But in all seriousness, I fully expected this kind of response when I decided to write about the recent World Health Organization report on red meat and cancer. I took a balanced, pragmatic, science-based viewpoint, and some people just can’t handle that, because their dietary viewpoint is rigid and based on dogmatic belief. The viewpoint I presented in the column is exactly aligned with what I how I advise my patients when they ask me about eating red meat. Can red meat be part of a healthful diet? Absolutely. Can a healthful diet NOT include red meat. Absolutely.

Risk is Relative (and Life is Not Without Risk)

Does eating relatively small amounts of red meat (about 2 ounces per day) increase the risk of colorectal cancer? The science says yes. But you know what? A lot of things increase your cancer risk. Going outside (UV rays). Getting an x-ray or flying in an airplane (radiation). Regularly drinking alcohol. Smoking or being around smokers. Exposure to any number of chemicals, including some found in typical building materials. Women who remain childless have an increased risk of breast cancer. Getting older increases your risk, too (and it’s impossible to avoid that one). We can’t wrap ourselves in bubble wrap and avoid all things that might put our health, and our lives, at risk.

If a patient tells me that they avoid red meat because they don’t care for it or don’t feel good (physically, mentally or ethically) about eating it, enough said. There are other ways to meet protein needs. What I am bullish about is:

  1. Eating more vegetables, especially dark leafy greens, the cruciferous family (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale et al) and the allium family (garlic, onions, et al) families, in part due to their rich phytonutrient content, which endows them with anti-cancer properties. I’m constantly encouraging or gently nagging my patients to make at least half of their plate non-starchy veggies.
  2. Reducing non-nutritious foods like added sugar, refined carbohydrates and other highly processed foods.

Moving From Dietary Dogma to A Nutritional Common Ground

As I’ve written about previously, I advocate a plant-based diet, which may or may not include meat. A big slab of meat with a side of potatoes and (maybe) a small serving of veggies as an afterthought? Not so healthy. A heaping helping of veggies with small-to-moderate servings of meat (or poultry or fish) and whole grains? Healthy. Replace that meat with lentils, beans or tofu? Also healthy.

I’m tired of dietary dogma and extremist “my way or the highway” nutritional viewpoints, often expressed loudly by people who don’t have any solid education or training in nutrition science. That’s why I am excited to be at the Finding Common Ground conference? The conference is about finding a common ground on what constitutes a healthy diet. It’s a discussion that will include everything from vegan diets to paleo diets to Mediterranean diets. There is no one single diet that’s right for every person, but all healthful diets have something in common, and I’m fairly sure that common ground is going to be lots of vegetables and very few highly processed foods.

I look forward to sharing details of the conference via Twitter, this blog and my next Times column (on November 29).