Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Looking at the bigger picture to avoid Midlife ‘Crisis’

Another week, a similar story – red meat has again recently cast as one of the dietary pantomime villains, guilty of reducing healthy ageing and causing early death.

According to the study published in the American Journal of Medicine, a western type diet is associated with a reduced chance of healthy ageing. Unsurprisingly, it prompted a few alarmist headlines screaming that red meat was among the culprits in sending you to an early grave.

The Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), however, provided a more balanced perspective. Scratch beneath the surface and, not for the first time, flaws are revealed in a study of this nature. This was an epidemiological study in which data were drawn from the Whitehall II study. Participants in the Whitehall II study were London-based office staff, aged 35-55 years, who worked in 20 civil service departments at the start of the study in 1991-1993. All study participants were at least 60 years of age by the end of study follow-up in 2007-2009.

The aim was to assess the link between dietary pattern and healthy ageing.  A “Western-type” diet, characterised by high intakes fried food, pies, sweetened desserts, chocolates, refined grains, high-fat dairy products and condiments was associated with less healthy ageing than a diet involving adherence to healthy eating recommendations.

Dietary intake was assessed by a food frequency questionnaire which is not the most accurate of measures. Moreover, no one type of food can be implicated in any of the findings as the study looked at dietary patterns. This study also evaluated a very specific population whose findings cannot necessarily be translated to all UK population groups.

Meat is mentioned as part of the western dietary pattern, but this study cannot be used to show that red meat is linked with less healthy ageing. A western type diet is associated with lower fruit and vegetable consumption for example.

On a positive note, earlier this year we highlighted positive research supporting the fact millions of people have eaten meat for millions of years and have lived long, healthy lives. The Micronutrient challenges across the age spectrum research paper confirmed there is a role for red meat in the diet, whatever your age and concluded it had a beneficial role to play across the “seven ages of man” – from providing essential vitamin A, vitamin D, iron and zinc in infancy to upping intakes of magnesium, zinc and potassium from 75-years-old onwards.

The Department of Health recommends that adults should eat 70 grams of cooked meat a day (500g a week) as part of a healthy diet. Most people’s meat consumption falls within this guidance and it is sensible to continue to follow this advice. This study provides no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Ultimately, red meat makes an important contribution to intakes of key nutrients, such as zinc, iron, selenium B vitamins and vitamin D. As large numbers of people in the UK have intakes of these nutrients which fall below recommended intakes, it is valuable to include lean red meat in the diet and this latest study does nothing to prove a link with unhealthy ageing.