I’m Pissed at Dr. Greger
I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m pissed. Last year, I read Dr. Greger’s books, and they made me completely afraid of meat. Afraid for my health consuming meat, not for animal welfare. While I’m a total believer in the power of plants and believe that most of your diet should come from them, I am really upset that Dr. Greger lied to me.
When I first started on my journey learning more about nutrition, (because I lost a bunch of weight, and I got really interested in it) I found Dr. Greger through Reddit. I was posting recipes saying they were whole food plant-based and people started correcting me on Reddit. They were like “no that’s not whole food plant-based”, and so I wanted to understand what people were considering whole food plant-based and everyone was suggesting for me to go check out nutritionfacts.org. Well, I quickly decided that I wanted to read this book because I was so impressed by the number of studies that he was quoting, so he must have been completely right, right?!
Verify Nutrition Claims
When I got certified as a nutrition coach with Precision Nutrition, I learned a lot more credible information. I also learned to better read and understand nutrition studies. Dr. Greger made very biased claims with cherry-picked research. Frankly, there were total misrepresentations of the studies he quoted around meat. Before I review his claims that meat makes you fat, I want you to keep in mind these three things that will help you understand why people make these claims and why people believe them.
1. Values and Nutrition are two different things, where bias often blurs that line.
I completely respect vegan values and have even considered adopting that lifestyle for the improvement of animal welfare. Their stereotype turns me off, but we’ll visit that in another video.
However, a bias and passion about ending all consumption of meat can often lead to confirmation bias. This can happen when reading studies, reading information across the net (or your library), reading information on your social media news feed, or even your grandma telling you a story. Keep in mind, nothing in life is black or white. Often the truth is fifty shades of grey 😂.
2. Humans have a tendency to polarize information.
We, humans, are wired to notice patterns and put things into easily understandable categories such as “this food is good and this food is bad”, or even “all animals are treated badly, and sea world is evil”. We have to fight this tendency to polarize information. If we were all good at this, there wouldn’t be the constant quest for the “best diet” or racism even.
3. Study results don’t necessarily dictate facts.
Finally, just because one or even a few studies find significant data, does not make it a fact. Many studies, especially in nutrition, have many conflicting variables that make it hard to narrow down a statistical correlation. For example, it’s hard to make a presumption about data showing that meat makes you fat, when there are other variables that are hard to exclude such as someone’s age, the amount of exercise they get, and other lifestyle factors. Also, sometimes researchers have their own bias which could skew the way they represent data.
With those things in mind, let’s address some of the misrepresented claims that Dr. Greger made in his book, “How Not to Diet”. There were many claims and studies regarding meat and dairy in his book, but we’re going to focus on the claim that meat makes you fat. There are so many other sections and studies that I could address, but let’s save that for another time. There’s so much bullock that I could seriously do an entire series on these claims. Let me know in the comments if you’d like more of this.
If you happen to have this book and would like to follow along, these claims that I have researched are starting on page 201.
Meat Makes You Gain 3-5 Pounds?
“Over a twenty-month period, for example, those eating about three more ounces of meat a day had about three times the risk of gaining five or more pounds.”Meat Intake Increases Risk of Weight Gain in Women: A Prospective Cohort Investigation. American Journal of Health Promotion.
The first statement that Dr. Greger makes is that all meats cause weight gain. However, the study concludes that meats other than those in the very lean meat category are associated with an increased risk of weight gain over time.
Meats that are categorized under the very lean meats category are chicken and turkey, the skinless and white portions that are fish, egg whites, and game meats. It’s pretty well supported that red meat and processed meat are not good for your health. Some processed meats are hot dogs, deli meat, pepperoni, spam, and many more.
You can see Dr. Greger claims that if you eat three ounces of meat a day you are tripling your risk of weight gain. However, every participant in this study at baseline reported some consumption of meat. The study states that at baseline participants ate 1.4 to 2.6 servings per 1000 calories a day. That means that the data that he’s making a correlation to, is three ounces over that baseline.
Now that might be understandable, given that if you’re eating that much meat, you’re likely crowding out other beneficial foods. If you’re eating a large portion of chicken or steak at every meal, for example, you’re probably not eating a whole lot of vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
I think it’s worth noting that the study was performed over a period of 20 months and only had 237 participants. It was also limited in diversity. All of the participants were women, and there weren’t very many Hispanic participants in the study. Food intake was also self-reported. I don’t know about you, but I even lie to myself about that second piece of chocolate I consumed right before bed.
Proven to Cause Abdominal Obesity?
Another study found that those who ate about five ounces a day had eight times the incidence of abdominal obesity over a year compared to those who ate around one ounce of meat daily.Association between red meat consumption and metabolic syndrome in a Mediterranean population at high cardiovascular risk cross-sectional and 1-year follow-up assessment. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis.
This study was on red meat and processed meat only, not on meat in general as Dr. Greger would like us to believe. He mentioned abdominal obesity but that’s not even mentioned in the study. The study focused was a metabolic syndrome, not obesity and even if it matters at this point the study was limited to participants in the Mediterranean region, not worldwide.
Does This Study Have Valid Conclusions?
Meat intake seems to be more associated with abdominal weight gain than peripheral gain-that is bigger bellies than bigger thighs.Contrasting factors associated with abdominal and peripheral weight gain among adult women. Int J. Obes Relat Metab Discord.
Again, this claim doesn’t specify what kind of meat, and the study does not break it down. This study is from 1997. That is 24 years ago. You don’t want to quote a study that’s longer than about 10 years ago, especially in nutrition, which is a continuously explored area of science.
Again, this study has little diversity with all participants being women. Also, I’m left wondering what if you eat lots of vegetables with a little bit of lean meat? The study did not combine these two to measure the outcomes of a balanced diet. Meat and veggies were analyzed independently.
Lose Weight by Drinking Beer!?
Over a ten-year period the amount of weight gain associated with eating more than seven servings of meat a week (compared to those averaging less than about one serving of meat every other day) was the same as the amount of weight lost by woman who walked or men who jogged or ran four or more hours a week.Stable behaviors associated with adults’ 10-year change in body mass index and likelihood the gain of the waist. Am J Public Health.
This is the same 1997 study as the last one, but with men included this time. The study also has some of the same authors. Again, this study is underrepresented by racial minorities, other ethnicities, low-income populations, and people of low educational status.
Again, he’s mentioning meat as a whole without breaking down types and the study doesn’t either. I’m starting to feel like a broken record here. However, the statement is mostly a correct representation of the data, but the data is lacking, and again the study is nearly 30 years old.
I also found a fun piece of information in the study which as far as I know is totally incorrect. The study claims that over time you can lose weight by drinking beer more than five days a week. What a headline! I absolutely love IPAs, so I guess I’ll start drinking them every night. Can you sense the sarcasm? I wish it was true!
More Meat or More Calories?
The study states that its correlation to meat consumption and obesity are likely due to its higher fat and energy contents. The data shows that those who had higher meat intake in the study also had higher calorie intake, which totally negates Dr. Gregor’s claim that you’ll gain more weight eating meat while still eating the same amount of calories as other diets.
It remains unclear whether the observed associations were fully attributable to the meat intake itself. There’s no direct correlation to causation here. What if all the meat intake were beef wrapped in donuts?
Intervention studies on meat intake specifically showed mixed results, although in most of them no weight change was observed when energy from carbohydrates was partially replaced with the energy from meat. This further shows that whether you consume calories for meats, carbs, fats, or whatever, calorie consumption and expenditure dictate weight gain, loss, or maintenance.
Poultry the Most Fattening?
The surprise, though, was that the poultry appeared to be the most fattening. Consumption of poultry-mostly chicken-was associated with three times the weight gain compared to red meat like beef, and this was after taking into account age, gender, physical activity level, smoking status, overall dietary quality, and calorie counts.Meat consumption and prospective weight change in participants of the EPIC PANACEA study. The American Journal of American Nutrition; AND Longitudinal Changes in BMI in Older Adults Are Associated with Meat Consumption Differentially. The Journal of Nutrition
Dr. Greger is correct here in the first study that the strongest association with annual weight gain is due to poultry consumption. However, when study participants were excluded for having a previous illness or likely misreporting their energy intake at baseline the strongest association was observed for processed meat. This suggests that this result may be due to the participant’s previous illnesses or weight loss attempts as well as those who misrepresented their dietary intakes.
The second study says overall more research is needed to verify the facts regarding meat consumption and weight management. So, these all seem like pretty weak arguments to me. So, do they really need a rebuttal? If you think so, check out this meta-analysis from more recent years.
If you don’t know what a meta-analysis is, it’s more reliable information because it examines many credible studies to determine overall trends. Interestingly, in this analysis, fish was associated with a reduced risk of abdominal obesity. Of course, as those portions consumed increase at some point, it plateaus.
This analysis, just like the studies prior, does show an increased risk with consumption of red meat. However, the best-vetted studies show low quality of evidence that certain food groups have an impact on obesity risk.
As for poultry, I have seen a couple of studies that show some association of consuming poultry with obesity risk. However, the quality of evidence is low. It’s worth noting that poultry varies in its saturated fat content from zero grams in turkey breast or egg whites to three grams in duck for example which leads me to my theory.
My Theory About Meat & Weight Gain
My theory is that a given food group isn’t the problem. It’s an overconsumption of calories that leads to weight gain. Meats that are high in fat such as red meat when consumed trigger reward in our brain, thus making us want to consume more of it; and, are very dense in calories from fat which can easily lead to a surplus of calorie consumption.
It’s also clear that too much saturated fat intake is not healthy for you, but I’m not entirely sure how that correlates to weight maintenance. Processed meats tend to have an unhealthy amount of fat, salt, and sometimes even sugar. They also have chemical properties that can be cancer-causing, called carcinogens.
However, many studies don’t differentiate between red and white meat when it comes to processed meat such as deli turkey or deli roast beef. So, there are more questions left unanswered.
Now I’m left thinking, can’t we just focus on eating more plants? While meat has its own set of unique nutrients, plants have an abundance of nutrients and fiber that help us thrive. Therefore, eating lots of plants is paramount. However, obtaining those nutrients from plants doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to eliminate meat altogether. With the typical American diet, we could stand to have less meat and a lot more plants.
So, while Dr. Greger’s claims are a little far-fetched, he’s got one thing right. We should all be eating more plants. So, let’s try to incorporate more plant foods! You can do this by trying some meatless meals. You can sub the meat in a recipe with beans or tofu, and have a salad loaded with veggies every day. Have fun with trying new plant foods and try to have one to two fruits or vegetables at each meal.
I hope you can now see a little clearer what we know with the current research to be true. There is no direct correlation that meat makes you fat. However, not eating enough plant foods and eating a lot of junk will.
Healthy eating isn’t rocket science, we just struggle to find the answers because our emotions and values are so intertwined with food. I totally get it! I used to be on the weight roller coaster myself. Binge eating and beer make me feel better, too – sometimes.
Veganism / Vegetarianism is an honorable lifestyle. However, the studies to date don’t prove that it’s the healthiest diet, nor does it prove that it’s unhealthy.
Remember to be skeptical about claims and research studies. Having a study to back up your claim doesn’t make it fact.
If you have any questions or concerns, please let us know in the comments, and I look forward to “seeing” you soon!