Meat of the Matter: Fat phobia revisited

Just when it was starting to seem that the global environment maybe — just maybe — was not in imminent danger of total destruction from evil herds of cows, here comes another new meme that anti-industry types of all stripes are going to seize upon as "proof" that eating animal foods deserves a spot among the Seven Cardinal Sins.

It's bad enough being linked to heart attacks, stroke, cancer, diabetes and premature death, as activists have tried to spin recent research reports — plus, of course, the aforementioned devastation of the entire planet.

Now, red meat is under scrutiny as a suspect in contemporary society's acknowledged worst nightmare: Getting fat.

Medically speaking, obesity is a serious health threat, and those who struggle with the condition know all too well the impact that excessive weight has on well-being. All of the chronic diseases that have replaced infectious pathogens as humanity's chief killers are at the very least exacerbated by being seriously overweight. In fact, many health authorities point to obesity as the culprit, not just a co-conspirator, in the devastation caused by heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

But there is another dimension to being overweight, one that I would suggest is equally devastating, and that is the impact the condition has on people's self-esteem.

You don't have to be an armchair psychologist, as I am, to diagnose the damage that afflicts people whose body size, shape and weight don't match the imagery with which we're bombarded in media, in advertising, in film and television and magazines and billboards and probably most importantly, in daily life.

Who gets teased? The fat kid in fifth grade. Who gets passed over for dates? The fat girl in high school. Who gets the sales job, the big promotion, the TV news anchor chair, or the elected office? Almost always, it's not someone who's markedly overweight.

We silently (and sometimes loudly) condemn the people we see huddled outside office buildings and bars sucking down cigarettes, but as a society, we're also shamefully critical of people who are packing around too many pounds.

As Dean Vernon Wormer tells Delta House pledge Kent "Flounder" Dorfman in the classic movie Animal House, "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

I think that is exactly the order in which those liabilities are ranked in most people's minds here in 21st century America.

Who's the Real Culprit?
That is why this new meme about meat-eating is potentially dangerous, because it points the finger at what modern society considers to be a fatal flaw: Being unattractive.

Consider this summary of a recently published report out of the University of Adelaide in Australia titled, "Meat consumption providing a surplus energy in modern diet contributes to obesity prevalence:"

"Giving up sugar to reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes is practically a no-brainer. Soda sales are slumping and processed food companies and fast-food giants are scrambling to reformulate their offerings to reduce sugar content. But there may be another culprit stretching America's waistline: red meat."

Uh, "practically a no-brainer?" As if there remains some doubt that guzzling a liter or two of soda a day might be a bad thing? Like, we really aren't sure — not just yet?

Here's how the authors of the red-meat-causes-obesity study came to their conclusions. They estimated the overall BMI (Body Mass Index, a relatively crude measure of obesity based on a height-to-weight ratio) data for various countries. They then matched those data to the country-specific availability of total calories per capita per day, the prevalence — based on production data — of the major food groups of meat, starch, fiber, fat and fruits, and concluded the following:

"High meat availability is correlated to increased prevalence of obesity."

Now, that statement obscures a Himalayan mountain range of confounding variables. The availability of "meat" in various countries is associated with all kinds of economic, cultural, and demographic factors that are difficult, if not impossible, to effectively sort out.

Meat not only requires a certain income level, but a certain level of development: processing industries, distribution infrastructure and developed retail and foodservice industries. All of that comes along with a fully loaded baggage train of lifestyle variables that impact obesity rates.

Talkin' about you, automobiles.

There is one overriding issue at the heart of all the investigations of diet and obesity, and it cannot be controlled in the analyses that purport to finger sugar or meat or carbs as the culprits we should blame for the epidemic of obesity, and that is the incredibly sedentary lifestyles that are embedded in modern life.

It's not just a lack of exercise; that's bad enough. It's the lack of activity altogether that for many people makes whatever dietary excesses in which they're indulging significantly worse.

And here's the clincher, the closing line even rookie defense attorneys would roll out in their summation to the jury.

Red meat is accused of causing obesity. But if that were true, then why are obesity rates escalating during the exact same time period when red meat consumption among Americans has declined so dramatically?

I rest my case.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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