The China Study: Is meat bad for us?

Have you heard of “The China Study”? It was a two-decade long study that was conducted in the 80’s that compared diets in rural Chinese villages to diets in America and evaluated the correlation between food choices and incidences of chronic diseases, like cancer. The conclusion was clear: because rural Chinese residents ate more fruits and vegetables and less meat/meat products, they had a lower rate of chronic diseases and/or related deaths compared to rates in America. Naturally, people took these findings and started to eliminate meat and dairy products from their diets because that makes sense (it doesn’t). One time, a hospital patient aggressively told me that he read “The China Study” and that I was poisoning him with milk. Was he lactose intolerant? No. He was, however, the recipient of a sassy eye roll.

Do I agree? With the study, mostly. With the fanaticism against meat, no. Whether you believe it’s the higher fat content or even the quality of meat due to poor manufacturing practices, it doesn’t matter. Science has repeatedly shown a high correlation between excess red meat consumption and an increased risk of chronic disease later on in life, including cancer. But before we parade around and stop eating meat, let’s pause for a second and see what else may be a driver in this.

Meat in itself isn’t increasing our risk of cancer. It’s most likely the excessive amounts that we like to eat. Americans are obsessed with meat and giant portions of it. We’re all size queens. Holy heck! You do not need to eat a 40 oz steak, just like you don’t need to drink 2 liters of green juice. The recommended portion of meat per meal is about the size of a deck of cards, or for you tech savvy kids, an iPhone 4 (I don’t have the Samsung equivalent handy).

Taking a step back, I do have one problem with the study. In economic modeling and scientific research, we like to say “all things constant” (or close to it) but…all things aren’t constant in this study. While it’s not news that eating red meat and dairy products in excess can lead to higher risk of chronic diseases, comparing a villager in rural China to an American is like comparing apples to lychee. They ain’t the same! Variables like genetics, environment, lifestyle, and physical activity are just a few that have wide impact on our health. Like many sensationalized nutrition topics, I would take “The China Study” with a grain of salt.

Takeaway: don’t stop eating meat. Instead, try eating more fruits and vegetables. There’s an important difference between the two. Oh, and become Chinese.

Thomas Ngo, RD

Full disclosure: While I love burgers, I’ve never been a fan of steak or a lot of meats. I was raised on a traditional Vietnamese diet that was mainly rice and veggies with a little protein (meat or fish) to flavor the dish. I’m a proud flexitarian!


2 Comments Add yours

  1. GlenysO says:

    Thank you for writing on this. I’ve been skeptical of The China Study for a while. I just couldn’t read it – it was so “This is THE diet that will save your life!” that I was turned off. Any diet that insists that it is THE diet is so ridiculous – what if you hate eating vegetarian? Are you supposed to spend the rest of your life eating a diet you hate? I wish I could remember where I saw a critique of the science used in the book as well, but it was definitely a bit dicey. Of course fruits and vegetables are healthy for us and we can always try to eat more, but some people definitely thrive on having meat in their diet.

    I also think if people ate more intuitively they would generally eat less of a lot of things. I agree that restaurant portions are a little nutso here.

    As for your sassy eye roll – I laughed out loud. One of my patients told me I was personally killing him and every other diabetic with soy milk. I retorted with a not-so-eloquent, “UNSUBSTANTIATED!” SO much bad nutrition advice out there!!

    1. Thomas says:

      LOL “unsubstantiated!” I agree with all of the above 🙂

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