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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Red meat - death on a plate or natural Prozac

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Red meat has not fared well in the latest American study. Photo / APN
Red meat has not fared well in the latest American study. Photo / APN

The medical research community's campaign to scare us into adopting the Asian peasant diet shows no sign of letting up. This week red meat, already out of favour by virtue of being the affluent Western male's protein of choice, is in the dock.

Committed carnivores will struggle to digest a new American study of 121,000 people conducted over 28 years which found that eating any kind of red meat increased the risk of death from heart disease by 21 per cent and from cancer by 16 per cent. Each extra daily serving of processed red meat - one hot dog or two rashers of bacon - raised the mortality rate by a fifth.

The logical response would be to roast an ox tonight and give up red meat altogether on Monday. Logical, but perhaps premature.

No sooner had we been told (yet again, since most health scare and miracle cure stories are hardy annuals) that red meat is death on a plate in a red wine jus than it was revealed that not eating red meat causes depression.

A Deakin University study found that women who ate less than the recommended amount of red meat were twice as likely to have diagnosed depressive or anxiety disorders. It found no relationship between other forms of protein - fish, poultry, plant-based protein - and mental health.

If you suspect this is a desperate attempt by the lamb and beef lobby to claw back some lost ground, think again: the researchers embarked on this project in the expectation that it would culminate in another damning indictment of red meat.

"We'd originally thought that red meat might not be good for mental health," said team leader Professor Felice Jacka, "but it turns out it might be quite important."

So we're back to that sanctimonious old refrain "moderation in all things". That's fine in theory, but what health professionals regard as too much is many people's idea of not quite enough. However, there were glad tidings among the week's flurry of grim medical bulletins: it seems the magic bullet - aspirin - has been sitting there on the pharmacy shelves all along.

An Oxford University study has found that taking daily low doses of this drug for three years can reduce the risk of cancer by a quarter. Popping a pill every day for five years reduces the risk of dying of cancer by 37 per cent and halves the likelihood that cancer will spread. As the study's authors point out, it's the spreading - metastasis - that generally kills cancer sufferers.

What's more, it's out of patent in most countries so anyone can make it which means that, unlike many so-called miracle drugs, it's not so prohibitively expensive that only the super-rich can afford it. Oh and by the way, it also reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

It sounds too good to be true so let's hear from Peter Elwood, honorary professor of epidemiology at Cardiff University and one of the team of researchers who first cottoned on to aspirin's preventive properties back in the 1970s: "It's a miracle drug because it's a simple molecule that is unique in attacking both of the world's two major causes of death and disability: cardiovascular disease and cancer."

Want a second opinion? Here's the Guardian's health writer Sarah Boseley: "We're constantly exhorted to stop smoking, eat more fruit and vegetables and cut our weight - all of which would help save us from cancer, but which so many of us seem to find so hard to do. And now we have a once-a-day pill that can substantially reduce the risk."

So there we are. Strive for moderation by all means, but an aspirin a day and she'll be right, right? Not quite. In the life and death business, things are never that cut and dried.

According to the Cancer Society's national health promotion adviser, Sarah Penno, "aspirin has side-effects and isn't suitable for everybody. It will certainly be something to keep watching and for those at highest risk to have a discussion about possibly using aspirin as a preventive agent".

Try to contain your excitement, madam. (The main side-effects seem to be bleeding in the stomach, clearly no laughing matter, and tinnitus which is hearing things or, to be precise, a perception of sound within the ear in the absence of corresponding external noise. I can't imagine that many people, given the choice between tinnitus and cancer, would resort to tossing a coin.)

Is there a double standard here? When what we consume comes under suspicion, the health community doesn't pussy-foot around with warnings against jumping to conclusions and calls for further research. It seems that those who know what's best for us are never happier than when saying "No."

- NZ Herald

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