Dietary studies delve into the meat of the matter

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If I say “Pepsi,” would you say “Cola?” If I say “Carnal,” would you say “Desire?”

We did in my home. Carnal meant a thing related to the flesh. It carried an implication of impurity and weakness. We didn’t eat meat on Friday because, I was told, it wouldn’t be proper on the day Christ died.

Morality and science have developed a hazy interface when it comes to eating meat. The Jewish proscription against mixing milch and fleisch is added to the list of abhorring things considered to be unclean.

Ellen White, a prophet to Seventh-day Adventists, advises against eating flesh foods. She points out in Chapter 24 of “The Ministry of Healing” that they “fever the blood and excite the nerves.”

She allows that God permitted eating meat in some circumstances where it became necessary. An example followed the great flood, when grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables were wiped out.

Thankfully, concern about the possible adverse health effects of meat have provided Seventh-day Adventists with a way to assess the problem and they have taken advantage of it. Believers are roughly divided into vegetarians and omnivores.

There are variations between the extremes of vegan and steak lovers, but the data is useful, in combination with new reports in scientific journals. The recent focus has been on a chemical named carnitine. Of course it is. That word locks in opinions before any form of discussion can breathe air.

Implications of new science extend confusion into the marketplace. The cattle industry is responding. Environmentalists have long decried the waste products and the effects on climate change.

Some science suggests the carnitine in meat changes our digestive tract, so our bodies produce a chemical that promotes narrowing of our arteries. The data looks pretty impressive, but there are also studies that the carnitine levels are protective in someone who has had a heart attack.

Could both be true? Of course. Is carnitine more of a risk than the fat content in a rib eye? Probably.

If you want to understand it, go to the source material. If you want your offspring to live longer, healthier lives, encourage them to study the sciences.

If you want just a little more insight, read further. If you think I’ve got this all wrong, give me heck. Science is more about learning than being absolutely right. At least, that’s my excuse.

The Adventist community has reported on two major studies. The church’s Loma Linda University is involved with a third one that, I gather, has suffered a reduction in federal funding.

Harvard School of Public Health reviewed the data collected by Loma Linda in 2003. It concluded that meat and dairy products were associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease and some, not all, cancers.

Prostate cancer did not seem to be altered and breast cancer may be increased in vegetarians, possibly because of an adverse effect of phytoestrogens in soy products.

Vegetarianism seemed to be associated with lower weights among adherents, and they had an advantage in overall health. It was noted the amount of nuts in the diet was associated with lower risks of heart disease.

Does this evidence dictate we should all adopt a vegetarian diet? I offer a definite, “I don’t know.”

In previous articles I have referred to a study establishing that our concept of ideal weight is based of fallacious data. Slightly heavier people seem to live longer than very skinny ones. Can we say the health effects among vegetarians result from lower BMIs (body mass indices)? Not exactly.

Committed vegetarians are likely to differ from the general population in many ways. Smoking, drinking, work and exercise habits, as well as other behavioral patterns need to be sorted out.

If you believe that illness has resulted from a deviation from the diet that God gave Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, you may be right. I’m pleased that Loma Linda scientists are seeking an understanding of which scientifically measurable factors are involved. More results may answer important questions.

When I went to medical school, scientists had learned that the common obstructions in our coronary arteries contained cholesterol. High cholesterol was linked to heart disease and therapies have aimed at reducing it.

It seemed reasonable to conclude that meat caused high cholesterol levels and high cholesterol, alone, promoted heart disease.

Over time, we learned that about half of all heart attack patients don’t have high cholesterol levels. Inflammation plays a role in the sequence that results in a plaque that suddenly dams up the flow of blood to someone’s heart.

Maybe you’ve been told the ideal diet is eating Mediterranean style, or that you should revert to a caveman’s hearty cuisine.

The latest buzz deals with a chemical that turns your intestines into an enemy of your heart. The carnitine saga is confusing and fascinating. We’ll start with that next time.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor and oncologist who lives in Walla Walla. A former U.S. Army Green Berets medical officer with experience in the Middle East, he also is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Suitcase,” available at online book retailers. He can be reached at mulkerin@charter.net.

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