I recently set myself the challenge of reading the entire Bible in preparation for a Master’s degree in Spirituality, Theology and Health. Of course, I have read it through before; twice in fact; once when I was in my teens and again in my twenties. Thereafter, I have only dipped in and out according to need or the time of year. This time I am aided by a version called the Bible in One Year, which neatly divides it into 365 manageable chunks.
The first thing that struck me as I commenced my literary marathon, apart from being reminded of the difficulty presented by certain Hebrew names, is that Old Testament characters lived to an astonishing age. For example, we are told that Adam lived 930 years and Noah managed 950 years. Abraham only managed 175 years, but that is still fairly good going by today’s standards. Theologians will no doubt be able to explain this in scholarly terms. However, having read the latest dietary advice from HM Government, I have developed a theory of my own; but more of that later.
There is an old saying that proclaims ‘you are what you eat’, and we increasingly have the evidence to support such a bold statement. Few of us now cannot know that we should avoid unsaturated fats, reduce our cholesterol intake, increase dietary fibre, eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, moderate our alcohol consumption, and stop smoking if we hope to live to a healthy old age. It seems that the maxim ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is no longer enough for the modern era.
The latest exhortation from Westminster is that many of us still eat too much red meat. Of course, red meat has featured in the British diet for generations. Roast beef, lamb shank, steaks, sausages, bacon, burgers; they all feature high on the communal list of our nation’s favourite dishes. Changing such entrenched habits can take a lifetime. However, the truth is, not to do so can also cost a lifetime. The evidence is mounting, and in today’s parlance, carnivores are not cool.
The proof is in a paper recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers studied 100,000 people over a 28 year period. In so doing, they came to the conclusion that every 3oz of red meat eaten each day increased the risk of dying from cancer by 10% and heart disease by 18%. Processed meat holds even greater risks: for every two slices of bacon or one hot dog, the risk rises to 16% in respect to cancer and 21% for heart disease.
Scientists have for a long while studied what is generally known as the Mediterranean Diet, and have shown that this may well hold the secret to good health and longevity. Rich in fish, chicken, beans, nuts, fruit and low-fat dairy products, the Mediterranean diet does not contain a high percentage of red or processed meat; which brings me back to the Book of Genesis.
We know from the Bible that the diet of 4,000 years ago was typically composed of fruit, grains and fish; the ‘fatted calf’ was a precious commodity and as such was only killed on religious feast days and for other special celebrations. In essence, the likes of Adam, Noah and Abraham followed an ancient version of the Mediterranean Diet. Now, Biblical scholars may well show that there are disparities in the way they measured and recorded time in those days. However, one thing is for certain, the health of our early ancestors certainly seems to have prospered in the absence of a diet rich in red meat. It has just taken us a long while to remember that fact. So, if the Government wants us all to change our habits, perhaps the pension companies should also be warned to adjust their actuarial tables and take into account the Old Testament effect.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 22nd March 2012)