The kind of food you love best – might it really be ‘to die for’?

Posted by
January 22, 2015

“Barbecue DSCF0013” by Hedwig Storch – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


A recent edition of the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes contained what should have served as yet another wake-up call about the direct connection between diet and disease – but one you might only have heard if your were ‘listening between the lines’.

The segment to which I’m referring consisted of an interview by correspondent Lesley Stahl with U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and “proud contrarian” who has tendered his resignation with two years remaining in his term after having been stricken with advanced prostate cancer.  While the interview focused mainly on Coburn’s personal friendship with President Obama, many of whose programs he has opposed, what struck me as most interesting about the conversation was where part of it was conducted – at the “favorite barbecue restaurant” of the senator and his wife.

When I heard that, it kind of rang a bell.  So I did some Googling, and quickly came up with a three-year-old article on (and featured on the CNN Health website) that appeared under the headline “Well-done red meat linked to aggressive prostate cancer,” along with a photo of some char-broiled burgers on a grille.

The article was about a study performed by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco that compared approximately 500 men who recently had been diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer to a cancer-free group of similar size who served as controls. The study’s conclusion was that men who consume a lot of ground beef and other red meat have a higher risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer — especially if the meat is grilled or well-done.

Participants who reported eating about two servings of hamburger or meat loaf per week were found to be more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with this particular type of cancer as those who ate none. But what really seemed to make the difference was the way the meat was cooked.  The men whose preference was for well-done meat that had been grilled or barbecued doubled their odds of getting cancer, while those who ate theirs medium or rare had “a negligible increase in risk — just 12 percent.” Results were similar when grilled or barbecued steak was the meat involved.

These findings seemed to support previous animal studies that determined several types of cancer, including prostate cancer, are caused by two chemicals formed by cooking meat over an open flame at high temperatures.  “This is another piece of evidence for the notion that red meat, particularly grilled meat, contains carcinogens that may relate to prostate cancer,” noted Ronald D. Ennis, M.D., director of radiation oncology at New York City’s St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center, who did not take part in the study.

All this isn’t to say that Sen. Coburn’s cancer was necessarily due to eating grilled meat. But the fact that he apparently likes it well enough to consider a barbecue place to be his favorite restaurant is enough to make us think that a preference for char-broiled meat might possibly have been a contributing factor. (Whether the senator, given his medical background, knew about the risk is another question – but what doctors themselves often don’t know about health concerns should make us all realize how much important advice they may not be providing us.)

And while winter isn’t exactly grilling season – at least in most of the country – the start of a new year is as good a time as any to take note of the fact that this popular form of cooking can be extremely hazardous to your health – especially if you’re a guy.

And on a broader note, it should serve to remind all of us that our diet may well be the thing that determines our destiny – and to make us ask ourselves whether any type of food, no matter how much we might like it, is really something “to die for.”

Bill Bonvie’s collection of previously published essays, “Repeat Offenders,” is available at