Red meat and mortality – this one’s for you.

So, you all saw that headline about red meat being unequivocally Bad For You, right? The headline was super scary – “All red meat is bad for you, new study says” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Very scary, very definite-sounding.

I tried to avoid looking at the study all day, because I knew it would make me angry. I suspected shenanigans from the get-go. Why? Because pretty much nothing in science is ever that unequivocal. Science is, allegedly, the study of material reality – when it’s done well. And material reality is incredibly complex and nuanced, which makes for uncertainty. Bets must always be hedged when observing it.

So I knew that, at the very least, the mainstream media reporting of this study — which might have been a very good study — was oversimplified and sensationalized, as any juicy news story is.

Finally, late last night, I gave into temptation and clicked on the LA Times link, which led me to the abstract of the study. And before I even got into the full-text, by looking at the numbers and methodology reported in the abstract, I was…deeply embarrassed.

This study used a problematic methodology to determine how often people ate red meat – they used a food frequency questionnaire, something I was taught in school should never be used alone to assess a person’s actual food intake. It’s simply not precise enough – it is only a rough guesstimate, and it is vulnerable to faulty memory, to misunderstanding food amounts, and to embarrassment or shame.

Even if you gave a person a food frequency questionnaire every single day for the duration of the study, it would not be great data.

Sadly, this study didn’t even go to that much trouble. The analysis was based on food frequency questionnaires that were only updated once every four years.

I’m going to give you a second to let that sink in.

Once every four years.

Every four years, subjects in the study were given a piece of paper with a bunch of check boxes on it, next to a long list of foods, and asked to check off how often they ate each food over the course of the past four years. Totally accurate, I’m sure — accurate enough to pinpoint with reasonable certainty the type of food each person ate every single day for the 24 years of the study.

Oh wait a second, no. Not at all.

Then, based on this rigorous assessment of each subject’s diet, the researchers managed to find an association between people who reported eating a serving of red meat every single day…

I’ll give you another second.

A serving of red meat Every Single Day…

[Interlude: this is not to say that no one, anywhere eats red meat every single day for 24 years. Plenty of people around the world probably do. But I doubt they represent the larger population from which this study's subjects were drawn -- and even if they did, the results of the data from this study would give them no reason to worry.]

…was associated with a 20% higher risk of dying during the study.

That actually still sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it?

I mean, nobody wants to entertain a 20% higher risk of dropping dead at any moment. Death is the worst bad thing that could ever happen to you, and if avoiding a couple of hamburgers can stave it off, why the hell not?

Yes, it does sound scary — until you point out that the average risk of each person in the study dying, in the first place, was actually very low.

Per person, per year of the study, the risk of dying was less than 1%.

For the people who (allegedly) ate red meat every day, the risk of dying was…also less than 1%.

I’ll give you another second.

The risk of each person dying, per year of the study, was less than 1% — whether or not they ate red meat.

In fact, the risk of people in this study dying was quite a bit lower than the risk of the average person of the same age in the general US population (for year 1994, right in the middle of the study period.)

The subjects would have been between the ages of 44 and 89 years old by the middle of the study, and the risk of an average USian (of roughly this age group) dying in the middle year of the study was 2.5%. (I’m just grabbing rough numbers to make a point here – please don’t mistake for Actual Science.)

Which tells us something important – and probably not that Being In A Study Reduces Your Risk of Death by 67%!!! – it tells us that not only did the people in this study who allegedly ate red meat every single day for 24 years have a lower risk of death than the average person, it tells us that the people in the study don’t represent average people.

You could very well say that not being a predominantly white health professional or nurse is associated with an increased risk of death. Investigating why that is might be a pretty interesting question, no?

But, sadly, it’s not as newsy as saying that red meat will kill you.

Last layer of the onion: this study was not a clinical trial, which means it can only draw correlations between things – it cannot prove causation.

So even if the dietary assessment strategy were sound, even if the population of the study did represent the average person, and even if the difference in risk of death between meat eaters and not-so-much meat eaters was very large, it would only signal the need to do a more rigorous study to get to the bottom of the association, and to find out whether it’s likely that eating more red meat makes you die faster. Nothing more.

This study didn’t prove that red meat was bad, because it didn’t prove anything at all — except that predominantly white health professionals die less often than the average person.

The foundation of nutrition as we know it remains variety. And variety, as we know it, can still include red meat if you like it and are inclined to eat it. I personally wouldn’t suggest eating it every single day for 24 years, but even if you did, this particular study wouldn’t give you a good reason to worry.

Just a note — I don’t want comments to turn into a referendum on red meat. Some people eat it, some people don’t — it’s a judgment call everyone has to make for themselves. Let’s talk instead about how weak observational data shouldn’t be dressed up and paraded around like definitive science.

ETA: Some commenters have pointed to some other critiques of this study, which you may want to take into consideration:

Unpacking the meat data

Red meat is killing us all! Or not…

Will eating red meat kill you?

Also a note to say that I’ve edited this post slightly from the original version. I think I was too mean to the researchers, frankly, and too quick to assume bad faith on their part. My apologies. I will try to be more circumspect in the future.

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90 Comments

  1. Posted March 15, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this! When the red-meat story broke, I turned to my sweetie and said “it’s gonna be just like eggs.” Remember when eggs were evil and were gonna kill you with all that scary cholesterol? And then later oops, egg-cholesterol is actually OK, never mind, you can eat eggs. Here we go again!

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Hah, yes, just like eggs! Oh dear Lord will we never learn from history?

      • Tracy
        Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Learn from history? Not if there is money to be made by shaming and scaring people.

    • Lalita
      Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Or like the scene in ‘Sleeper,’ when Woody Allen awakens from cryogenesis in the far future. The exchange between the two doctors studying him is magnificent:

      Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
      Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
      Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
      Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
      Dr. Melik: Incredible.

      • Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Damn, you beat me to the punch!

        I love Sleeper.

  2. Posted March 15, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this indepth analysis. :) You rock.

  3. Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I was pretty appalled at the headlines. I’m usually not bright enough to tease out all the numbers (although I DO grasp the difference between absolute and relative risks), but for me, this one didn’t pass the eyeroll test, the sniff test, or the “Oh, please” test — even without going to the study. I am going to continue to enjoy my freezer full of grass-fed beef that we buy from friends, particularly since I have freakishly low cholesterol and a history of horrific cold sores every time I’ve tried to switch to a vegetarian diet. No, I’m not trying to inflict my beef-laden diet on any vegetarians out there — just sayin’ a little beef in my diet is right FOR ME.

    I sometimes joke that all these dietary diatribes are a high-level conspiracy to train us to live on 600 calories a day of sprouts and seaweed in case there’s ever serious food shortages. (You’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.)

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      I actually was making meat loaf tonight – totally coincidental, something we haven’t had in a long time. I think I’ll probably enjoy it just fine!

      • Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

        Also a total coincidence, I’m having spaghetti and meatballs for dinner!

      • Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

        Lean, 100% grass-fed, beef burgers here, also a coincidence. So lean that when I brown their ground beef, it sticks to my non-stick pan.

      • Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        Corned beef and cabbage.

        Yeah, I know St. Patrick’s is tomorrow, but Mr. Twistie adores CB&C and he’s had a really hard month.

        So there.

        • Posted March 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

          We actually had corned beef and cabbage a few weeks ago.

      • Whirlwitch
        Posted March 17, 2012 at 12:43 am | Permalink

        Tonight we had spaghetti, and for the first time in a long time, I requested it to be with meat sauce. And then I read this article. :)

  4. Emgee
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this! And I will resist posting this on my facebook page for a hearty “neener neener” to the vegan person who posted this study a couple of days ago. Because I’m really tired of arguing. Also of being bossed around. :)

  5. Meredith
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for diving into that mess – I suspected as much, unfortunately. It’s gotten to the point where I just assume that any alarmist news stories about food or diet studies are either being sensationalized to grab attention or the study itself is questionable and the media doesn’t bother to delve any deeper because it confirms existing biases. I have a high school level science education and even I can spot a bad study or distorted news report pretty easily these days.

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      I am really glad to hear that you approach it that way – it concerns me so much that a lot of people don’t or can’t. It can’t possibly be good for people’s health for them to be terrified of eating at every turn.

  6. Francie
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    You are rad, Michelle.

  7. Lisablue
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Funny thing, actually, as a vegan I saw that headline and rolled my eyes. I could not for a second believe it was a good study, so I didn’t bother reading the article. And I have no interest in pushing forward my beliefs based on poor science. Heh.

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      And this is why I respect vegans a whole hell of a lot more than people who write studies like this!

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      And I’m vegan and I *did* post it, but now that I know the study is bad….I also posted a link to this article. Only fair.

      • Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

        Aw, thanks! I appreciate that. And it’s absolutely understandable that you would post it, by the way – it shouldn’t have been reported the way it was.

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      Also vegan and ditto.. while I didn’t really waste my time even eye rolling.. I just kind of ignored the whole thing… I’m still going to post this up though because a lot of my vegan facebook friends have been repeating the “red meat is going to kill you” story. this is why i *hate* that vegan has become some new diet fad.

  8. Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Well done! I’ve had this issue with a previous, major headliner Harvard School of Public Health study http://dropitandeat.blogspot.com/2011/08/diet-solution-to-weight-gain-epidemic.html and more recently with the Mayo study press release on “overeating” and memory loss http://dropitandeat.blogspot.com/2012/02/my-high-calorie-intake-could-make-me.html.
    I do hope that together with your great piece that your large viewership will feel empowered to question authority, even when it grabs headlines and comes from reputable organizations!

    Nice job!

  9. T
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    You know, I can’t even remember what I ate four DAYS ago (except for the bagel with nutella I had for breakfast, but I only remember that because it’s what I’ve been having for breakfast for a couple of weeks now), let alone four YEARS ago. What a ridiculous study.

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      Ooooo bagel with Nutella. I used to have that (toasted) for breakfast all the time, but I haven’t in a while. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. Posted March 15, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    I hadn’t actually heard about this “study” – I’ve pretty much stopped listening to and reading all mainstream media, because the few strands of sanity I have left can’t take it. But honestly, in my short 34 years on the planet I have seen practically every food and drink a person might enjoy go from good to evil to good to evil to good again. Meat, eggs, coffee, wine, chocolate, all that tasty stuff. Funny how food nobody really likes never gets a front-page write-up for being a secret killer. “Overcooked Brussels sprouts: the new grey-green death on your plate!”

    Where I live, the joy has almost been sucked out of eating home-grown vegetables – home-grown vegetables, for Pete’s sake! – because we (like pretty much every old city in North America) have elevated levels of lead in our soil. Now, that sounds scary, for sure. Children especially are vulnerable to lead poisoning, and the effects can be devastating. BUT guess where the data on lead poisoning in children come from? From studies on socio-economically disadvantaged children in large urban areas – kids who are so hungry that they eat paint and dirt, and whose homes are crumbling around them, exposing layers of lead paint. Kids whose systems are already compromised by malnutrition and stress, so of course they are going to be disproportionately effected. And yet they’re trying to apply the same data where I live, to children who have well-balanced diets, minimal stress, and whose exposure to crumbling lead paint is quite limited. Even though the science says that the amount of lead absorbed by plants varies widely (spinach and sunflowers = leady, apple trees and tomatoes = not leady), and even though every study on children who play in the dirt and eat homegrown food (my eight-year-old daughter included) has come back saying that there is no evidence of elevated bodily lead levels, people around here are petrified about growing their own vegetables, and even of letting their kids play in the mud.

    Science. It only works if you actually read it.

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

      Mmmmm… Brussels sprouts. Although overcooked, they’re a totally different experience. My mom grew up in the South where they believed in COOKING there veggies, by gosh, and it was only after I moved out of the house that I realized broccoli didn’t have to be dark green, mushy and limp — and that I actually liked the stuff.

      I can’t believe they’ve taken the joy of homegrown veggies. Really?? I just wrote about how seemingly everything will kill you on my own blog, but I somehow missed that your garden will kill you. That’s a new one to me.

    • emi11n
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      Grey-green death– oh noes!!! XD

      You know, if someone is afraid of lead in the soil they can just use a pot/planter and fill it with potting mix. You don’t actually have to use your own dirt if you’re just doing a little backyard garden.

  11. G
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    They must have had some pretty good N for that fraction of 1% difference to achieve statistical significance. Ok, looks like the sample size was fairly big. Still. I wish science and health reporting didn’t suck so badly.

    There are all kinds of reasons to eat less meat if you feel inclined to do so. This is not one.

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes, over 100,000 people makes almost anything seem significant.

    • MamaCheshire
      Posted March 15, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      I’m a social work student in a joint MSW/PhD program.

      THIS is why we spend a lot of time in our research methods classes talking about the difference between statistical significance and clinical significance, and the importance of both.

  12. Posted March 15, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if they would have got the same results if they’d used another food – say lettuce. Maybe it would prove that lettuce was bad for you too :)

    viv in nz

  13. bippi
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    i am a vegetarian—over 23 years-and i believe the danger of meat/chicken is in how they are raised. is it the hormones/antibiotics/stresses on the animals which are causing cancer? i think so.

    animals eat each other so it is not unnatural to eat animals.

  14. ADam
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    The author doesn’t believe participants could have eaten that much red meat and/or been that healthy. So the study must be invalid? This is not science!

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure I understand your question, ADam, but I can tell you for sure that, no, this isn’t science. It’s a blog where I write my opinions…instead of trying to get my opinion published as fact in peer-reviewed journals *ba-dum-bum*

  15. Posted March 15, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Several years ago, I read an online headline to this effect: “Men who take more than one multivitamin a day have higher risk of cancer.” Holy crap! At the time, I was taking more than one multivitamin a day! I needed to read this article.

    My bad. The “article” contained phrases like “no causation” and “Although there is no direct evidence…” This was an epiphany moment for me. From that moment on, I scour every article, every documentary, every bit of supposed “news” for fact versus bullshit. From that point forward, I’ve been finding the bullshit ad nauseum.

    Thanks for this…

  16. Posted March 15, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, that was my point too. 1.2x the risk is not really a very clinically significant difference in most situations.

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Did you write about this too? If so, would you mind putting a link here?

  17. jillian
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Jillian’s First Rule of Parenting: Anyone that says their technique will work for all children is guaranteed to be wrong.

    Jillian’s First Rule of Dietary Advice: Anyone that says their diet is the healthiest for every person is guaranteed to be wrong.

    Completely apart from eating hangups, there are some people that feel their healthiest when they are vegan, others when they are paleo, and others somewhere in between. That’s the whole reason we need to get rid of our eating hangups — so we can LISTEN to our bodies and give them what they truly crave to be healthy!

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Twistie’s First Rule of Jillian’s Rules of Parenting and Dietary Advice: Jillian Rules!

  18. Posted March 16, 2012 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks Michele. Having worked in a research lab for a while I never believe studies unless I care enough to take them apart. And that’s rare. And I could have guessed this one was crap from the headline.
    I don’t usually like meat that much but lately I’ve had the occasional craving for a hamburger. Nice to know it won’t kill me.

  19. Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    I reckon crankyness and snarkyness helped you make your point. No, not that, but it certainly embellished it. You are not a real scientist? Well, you understand science, that’s enough.
    Thank you, for your entire blog and for pieces like this one.
    Sensible, smart, snarky (but with well-placed snarkyness), awesome.
    Also, that you like Alfie Kohn.

  20. Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    Might I add something that i’t not related to the article? I’m just grateful that I found your blog over the Christmas.

    I’m still restricting (less so everyday) but I eat everyday and I even avoided last supper syndromes in the last days.
    Also: I recorded myself in video singing and doing silly stuff. First I was all like: I’m fat, oh my, I’m fat, I’m sooo fat. I forced myself to watch myself several times and then went: I’m quite funny and I’m actually quite the cute chubby baby dyke. And I remembered that post you made on photos and how we picture ourselves thinner and it’s not because OMG, fatties in denial, but because we are just not used to it.

    Okay, this is my last offtopic, but I thought I had to introduce myself.
    Thank you, really.

  21. Kaethe
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    You know what’s really sad? I knew in the first paragraph what kind of study this was going to turn out to be and who the senior researcher would turn out to be.

    Thanks for doing such a good job explaining why it was complete and total crap.

  22. peregrin8
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Correlation and causality are a bit jumbled here too, aren’t they? Self-reported daily red-meat-eaters may have been spending a fair amount of those 24 years ignoring or resisting the veggie-thumpers’ admonitions against, and thus might have also been slightly statistically likelier to resist other kinds of health-ist admonitions. (Reminds me a bit of Michael Pollan’s conclusion that one ought to “be the sort of person who would take vitamins” but perhaps needn’t actually take them.)

    Great article, Michelle!

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Oh, absolutely. There are all kinds of confounding variables that could overlap with people who reported eating more red meat.

  23. Bethany
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    How could anyone possibly remember what they ate every day for 4 years? I have to think hard to remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Also, this really stuck out to me: “The subjects would have been between the ages of 44 and 89 years old by the middle of the study”. Wait, 89? In the very middle of the study? It seems like the chances of someone dying in their 80’s is pretty darn high no matter what they eat, and if that’s only the middle of the study, that 89 year old would have to make it to 101! Why do I get the feeling they didn’t take natural causes into account?

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      The age range at the start of the study was 30 to 74 years, so yes, around the middle of the study the oldest participants would have been 89 years old. I don’t know what they did to control for dying of old age. I’d have to go back and look again. I bet if you look at the full text (linked in the post) it might tell you what they did for that.

      (Note: I used the median year for the total time span of both studies, which was year 1994 – even though, on average, each person was only followed up for only 24 years, both studies actually spanned a longer range than that (28 or 29 years, depending where you start counting.) Kind of confusing.)

  24. Posted March 16, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Apparently the correlation coefficient between measured red meat consumption and reported red meat consumption in the nurses’ health study is only 0.014:

    http://blog.cholesterol-and-health.com/2010/09/new-study-shows-that-lying-about-your.html

    Note that these are the same researchers who brought you “hormone replacement therapy reduces heart disease” – later proved to be the exact opposite of the truth.

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Iiiiiiinteresting. Thank you!

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      That is the funniest headline I’ve read in a long time. (Although… could be a toss-up with “Sex-starved flies ‘turn to drink'” from the BBC this morning.)

      Once I figure out the headline, I’ll read the post. :)

  25. Posted March 16, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I totally agree with you. I think it’s so irresponsible to publish studies like this and, as we know, it happens all the time. I do think the importance lies in educating people about questioning the validity of these ridiculous stories. I know

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Whoops! Ignore the “I know at the end”, started a sentence and didn’t finish it there. :)

  26. Posted March 16, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I find it both fascinating and appalling that people are inclined (and allowed) to pull shit like this. I get the whole “Oh, shit, we need to boost our prevalence” thing, but it’s truly shameful that these homogeneous, alabaster, rich kids can just shit out a study and scare the hell out of anyone who isn’t willing to put a little effort into reading it. Granted, when it comes to something that is labeled as a scientific study, people shouldn’t have to do additional research to get the truth (just to mine additional information), but the fact is that they do. This is why I scream, rant, and rave about the importance of critical thinking to the point that people think I’m nuts.

  27. Posted March 16, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I just posted a link to your post on Facebook. This “scientific” crap is more than I can stand!

    Thanks!!!

  28. Jen
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! The militant vegans at my mom’s work just hung up copy of the red meat article… I pointed her towards your “Food Is Not Poison” post as an alternate point of view, but I think this is what definitely needs to be hanging up right next to it! (No offense to vegans – I know they aren’t all as haranguing as the ones she’s working with – but their food policey-ness has been an issue at her workplace of late – to the point where she can’t even peacefully take lunch break with them!)

  29. Samantha
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I read another inditement of this “research” (on Mark’s Daily Apple, if you care to read: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/will-eating-red-meat-kill-you/#more-27840) that pointed out that the study of the usefulness of food frequency questionairres actually cited in the red meat and mortality study says that most people underreport consumption of foods culturally viewed as unhealthy (like red meat) and overreport consumption of foods viewed as healthy (like veggies). The exceptions to this? People already suffering from some form of diagnosed medical condition. In other words, the people most likely to say they didn’t eat a lot of red meat are also the most likely to be perfectly healthy. The people most likely to admit that they eat quite a bit of red meat are the ones who are also most likely to already have an illness that might increase their chances of dying. It doesn’t disprove the study – just makes the authors look like even worse scientists for not even acknowledging that major gaping flaw in their procedure.

    Personally, I probably eat what averages out to 6 servings of red meat a week. I cook with it two to three times a week and make breakfast, lunch and dinner and thus get 2-3 servings per cooking. That’s anywhere from 4-9 servings a week. I also eat about that much fish and poultry in any given week. I eat at least twice as many fruit and vegetable servings as I do meat. I don’t know how the people who reported eating an average of 1 serving per day of red meat compare to me in terms of the other parts of their diet, never mind their activity levels, nutritional needs and can’t-haves and other such important things. As you said – no proof of causation, just correlation and without the ability to eliminate all the other possible corrolaries, I won’t be letting it scare me off my extra-lean cuts of pasture-reared beef – or my bacon either.

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Very interesting, Samantha – thanks for the link.

  30. RachelB
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m vegetarian who doesn’t believe that what other people are eating is her business. I’m also a fan of research performed well and reported responsibly. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve sent it to my steak-loving brother, whom I suspect falls in that category of someone “who counts on the news to at least resemble the truth.”

  31. Erin
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    A response from Healthlink at Canada Beef:

    Evidence to Support the Role of Lean Beef in a Healthy Diet is Strong
    Canadians should rest assured that the scientific evidence to support the role of lean beef in a healthy, balanced diet is strong, despite an observational study that made headlines earlier this week. The U.S. study reported an association between high intakes of red meat and risk of death from heart disease and cancer. It is important to recognize that observational studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect and the results of this study conflict with other more reliable evidence from recent randomized controlled trials and systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

    Research and common sense indicate that lifestyle and dietary patterns are more important than single dietary components. The data from the study in question show that the men and women who had higher intakes of red meat also tended to be less healthy than those with lower red meat intakes. They were less physically active and ate less vegetables, fruit and whole grains. They were more likely to smoke, have higher alcohol intakes, higher energy intakes and a higher body mass index.

    A recent Harvard review of 20 epidemiological studies encompassing 1.2 million subjects concluded that fresh red meat intake does not increase the risk of heart disease, stroke or diabetes.¹ A number of randomized control trials have also shown lean red meat and white meat have equal effects on blood cholesterol. Most recently, the BOLD (Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet) study showed a heart healthy diet, with two servings of lean beef, (153 g/day), can lower LDL cholesterol by 10% in adults with high cholesterol and is as effective as the DASH diet for lowering LDL cholesterol.² Recent reviews have also concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support an association between red meat and cancer.³ Furthermore, Canadians eat a moderate amount of red meat that is well within national and international guidelines.

    For Your Practice
    Research clearly shows including lean beef as part of a healthy diet is associated with improved overall nutrient intake, overall diet quality and positive health outcomes. Canadian adults eat 74 grams of red meat a day on average, well within the 2-3 servings of Meat & Alternatives recommended by Canada’s Food Guide. In contrast many Canadians are not eating the recommended servings of vegetables and fruit; and 22% of total calories come from foods low in nutritional value, like fats and oils, condiments, candy, chips and sweetened beverages that are not part of the four food groups in the food guide.4 Calories from ‘other foods’ are second only to calories Canadians are consuming from grain products.4 The focus on single, isolated, dietary components contributes to confusion and distract from other pressing dietary concerns. The bottom line is that Canadians should continue to enjoy lean Canadian beef as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

    Want to Learn More?
    Read these references:

    1. Micha R et al. Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus – A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Circulation, 2010;121(21):2271-83.

    2. Roussell MA et al. Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet Study: effects on lipids, lipoproteins, and apolipoproteins. Am J Clin Nutr 2012; 95(1):9-16.

    3. Wyness L et al. Red Meat in the Diet: An Update. British Nutrition Foundation Nutrition Bulletin March 2011; 36:34–77.

    4. Garriguet D. Overview of Canadians’ Eating Habits 2004. Nutrition: Findings from the Canadian Community Health Survey. Statistics Canada, 2006, Catalogue no. 82-620-MIE — No. 2.

  32. Mike
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    You must have a dreadfully low opinion of academia to think they actually did as rough-shod a job of it as you suggest. It wasn’t perfect and can’t, as you said, establish causation, but it is far from meaningless.

    You declare it absurd to worry that “A serving of red meat Every Single Day…” will increase one’s risk of death because “one may assume they [everyday red-meat-eaters] are not the vast majority of the population from which this study’s subjects were drawn.” But is it really fair to critique this study using armchair “assumptions”? In fact, average red meat consumption in the US in 2000 was 113 lbs, multiplied by (16/365) to give oz/day equals 4.95 oz. A serving of meat is 3 oz., so one definitely may not assume what you suggested.

    And then you blatantly misrepresented the FFQ methodology, suggesting that researchers did nothing to validate responses. Not to mention the accusations of bad faith, as if these researchers decided all the way back in the 80s that recording these data would yield financial returns 30 years in the future.

    I understand the frustration at the paternalistic attempts to monitor/judge our diets and the fat-shaming attendant in these condemnations, but you can’t combat questionable science with poor reasoning.

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      Sorry my opinion upset you, Mike, since we’re assuming all kinds of things about each other’s thoughts and feelings today. But thanks for coming to set me straight in a totally non-paternalistic way.

      I was not accusing the researchers who set up the original nurses’ health study or the health professionals study of bad faith – rather the people who used that data to do an after-the-fact analysis to draw a weak association between (what is in my opinion) insufficient data and mortality risk (if some of those people are the same people, then yeah. I guess I am.) But you’re damn right I’m assuming bad faith on the part of the people who published this, or at the very least, a bias so strong that it trumps any attempt to even appear objective and non-inflammatory. That is my opinion, and this is my blog, not a peer-reviewed journal. I think scientists are human beings, and sometimes human beings are complete jerks. Maybe I’m wrong, and I kind of hope I am — but I don’t have a lot of reason not to think that right now.

      I really don’t think even a validated FFQ administered every 4 years can provide the minute level of detail they are relying on to make their case. And is that meat consumption data you quoted, or food disappearance data? Cause there can be a difference between the two. If it turns out that my armchair assumption is wrong and most people do eat that much meat daily, mea culpa — sincerely. I still don’t think this study shows that they have much of anything to worry about.

      I actually don’t think you understand my frustration very much at all. This kind of data, spun this way and then reported the way it was, actually harms people. It doesn’t just shame fat people or judge average people’s diets harshly, it plays directly into disordered eating and inspires people who are already terrified to eat, to avoid one more thing. That doesn’t just frustrate me, it enrages me.

      This study may, indeed, not be totally meaningless – I mean, it managed to scare a lot of people far out of proportion to what was actually found, so that’s gotta be worth something, eh?

      [As always, I would recommend that people who want a fair shake at this article to read it for themselves. I am just as biased a source as anyone else, so don't count on me for the end-all, be-all analysis.]

      • purpleshoes
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        In fairness, I don’t know of that many clinical studies of diet. Maybe you do? The Nurse’s Health Study is one of the few lifetime studies that asks dietary questions that I know of, and it gets used for all kinds of things. The primary thing I think it’s useful for is indicating the existence of a trend that might be interesting or helpful to study more closely. For instance, I know a researcher who is working on a study about breastfeeding and weight regulation. So far she’s finding the opposite over five years of what was indicated in the nurse’s health study, but their study suffers the opposite problem from the nurse’s health study – being relatively small, and drawing from one urban area.

        Are there any nutrition studies in humans that you think are really well-designed? Could you talk about those?

        Personally I started eating red meat again when I read a study, hah hah, discussing the potential importance of cooked greens on the results we see from the Mediterranean Diet. I can’t get cooked greens down without a little bit of sausage for flavor, so now I buy a pound of sausage and go through it a tablespoon at a time. I know some people have reported feeling miraculously healthy when they eat nothing but cow 24/7, but I was raised eating almost no meat and eating more than a little bit for flavor makes me feel like I’ve swallowed a bowling ball.

        • purpleshoes
          Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          Oh, by “clinical” there I am being imprecise and saying “controlled-environment studies”, which was the wrong thing to say. I apologize, I have yet to have my coffee and lovely toast.

        • Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

          There have been trials on diet that required that subjects either eat on site (like the DASH diet trial), or were followed a lot more intensively with not only FFQ, but also 24 hour recalls administered by professionals trained to do that. There were some large trials on diabetes that I think had pretty rigorous mechanisms (I’m looking them up but can’t find the exact info on how people’s diets were followed, so I’m not going to name them here) for ensuring people were actually following a diet prescribed by the study – the main point being that these studies were done on people with diseases that would be affected by diet, so the results may not be generalizable to the average, healthy person.

          I don’t know off the top of my head of any large, quasi-experimental studies of diet that are far better than what we’re seeing with this red meat study. They probably exist – but honestly I haven’t had the time to delve into the literature that deeply, and some of the big name ones (like the Seven Countries Study) are still far from perfect. All these types of studies are going to have the problem of confounding variables by design, since dietary choices often coincide with other life choices that could affect health. And since we’ve moved out of the laboratory setting in these kinds of studies, they are going to be difficult if not impossible to control for. It is also notoriously difficult, in the absence of feeding people in a controlled environment, to figure out what people are actually eating – validated FFQ or not. This is a widely acknowledged headache for both dietitians who are counseling individuals, and researchers figuring out how diet affects populations.

          Now, back to clinical trials – an intensive intervention study may not provide the same number of years of follow-up that something like the Nurses’ Health Study does, but that’s why we (should) do different levels of research before making bold pronouncements about how a certain food increases your mortality risk. Yes, things like the Nurses’ Health Study can be useful (although it has also been horribly abused before – see the BMI recommendations that were based on an analysis of the same study), but just like you said – it’s only going to indicate the existence of a trend that requires closer study.

          So, until they round up a big group of people, and randomize them to a red-meat-diet and a less-red-meat-diet, and actually have some good controls on measuring their adherence to the diet, no, I am not going to be happy about the unequivocal tone of the conclusions of this study, and the amplified hysteria of the media reporting on it.

          However, on a much broader note — and let me be clear that this is merely my OPINION on the matter — the thing about even well-designed studies of food intake is that they are, by necessity, materialist and basically reductive. One thing I can agree with Michael Pollan on is that food is so much more than that. So I think, especially in the absence of a diet-related disease (and not all diseases are diet related, despite what the Larger Internet would have you believe), making decisions about what to eat based on materialist, reductive conclusions about food is probably not a wise idea. It is not a holistic (to use a term that is often abused) way to look at health or eating, and I think it has the potential to make people miserable, and possibly even less healthy.

          Bottom line, and I am about to write about this soon, I don’t really know what most people in the world should be eating, but I don’t think anyone else really does either. So I would advise people to be suspicious of anyone pushing a particular diet with zeal and certainty, and trying to generalize that diet to most people.

      • Posted March 21, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        I checked, and those data are for disappearance data, not consumption. I’m assuming that he got that statistic from the USDA. (It also looks like he truncated instead of rounding; the lbs per capita for red meat in 2000 is 13.5.) They say, “ERS estimates per capita food and nutrient supplies based on food disappearance data. These data are used as a proxy to estimate human consumption. The data reported in tables 2-1 through 2-6 are unadjusted for spoilage and waste, so they may overstate what is actually eaten. The data are used more appropriately as indicators of trends in consumption over time. ”

        That said, I don’t know how actual consumption compares to disappearance, but if the average disappearance per capita per day is 4.95 ounces, it seems likely to me that the per capita consumption wouldn’t be under 3 ounces, at least not by much. 3 ounces a day does seem like a lot to me, but I’m not exactly in a high-meat-eating demographic. I don’t know if the original paper made it clear how normal eating one serving a day of red meat was for that population; red meat consumption may well have been much lower for that population. Or it may not have.

        I think that, looking at that table, I have found the cause of the obesity epidemic. Clearly we have not been eating enough eggs. We all need to eating >1 egg per day on average if we want to get our svelte 50’s figures back. Also, our red meat-poultry balance is way out of whack. It’s probably even worse for you that getting your omega 3-omega 6 ratio wrong. We’ve got to decrease our chicken consumption and/or increase our red meat consumption so that the ratio is roughly 5:1.

        • Posted March 22, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

          Thanks for checking that out. I was too irritated to take it any further.

          I will try to eat more eggs.

  33. Lisa
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    This is an interesting analysis from someone who seems to have read the entire study:
    http://summertomato.com/red-meat-is-killing-us-all-or-not/

    It addresses some of the concerns that you have and also raises others. Definitely worth reading.

    This point is especially important:
    “Both cohorts were large groups of health care professionals, which would presumably limit differences in education and income that can often confound health studies”

    • Posted March 16, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Yes, cohorts of health professionals have proved problematic in the past. Thanks for the link.

  34. Keith
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m a high school science teacher and this is great. I read the original article and I too wanted to call “balderdash.” With your permission I’m going to use your article and the original to show my students that a person with a brain, some common sense and a little bit of skepticism can discern good science from bad “science.” Thanks, Michelle!

  35. Posted March 17, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I just ran across this article Epidemiology is much worse for you than red meat. I don’t agree, but like my meat, I like my Epidemiology well done.

    • Posted March 17, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      I guess I would say “poorly done or improperly applied epidemiology” is worse for you. Thanks!

  36. Agnes
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting: our friend at the NYT has weighed in on this study. His column is a bit of a mess but from what I can ascertain he doubted the credibility– or the claims that can be made from this study. His last few columns have been about meat consumption and factory farming and I actually have been happy with the direction his writing has taken. He actually had something good to say about a decent but processed substitute for chicken. I’m hoping it is available soon– especially if it is as cheap as the maker claims it will be.
    Of course, many of his readers are aghast that he is promoting a “processed” item. Its OK to fat shame and make life miserable for those receiving SNAP benefits but don’t talk about the toll of factory farming on humans and animals for God’s sake!
    And, it always cracks me up that while the other macronutrients are “empty calories”, protein is sacrosanct.
    Which brings me to this question for the fat nutritionist. How many times a day do you bang your head against the wall? There seems to be so much silliness and half truths out there in nutritionland. It appears that everyone who has read someone named Gary Taubes feels they are an expert on nutrition. Don’t ya just want to tell them “please master the Krebs cycle and then get back to me?”.

    • MamaCheshire
      Posted March 17, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Oh YUCK on the macronutrients thing. I stumbled across a comment thread that absolutely insisted that human beings have NO need for carbohydrates at all.

      I…don’t even know where to begin with that.

      • Posted March 17, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

        I like to think that we need carbohydrate SO much that we evolved a way of producing it endogenously in case of emergency :)

  37. StatsGuy
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    LOVED this article!!! People are so led like sheep by the news today; people hear something and believe it, contrary to the old saying “don’t believe anything you hear/read!” When I hear things like this (red meat scare) I dig into the research just like you to try and find out the truth. Statistics and research can be done and reported properly or they can be twisted to say what you want. People need to hear/read more on this topic you have brought up… people need to start thinking. This is one of the good things about the internet, making original sources available for people to read themselves.

  38. Lea
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Well, as a vegan for almost a decade I’m hardly going to eat red meat now. What I hate about the red meat studies though is how they’re used to scare people into veganism or vegetarianism. How is that for “more empathy please”? Scaring people into things with crappy studies that say very very very vague things?
    I thought this was a good post on the topic, too: http://www.theveganrd.com/2012/03/blogging-woes-peacounter-and-red-meat-revisited.html

    What I find hilarious in mainstream food science at the moment is the whole “dont eat too many fruits!” and “smoothies will kill you with all the sugar!” things. Yeah? What is NOT going to kil me then? Apparently sugar/carbs are bad, but no-carb diets are also bad. Seems like a lose/lose situation to me!

    • Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      I agree – I think people need to make choices on their own terms, and not because someone attempted to manipulate or bully them into it with threats.

      Having read some of the history of diet fads and food scares, and then just having lived through the last 32 years, I feel like there will always be a suspect food, and that it will change every few years and be forgotten when a new one crops up. It makes it hard for me to take any of them seriously, which is probably good for my blood pressure :)

      • Lea
        Posted March 20, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        I still really need to learn how to do this, to ignore these “experts”.

        I’m in recovery from bulimia and so so so close to relapsing. I have tried eating healthily and “normally” for a year and first gained weight (granted, that makes sense after 7 years of starving and purging) and I hate hate hate how everyone tells me I should be losing weight the way I eat and work out. Because I’m not. Essentially they are saying I must be lying, that I dont eat healthy food, that I don’t listen to my hunger, that I binge. I don’t. I listen to my hunger, try to eat healthy but allow myself things, I try intuitive eating. To eat healthily but not obsessively so.
        But apararently for most people that counts for nothing because I’m at my heighest weight ever. This and other stressful things in my life make it so hard not to restrict. And even then, when I think I want to restrict, I’m torn between “don’t go lower than your BMR!” “if i eat this little I will become paranoid and suicidal again”, “just eat no more than 20 grams of fat”, “dont count anything”, “only eat fruit and veg”. It really makes me long for just counting calories and not having these weird other morals thrown into the food. I really do want to lose weight but when I look at how much this eating disorder messes with me I also know I see it as way to have more “order” and have rules that are easy and simple to follow.
        I also don’t trust going to dieticians anymore after they put me on 1600 calories and the other one on 1300-1400 calories. Thanks very much, I can do that myself…

        • Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

          I listen to my hunger, try to eat healthy but allow myself things, I try intuitive eating. To eat healthily but not obsessively so. But apararently for most people that counts for nothing because I’m at my heighest weight ever.

          Well, if it makes any difference, it counts for me. What you are doing is difficult, scary, and takes a lot of guts. It is also probably the healthiest thing you can do for yourself.

          What people probably think they are saying to you, is “Keep at it, you’re doing a good job and soon you will see results!” or maybe “I know you’re doing a good job with eating and moving, and since in my world that should automatically equal weight loss, even though you’re not losing weight I’m giving you credit by saying you deserve to be.”

          But what you hear is: “You’re not losing weight, even though you apparently do all these healthy things, therefore you must be doing it wrong, or lying.”

          I hope you can recognize that as the voice of an eating disorder. If you have a therapist, you need to bring this voice to them and tell them about it. Because that stuff does not belong in your head, or in your life, anymore. It abused you, it could have killed you, and it does not deserve your attention or obedience. (Anyone who ACTUALLY is saying the same thing as the disorder also doesn’t deserve to be in your life. They need to go bye-bye, or if you’re stuck with them somehow, they need to be kept within some pretty strict boundaries about what they are not allowed to say to you.)

          You are doing such a good, good job taking care of yourself. What’s more, you absolutely deserve all of that care, regardless of what happens with your weight.

  39. Kelly
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    You should send this piece (or a modified version) to the New York Times! They’re holding a contest for the best essay in defense of meat. It would be great to see such a wide audience receive this great message.

    • Posted March 21, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      I appreciate the compliment, but oh dear god no.

  40. Audrey
    Posted April 7, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I wish you had a “share” link on your individual posts so i could post this on facebook!

  41. Snicker's Mom
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    I guess the issue I have with meat consumption has to do with the animal welfare/environmental aspect. I don’t tell my patients to not eat meat, but in my personal life I restrict it as much as possible and when I do choose to eat it, it’s of the grass-fed, local farmer where I know the cows/chickens have seen the light of day and frolicked in the pasture without being pumped full of hormones/antibiotics variety.

    • Posted April 12, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      I think this is a fine reason not to eat meat, personally. Everyone has their reasons. But I think that using really weak data to support a broad-reaching recommendation that people not eat red meat is just manipulative and wrong.

  42. Empress
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Good post! I’m a vegetarian but I don’t want to see vegetarianism promoted by bad science and shoddy journalism – I chose it for ethical reasons, and don’t understand this need some vegetarians have to also believe it’s the only healthy way to eat. It’s amazing what kind of poorly designed nonsense passes for science sometimes…

3 Trackbacks

  • By This Week in Fatness I – Axis of Fat on March 18, 2012 at 3:47 am

    [...] The Fat Nutritionist critques a study on the evils of red meat. [...]

  • [...] is a good idea [CTRL + F for "selection bias" to see the part that talks about that study]. Or tell us that people who eat red meat regularly die sooner. Or that people with a BMI >35 are more likely to die sooner. (In order to do a controlled study [...]

  • [...] *I’m asking this as a question for a reason–I don’t know and I’m not sure if there is enough data for anyone to know. The one truly relevant study I was able to find with a quick search found an increase in obesity rates for children of 5.2 percent when a fast food restaurant was located within a tenth of a mile of a school, but not if it was .25 miles or more away–which seems like an indication that it does have some effect but only a minor one. There was also a study that talked about it in the background section (“Connections Between Fast Food and Obesity”), but it was based on self-reported fast food consumption; self-reported food consumption, at least if it’s in the form of food frequency questionnaires, tend to be highly inaccurate. [...]

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