Is Red Meat Going to Kill You?

The media has been all over the latest study results involving red meat consumption and its alleged impact on our risk of dying from cancer and heart disease.  Every media outlet has reported on it ~ major daily newspapers, television and even my Comcast home page.  If you are a regular reader, you are probably aware that I am a red meat cheerleader.  I have pointed out in the past that previous studies linking it to heart disease were based on faulty data.  So, with this latest study and its findings, am I going to stop eating red meat?  Not a chance, and I’ll tell you why.

The first place I saw this study reported on was the Boston Globe ~ fitting as it’s my “local” paper and fitting, as the study was conducted at Harvard…whoa, Harvard?  Lisa is going to disagree with the folks at HARVARD?  Who does she think she is?  Well, let’s start with the article that I read, “Cutting Red Meat Intake Could Lengthen Lifespan, Harvard Study Finds.”  I’m not a scientist and I never studied nutrition in school.  But as I read the article (& others) several things came to my mind.  First off, though, a quick dig to the writer of the article (sorry) ~

Americans’ high consumption of red meat has long been linked to a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and new research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that it may shorten a person’s lifespan and that cutting back on red meat by a serving a day could lower the risk of dying.

Am I the only one who reads that as implying that we might have an option not to die?  How can you “lower the risk of dying?”  Aren’t we all going to die sometime?  Okay, we both know what the writer meant, but I do think while I can poke fun at this, the writer chose to use such a phrase to get you alarmed.

I have read multiple versions of reports on this study, and in each one you glean a few different facts.  Additionally, I learned further details of the study from Denise Minger’s write-up titled “Will Eating Red Meat Kill You?” (in the interest of full disclosure, this article is posted on marksdailyapple.com, whose author, Mark Sisson, follows a primal style of eating ~ Mark is the author of one of my favorite cookbooks, some of whose recipes have been included in my blog). Moving on, there are at least six weaknesses/flaws to this study, so let’s get started.

Weakness/Flaw #1:  The study was an observational study, not an actual experiment.  The study found that those who ate more red meat had a greater risk of dying during the period of the study than those who ate less.  In other words, if you plotted red meat consumption on one axis and the risk of dying during the study on another axis, as red meat consumption increased, so did the risk of earlier death.  Good nutritional studies are really hard to conduct.  There are a myriad of confounding factors that are often very difficult to control (and let’s be honest here, we are dealing with humans, not exactly rats in a lab).  But what everyone should understand is that correlation and causation are not the same thing (although the researchers and the media want you to think they are).   As Denise Minger points out:

Observations are only the first step of the scientific method—a good place to start, but never the place to end. These studies don’t exist to generate health advice, but to spark hypotheses that can be tested and replicated in a controlled setting so we can figure out what’s really going on. Trying to find “proof” in an observational study is like trying to make a penguin lactate. It just ain’t happening… ever.

Weakness/Flaw #2:  The study relied on Food Frequency Questionnaires.  Beginning in the 1980’s and continuing on to 2006 participants were asked once every four years to complete a food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) that asked how often they ate certain foods.  Yes, you read that right.  The results of this study are based on human recall…once very four years.  I don’t know about you, but I would find it very difficult to really remember my eating habits over a four year period.   FFQs are notoriously unreliable, as people have a) difficulty remembering what they ate and b) they lie.

Weakness/Flaw #3:  Those who ate the most red meat ate red meat daily.  The study found that those who ate the most red meat, more than 2 three ounce servings a day, “had about a 30 percent greater likelihood of dying over the course of the study compared with those who ate about one to two servings per week.” I like to follow the “everything in moderation” principle.  While I think grass-fed red meat can be a very healthy part of a good diet, I think eating red meat on a daily basis is not moderation.  I would say I eat red meat 1-3 times a week, depending on the week.  So right there, we are looking at a population that might not be following what I would consider to be a “healthy diet.”

Weakness/Flaw #4:  Those who ate the most red meat were the least physically active, had a higher proportion of smokers and had the lowest multivitamin usage.  If you are now scratching your head about the results gleaned from this study, you aren’t alone.  These folks also were more likely to have an unhealthy BMI, higher alcohol intake and tended to make less healthy red meat choices (i.e. more processed meat like hotdogs, salami & bacon).  While the researchers claimed to “control” for those factors, this is basically impossible.  As Denise points out:

Although the researchers tried their darndest to adjust for these confounders, not even fancy-pants math tricks can compensate for the immeasurable details involved in unhealthy living, the tendency for folks to misreport their diet and exercise habits, and whatever mild insanity emerges from trying to remember every food that hit your tongue during the past year.

Weakness/Flaw #5:  Researchers included ground beef with other healthier cuts of meat.  When tracking red meat consumption the researchers did segregate the more processed meats from “unprocessed” red meat such as a sirloin steak or a beef roast.  However, in this “unprocessed” category they included ground beef.  So while their study showed that greater consumption of processed meats showed a 20% increased risk of death from cancer, heart disease, etc, even the consumption of healthier unprocessed red meat showed a 13% increased risk of early death.  But if you’re lumping ground beef with the unprocessed red meat, what might that mean…what else are you likely eating a lot of, but buns, or refined wheat flour.  The study did not track refined grain intake, so how do we know this isn’t the “culprit”?  As you can see, when you track some factors and not others, drawing any solid conclusions is, at best, a stretch.

Weakness/Flaw #6:  What about beef quality?  This one just boggles my mind.  This was one of the first things I thought about when I read about this study.  These are researchers, scientists, nutritionists…from HARVARD no less.  Didn’t it occur to them that maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t red meat itself, but what we have done to our red meat?  You all know this is one of my recurring rants, but today’s CAFO raised beef looks nothing like beef used to.  We raise the animals in unsanitary conditions, in confined spaces.  We feed them genetically modified corn and soy, when their natural diet is grass.  Because they are not meant to eat corn and soy and because of the unsanitary & close quarters, they get sick, so all cows on these CAFOs are injected with antibiotics.  And they are fed growth hormones.  And it doesn’t occur to these scientists that maybe, just maybe this impacts the red meat that is being consumed by the study participants and maybe, just maybe, has something to do with higher incidences of cancer, heart disease, etc?  Frankly, I think I am smarter than they are.

Whew!  If this topic interests you at all I suggest you read Denise’s full article as she makes even more good points that I do not have the time or the energy to expound upon.  Once again, the link is here.  As always, my job is not to make up your mind for you or tell you what to do.  All I wanted to do was make sure you saw both sides of what was happening here.  Once educated, then you can make your own choice about read meat.  For me, I will continue to eat my grass-fed beef 1-3 times a week and enjoy it, confident that it is part of a healthy diet.  I’m going to go throw a few burgers on the grill…but I’ll have mine without the bun.

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About Lisa Van Dore

I have lived in Sherborn, Dover and most recently North Walpole, for a total of 15 years (and counting). Having recently been through the process of selling a home and buying (and renovating) a new one, I understand the conflicting emotions of excitement and anxiety inherent in the process, whether you are a seller or buyer, whether this is your first home purchase or your tenth. I have a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Indiana University. My early career found me working as a CPA, and later as the controller of Crate & Barrel. More recently I spent seven years running my own personal training business. I understand the hard work and dedication necessary to build a business and a reputation...most of my personal training clients came to me by referral and my first client was still with me when I decided to leave personal training. This speaks to the level of effort I put forth for my clients, week after week. On a more personal note, I raced triathlon for seven years and more recently completed my first half marathon. In my free time I enjoy cooking, reading, Maine, hiking and, in the fall, following college football...my teams are the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and Texas Christian University (Go Frogs!).
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