Red Meat Won’t Kill You — Poor Science Will

April 10, 2012 · 37 comments

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All the vegans (and Dean Ornish) must have been elated when the Harvard School of Public Health reported that eating meat causes premature death and disease. The analysis, published in The Archives of Internal Medicine, looked at data from two studies. The study population was 121,342 men and women who filled out questionnaires about health and diet from 1980 through 2006. Stop right there.

Dietary recall is the worst method

As far as I am concerned, a study that involves writing down what you ate (dietary recall) is completely invalid. I hardly remember everything I ate today, much less a few days ago. I may be embarrassed about what I ate (and how much) and would be inclined to fudge the data a little. Relying on people to fill out questionnaires about what they ate truthfully and in a timely way is naive.

I ask every nutrition patient that comes into my office for a diet diary of the previous week and it is comical to see what the majority bring in. It may be scribbled on a tiny piece of paper and sorely incomplete. Any scientist knows that a diet questionnaire is the worst possible method used to assess someone’s diet.

Observational studies show association not cause

Researchers use these observational studies in many reviews and make claims that an association observed in the study has a causal relationship. As Gary Taubes has observed,

every time that these Harvard researchers had claimed that an association observed in their observational trials was a causal relationship—that food or drug X caused disease or health benefit Y—and that this supposed causal relationship had then been tested in experiment, the experiment had failed to confirm the causal interpretation—i.e., the folks from Harvard got it wrong. Not most times, but every time.

In this observational study, the Harvard researchers found, 23,926 deaths in the group, including 5,910 from cardiovascular disease and 9,464 from cancer. That led them to conclude,

Red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, CVD, and cancer mortality. Substitution of other healthy protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk.

Good science dictates that a hypothesis is made and then you do your best to refute it. Testing the hypothesis is the best way to prove it. If you keep testing it and it appears to be right then maybe, just maybe, it is right. In this observational study there was no testing. They jumped right to the conclusion.

As Taubes suggests in his article, the end result here, (based on flawed science from questionnaires) is an association. This would then need to be studied further with (hopefully) real experiments.

Additionally, the actual risk they have observed is only a 0.2 fold increased risk. Usually not less than a 3 – 4 fold increase is taken seriously and then it is studied.

Taubes has compared this 0.2 fold risk  to the risk from cigarette smoking and getting lung cancer which is 20 fold. Now that is something to get concerned about.

Alternative explanations

After you figure out the association, good science dictates that you try to explain it. Here, the association between meat eating and increased risk of death and dying (the tiny 0.2 fold increase) would be to think of the differences between people who eat a lot of meat and those who do not. It’s not too hard to see a difference between people who may be eating at fast food joints and eating a lot of rancid polyunsaturated oils as well (who may also smoke, drink and sit a lot) and those who have forgone meat in the interest of their health (health conscious people who do other things like exercise regularly to protect their health).

A better way to research this question has actually been done in studies comparing Atkins type diets with Dean Ornish type diets. According to Taubes,

And when these experiments have been done, the meat-rich, bacon-rich Atkins diet almost invariably comes out ahead, not just in weight loss but also in heart disease and diabetes risk factors… Over the course of the experiment—two years in this case—the subjects randomized to the Atkins-like meat- and bacon-heavy diet were healthier.

The most important flaw in this study

In my mind, the most important issue here, aside from the poor science, is the fact that they are using red meat from the commercial meat industry — feedlot meat that is totally different in fat composition than meat that is from a grassfed cow.

Factory feedlot meat will kill you

The meat from feedlot cows is unhealthy. The cows are finished with grains.  These grains are genetically modified corn and soy. The heath consequences of eating this meat is unknown. Furthermore, the grains are sprayed with pesticides. This unnatural diet changes the chemical composition of the fat in the meat to dangerous fats full of pesticides and GMOs.

Grassfed cows have plenty of the natural trans fat CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which has been shown to be very healthy. Numerous studies have indicated that CLA is an anti-cancer agent that fights a wide variety of tumors, including bladder, brain, skin, breast, colon and prostate. It appears that CLA blocks initiation, promotion and metastasis — three of the four stages of cancer. Additionally, CLA has been found to lower LDL levels, and prevent bone loss.

Eating ethically and humanely raised animals for food is satisfying physically, emotionally and spiritually. In the face of rhetoric from all corners, the USDA, FDA, American Heart and now Harvard scientists, it is clear that animals raised on pasture offer us nutrient dense foods that are unsurpassed.

The next investigation into the heath benefits (or not) of meat should be to compare people eating traditionally raised grassfed beef to those eating commercial feedlot beef. I would certainly like to see the results of that study!

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!

Check out the Red Meat Won’t Kill You Facebook Page @Hartkeisonline!

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This post is shared at: Allergy Free Wednesday, Gluten Free Wednesday, Real Food Wednesday, Whole Food Wednesday, Sustainable Ways, Healthy 2Day, Mommy Club, Full Plate Thursday, Pennywise Platter, Simple Lives Thursday, Freaky Friday, Fresh Bites Friday, Fight Back Friday, Seasonal Celebration, Sugar Free Sunday, Sunday School, Monday Mania, Barnyard Hop, Mouthwatering Monday, Tasty Tuesday Tidbits, Traditional Tuesday, Hearth & Soul hop, Tasty Tuesday 33

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Judy@Savoring Today April 11, 2012 at 8:28 am

As soon as I saw the headline for the study I rolled my eyes. My girlfriend called me to ask me what I thought and I suggested she look for the actual research, evaluate how they did the study (association vs. cause) and wait to see what others had to say about this new “discovery”. Sure enough, articles like yours popped up pretty quickly, which I in turn passed along for her to read. Thanks for posting this, I’ll be passing it along. :)

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2 Hanna April 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm

the same as the egg scare with the colesterol not too many years back isnt it?

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3 Kara April 12, 2012 at 8:55 am

Great post! All of the misinformation is maddening!

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4 France @ Beyond The Peel April 13, 2012 at 11:32 am

Thanks for this great post. Have you read the China Study. With claims that this extensive study proved that .. “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease … People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease. These results could not be ignored,”

I have it on hold at the library and excited to read it. As a pro meat eater, I wonder if the type of meat was factored in. Like you mentioned above, is the meat people eating from unhealthy grain fed, mass produced meat full of hormones and antibiotics?
People who have read it swear by it like it’s the bible. But were the meat eaters eating fast food burgers or pastured chickens?

How can a species that has grown over thousands of years that thrived on meat, with hardly any known diseases all of a sudden be healthier without it? I just don’t get the reasoning.

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5 Jill April 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Hi France,
The China Study has been thoroughly debunked by Denise Minger who spoke at the last Weston Price conference. She also has it all on her blog, rawfoodsos.com.

Apparently Dr.Campbell left out a lot of the data he collected…

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6 Tina April 16, 2012 at 10:12 am

By the way, The China Study is not a “study”. Once again it is observational interpretations. There was no “study”.

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7 Anne April 13, 2012 at 11:58 am

We eat WAY more meat than our ancestors due to it being dirt cheap and incredibly available. Unfortunately, over 99% of meat consumed in America is factory farmed, not ethically raised or grass fed. So, sadly, the dangers of eating meat are incredibly real to almost every American. I strongly suggest reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s a well researched book that explores multiple perspectives on the issue.
Of course, if you want to feel good about eating meat you should buy organic, ethically raised animals. But if you want to feel even better and be that much healthier, forgo meat all together. That fact simply cannot be argued.
I ate meat with the best of them. But at some point you have to think about the consequences of eating as if you’re the center of the universe.

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8 Diana April 13, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Sorry,but you are wrong with both statements.
1. Our ancestors were HUNTER – gatherers. The majority of their food was meat. For several tribal communities it still is.
2. Humans do not get healthier from forgoing meat. Many studies, that were properly conducted unlike the China study, have shown that. I personally am also proof of that fact.

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9 Tina April 16, 2012 at 10:16 am

Study after study has proven that eating vegetarian uses more natural resources than a traditional diet of meat and vegetables. In fact, a study done by New York State found that the most “earth friendly” diet was one of meat and vegetables and that the vegetarian/vegan diet was unsustainable if the world adopted it. So, actually, eating vegetarian is eating as if you are the center of the universe and don’t care if you use up more than your share of natural resources.

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10 Troy September 18, 2012 at 10:41 pm

I’m sorry, did you actually think about that statement before you wrote it?
So feeding vegetarian foods to animals before we eat them instead of just eating the vegetables has more impact on the planet?
I don’t need a “study” to tell me how to apply logic.

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11 Isabela December 18, 2012 at 9:40 pm

The thing is, you don’t have to “feed” vegetarian foods to pastured cows – they pretty much eat it (the grass) themselves.

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12 Rachel R. May 29, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Ruminents like cows are designed to make more efficient use of vegetation than omnivores, like people, can. So we cannot get the same nutrients from the vegetation that we would get from cows who already processed it.

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13 Pam March 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm

You might want to see Allan Savory’s speech on Ted Talks: How to green the desert and reverse climate change. Our world’s changing climate and continued desertification may be due to lack of grazing livestock.

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14 Melissa @ Dyno-mom April 13, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I am so glad that you wrote about this! I had read the refutation but had not yet blogged about it. I linked to this from my blog FB!

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15 Hanna April 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm

I watched a clip from 60 minutes about sugar and the person doing the study had the people (test subjects) in lockdown in a hospital wing so that they could 100% know exactly what they were eating and couldnt run off for a chocolate and then not tell em about it. They too said diet recall just didnt work.

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16 Zoe (@ecothrifty) April 15, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Very interesting article – it’s always good to hear the other side of the story!

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17 James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. April 16, 2012 at 10:31 am

You are so right about observational studies. Just take coffee. Studies range from it will kill you to it will make your healthy. A few years back there was one that associated prostate cancer with vasectomies.

Observational studies only give the investigators ideas on what to study in more detail. Many times peer review can point out flaws in the study. For instance, maybe they didn’t take into consideration that the people that ate more red meat smoked more, or exercised less. That’s just examples to prove a point. In fact, they probably took those obvious things into consideration but maybe missed something less obvious.

The other problem with a study like this is it’s hard to do a good prospective study, say, taking a group that eats a specifically chosen amount of meat and one that eats less and watch who dies first.

So, we’re left with guessing, and the news media to report it as gospel.

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18 Kelsi April 17, 2012 at 6:54 am

Great article and well written! Thanks for posting! I don’t know where I’d be without my red meat!

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19 Georgia April 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm

As well as the differences between feedlot beef and grass fed beef, there is also the question of how well it has been cooked. Raw or under done grass fed meat is even healthier, from what I have gathered. Got some good info from Dr. Ron Schmidt.

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20 Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network April 19, 2012 at 9:15 am

I wouldn’t be nearly so well informed without reading your articles every week! Thanks for sharing this at Natural Mother’s Seasonal Celebration Sunday! x

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21 April @ The 21st Century Housewife April 23, 2012 at 4:34 am

Thank you for another very timely and interesting post. I think everything in moderation is definitely the key to good health, and if you do eat meat, it’s very important to make sure it is pasture or organically raised.

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22 Michael July 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm

“This unnatural diet changes the chemical composition of the fat in the meat to dangerous fats full of pesticides and GMOs.” The fat’s are full of GMOs? So there are some genetically modified organisms – that is what GMO stands for – living in the fats? It’s hard to read a critique of a scientific study and take it seriously when it comes out with stuff like that. And I am a farmer, pastured poultry & pork, getting into grassfed beef and lamb. I’m a believer. I just wish we could be more honest and less hyperbolic about the whole thing.

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23 Jill July 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Hi Michael,

You did pick up on one misspoken word. There are no GMO’s in the fat, but an animal that is fed GM grains is a question mark. We just don’t know what it can do to the meat and the fat. We do know that it changes the protein structures and it can produce other unpredictable changes.

Frankly I think you missed the thrust of the article — that

“… Good science dictates that a hypothesis is made and then you do your best to refute it. Testing the hypothesis is the best way to prove it. If you keep testing it and it appears to be right then maybe, just maybe, it is right. In this observational study there was no testing. They jumped right to the conclusion.”

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24 GiGi Eats Celebrities December 17, 2012 at 2:00 am

My favorite quote: Be careful what you read in health books, you might die from a misprint!

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25 BH December 18, 2012 at 11:40 am

This alludes to a point that should be emphasized over and over again. Everyone should be eating LESS meat. Not NO meat, just less. And the meat that people do eat should be humanely and ethically raised. That means 95% of the meat and seafood sitting on supermarket shelves should not be purchased. Just go to a farmers’ market and buy some quality meat there. Yes, it’s more expensive, but just don’t do it as often.

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26 TKCashwell August 17, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Excellent point BH. I eat very little meat (once a week tops) and it’s always organic. The stuff at regular grocery stores simply isn’t fit for human consumption and the misery perpetrated on factory farms is appalling.

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27 valerie December 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm

The recent article in the Weston Price journal written by Chris Masterjohn clearly illustrates a brilliant example of nutritional synergies by desrcibing how a diet rich in muscle meats, but poor in organs liver and connective tissue can lead to imbalances, toxicities and … gasp… chronic disease! You can read the articel online now at http://blog.cholesterol-and-health.com/2012/12/my-new-article-on-nutrient-synergy-is.html
The last paragraph sums it up:

Synergy and Context

The human body is a biological system characterized by astounding complexity. Nutrients often cooperate with one another to produce vibrant health. Quite often when one or more nutrients is missing, others may appear to contribute to disease. Methionine from muscle meats may appear to contribute to disease, for example, when the B vitamins, choline, and glycine found in bones, skin, organ meats, egg yolks, legumes, and leafy greens are absent. Vitamins A and D may each appear to contribute to disease when the other is absent. In the absence of other nutrients such as magnesium, some nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium may simply fail to function at all. The complex biology that makes the human body tick may operate very differently in the context of a diet rich in magnesium than in the context of a diet poor in magnesium.

Nutrient-dense, traditionally balanced diets, however, provide all of these nutrients together so that they synergize with one another to nourish our bodies to health and protect them from harm. Rather than seeking dietary villains from among our most ancient traditional foods to blame for our most recent modern diseases, we should elaborate our understanding of how the many components within successful traditional diets work together to promote radiant and vibrant health.

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28 sara snedeker February 3, 2013 at 7:41 pm

How do you make sure the meat you purchase isn’t from a feed lot? Should it be Halal? What brand or certification type can cover most basis?

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29 Jill February 3, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Sara,
You could try to buy from local farmers so you know where your meat comes from — also it must be 100% grassfed.

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30 Andrea June 14, 2013 at 10:36 am

First off I want to acknowledge your efforts at debunking random, inflammatory “conclusions” drawn from poor/absent science. It’s rampant, out of control, and likely one of the main reasons that average person throws their hands up and eats processed, farm factory foods. That said, I would ask that you offer the good science behind your statements:

“The meat from feedlot cows is unhealthy. The cows are finished with grains. These grains are genetically modified corn and soy. The heath consequences of eating this meat is unknown. Furthermore, the grains are sprayed with pesticides. This unnatural diet changes the chemical composition of the fat in the meat to dangerous fats full of pesticides and GMOs.

Grassfed cows have plenty of the natural trans fat CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which has been shown to be very healthy. Numerous studies have indicated that CLA is an anti-cancer agent that fights a wide variety of tumors, including bladder, brain, skin, breast, colon and prostate. It appears that CLA blocks initiation, promotion and metastasis — three of the four stages of cancer. Additionally, CLA has been found to lower LDL levels, and prevent bone loss.”

You claim that meet from feedlot cows is “unhealthy” but three sentences later you state, “The heath consequences of eating this meat is unknown.” Is the meet unhealthy or unknown whether it is unhealthy?

Where is the supporting science?

To be clear, I do not disagree with you and it is not my intent to pick apart your work (I applaud those of you who are exposing the faceless names hiding behind reputable institutions!). I am simply asking you to adhere to the same “substantiated claims backed by good science” that are you insist of other researchers.

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31 Jill June 14, 2013 at 12:49 pm

@Andrea,
Frankly, I think you like to pick apart my work. If you would have clicked on the links I provide to CLA and the cancer links — you would have found the science backing my “claims” you are looking for and not have had to reiterate what I had already written.

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32 Andrea June 14, 2013 at 1:44 pm

My apologies for missing the “link”.

It’s a shame you are not open to having your work called into question. Regardless of the CLA link, there is still an absence of science to substantiate “Factory feedlot meet will kill you”. If you truly believed in your work, I would think you would want to opportunity to defend anything & everything that came to your reader’s mind while reading your material.

Frankly, Jill, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot poke holes in other people’s work and expect your to stand without defense. It’s all in the name of good science.

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33 Danny June 14, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Just another absurd argument to protect their industries like the one of cigarretes company.

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34 Jimmy June 15, 2013 at 4:50 pm

I just love when second rate science gets shot down, these so called scientific studies are doing more harm than good because they make ppl wonder what they should and shouldn’t eat.
Thus causing ppl to make the wrong decisions on what to eat, it’s not 2 weeks since I got the one on eggs. But next time I’ll link to your post on that one.! ;)

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