This morning a friend sent us an article from the Los Angeles Times with the alarming headline “All red meat is bad for you, new study says”. The article is based on a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine which tracked the eating habits and health status of 121,342 adults for over 20 years. The Times summarizes the study as, “Eating red meat—any amount and any type—appears to significantly increase the risk of premature death.” And, as if that’s not frightening enough, the LA Times paired their article with photographs of industrial meat processing and a fake-blood soaked PETA protestor outside of a Farmer John sausage plant.
We’re not scientists. Steven has two degrees in the Liberal Arts field in nothing particularly useful. Andrea has an undergraduate degree with a minor in biology, but that was a long time ago. We’ve described our current scientific expertise as falling somewhere between that of a TV Weatherman and fans of primetime medical dramas. But even with our limited scientific proficiency, it took less than two minutes reviewing the original study to see that the LA Times article is grossly overstepping. Or, to put our sentiments into the terms of an LA Times headline: “LA Times twists scientific literature into pro-vegetarian diatribe.”
The study itself, Red Meat Consumption and Mortality from the Archives of Internal Medicine, is fascinating. The authors did no original research. They instead relied two previously conducted long-term surveys that asked detailed questions about health and diet. Subjects were surveyed every six months. After 20 years of following these patients, a pattern emerged. People who ate more red meat experienced a higher death rate. PETA, we assume, threw a party and the LA Times declared red meat to be the dietary equivalent of base jumping. But there’s a catch. The studies’ authors were kind enough to share it in terms simple enough that even we could understand them.
We quote directly from the published study: “Men and women with higher intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to be current smokers, to drink alcohol, and to have a higher body mass index. In addition, a higher red meat intake was associated with . . . lower intakes of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.” We find it intriguing that the study’s authors included alcohol in their list of bad habits. But that’s a conversation for another day. What matters here is that the people studied who ate the most red meat also did everything else conceivable to shorten their lives. They were overweight smokers who didn’t exercise and consumed few fresh fruits and vegetables. Blaming red meat for these people’s mortality is like blaming the overuse of toaster ovens for global warming.
To be fair, the study’s authors used a mathematical system known as the Cox proportional hazard regression model to try to filter out all of the red meat eaters’ other habits. Without going back and retaking high school calculus, we cannot check their math. But assuming they did an excellent job, the authors were still saddled with the difficult if not impossible task of accurately filtering out a huge number of detrimental lifestyle choices in their attempt to isolate a single dietary component. This is not a criticism. The study’s authors had no choice but to attempt a mathematical correction because they were analyzing data that was not collected for the purpose of this study. However, when you take an obese smoker who doesn’t exercise or eat fresh food and eliminate those qualities, what are you left with? Mathematically, you may have created a marathon runner with Michael Pollan’s eating habits. Realistically, you have a mess. The best solution, from our un-scientific viewpoint, is to design a study of meat consumption that corrects for lifestyle in the study itself rather than try to correct lifestyle choices after the fact.
For the record, we are not Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). There may exist evidence that would convince us to cut back on our red meat intake. But a study that’s essentially a DJ Remix of previously existing surveys falls short of convincing us. This is especially true in this case where the authors offer the following caution on their own study: “participants were predominantly non-Hispanic white health professionals, the generalizability of the observed associations may be limited to similar populations.”
Our headline, based on this particular study, would sound more like: “Overweight smokers who don’t exercise and consume few fresh fruits and vegetables should rethink their habits. That lifestyle is seriously bad for you.”
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There are more logical fallacies and sampling errors in that study than you can shake a stick at. It’s like using Jerry Garcia as a case study on how it’s more dangerous to go to rehab than to continue using drugs. Go kids in cow suits.
If I fed a cow nothing but spinach, leafy greens and cabbage could I offset the danger of eating him afterwards while also laying off the chianti?
We recommend eating the cow, the leafy greens and drinking the chianti. That is a perfect DYC meal.