By now you’ve probably been sent THAT email or read THAT article that claims: “red meat will kill you prematurely” based on a study released by Harvard University on March 12. It has since been expertly debunked and provides a great lesson in why listening to the mass media hype around just about everything, is not such a good idea when you are not given all the facts.
The following is a summary of several authors who have all written on the study, so if you want to read their sometimes humorous energetic accounts – (and how much cutting and pasting I did!) – please click the individual links. Otherwise here is a summary:
Take Home Point 1
This was an observational study, not a scientific study. It was a good observational study but not a good scientific study by any means.
No one was put into matching groups, no diet was given out and tested, no one came into a clinic or a lab. The subjects filled out a food questionnaire over the course of 30 years based on their memory of what they ate. How reliable is your memory on what you ate for breakfast last month?
Science is about finding out what causes what. You take a hypothesis – i.e. spaghetti eating causes heart disease – and then you test it. You take two identical groups – of rats, people, monkeys – make sure they’re identical in every way that you can think of – put them into identical conditions except that one group gets a drug, or eats spaghetti, or performs an exercise, or takes a spin class, or does whatever the heck you’re trying to investigate – and then you observe the results. If there’s a big difference between the two groups, you can be pretty sure (not positively sure, mind you, but pretty darn sure) that the one thing that was different between the groups was actually responsible for the results.
If, for example, all the rats taking the drug died while all the rats who didn’t take the drug did just fine, it’s a good bet that the drug killed them. If two groups of “identical” kids are assigned different 8th grade English teachers, and Group A aces the English finals while Group B fails miserably, you can be fairly sure the teachers had something to do with it.
This study did not do that.
Take Home Point 2
Observational Studies are notoriously unreliable
The subjects answered questions like “how many vitamins do you take?” “do you take birth control?”, “have you ever been diagnosed with heart disease?”, and “how many times a week did you eat meat last month?”. (What did you eat for breakfast one month ago today……?)
These people were followed for decades, and hundreds of “data points” collected, such as how many people died, how many people got cancer and how many people got heart disease. Then the researchers “correlate” (or associate) all these data points in an attempt to find some patterns that will eventually generate hypotheses that can be tested in randomized, controlled studies.
Like the hypothesis that “red meat leads to early death”.
This study did not test that hypothesis. And as any science teacher will tell you, correlation is not a cause.
To quote Denise Minger on Observational Studies
“In case you’re skeptical that observational studies can run disturbingly contrary to reality, look no further than the hormone replacement therapy (HRT) craze that peaked a few decades ago. By 1991, 30 observational studies—including this one– based on none other than the Nurses’ Health data—collectively showed that women taking estrogen seemed to have a 44% reduction in heart disease risk compared to their non-hormone-replacing counterparts. Naturally, this led literally millions of women to jump on the estrogen bandwagon in pursuit of better health and longer lives. A very unfortunate oopsie-daisy sprouted up later when some randomized, controlled trials finally emerged and revealed that rather than being protective, hormone replacement therapy actually increased heart disease risk by 29%!”
Take Home Point 3
Is there a conspiracy towards red meat consumption? I don’t know but for some reason we keep getting told not to eat it. Look at the other correlation’s that came out of the study that were not latched on to by the media? Why?
The researchers broke the participants up into quintiles, from the 20% who reported eating the least meat (virtually vegetarians) to the 20% who reported eating the most, with three quintiles in the middle.
As we go up the “meat-eating” scale, quintile by quintile from lowest-meat-eaters to highest-meat-eaters, we notice that other things go up as well. Meat eaters smoked more, drank more and exercised less. They also had higher BMI and higher blood pressure. And, as a group, they ate a lot more calories. They also had lower cholesterol. WHAT???
The high meat eaters had the lowest cholesterol of any group (and the vegetarians had the highest). The people who ate the least amount of meat in the Harvard study were also the most likely to take vitamins.
Here are some nice little graphs from Denise on the findings:
Why weren’t the headlines :
“proof that taking vitamins makes you live longer!” and
“vegetarianism raises cholesterol!” and
“smoking and not exercising whilst eating too many calories will kill you!” ???
Take Home Point 4
What defines “meat” in this study was not qualified. Did they measure salami, sausages, meat pies, jerky or deep fried chicken? Or were they talking about organic grass fed beef free of hormones? Grass-fed meat is an entirely different “animal” than some of the crap in the supermarket or the fast food restaurants. And no study – not even these quasi-scientific epidemiological ones – has looked for associations between grass-fed meat eating and early death
No one who advocates eating red meat for breakfast or increasing your protein wants you to eat poor forms of meat like McDonald’s, sausage or battery hens. They want you to eat animals the way your grandparents ate them. Grass fed, hormone free and with some vegetables!
Take Home Points
If you’re going to take anything out of the study take the following :
(Throw in the following)
Eat grass fed organic meat
Eat a tonne of organic vegetables
Don’t believe the hype!
And everything’s gonna be alright
See you in the gym!