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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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March 26, 2009

The Red Scare

By Mark Sisson
98 Comments

red meatIt’s a headline you’ve probably seen by now splashed all over the news sites and channels – “Eating More Red Meat Ups Mortality Risk.” (Red meat once again wears the black hat: surprise, surprise.) Actually, millions of readers/viewers have likely stumbled across the caption and unfortunately taken it at face value. But you know us by now. It’s just too much fun being the merry skeptics when it comes to these sound bites of misinformation.

First things first. If you haven’t read about the aforementioned study yet (or want to read the full text for yourself – always advisable), here’s the link to the free full text. The report was published in the March 23rd issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine and has been picked up by just about every major news organization this week. The gist goes something like this: the researchers administered a “Food Frequency Questionnaire” to approximately half a million people (ages 50-71) who were part of the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. Participants responded to 124 questions regarding specific food and drink intake as well as portion size in the previous twelve months. (The questionnaire (PDF) is an engrossing read in and of itself.) Researchers then followed the group for ten years and recorded mortality statistics.

The results: At the end of the ten year period, 47,976 men and 23,276 women had died. Researchers checked causes of death and overall mortality against reported meat consumption. Their conclusion: “Red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest (my emphasis) increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality.” More specifically, those participants (20%) who consumed the most red meat (median = 62.5 grams per 1000 daily calories) showed slightly greater risk for overall, cardiovascular and cancer death than the 20% who consumed the least (median = 9.8 grams per 1000 daily calories) red meat. The same statistic held for processed meat intake (“most” median = 22.6 grams; “least” median = 1.6 grams). The inverse trend was found for white meat (turkey, chicken and fish): those who ate the most white meat showed less risk for overall, cardiovascular and cancer death (as well as death from other causes) than those who ate the least white meat.

As mentioned, I invite you to read the full study and judge for yourselves. It’s as full of holes as your average Swiss cheese. (Smells like it too.) Where to start? How about the whole self-report questionnaire? All together now: let’s recall what we ate over the last year and summarize it in a few lines… Ah, the broad brush of the observational study…

As for some specific critiques… There is, not surprisingly, no accounting for carb intake in this study. We know (broken record alert) that carbs drive insulin and insulin drives fat production, fat storage, inflammation and coronary heart disease. (Now if only this point would ever get equal time…) Even a moderate carb diet produces enough added insulin to drive production of triglycerides from both the extra carbs and the ingested fats. Maybe all these people ate an average of enough extra carbs that the added fats from the meat contributed more to the slightly higher average build-up of CHD in the highest quintile. (How much of their red meat consumption came in the form of steaks and roasts versus hamburgers with their obligatory buns, etc.?)

Fittingly, a lesser publicized study this week reported that a third of Americans have high triglyceride levels. (Check out our recent post on blood markers for more on the whole lipid picture.) Of course, the researchers and general media are pinning the risk (as always) on saturated fat consumption instead of carbohydrate intake, the true culprit in triglyceride measures. And don’t even get me started on the effects of HFCS on triglycerides.

The establishment never seems to tire of this saturated fat hobby horse, and its treatment of both the triglyceride findings and the meat study further confirm this. (Yes, I’m contending that the meat study is another thinly veiled attempt to “confirm” Conventional Wisdom thinking – conscious or unconscious.) Scientific method, after all, is predicated on hypothesis. Let’s hypothesize the same things over and over again: fat or, in this case, red meat is bad for you. Starting from that mindset, it’s not too surprising that you can “prove” it by loosely correlating/conflating meat intake with mortality. Maybe you can’t and won’t, but your results will likely be influenced by the limitations of your scope, your focus, the assumptions that lead you to discount various factors that have everything to do with your results. I could hypothesize that the air in California is bad for you, and I could bias the study by focusing my analysis in and around Bakersfield and in doing so prove my hypothesis. Or I could focus on the pristine air in Mammoth and get a different result.

What if the hypothesis in this study had been that conventional “CAFO” meat (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: hormones, antibiotics, pesticide residue, grain-fed) slightly increases cancer and coronary heart disease? You would then necessarily test standard meats against clean 100% grass-fed/finished, hormone-free, pesticide and antibiotic-free meats, and maybe test them all against a meatless diet. But in this case they didn’t. If they had, I could predict that they would see a measurable difference between those who ate ANY amount of CAFO meat and those who ate only clean meats. There is no separation between the two in this current study – if in fact any of those participating ate any grass-fed clean meat at all. I could conceivably use this study to “prove” my ongoing point that CAFO meats, processed meats, etc are somewhat less healthy…exactly as we say they are in the Primal Blueprint. But then there are so many other confounding factors….

The authors acknowledge that the preparation of meats could be a factor. We know that overcooking meats can produce HCAs (heterocyclic amines), which are carcinogenic, and maillard reactions, which may be atherogenic. At MDA, we suggest that you not routinely overcook meat for these reasons. There is no accounting for the preparation of the meat in this study, except to acknowledge that processed meats may increase risk.

Furthermore, it’s been shown that consumption of vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods/supplements/drinks (like wine) with meat can neutralize the potential carcinogenic attributes conferred by cooking/overcooking. The highest meat group had the lowest antioxidant intake. Maybe that explains the minor difference – even in the face of all other variables.

Finally, there remains a dizzying (uh, discounting?) array of other variables (on top of the aforementioned variables) put together in one rather telling little package. In the authors’ own words, “Subjects who consumed more red meat tended to be married, more likely of non-Hispanic white ethnicity, more likely a current smoker, have a higher body mass index, and have a higher daily intake of energy, total fat, and saturated fat, and they tended to have lower education and physical activity levels and lower fruit, vegetable, fiber, and vitamin supplement intakes.” Hmmm… This statement seems to say it all (well, almost) if you ask me. The authors ultimately seem pretty good at unraveling their own argument. Too bad most of the media outlets can’t seem to pick up on that point.

For your further reading pleasure, Michael R. Eades, M.D. takes on this latest bunk in his blog by highlighting a few just as timely studies that didn’t get as much press this past week. (Spoiler alert: the studies actually contradict the findings of this observational meat maligning research.) As Dr. Eades suggests, the media has unappreciated power in determining what studies get press and which don’t. Predictably, those that bolster the prevailing mindset tend to get picked up. (The large numbers of subjects inherent in broad observational studies like these also act as bright, shiny enticements, however illusory their results are.)

The real take home message from this study is this: Don’t be obese, do exercise, don’t smoke, eat plenty of vegetables and fruit, take supplements, avoid processed meats, avoid overcooked meats, eat from a variety of animal foods. (And when you eat red meat or any other meat, try to eat the cleanest form possible because it would appear that the hormone-laced, antibiotic-tainted, grain-fed CAFO meat may slightly increase your risk of CHD and cancer – or not.) Red meat itself, at the end of the day, appears to be little more than a red herring.

Thoughts and reactions? I’d love to hear them.

Further Reading:

Did Grok Really Eat That Much Meat?

The Primal Blueprint Carbohydrate Curve

Smart Fuel: Lamb

TAGS:  Hype, marketing

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70 Comments on "The Red Scare"

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Son of Grok
7 years 8 months ago

When I first read the study, I was shocked at the giant gaping hoels in it all the way from the questionare, to the method, to the correlation. I am half convinced these docs studied under Ancel Keys. Unfortunately most people dont even read the abstract of a study so they are taken at headline value. A victory for bad Conventional Wisdom here and a blow to progress.

The SoG

BEE
7 years 8 months ago

I would SO have been one of those people who took this article at face value 6 months ago. But after looking just a little into these types of studies I find it appalling that the media plays with our minds like this – they take whatever they want out of the study and blast it into the unsuspecting consumer. Even when there are so many holes in the research! Thank goodness guys like you are out there, interpreting data objectively.

-BEE

marilyn zorn
7 years 8 months ago

Hey Mark,

When I heard the news report, my mind started following all of the variables that were not taken into consideration in this study. Our news media sure is slanted in every way…………..

Marilyn

Holly
Holly
7 years 8 months ago

It’s frustrating how people do just blindly follow and then, not only do we have the press spreading “news” but we also have thousands of others espousing an idea that they only read a 1 sentence heading on. Thank you Mark for not only bringing up valid and factual information and summaries about this study, but also providing the links so we can educate ourselves on the study.

Heidi_CFATL
Heidi_CFATL
7 years 8 months ago

What makes me truly upset is that they have no idea how much how much this will harm people. All they care is they “studies” and whatever political gain they can achieve. All the while, the masses get herded into bad diet habits and an extremely unhealthy lifestyle. ARGH!

Thanks Mark for having such an enlightening site and working hard to help keep us all informed.

Colleen K
Colleen K
7 years 8 months ago

Mark,
I agree with the points you make – and I am a fearless consumer of meat.

I have a question. What precautions does one take to limit damage from parasites or other “bugs” in under-cooked meat? We just recently started reading about parasites, fungi and the cancer connection.

Thanks!

Brian Karpuk
7 years 8 months ago

Great job Mark,

It should also be noted that among the men in the study who consumed the most red meat: Had a BMI that was 2.4 higher; were three times more likely to be a current smoker or have recently quit; were half as likely to engage in “vigorous physical activity” five times a week and ate 200 more calories a day;

And to say nothing that per capita red meat consumption has fallen 25% since the 1970’s. More on my take here: http://newsburglar.com/2009/03/25/details-critique-red-meat-study/

MikeL
MikeL
7 years 8 months ago

Yet one more reason to stop reading the news papers. Honestly, they do more harm than good.

JD
JD
7 years 8 months ago

Thanks Mark, great post. Probably the only arguable point they made was to not smoke.

John FitzGibbon
John FitzGibbon
7 years 8 months ago

So we have to stop having all these posts on red meat, the pictures at the top make me ridiculously hungry.

Kaveman
Kaveman
7 years 8 months ago

I saw this come through on a few news and blog channels and knew immediately it smelled of rank swiss cheese. Thanks for pointing out the holes and giving the real information.

As luck would have it there is a nice, juicy steak at home for me to just waiting to be cooked and eaten – can’t wait!

Joe Matasic
Joe Matasic
7 years 8 months ago

@JD and all

Actually, if I remember correctly…only not to smoke unless you’re in the fifth quintile of white meat eaters. I believe they even stated in the conclusions that they didn’t know why white meat eaters who never smoked had the highest risk (of the white meat eaters I think). Would have to double check the data (read it a couple days ago) and their conclusions.

Either way, its a joke. They perform studies like this just to get funding.

Joe

Koko
Koko
7 years 8 months ago

“…In the authors’ own words, “Subjects who consumed more red meat tended to be married, more likely of non-Hispanic white ethnicity….”

Wheewww, good thing I’m not married!

Merry
7 years 8 months ago

I can’t agree that these studies are jokes that are performed just to get funding. On the other hand, I wasn’t especially impressed with this study either. Especially because it had a typo in the first paragraph. (Note to researchers: get an editor to proofread your work. It makes you look more credible.)

Jessie
7 years 8 months ago

My first reaction was…what kind of red meat? Was it grass fed, organic, free range, low fat, high omega 3? Or was it the standard feedlot, antibiotic, hormone laced, high fat meat bought in the grocery store? Could those factors cause health issues?

Hmmmmmm, I wonder…………

Donna
Donna
7 years 8 months ago

I grew up eating cooked or grilled beef meats. For many years i had quit, then recently started back eating beef. But, i only eat it twice a week, not more than that. In the years i had stopped eating beef, seemed like something was just missing from my diet. Both my grandma’s ate beef meats and they both lived in their 90’s. It just seems like i feel better when i do include eating it 2 times a week than when i went years without it.

Theresa
Theresa
7 years 8 months ago

I saw this article, and I completely agree with you take on the study. Association does NOT equal causation. If you use the logic of this study, you could conclude that being married or not going to college can also kill you. I read the news story to my kids (13, 15) and I didn’t even have to point out the flawed conclusion to them – they saw it as soon as I did. Then again, I’ve also taught them to love protein and not to blindly believe things they hear. 🙂

Snoopy
Snoopy
7 years 8 months ago

Yeah. It’s one of those situations where you could use the same data from the study to come up with the headline, “Marriage causes risk of Early Death!”

Stu
Stu
7 years 8 months ago

Mark, I agree completely with your post. It’s a useless study but it’s to be expected.
I might be missing something but I have a problem with this statement:
“There was an overall increased risk of total, cancer, and CVD mortality, as well as all other deaths in both men (Table 2) and women (Table 3) in the highest compared with the lowest quintile of red meat intake in the fully adjusted model.” That’s not what Table 3 says to me. It looks like women are better off with red meat. Am I reading it wrong?

Stu

Tim
Tim
7 years 8 months ago
I’ve read through the thing a few times over the past few days. They also don’t track exercise *at all*. One could also surmise that an individual that’s already eating more non-red-meat (e.g. eating more chicken) is more health conscious, and therefore potentially actually exercising now and then. I wonder if that data alone could negate any difference between the two groups. I suppose if they’re looking for red meat causing death, they did it. I think I’m going to apply for a grant to do a study that proves that 100% people that eat fast food die. Or 100%… Read more »
emergefit
7 years 8 months ago

I question nothing that I innately believe is right. I absorb with a natural cynical eye and ear, and discern with caution. When it comes to meat however, my eyes and ears are closed. To paraphrase the NRA axiom, I will give up my copious amounts of meat when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

That is to say, I never got past the headline.

Big John
Big John
7 years 8 months ago

I’ll be sure and tell my 88 year old uncle, who, by the way, raises and eats black angus cattle on a 1200 acre farm. He has always fed them on grass because it’s easier and cheaper. When the grass in one pasture gets low he runs them to the next. Yeah, I’ll tell him that next time he drives to town that he needs to go to the doctor, because he might be dying of cancer or something.

Sverker
Sverker
7 years 8 months ago

Isn’t the most ridiculous aspect of the article that it “shows” that red meat eating causes a 26% increase in the risk of “mortality from injuries and sudden deaths” for men, and the way the authors try to dodge this fact?

“Overall, we did not find statistically significant association between meat consumption and deaths from injury and sudden deaths in most instances.” In most cases? What about the cases with the significant association?

The article offers no more reason to believe that red meat eating causes death by disease than death by injury.

Walter Norris
Walter Norris
7 years 8 months ago

In the comments of the article at Dr. Eades Blog that Mark references above I asked Dr. Eades what he thought about nitrites referencing the discussion here. He said that the best post he’d ever seen on it was the one at Junk Food Science that was referenced in the discussion here. He endorsed just that post, not all of them.

Mike OD - Life Spotlight
7 years 8 months ago

The media and medical professional is so irresponsible and biased….good thing most of us are taking the control of our own health away from both of them.

DaveC - DaveGetsFit
7 years 8 months ago

I just wish I could get Mark’s post in the editorial section of all the newspapers that carried this, or on the evening network news. But that’s not how it works, and I’m sure I’ll continue to hear about this from folks who question my eating habits.

Erasmus
Erasmus
7 years 8 months ago

OMG! Did I read that study right? And why didn’t the press alert me?

Increased red meat consumption causes smoking!?

-E

Son of Grok
7 years 8 months ago

It people misreading studies like Erasmus just did that is half the problem. It is smoking that causes red meat consumption… oh and marriage.

The SoG

Dana
7 years 8 months ago
Just the fact they did this “study” by giving an over 100-item questionnaire to a bunch of older people gives me pause. I’ve done surveys for money before; I’m on the Pinecone panel, for instance. And the ones I hate THE most are the ones with a zillion questions, half of which ask essentially the same question but with slight differences in variables. About a third to halfway through I start answering questions randomly just to get through the darned thing already because it makes me want to gouge my eyeballs out. Needless to say I don’t go out of… Read more »
Dana
7 years 8 months ago

Oh, and I am completely unsurprised that more men died than women. It’s a well-known fact that women have a longer life expectancy, all other factors being equal.

Jeff
Jeff
7 years 8 months ago

Mark- Thank you for talking about this important subject.

Couple of Questions for you-

What scientific study can be referenced that correlates high levels of meat consumption with long life and good health (low occurrences of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity)?

What is your hypothesis for a ‘meat study’ that could replicate this conclusion: that consuming lots of red meat correlates with good health? What additional conditions would have to be met to create these results of good health?

Zen Frittata
7 years 8 months ago

I asked my dad if he read the article last night, he responded,

“Yes, while I was eating my steak.”

Rock on dad, rock on.

Conny
Conny
7 years 8 months ago

I love those studies. The more people are scared of red meat (or any other allegedly dangerous food) the less they buy of it. This leads to decreasing prices which is good for me. So as long as the government doesn’t ban it and the consumption does not sink under an unmarketable threshold I say: Bring on the bad studies!

Yum Yucky
7 years 8 months ago

Mark, you’re my Hero. So smart and knowledgeable….. Seriously though.

I didn’t know insulin drove fat production and storage.

Matt
Matt
7 years 8 months ago

I’m in Denmark right now and it showed up on the Danish news stations. I’m afraid this is a big step back from the recent progress, as SOG said.

Ellen
Ellen
7 years 8 months ago

I work for a science company. We had an inservice with the office responsible for our press releases, and she said the FIRST thing to remember when talking to the press is that the science reporters rarely have any science background past high school. They are looking for sound bites, not science. Pretty sad.

Donna
Donna
7 years 8 months ago

Yeap,they’re trying to scare the people “now”, i can’t even imagine what kind of scare report they’ll come up with whenever the “cloned” meat will actually be in the stores in the future.
I do wander if the cloned meat will be labeled from the non-cloned meat.

Terry
Terry
7 years 8 months ago

At least the original “Red Scare” had real bad guys (the commies).

Parkour anyone?

Eric
Eric
7 years 8 months ago

I think the main problem with the news telling the public about something like this, is that most of the public takes it at face value and puts a big evil stamp on red meats. The most important thing to remember about statistics like these, is that correlation does not mean causation. Which i think your article goes in depth in saying and i agree with what it’s saying, good article.

Jeff
Jeff
7 years 8 months ago
“Mark Sisson’s Daily Apple”? If you really disagree with this study then maybe it should be “Mark Sisson’s Daily STEAK!” The comments on this blog sounds as nieve as Marie Antionette’s, “Let them eat cake.” Mark’s article was pandering to the addictions of his clientele. This was a valid scientific study with legitimate correlations. Those criticizing this study are addicted to the nutritional extravagance of red meat and are preparing themselves for diseases of affluence such as cancer, diabetes, and coronary heart disease. The age adjusted death rates from the diseases of affluence are much lower in countries such as… Read more »
Alex
Alex
7 years 8 months ago

Here’s a thorough analysis of the so-called “science” behind this ridiculous study:

http://is.gd/ptPs

Eric
Eric
7 years 8 months ago

“This was a valid scientific study with legitimate correlations.”

Jeff I’m not criticizing the validity of this study, I’m questioning what people turn this study into. Just because something correlates doesn’t mean it caused it. I’m not doubting that it could be part to blame, but it may also be what people are doing with the rest of their lives. I think further research is necessary before we can say whether red meat is bad or good(scientifically).

Jeff
Jeff
7 years 8 months ago

Eric- You seem like a bright guy. Did you see the Matrix? Remember the red pill, blue pill scene? The livestock industry IS the matrix!

“MORE RESEARCH”? I googled “red meat research” and came up with 2,350,000 hits which also included words like disease prevention and increased death risk.

Koko
Koko
7 years 8 months ago
Hi Jeff. With all due respect, I do agree with Jack Lelane on the “if man made it don’t eat it” and I live that way,but am a little lost on “:if it tastes good, spit it out”. I find that Oranges, Apples, Avocados, tomatoes and even broccoli taste really good – should I spit them out? Have millions of years of evolution been wrong in that we should eat things that taste bad, or unpleasant and perhaps poisonous? How far do we go with that? The worse it tastes the healthier it is? If you feel thirst, don’t drink?… Read more »
Jeff
Jeff
7 years 8 months ago

Koko- Re:” If it tastes good, spit it out”
I think Jack Lalane is comparing processed foods with raw foods. I agree: fresh fruits and veggies taste great! But, if you dull your taste buds with soda pop, candy, and chips, the flavor of whole foods will be dulled.

Jeff
Jeff
7 years 8 months ago

QUESTION:
If you had the money and resources to conduct your OWN scientific study to CORRELATE RED MEAT CONSUMPTION WITH GOOD HEALTH, how would you set it up?

What assumptions/conditions would be required of the participants to facilitate their good health while eating red meat? :
Exercise? Low Triglycerides? High Fat? CAFO meat?

How would you measure ‘good health? Low occurrences of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity? Before and after pics?

Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 8 months ago

My guess on the differences between this and the unpublicised studies that reached different conclusions: first no analysis of carb content, second no differentiation between Real Meat and meatlike substances stuffed with grain and hormones, injected with water and artifical protein and marinaded in nitrites.

Maybe there’s a U curve: people eating real meat and low carb diets do significantly better on the markers, people eating artifical meat with toxic quantities of carbs do worse than people eating the toxic quantities of carbs on their own.

K-Dub
K-Dub
7 years 7 months ago

thank you so much for this article because i have been getting into so many arguments with my physiology teacher on this subject and you have provided me many facts i can use to shut her up. thanks again.

Dave | The Intelligent Workout
7 years 7 months ago

Great Analysis – If all the obese people in this study happened to enjoy mini golf then there would be a strong correlation between playing mini golf and dying of a heart attack. Better steer clear of the local putt putt…

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