Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Mar

The Red Scare

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

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. 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

    Son of Grok wrote on March 26th, 2009
  2. Well said, SoG. Thanks for your regular comments. I always look forward to them and they always get the boards started off on the right foot.

    Mark Sisson wrote on March 26th, 2009
  3. 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 wrote on March 26th, 2009
  4. 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 zorn wrote on March 26th, 2009
  5. 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.

    Holly wrote on March 26th, 2009
  6. 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.

    Heidi_CFATL wrote on March 26th, 2009
  7. 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.


    Colleen K wrote on March 26th, 2009
  8. 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:

    Brian Karpuk wrote on March 26th, 2009
  9. Yet one more reason to stop reading the news papers. Honestly, they do more harm than good.

    MikeL wrote on March 26th, 2009
  10. Thanks Mark, great post. Probably the only arguable point they made was to not smoke.

    JD wrote on March 26th, 2009
  11. So we have to stop having all these posts on red meat, the pictures at the top make me ridiculously hungry.

    John FitzGibbon wrote on March 26th, 2009
  12. 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!

    Kaveman wrote on March 26th, 2009
  13. @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 Matasic wrote on March 26th, 2009
  14. “…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!

    Koko wrote on March 26th, 2009
  15. 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.)

    Merry wrote on March 26th, 2009
  16. 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…………

    Jessie wrote on March 26th, 2009
  17. 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.

    Donna wrote on March 26th, 2009
  18. 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. :)

    Theresa wrote on March 26th, 2009
  19. 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!”

    Snoopy wrote on March 26th, 2009
  20. 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 wrote on March 26th, 2009
  21. 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% of vegetarians die.

    Tim wrote on March 26th, 2009
  22. 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.

    emergefit wrote on March 26th, 2009
  23. 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.

    Big John wrote on March 26th, 2009
  24. 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.

    Sverker wrote on March 26th, 2009
  25. 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.

    Walter Norris wrote on March 26th, 2009
  26. 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.

    Mike OD - Life Spotlight wrote on March 26th, 2009
  27. 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.

    DaveC - DaveGetsFit wrote on March 26th, 2009
  28. OMG! Did I read that study right? And why didn’t the press alert me?

    Increased red meat consumption causes smoking!?


    Erasmus wrote on March 26th, 2009
  29. 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

    Son of Grok wrote on March 26th, 2009
  30. 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 my way to fill out surveys anymore.

    On top of that they asked these good people to accurately recall what they ate FOR THE PAST YEAR. Not only foods but QUANTITIES. What a NIGHTMARE. I’ve tried tracking my food in SparkPeople before and I’d like to do it again but it’s going to take some serious meal planning on my part because the way I was doing it was totally putting me off healthy eating. (I want to have something to point to and show people, “Look, I’m eating all this ‘unhealthy’ animal food and I’m healthy!”) It’s hard enough when the food’s right in front of your face. How many people use measuring cups for cooked food? How many people own kitchen scales? How many people would remember the numbers a year later, even if they did?

    The CAFO vs. grass-fed issue is interesting but, I think, also another red herring. We don’t have any real data, I don’t think, to tell us whether someone living on CAFO meat would still be healthier than someone eating a grain-based diet high in sugar. I’m gonna guess they would be, just based on the evidence of what years and years of insulin overdose do to the body.

    But someone who eats red meat in the current political climate (and this study is ALL about the politics) is going to be someone who doesn’t give a rip about official health advice. Either they’re a low-carber or they’re doing full-out SAD. In the latter case they are likely to also be smokers and drinkers and to do other risky things with their lives.

    Plus… y’know… *ages 50 to 71.* How many of these folks just died because it was time?

    Man. We could go around spotting flaws in this thing til the end of the year, I think, and it’s only March!

    Dana wrote on March 26th, 2009
  31. 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.

    Dana wrote on March 26th, 2009
  32. 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?

    Jeff wrote on March 26th, 2009
  33. 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.

    Zen Frittata wrote on March 26th, 2009
  34. 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!

    Conny wrote on March 26th, 2009
  35. Mark, you’re my Hero. So smart and knowledgeable….. Seriously though.

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

    Yum Yucky wrote on March 27th, 2009

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