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. 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.

    Matt wrote on March 27th, 2009
  2. 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.

    Ellen wrote on March 27th, 2009
  3. 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.

    Donna wrote on March 27th, 2009
  4. At least the original “Red Scare” had real bad guys (the commies).

    Parkour anyone?

    Terry wrote on March 27th, 2009
  5. 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.

    Eric wrote on March 28th, 2009
  6. “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 Japan, Thailand, El Salvador, and the Philippines where nutrition consists of much lower calories from animal products.

    How’s that workin’ for ya America, Denmark, Netherlands, UK, Ireland????… this addiction to red meat? How do our parents die? How will you die? Sure you may have some nutrition gimmick that gets you into your bathing suits this year, but what about your twilight years?

    Jack Lalane declared that his two simple rules of nutrition are “if man made it, don’t eat it”, and “if it tastes good, spit it out.”

    Jeff wrote on March 28th, 2009
  7. Here’s a thorough analysis of the so-called “science” behind this ridiculous study:

    Alex wrote on March 28th, 2009
  8. “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).

    Eric wrote on March 28th, 2009
  9. 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.

    Jeff wrote on March 29th, 2009
  10. 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? etc…

    I don’t understand that rationale.

    With respect

    Koko wrote on March 29th, 2009
  11. 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 wrote on March 29th, 2009
    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?

    Jeff wrote on March 29th, 2009
  13. 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.

    Trinkwasser wrote on March 31st, 2009
  14. 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.

    K-Dub wrote on April 8th, 2009
  15. 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…

    Dave | The Intelligent Workout wrote on April 23rd, 2009
  16. Well, if the red meat you’re eating is coming from McDonalds then the article makes sense. However, if you are eating organic pork, grassfed beef, pastured chickens, and wild-caught fish you may be eating it somewhat regularly, but not too much as it is so dang expensive. For my husband and I most servings are in the 4-6 oz. portion range. We eat red meat 5-7 times a week have great blood work and take no medications. SO THERE!

    Cherie wrote on September 14th, 2009
  17. Oh, and we’re both in our late 50’s.

    Cherie wrote on September 14th, 2009
  18. Now i dont have a huge issue against lean red meat, however I do personally limit red meat in general to only a couple times a month and with a couple of those being lean fillet mignons cooked medium rare, mmmm so good….anyway I do believe in a well balanced diet but with an emphasis on on white meats and fish to go along with the fruits and vegetables, but still including some red meat but only occassionally.
    What I do have an issue with though is misleading and biased information, especially when apparently everyone here is ignorant of it. It takes only a little critical thinking to see that you are using even worse tactics to prove your point than this study did in just stating their results. The only thing worse than using a “weak” study design to just state which correlations came out to be statistically significant, is to use that same studies results as “proof” for your own views which are the opposite of what the research data showed! You come across like this study was “biased” in its approach rather than just being “weak”. There is a huge difference as one would skew the results in the direction they want (biased) and the other would just have low reliability and could skew it in EITHER direction (weak). In fact, since it is a weak design it could just as easily have underestimated the risks of eating red meat! But you neglect to tell your readers this. You cannot use a weak study design to prove anything other than seeing possible trends that need further testing with a stronger design to prove, but no one with any sense would take a weak designs results and then claim that it helps their counterview. If you dont have research to back up your view you cant come across like you do and mislead a bunch of people. All you can do is state that their research used a weak design but you can not say because they had a weak design that proves eating red meat is as healthy as other meats! it is absurd to think that so many readers took your view as being backed by anything at all…I have a biochemistry degree, am working in healthcare so have a little understanding here but until i did some further research to validate my views I will not state them here as you did and possibly lead many people with nothing but an opinion. I cant believe someone so poignantly pointing out the holes in a research article would make such an unfounded and unbacked claim and with so many obvious holes in your own rationale! You went through pointing out all the flaws of this study, and then used their flaws (which limits THAT studies validity) as reason that “Red meat itself, at the end of the day, appears to be little more than a red herring”. How does weakening one studies validity (which limits its strength but does not in anyway strengthen the opposing view) enable you to use that for your own argument? All we can take away from a flawed study is that that study is not as strong to use for support, but we can not all of a sudden say that since they had flaws, the opposite is true! Also you claim at the end that we should stay away from processed meats!? how can you take that away from a “flawed study” yet neglect that red meats also carry the same risks? You are the biased one here. Also you used Dr Michael Eades article as proof for your view! Reading that, may I ask you how showing that vegetarians may not be as healthy as those that eat any meat (and maybe no red meat at all), proves that red meat is good for you? Oh i wish i could go on and on but this is wasting my time. You weak attempt to actually back your claims makes me want to scream and just for the principle of it, makes me want to start hating red meat….and i love my fillet mignon and dont want to go there.

    Joe wrote on June 30th, 2010
  19. sorry to all that read that “vent”…it just bothered me thinking of a lot of the patients i’ve worked with that didnt use moderation in their diet and knowing that they would see this article and think “oh red meat is good, in fact healthy, why should i limit it?”…when in reality their poor health status, though affected by MANY factors including insulin spikes, would also be improved by limiting or at least moderating their red meat consumption. You eat a T-bone or a hamburger without the bun and you still have a cholesterol and saturated fat bomb, and doing that too often will increase health problems. Red meat by itself may not be the culprit, but until an individual does away with smoking, drinking and overeating, the saturated fats and cholesterol has got to be regulated. They can not keep eating heavy meat portions along with keeping up their other unhealthy habits.

    Joe wrote on June 30th, 2010
    • It will only increase health problems if you’re running high on omega 6 which will cause systematic inflammation, causing production of cholesterol to go up to be deposited in the arteries.
      Red feedlot meat is HIGH in omega 6 because the animals are fed grains.

      I am pretty darn sure american indians who ate buffalo year around had NO health problems.

      Cholesterol ratios is what’s important, not total # of cholesterol.

      Primal Palate wrote on July 10th, 2011
  20. Don’t believe everything you watch on TV! Saying charred meat should be avoided is a little like saying I should exercise. Aren’t these videos (the study) a little too obvious? That they are promoting meat as “healthy”?

    You should refer to for a better study on not only meat fat, but meat protein, and its correlation to cancer.

    Also what they don’t always say is this: that red meat also has SUGAR! Think diabetes and obesity.

    Think also about rendered meat (dead meat recyled into animal meat) that these for-food animals eat.

    A proportion of meat supply could already be GMO meat.

    kelly wrote on July 6th, 2010
  21. P.S. Even when people smoke a lot their high blood pressure could still be normal. But when people take a lot of meat, blood pressure shoots up!

    kelly wrote on July 6th, 2010
  22. “But when people take a lot of meat, blood pressure shoots up!”

    Really? I’d like to see the source for that. I’m 50, I eat lean read meat regularly, no grains… and my blood pressure is an average of 112 over 69.

    hmmmmm must be a different kind of meat that raises blood pressure, from unicorns maybe?


    Koko wrote on July 6th, 2010
  23. This study was ridiculous. Instead of swiss cheese, it’s more like a giant hole

    Jeff wrote on November 10th, 2010
  24. Why is Red Meat the Problem?

    The problem is not red meat. The problem is how red meat is produced.

    If beef could be produced with positive impacts on human health, animal health, ecology, environmental factors, and cost efficiency – Why is the beef industry continuing to support a product and system of production that is detrimental to all these concerns?

    Answer: Politics and money based on an antiquated perspective.

    There is a way to preserve the beef industry and resolve the issues.

    Not unlike any large network, the inter-relational threads of the livestock industry are tightly woven. New perspectives are generally not allowed exposure if the political and monetary benefits are not part of the introduction.

    For instance, a new product or concept requires testing and evaluation by several factions, one being university research groups. These entities are supported through donations, grants, and direct payment for services. If a new product needs the evaluation to be a viable consideration, formula rights owners or inventors must pay to open the doors to opportunities. The better the support and network for acceptance to consideration, the more likely the evaluations will be favorable. In other words, it is not what you know, but who you know, and how the wealth is distributed.

    According to statistics, red meat contributes to human health issues such as cardiac disease and obesity from fat consumption. Organizations are advocating for restricting or eliminating red meat from human diets. Bill Clinton has recently become the poster child for this perspective. This suggestion is not the answer. Killing an industry that generates billions of dollars for the American economy is no solution.

    In 2010, the average annual wage for a processing plant worker was $29,000 for a combined total of $19B. The beef industry processed over 33 million cattle that same year. The beef and poultry industry generated $862.4B in 2010. Combined, the beef and poultry industries impact businesses in all 509 sectors of the U.S. economy, in every state and every congressional district in this nation. Advocating for restricting or eliminating beef based on the factors expressed by the uninformed will negatively impact the global economy should the public follow these suggestions.

    A simple perspective on cost savings would be in state economics. For instance, if the State of Texas Department of Criminal Justice with its current levels of beef in production implement a product that could save $3.25M per year, would the taxpayers of Texas support it?

    Now, there’s a question.

    If the methane gas and manure toxicities generated from cattle, both beef and dairy, could be significantly reduced through a simple, cost-effective ration that would drive down consumer costs, would the American public support that? There’s another question.

    If humane conditions and health of the animals are a concern, would a product that could alleviate or eliminate many of the issues facing producers today be a primary consideration in meat production operations? One would think so, especially when alleviation or reductions in these factors will produce a product that significantly reduces human health impacts through consumption of a product with fewer toxins, medication residues, reduced fat content and balanced mineral levels.

    The problem is not red meat. The problem is how red meat is produced.

    There is a solution.

    It reduces production costs.
    It reduces negative environmental impacts.
    It reduces human health impacts.

    In short, it is the answer to quality production and consumption issues facing the industry, today.

    Their question to you is: “Got beef?”

    Our question to them should be: “Why don’t we have quality beef?”

    The answers are politics, money, and a fifty years old perspective that is not being exposed as the cause.

    Here’s one final question:

    If a product could be utilized in all livestock meat production that would generate the same quality results, universally, would you support implementation of that product in the process?

    Answer: Yes. You would.

    Criticizing red meat is not the answer. Quality production for a quality product is the answer.
    To be part of the answer, the right questions have to be asked.

    Advocate for the solution. Support the meat production industries of the United States by demanding change – not elimination.

    sara wrote on September 1st, 2011
  25. Pretty nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that Ive truly loved browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing on your feed and I am hoping you write again very soon!

    Darla Rameriez wrote on September 5th, 2011
  26. bravo!!! It shows how you know completely nothing about research and meat consumption and how bad it is for you. The increase in mortality is slight because it’s comparing people who eat less meat to people that eat more meat. If you compare people who eat no meat to people who eat a lot of meat you will see a big difference.
    Regarding your comment about the placebo: the experiments have been done on animals (rats and mice) and they DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE EATING, AND the results have been incredible! Rats that had been exposed to carcinogenics and fed meat all got sick, while those who were exposed to the same carcinogenics and were fed no meat (carbs instead) none of them got cancer (the china Study, Colin T. Campbell)

    DV wrote on October 6th, 2011
  27. DV, you read one book and got convinced. If you’re not clever enough to think for yourself you should stop reading books :)

    emily wrote on October 19th, 2011

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