Where's the Beef? | Chris Kresser
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Where’s the Beef?

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This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.

You might have seen an article in your newspaper or online touting a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that “strongly” linked red meat consumption with cancer and an increased risk of death. Heck, how could you miss it? Google shows 547 new articles about the study, and it was mentioned in just about every major newspaper in the U.S.

(That’s not an accident, by the way. It’s an intentional attack by the tyrannical meat-hating scientific majority, the same folks who brought us the “cholesterol causes heart disease” and “saturated fat is bad for you” myths.)

Trouble is – as is so often the case – the study is deeply flawed. In fact, anyone with training in research methodology might find themselves wondering “where’s the beef?” after they read it.

In the end it’s just another piece of worthless propaganda parading as medical research. It tells us a lot more about the biases and motives of the researchers, and the incompetence of the media reporting on it, than it does about the effect of red meat consumption on human health.

Here are my “top 10” reasons to ignore this study and continue to eat your grass-fed, organic red meat:

1. It was an observational study. Observational studies can show an association between two variables (i.e red meat consumption and death), but they can never show causation (i.e. that eating red meat caused the deaths). A simple example of the difference between correlation and causation is that elevated white blood cell count is correlated with infections. But that doesn’t mean elevated white blood cell counts cause infections!

2. The relative risk reduction (RRR) was slightly over 1.0. Most researchers don’t pay attention to an RRR under 2.0, due to the notorious difficulties involved with this type of research.

3. Two articles were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition at around the same time that directly contradicted these results. The first study pooled data from 13 studies and found that risk of colorectal cancer was not associated with saturated fat or red meat intake. The second study found that there was no difference in mortality between vegetarians and meat eaters.

4. The authors didn’t adequately control for other dietary factors known to increase morbidity and mortality. As another commentator pointed out in her analysis of this study, “Americans get their “cancer causing” red meat served to them on a great big white bun with a load of other carbohydrates (soda, chips, fries) and inflammation-causing n-6 vegetable oils (chips, fries, salad dressings) on the side.” It’s more likely (based on other studies, including the two mentioned above) that the increase in deaths was caused by the junk food surrounding the red meat and not by the meat itself.

5. The basis of measurement is a “detailed questionnaire”. Questionnaires about one’s diet are always error prone as remarkably few people remember accurately what they eat on any given day, let alone over a period of years. Furthermore, most people lie about what they actually eat, especially now that proper diet has been given a quasi-religious significance and eating poorly is equated with being morally inferior.

6. Check out this quote from the Archives of Internal Medicine study:

“Red meat intake was calculated using the frequency of consumption and portion size information of all types of beef and pork and included bacon, beef, cold cuts, ham, hamburger, hot dogs, liver, pork, sausage, steak, and meats in foods such as pizza, chili, lasagna, and stew”.

In other words, even those people who ate things like hot dogs and hamburgers (with buns made of refined white flour), and who ate pizza (on refined white flour crusts) were included in the ‘red meat’ group. Also, those who ate processed or cured meats, such as ham, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, or cold cuts (with possible nitrates) were included in the ‘red meat’ group. And those who ate prepared food (with unknown additives and preservatives) such as pizza, chili, lasagna, and stew were also included in the ‘red meat’ group. Therefore, this study does absolutely nothing to prove that red meat, and not these processed and highly refined foods, is the culprit.

7. The quality of the meat consumed in the study was not taken into account. Highly processed and adulterated “factory-farmed” meats like salami and hot dogs are lumped together with grass-fed, organic meat as if they’re the same thing. It’s likely that very little of the meat people ate in the study was from pasture-fed animals. Factory fed animals are fed corn (high in polyunsaturated, omega-6 fat), antibiotics, and hormones, all of which negatively impact human health.

8. We don’t know anything about the lifestyles of the different study groups. Were they under stress? Did they lose their jobs? Did they have other illnesses? Did they live in a toxic environment? All of these factors contribute significantly to disease and mortality.

9. We don’t know if the people in the study ate more sugar, processed food, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, additives or fast food – all of which are known to cause health problems.

10. We don’t know if the people who ate more red meat were better off financially than the people who ate less red meat, and thus had more exposure to the “medical industrial complex” – which, as you know from my previous article, kills more than 225,000 people per year and is the 3rd leading cause of death in this country.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Me? I’m gonna go have a big, juicy, grass-fed steak.

Further recommended reading

  1. Meat and Mortality. A great critique of the study by Dr. Michael Eades, author of Protein Power.
  2. More on Meat & Sustainability. A Challenge to Environmentalists.
  3. The Red Scare. Another insightful analysis over at Mark’s Daily Apple.
  1. Hi Chris,

    I love your work, but I have an issue with at least one of the colorectal cancer studies you mention here. One of the meta-analysis studies lists the cattleman’s beef board as a funding source.

  2. do you think  about  the  animals  being  killed  and  how  horrible  it  really  is . I have  been  vegan  for  32 yrs  of  49  and  i  run  rings  around  my  old  and  even  15  yrs  younger  friends  in  the  surf  on  the  dance  floor  and  everything  else    MEAT  IS  NOT  NECESSARY DONT  LIE  AND  SAY  IT  IS

    • Everyone is entitled to their opinion I am not here to argue with your personal lifestyle choice. However, evidence suggests that the evolution of our species was dependent upon meat consumption. In other words, if meat wasn’t the primary caloric source of our ancestors’ diet, you wouldn’t even be here. If we evolved to eat meat, why would we stop now? There are humane ways to raise and slaughter animals for meat. Traditional cultures have used these methods for thousands of years.

      I’d suggest you read the following links if you’re open minded enough to consider another point of view:

      Are We Meat Eaters or Vegetarians, Part II (The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis): explains how meat consumption enabled humans to develop larger brains and thus become the species we are today

      Excerpt from the Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Kieth: a thoroughly researched rebuttal to the moral, political and nutritional arguments of vegetarians and vegans

      What Can Evolution Teach Us About the Human Diet? More evidence that humans evolved to eat meat.

  3. You say, “Observational studies can show an association between two variables (i.e red meat consumption and death), but they can never show causation (i.e. that eating red meat caused the deaths). A simple example of the difference between correlation and causation is that elevated white blood cell count is correlated with infections. But that doesn’t mean elevated white blood cell counts cause infections!”
    It’s an important point. However, though correlation does not imply causation, would you agree it implies a relationship between the two? In your example of white blood cells and infection, a relationship does exist; infections cause an increase in white blood cells (right?). When considering red meat and death, if there is a statistically significant correlation between the two, one might infer a relationship… I would hope an impartial scientist would then ask the question: What is the nature of this relationship?

  4. I truly appreciate the level of your posts here in the Healthy Skeptic. It is refreshing and inspirational to see your well thought out discussions. I enjoy all your posts and look forward to more.

  5. Sorry to be contrary, but T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study” should put this issue to rest. Please consider the information presented there. The methodology is impressive.

  6. Thank you for this, Chris.

    Really, point #7 is my big beef with most studies that call one food or another bad. There is just too much focus on calories and fat, and it seems like only the holistic community is taking into consideration the quality of the food and whether or not preservatives were present.

    I am reminded of the somewhat infamous egg study from I believe the 50’s that told everyone that eggs would raise their cholesterol. This created a wonderful market for egg white products, coincidentally. In Ann Louise Gittleman’s book Your Body Knows Best, she explains that the original study was done on powdered egg yolks and was funded by the Cereal Institute.

    I really wish researchers would start putting out some more realistic studies.

  7. David,

    I’ve recently come across a couple of resources you might find helpful.

    The first is an article on basic statistical literacy in relation to health care.

    The second is an independent health news review website that evaluates health news headlines and the studies they reference.  For example, here is their review of the red meat / mortality study that is the subject of this blog post.

  8. Say Hey-

    How many times have we been advised to just plot the data ourselves? Read the data tables for yourself; here is one that made my jaw drop…

    Women
    Red meat(g/k-kcal)  9.1  21.2  31.2  42.8  65.9
    Cancer (Deaths)     2134 1976 1784 1687 1348

    This is their data on red meat and cancer in women. If you want to expose how the study’s correlation between processed meat and men’s cancer is not a casual link, their own data on women and cancer is all you need to consider.

    By their own logic, red meat reduces cancer in women; even processed meat reduced cancer in women. White meat was about neutral. So a key to this study is the difference between men and women. Why not come out and tell women red meat is good for them?

    Examining the data format reveals that the red meat data is both red meat and processed meat. They did not plot red meat alone. Why include processed meat?  Because that’s what generates the correlation.  There is a nice Irish study (British Journal of Nutrition (2005), 93, 933–942) on red meat consumption and disease that pursues this relationship between men and processed meat.  

    Want to guess the health aspects of a lifestyle based on bologna and hot dogs?

    -Rich

  9. Chris,

    Do you know of a paper that I can read that teaches me how to critique a study and determine if it is a “good” study?

    I do understand that there are whole classes that teach this type of thing.

    Thanks

  10. well…I’ve never been formally taught how to review a study, nor have a studied research methodology and I figured out all the stuff you were talking about…WITHOUT reading the study. I figured, well, this is not organic grass fed beef…and this is average Americans who eat a ton of processed meat and white flour…blah blah blah…I DIDN”T NEED A SPECIFIC EDUCATION on how to look at a study!!

    I don’t know…I guess a good general education and a naturally somewhat analytical brain is all you need and most people don’t have that…but journalists certainly should.

    My mind is constantly boggled by what passes as news.

  11. Most consumers don’t study research methodology in school.  Understandably, the average Joe or Jane doesn’t really know how to read a study and critique it. 

    For that, they depend on the media.  Oops!  I’m not sure where they find the “science reporters” at major news outlets, but clearly they either 1) are not reading the actual studies, and just parroting whatever they get off the AP news wire; 2) don’t know how to properly analyze and critique a study; or, 3) share the agenda of the study authors and aren’t interested in getting to the truth.

    I’m not sure which of those possibilities is worse.

  12. well, I did pretty darn good…I saw a good couple of dozen of those articles, didn’t bother reading any of them and speculated everything you document here in your piece!!

    sometimes it’s just to easy to see through the crap!!

    but why are there so many people who simply don’t??