Thursday March 15th, 2012
Nutritional McCarthyism: Red Meat To Blame for Death, Global Warming, Tsunamis, Mine Collapses, and Terrorist Attacks (Karen De Coster)
Red meat is probably the cause behind the Congo train derailment and the Yangtze River dolphin extinction, too.

The media, this week, ran the following headlines:

CNN. "Study: Too Much Red Meat May Shorten Lifespan."

LA Times. "Red Meat: What Makes It Unhealthy." "Harvard Study Concludes Red Meat Reduces Average Life."

NY Daily News. "Red meat boosts risk of dying young: study; Just one portion of processed meat boosts death risk by 20%."

New York Times. "Risks: More Red Meat, More Mortality."

And the most comical headline of them all was from Slate: "Study: All Red Meat Linked to Premature Death."

This was undoubtedly the most popular headline of the week for the sound bite lovin', I-read-the-headline-and-that's-all-that-matters crowd. To say that the mainstream media and the blogosphere discovered a new level of idiocy is putting it much too lightly. There were two types of people hitting the "publish" button on their blogs just a wee bit too prematurely over these headlines - (1) The vegans/vegetarians who may actually know a little something about eating good food, and have a passion for great health, yet are too motivated - perhaps politically - too see through the 40-year facade of the federal dietary sham, and (2) Bloggers who know absolutely nothing about health and wellness, let alone nutrition, and couldn't care less, except they carry a schizophrenic vendetta against people who are passionate about health and wellness and carry the torch for the paleo-primal lifestyle (you know, us nuts who advocate for such atrocities as real food, voluntary trade that is free from the force of the government's criminal agencies, and food freedom).

Many folks sent me the link and asked, "When are you going to blog on this?" For starters, I didn't have the time. But then again, I waited, because I knew the ancestral health community would light up the switchboard of ignorance with a spark of sagacity that would render the media blitz and bozo blogosphere impotent, like farts in the wind. And they didn't disappoint.

This was an observational study, where participants filled out food frequency questionnaires (here is a link to the questionnaire) every four years and lifestyle and medical data questionnaires every two years. Certainly, people are very honest and have a tremendous capacity for remembering what they ate two days ago, let alone a year ago. First, there is Robb Wolf, who referred to the red meat scaremongering as "nutritional McCarthyism." Gary Taubes also commented on the horrendous science behind the study:
The problem with observational studies like those run by Willett and his colleagues is that they do none of this. That's why it's so frustrating. The hard part of science is left out  and they skip straight to the endpoint, insisting that their interpretation of the association is the correct one and we should all change our diets accordingly.

In these observational studies, the epidemiologists establish a cohort of subjects to follow (tens of thousands of nurses and physicians, in this case) and then ask them about what they eat. The fact that they use questionnaires that are notoriously fallible is almost irrelevant here because the rest of the science is so flawed. Then they follow the subjects for decades -- 28 years in this case. Now they have a database of diseases, deaths and foods consumed, and they can draw associations between what these people were eating and the diseases and deaths.

The end result is an association. In the latest report, eating a lot of red meat and processed meat is associated with premature death and increased risk of chronic disease. That's what they observed in the cohorts -- the observation.

...An association by itself contains no causal information. There are an infinite number of associations that are not causally related for every association that is, so the fact of the association itself doesn't tell us much.
Taubes calls these observational studies "the equivalent of conventional wisdom-confirmation machines." And then there is Denise Minger, guest writing for Mark Sisson's blog, who put the entire drama to rest with her relentless pursuit of science in the midst of a media blitz touting what she calls "ultimately wobbly, imperfect, and tragically inconclusive observational data." Denise notes that this was a "garden-variety observational study, not an actual experiment where people change something specific they're doing and thus make it possible to determine cause and effect." Yet the researchers drew absolute conclusions from their disturbingly unscientific study. Says Denise:
The lead researcher Frank Hu claimed the study "provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death," despite the fact that the study is innately incapable of providing such evidence. It's as if someone pulled a Campbell on us. Only an actual experiment, with controls and manipulated variables, could start confirming causation.
There are a couple of other thrashings worth mentioning, and the most notable of those is from Zoe Harcombe. She does a deep dive on the data and points out seven fatal flaws of the study, with one of them being the following:
As I always consider conflict of interest, it would be remiss of me to end without noting that one of the authors (if not more) is known to be vegetarian and speaks at vegetarian conferences[ii] and the invited 'peer' review of the article has been done by none other than the man who claims the credit for having turned ex-President Clinton into a vegan -- Dean Ornish.[iii]
The Caveman Doctor also published a nice piece on how the study was fraught with error and bias.[NOAD]