Meat is Madness

This little beauty appeared in The Telegraph’s website on Wednesday, based upon this article: Red Meat Consumption & Mortality(1) in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

I wanted to write something on this as it is one of the first articles on this issue to appear since I started my blog, and it is veritable perfect storm of flaws: vested interest, bad science, long questionnaires, global warming and nutrition.  So, let’s get started!

The Questionnaires: Data was analysed from two studies: the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS) and the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS).  In 1980, those medical professionals involved in the NHS trial set about completing a 61 ‘item’ food frequency questionnaire (FFQ).  This may seem indigestible enough as it is, but by 2006, the NHS study questionnaire had swollen to between 131-166 items.  Even if they did only need to fill these in every four years, I doubt that any sane person could retain a sense of calm when confronted with:

“In each FFQ, we asked the participants how often, on average, they consumed each food of a standard portion size. There were 9 possible responses, ranging from “never or less than once per month” to “6 or more times per day.”

Question 1: Who the hell is eating meat 6 times a day?  Question 2: To what extent do we think people would rush through these forms just to get them finished and in the post?  Here’s an example of the madness!

Moving along: This table, from the study, indicates the baseline data for the two studies.  Notice that as red meat intake (portions per day) increases, exercise hours per week diminish (from around 27 hours a week to 17).  Could this be a problem?  The incidence of smoking increases from 5% to 14.5% in the HPFS as red meat intake increases.  Further problems?   Alcohol intake also rose (from 8g/d to 13g/d).  Let’s ignore that.  The percentage of the HPFS cohort with high cholesterol decreased as red meat intake rose (14.8% down to 7.9%).

Actually they do acknowledge these things:

“Men and women with higher intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to be current smokers, to drink alcohol, and to have a higher body mass index. In addition, a higher red meat intake was associated with a higher intake of total energy but lower intakes of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Number Crunching:  Looking at this table of results from the study, we can see that all-cause mortality for the 5 quintiles chowing-down on unprocessed meat is: Q1 1.25%, Q2 1.15%, Q3 .99%, Q4 1.21%   Q5 1.29%.  Q4 all-cause mortality, as a % of deaths (or ‘cases’ as a % of person-years) in that quintile is less than Q1! Not exactly headline stuff (if you have a vested interest in a fixed outcome).

Quality counts:

“Questionnaire items about unprocessed red meat consumption included “beef, pork, or lamb as main dish” (pork was queried separately beginning in 1990), “hamburger,” and “beef, pork, or lamb as a sandwich or mixed dish.” The standard serving size was 85 g (3 oz) for unprocessed red meat. Processed red meat included “bacon” (2 slices, 13 g), “hot dogs” (one, 45 g), and “sausage, salami, bologna, and other processed red meats” (1 piece, 28 g).”

 Hmm… setting aside how utterly dull life would be if we actually went around checking our 2 slices of bacon weighed-in at 13g, one fact is unavoidable: hamburger meat is rarely quality meat.  So how can we describe this as unprocessed? But then again, you can’t really blame the study for lumping this sort of foodstuff in with unprocessed meat as so much  unprocessed meat is of poor quality.  A hamburger can be a simple patty of ground beef from free-range cattle raised on pasture, or a steak can be cut from the carcass of an animal that has been fed on grain(2)(3) for the vast majority of its life, and not been allowed to move about as nature intended.  Which is the healthy choice now? Not so clear …

Vested Interests: Check the list of authors of the study and compare here.  Thanks to another review of this paper for spotting it!  I have no vested interest, other than being human, and wanting to eat healthily.   I eat quality natural food. Well, most of the time.

And where does the global warming fit in? Well, let’s cover that one another time…

 So, back to the headline that started all this: “1 in 10 early deaths blamed on red meat”.  Oh wait, nowhere in the study does it use the phrase ‘early death’.  Looking on the bright side, 9 out of 10 ‘early deaths’ are NOT caused by eating red meat.  Phew!


1. Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein A et al:  Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results from 2 Prospective Cohort Studies.  Arch Intern Med. Published online March 12, 2012. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287

2. Lindeberg, S:  Food & Western disease: Health & Nutrition from an Evolutionary Perspective.  Wiley-Blackwell 2010.

3. Mann N J et al: Feeding regimes affect fatty acid composition in Australian beef cattle. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2003; 12 Suppl:S38


One Response to Meat is Madness

  1. Pingback: Gluten-free Novak Djokovic! « finalprimate

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