I am sure you have all read or heard about the latest piece of research to come out that says red meat will kill you, today we shall delve into that claim. The study in question is an observational study called Red Meat Consumption and Mortality which was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and since its release the media has been alive with anything anti red meat.
The study claims that red meat increases your risk of death from everything!…”researchers found that a single daily serving of unprocessed red meat was associated with a 13% increased risk of death from all causes, while a single serving of processed red meat was associated with a 20% increased risk.”. The lead researcher in this study also claimed “ the study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,”. Thats a pretty strong statement, it must be one hell of a study to get to this conclusion.
So is this the end of the paleo band wagon?
Answer: No, not even close.
When reading sensational stories about groundbreaking findings the alarm bells should start ringing when the research in question is an observational study. In these studies subjects are placed into groups alongside a control group, the researchers have no control over the groups and what the do/eat/drink/smoke etc, the just sit back and observe. This is in contrast to controlled experiments such as randomised controlled trials where each subject is randomly assigned to a treated group or a control group before the start of the experiment. Each group has a tight set of controlled conditions with some slight variance between groups, this produces accurate results that can be compared.
Observational studies do have there benefits in that they are much cheaper and easier to run that controlled trials, but they cannot, ever, be used as definitive proof. What they can do is provide a broad picture which can help to form hypotheses which can go on to be tested in a more controlled environment.
The method….more like the madess!
Lets take a look at how this study was conducted and also what interesting things our researchers found.
1) The data used in this study came from what is called Food Frequency Questionnaires, these were questionnaires handed out to participants to fill in regarding their food intake between 1980 and 2006. At first glance this looks quite impressive, a study that spans over quater of a century! However, do you know how often these questionnaires were given to the participants? Once every 4 years. This should highlight (the first of many) glaring reliability issues, I cant remember what I ate two days ago never mind 4 years ago!
2) Not only does this study rely on people having incredible memories but it also assumes that everyone is being honest. As Denise Minger puts it ‘expecting people to be honest about what they eat is like expecting one of those “Lose 10 pounds of belly fat” banners to take you somewhere other than popup-ad purgatory: the idealism is sweet and all, but reality has other plans.’ Its usually the case that with these forms of questionnaires people tend to put answers that they believe they should be eating, not what the actually are.
3) Here is what I found to be particularly perplexing about the study. The participants were split into 5 groups based on how much red meat they reported (read guesstimated) to have consumed (remember, it was not measured or controlled). The researchers showed the different meat eating groups and their levels of activity, smoking etc and this is what they found. The groups eating the most red meat also happened to smoke the most and were also less physically active. The researchers clearly didn’t think that smoking and exercise played any roll in ones cancer risk, they just pinned it on red meat consumption, crazy!. An interesting side note our researchers found was those that ate the most red meat had the lowest cholesterol levels, those that ate the least red meat had highest cholesterol levels. Now if I was going to jump on the wagon I could write a new newspapers headline ‘Eating red meat lowers cholesterol levels!‘, however as this is an observational study it proves nothing but would be a exciting area for further research. From these observations one could make any number of other conclusions such as:
– Lower activity levels decreases cholesterol
– Smoking decreases cholesterol (or not-smoking increases cholesterol)
– Eating red meat makes you smoke more….All pretty ridiculous claims but if using the researchers logic they would all be perfectly valid, they just happened to be looking for a pattern in red meat consumption.
What do now?
Nothing, if you eat red meat then keep eating it, if its not your thing then fine (but it makes you less awesome). The most important thing to remember is correlation does not mean causation, but what does that mean exactly? Correlation is when 2 or more things occur when looking at a data set e.g. The more money people have, the bigger house they live in. Causation means if A happens, then B will occur, e.g. If I kick a ball, it will move. Just because you see a pattern occuring it does not explain the reason it is happening.
Here is an example of when it it goes wrong, I may find the correlation that the more firefighters at fire, the bigger the fire tends to be. From that I could claim the causation is that firefighters cause fires. Hopefully this highlights the problem when people mix correlation with causation and this is what we see with this study. This study has been so poorly conducted that the fact it has got so much attention is baffling and the media hysterics has giving it more credibility than it deserves.
There will always be those that get hold of these studies and either through ignorance, a desire to sell papers, or perhaps genuinely not having a clear understanding of what their looking at, will declare it as definitive proof. Im not sure whats worse, the media miss-informing millions of people, or the researchers who claim this as conclusive evidence. Sadly this is not the first (nor will it be the last) time something like this has happened, the ever pervasive ‘Fat makes you fat’ idea was born from similar circumstances.
There are far more fallacies with this research than I have commented on here, but if you require more evidence to provide to your red meat phobic friends and family take a look at Robb Wolfs article on the matter or Denise Mingers more in depth writings.
Workout of the day
Ten rounds for load and time of:
1 Clean and Jerk
– 15 minute Time Cap
– Choose a load and maintain it for each round. This should be a heavy clean and jerk.