Commentary: More dubious research: eat meat and die

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Another week brings another sensational story about the dangers of eating meat. So, in my never-ending duty as shill for Big Food, Big Ag and a host of companies working diligently to poison America, the task at hand is to convince you the folks at Harvard are wrong. Except, that would be too obvious, and my colleague Dan Murphy has already chronicled the flaws of Harvard’s latest study into the health effects of red meat consumption. 

In case you missed news reports about the study, the Harvard School of Public Health says that eating meat – any amount and any type – appears to significantly increase the risk of premature death. This long-range study examined the eating habits and health of more than 110,000 adults for more than 20 years. The report says that adding one 3-ounce serving of red meat to your daily diet was associated with a 13 percent greater chance of dying during the course of the study. That percentage goes up to 20 if you add an extra daily serving of processed red meat, such as a hot dog or two slices of bacon.

Those statistics are more than a little unnerving, especially for someone such as me who consumes more than 3 ounces of red meat a day. But my concerns are eased by analysis of the research by others who are not shills for Big Ag who point out many of the accusations by the Harvard team are dubious. For instance, Adam Bornstein, a blogger at, notes, “a deeper look at the study shows some confounding variables that make it harder to believe that meat consumption is the real problem.”

One significant aspect of the Harvard study ignored in many reports is that the population studied was nurses. “All nurses,” Bornstein wrote. “This is not condemning the health profession, but nurses (and doctors) work some very difficult hours. They are not necessarily the model of health. Even if you disagree with that statement, nurses are not representative of the general population.”

So, the Harvard team studied the dietary intake of enough nurses to fill a football stadium for two decades, except, the research relied on questionnaires. That’s right, the nurses, maybe after pulling a long shift in the ER, were asked to recall what they had eaten. The American Meat Institute questioned such research that relies on “notoriously unreliable self-reporting about what was eaten and obtuse methods to apply statistical analysis to the data.”

Others analyzing the report point to this statement from the researchers as one that undermines their conclusion: “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.”

Bornstein wrote, “One could just as easily argue that it was the lack of fruits…or vegetables…or whole grains…or all of them combined that contributed to the negative health assertions made by the researchers.”

In short, a lot of folks are shooting holes in this research. But, as with other anti-meat or anti-ag news stories, it’s more likely the general public will remember the sensational headlines – “Red meat linked to premature death”- than they will the flimsy basis of the researchers’ conclusion.

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Mike Bergmeier    
Hutchinson, KS  |  March, 15, 2012 at 09:09 AM

I just hope that your GREAT articles about "red slime" and "the killer Beef" get out to millions of people. I forward your terrific research. There is a web site called FarmTime. It is free. It is a great attempt to connect more farmers and ranchers with each other, kind of a "facebook" for agriculture. Please consider friending this site. I know the developer, they will help "spread the word" on you guys' terrific reports. Your site is ONE OF THE BEST for current articles and "debunking" the press. I appreciate it. We all appreciate it, please keep it up.

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  March, 15, 2012 at 09:18 AM

Statistice, portraid properly, can show whatever you want. If you go back to the '50's and '60's and compare the monthly incidence of polio contracted and sales of Coke will show that Coke helped prevent polio. The more Coke sold, the lower the catching of polio. Probably more Coke being sold during nice weather when everyone was outside, hence not being couped up with those with polio, had nothing to do with it. And if you haven't notice, every mammal with cannines and eyes pointing forward, like me, every one is a born to be a meat eater. Sorry PETA.

SC  |  March, 15, 2012 at 09:40 AM

I wonder how many of those "premature deaths" smoked, did no exercise other than normal daily activity, ate most of their meals at fast food establishments, or were obese.

Chuck Carlson    
Colorado  |  March, 15, 2012 at 10:05 AM

Where do nurses eat their lunch? Don't eat hospital food! Maybe this is the real lesson of this report!

Georgia  |  March, 15, 2012 at 10:25 AM

Unbelievable. The criticisms of the research are extremely weak. True, there may be other confounding factors that need to be explained. But the nitpicked criticisms sound like the attacks against evolution. If one is anti-science then evidence or reason will never trump belief. The food industry is constant talking "science" and defending itself from from its tree hugger critics that have made their minds up about GMO or chemical residues based on belief and not evidence. If one does believe in science and this is something the food industry is constantly harping on, then you cannot just dismiss science that comes to a conclusion opposite to your beliefs. 110,000 people over 20 years is an impressive study. It was not performed to attack beef consumption. It was done to examine multiple behaviors and establish risk factos for them. I eat red meat and will continue to eat red meat. But as a scientist, I refuse to reject data out of a desire to disbelieve. If the analysis is inaccurate, then further analysis of the data set should bring this to light. I for one believe in science and evidence-based policy and medicine. The science is not always correct. But the scientific process is self correcting. It takes time, but we learn more, develop new hypotheses, and test those hypotheses. And we move forward in our knowledge of everything.

March, 15, 2012 at 11:45 AM

@Ray, sorry this does not qualify as science. Gathering information from surveys is not a factual basis for scientific conclusions. First the information gathered is merely opinion and not fact. For instance i have a friend who swears she is a vegetarian, she only eats fish and chicken. Hardly ever eats beef, sometimes a hamburger. See the problem there? She BELIEVES she is a vegetarian, however the facts are different than her opinion or recollection. How many people truly never ate meat or wish they had not? How many people say they do not eat sugar and sneak out for a chocolate bar but would never tell you. Controlled studies are the only way to glean true facts which then can be used to form some conclusions within a narrow range. Not these broad based parameters. Maybe people who eat bacon are care free risk takers who engage in unsafe sex, drunk driving etc etc. Is it because of the bacon? or is their behavior a reason they seek out bacon? Just please think for a moment before you label something science and equate it with scientific fact.

March, 15, 2012 at 11:53 AM

In addition when your study consists of only one small group of people, nurses, the results can be skewed. What percentage of the population are nurses? In theory it is possible for the entire non nurse section of the population to have results counter to the study. So the rest of us stop doing something that might lengthen our lifespan. My best friend is a nurse he has terrible eating habits due to the stress & schedule. However once he got married his eating habits improved, part of the problem was he worked so much he basically was afraid of dying alone. Did you ever think that nurse might be broken down into two types? the nurses who see death everyday and are less cautious eat what they want & party? and the nurses who decide to eat healthier, try to exercise after their shift and cut back on hours to have a better quality of life? Probably the stress kills far more than the diet. Not science by any means

Sam Johnson    
Ohio  |  March, 15, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Just another association study that proves nothing. There is no cause or effect relationship detailed here, no new discovery. But here is my prediction based on years of obersavation and reasearch which is not refuted by any other study: Everyone and anyone who ever ate a plant of any kind is dead or will die. Let Harvard prove me wrong.

Maryland  |  March, 15, 2012 at 12:04 PM

It’s a poor study and as indicated not representation of the general population. If you look at the nursing population most are overweight, eat on the run, long hours, rotating shifts and work in a very stressful environment. How is that representative of the general population? Unfortunately much of the research isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, one time it’s bad for you next time it’s good for you. This is just another study with predetermined outcome.

Kentucky  |  March, 15, 2012 at 12:22 PM

For a short commentary on the issues writ a little larger, take a look at this article, published March 14. Perhaps it isn't time to panic just quite yet...(though concern for the long-term health of the environment should remain part of the discussion).

Jude Capper    
Pullman, WA  |  March, 15, 2012 at 02:32 PM

As a population, we simply don't understand the difference between "cause-effect" and "association" - an association between A and B does NOT mean that A causes B and vice versa. Furthermore, the results were expressed as relative risks - a measure that most people don't understand. Within this study, the absolute mortality risks (i.e. the probability of any one person dying) paint a rather different picture. Out of every 100 men, 1.23 men consuming three servings of unprocessed meat (the equivalent of one 9-oz steak) per week were likely to die, versus 1.30 men eating 6 oz of processed meat (bacon, sausage etc) per day (42 oz per week). Given the small difference in those mortality risks (which were similar for women) yet the huge difference (9 oz vs. 42 oz) in weekly meat consumption, we would be better served by focusing more on other factors (bodyweight, exercise, genetic propensity to specific diseases) that contribute the vast majority of our absolute mortality risk rather than assuming that we can live forever if we only replace a hamburger with a vegetarian meatloaf. More discussion here:

Pat Seeley    
Texas  |  March, 15, 2012 at 03:44 PM

Tell that to the Native Peoples of the High Arctic where their natural diet for years was mainly red meat and fat. They started having cholesterol problems as the refined foods came in. These so called "studies" are just more "junk science" to turn the minds of the uninformed. I'm a rancher in East Texas raising some of the finest grass fed beef raised on over 80 trace minerals in their diet and soil....and the vet can't make a living off these cattle as he seldom has ever had to see any of them. Just goes to show you, if the soil is healthy, the plants are healthy, the animals and birds are healthy and it follows through that we are too.............. I will continue to eat red meat "til the cows come home"!!!

Kentucky  |  March, 15, 2012 at 04:40 PM

I really wish we could dispense with the conspiracy mode when discussing issues that could negatively affect the meat industry. "Junk science" is one. While it looks like the study was limited and probably not nearly as conclusive as might be promoted, it is far too easy to categorize a scientific study one doesn't agree with as "junk". The whole debate on climate change sometimes seen here is another example. This is not an example of anything more than what happens in doing science generally: you can always come up with studies that contradict other studies. To poo-poo one you don't agree with so flippantly is to deny science completely. If you don't agree, do what the original article and several comments have done - bring more science to the table. And then you can have a dialog rather than a diatribe, whether from ABC or Rush.

Randal Hartman    
texas  |  March, 16, 2012 at 09:29 AM

most nurses are over weight, consume sugar filled drinks ,and smoke ,not saying all {most]

pa  |  March, 16, 2012 at 10:03 AM

Died prematurely of what? Nurses and others who work in health care settings are at higher risk of developing health issues due to potential exposures of communicable diseases, stressful job conditions and hours, institutional prepared foods....need I say more? The results of this study show little. Perhaps a call for more controlled, indepth research if there seems to be an association, but the uncontrollable factors need to be taken out of the equation first before a direct link can be assumed. We also cannot assume the general population will be similiarly affected by a narrow research group with no actual measured intake (only recall questionaires). Do any of you remember what you ate every day last week? I don't....

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