These three headlines are all based on the same piece of research, a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on March 12th entitled “Red Meat Consumption and Mortality.”
So, how did the LA Times, Livestrong, and a popular health blogger all get such different messages? And what did the study really say? Both good questions – let’s start by considering how 3 journalists got such different stories…
This may be shocking to some of you, but many journalists don’t a) know how to understand statistics, b) know how to understand nutrition science, c) read an entire study before reporting on it, or d) all of the above.
Most often it’s d.
Back in the olden days of print journalism, reporters specialized in certain topics. You had one guy covering foreign affairs, one gal writing about local government, and one very low-paid individual reporting on science and research. This person was most likely educated in a field of science, knew how to properly read statistics, and most importantly, knew how to critically approach study results.
With the advent of online journalism, deadlines have gone from 24 hours to 24 minutes. Reporters don’t have the time to read and digest a research study when their stories are published moments after the research is released. Most journalists report on a multitude of topics without specializing in a certain field. It is likely that more time is spent on coming up with catchy headlines like these:
That last headline is from Slate reporter Rachael Levy, who in the same week also reported on the latest ipad reviews and the cosmonaut that Russia plans to send to the moon by 2030. I’m guessing science isn’t her forte.
Clearly if we go by the headlines, the story ranges anywhere from red meat = death to grab a burger for lunch. But what did the science say?
The findings of the study were nothing new for nutrition and health advocates, many of which have long recommended that red meat be eaten in moderation, meaning 1-2 servings/week. What the headlines don’t tell you is that the increased rates of mortality, 13% associated with unprocessed red meat and 20% associated with processed red meat (bacon, hot dogs, bologna), were pooled from food questionnaires with 9 possible responses for meat intake, ranging from “never or less than once a month” to “6 servings per day.”
The findings were then grouped into 5 quintiles based on servings, and it was between these quintiles that those percentages were deduced. What the news sources also failed to report is that the food frequency questionnaires that were used are notoriously inaccurate (not just in this study, but in general). Why? Because they rely on our ability to remember what we ate in what quantities. Sit down right now and try to write down what you ate in the past week. Harder than you might think.
In addition, the individuals who ate more red meat were also less likely to be physically active and more likely to smoke, drink, and have a higher BMI. These are what, in science, we call confounding factors, or other factors that may influence study outcomes. What that means is, based on these factors, we don’t know if the higher mortality rates in meat eaters are due to their likelihood of being smokers, or due to high consumption red meat. Is red meat consumption the culprit or is it just a singular symptom of an overall lifestyle?
I don’t mean to discredit the findings of this study – I doubt you’ll find a single RD or RD-to-be that will recommend heavy red meat consumption. But as the study authors point out in the research, part of this has to do with the foods that we substitute red meat for: fish, whole grains, poultry, and plant-based proteins. So maybe it isn’t the red meat that is killing you, maybe it is the fact that you aren’t getting all the benefits of these other foods.
Take away messages from scientific research can be complicated, and are often pushed aside for catchy headlines about imminent death. However, short of drinking drain cleaner, I’m not comfortable telling you that any food is going to kill you. What I will say is that quantity and quality do matter.
So how do I take research like this and put in into practice?
Friday night steak night! I choose to only eat red meat once a week (unless a rare occasion like a summer BBQ or a trip to Colicchio & Sons arises), I make it at home so I can control the quality of the meat I am eating, and I make a “night” of it to mark the fact that it is a special occasion. I credit our good friends Hillary and Mike for this idea and after putting it into practice every week, it’s quite genius. From Pollan’s all-too-famous saying I have created my own: “Eat Red Meat, Not too Much, Only on Fridays.”
Another note on quality and why it does matter – A lot of criticisms have arisen about popular diets like Paleo based on the fact that these protein-heavy diets are meant to include grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, not the grain fed, unnatural ones that most people in our country consume. This does make a difference. Without going into the whole “you are what you eat” conversation, I can assure you that the health and quality of the meat you eat will have an effect on your health. (If you need more convincing I have many great books to recommend).
So, if you are concerned with this research, stick to the grass-fed (grain finished is ok too) meats. That might mean paying up a bit, but when it’s only once a week, it’s worth it to get the good stuff. In addition, this will automatically force you to eat more plant-based meals and wild fish which – surprise! – research found were associated with lower mortality rates.
And next time you see a headline that includes a phrases like “premature death,” “boosts death risk,” and “all ______is bad for you,” take a moment, put on your thinking cap, and question the veracity of the research. Your Friday night menu will surely thank you.
- The Aspiring RD