(less than 4 minute read)
The Harvard Meat Study of 2012
This particular study (stating that red meat causes cancer & heart disease) is a perfect example of how an observational study can shape or validate our ideas, cause incredible confusion, form public health policy, and be terribly flawed. Every few months this report, or copies of it, pops back up in my feed and I want to reach through the interwebs and slap some people. Not because I enjoy red meat, and feel implicated in each share, but because this type of irresponsibility is rampant in medicine and nutrition- it causes confusion so patients do not receive proper information or adequate treatment, and then we have to do a lot of work to undo the misinformation.
Content writers around the world gobble this stuff up like candy. They don’t do any further digging, they don’t question the study, and often times will mis-report on the findings causing further (misleading) information. Remember those bullshit articles about how drinking wine is the equivalent to an hour at the gym, because of one nutrient in the skins of grapes? It’s like a sick game of “operator” and we’re left at the end shaking our heads and swiftly writing articles of correction. No wonder so many of my patients are confused about which way is up in medicine. There’s so much noise out there!
This isn’t a scientific study, it’s an observational study. If you remember fourth grade, you will recall that a scientific study starts off with a hypothesis. An idea, an observation that requires further investigation. Human knowledge is based on this process- observations that lead to exploration of the causation of the phenomenon. Great! A question is asked, and a hypothesis is formed. Experiments are coordinated, and then carried out, further observations are made, and the hypothesis is either accepted or rejected. Awesome! Science! I love it!!
I am not a paid content writer. It’s my day off and I would much rather have another cup of coffee and watch the birds at the bird feeder. But I can’t sit back any longer and watch this happen to smart and educated people. My intention is to lead you to think and disseminate information for yourself, rather than follow my opinions. I would like us to be a more discerning reader and sharer of good information, and consumer of proper nutrition, exercise, and medical treatments. I hope that in the future, if you see an article being passed around as you’ll be able to, within a few sentences, recognize whether or not it’s gossip, garbage, selling you something, or indeed… science!
“A Scientific Weapon of Mass Destruction: observational epidemiology, at least for public health policy.”
Observational studies can be very useful in showing linkages between simple things, like contaminated drinking water and cholera. Like smoking and lung disease. They are not useful for something like red meat and cancer, with so many confounding factors. The problem is that so many people share these flawed studies, news outlets catch wind and also report, and then some public health policy is then shaped based on the conclusions. It’s irresponsible, unethical, and journalists who report on these unsubstantiated findings are not helping one bit.
According to the Harvard Meat Study of 2012, there is no actual proof that consumption of red meat increases your risk of developing cancer, heart disease, or diabetes any more than maple leaves do.
My second favorite MD, expert on longevity and lifespan, host of a weekly podcast, and where I got most of the information for this article, Dr. Peter Attia describes and warns against these types of studies as a “Scientific Weapon of Mass Destruction: observational epidemiology, at least for public health policy.”
Here’s the kicker, quoted from Dr. Attia, on how these types of studies are typically done:
“What the researchers do in these studies is follow a cohort of several tens of thousands of people—nurses, health care professionals, AARP members, etcetera—and they ask them what they eat with a food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) that is known to be almost fatally flawed in terms of its ability to accurately acquire data about what people really eat. Next, the researchers correlate disease states, morbidity, and maybe even mortality with food consumption, or at least reported food consumption (which is NOT the same thing). So, the end products are correlations—eating food X is associated with a gain of Y pounds, for example. Or eating red meat three times a week is associated with a 50% increase in the risk of death from falling pianos or heart attacks or cancer.”
Consuming red meat does not cause heart disease or cancer, but a lifestyle typical of a person who eats a lot of red meat, processed foods, consumes few vegetables, and doesn’t exercise, can. There were too many confounding causal factors in these observations to link it to just red meat. Dr Zoe Harcombe does a great job of really getting into the deep details of this study, if you would like more nerdery.
To bring this home, I could tell you: Eating oatmeal increases your risk of heart disease.
Does it really? No, it doesn’t, any more than maple leaves or consuming red meat. What we could infer from observation, is that people who eat oatmeal suffer more heart disease. Why? Because typically more elderly people eat oatmeal, and the elderly tend to suffer more heart disease than younger people. We could say any number of things along this line: Grey hair leads to glaucoma, bad jokes, and high wasted pants. This demonstrates that we are making incorrect links between cause and effect. You all should be very pleased about this, since we’re laying the groundwork for notions such as: Vaccines do not cause autism. And that’s not something you hear often from a practitioner of alternative medicine.
I’m not saying any of this in order to embarrass or call anyone out. Humans do not innately think scientifically. Evolution has hardwired us to be followers, we observe how others thrive (or languish), and mimick (or avoid) those behaviors. It wasn’t until the last approximately .02% of human existence where we actually started applying scientific methodology to our thinking. It is difficult for us to go so far out of our way to unlearn these behaviors in order to apply logic to situations.
We think that logically, this study makes sense. We want to trust these institutions, and other seemingly reputable journals of medicine. Because of what we have learned in the past about cholesterol (albeit wrong), we nod our heads and agree, “Why yes! Of course red meat causes cancer and heart disease.” But that’s not proven through this study. What’s shown is a correlation between certain lifestyles and metabolic disease, cancer, and heart disease. This is not a scientific study, in the way that we all learned in fourth grade, to the degree of experimentation. I said before, human knowledge is formed from observation to causal factors. The next step is to experiment. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, rather an indication for more exploration.
Properly sourced red meat has many beneficial nutrients, among them the full range of B vitamins, iron, essential amino acids, and essential fats. I’m not going to eat it every day, but I will tonight.
(ht to Dr. Harcombe)