It’s a year old and a long read but worth it.
We’re already 74 days into the new year, which can only mean one thing: it’s high time for our latest episode of Science Says Meat Will Kill You, complete with a brand new study and commercial-free viral media coverage! Have a seat and tune in (or at least set your DVR for later viewing).
If you haven’t had at least one family member, coworker, or soon-to-be-unfriended Facebook acquaintance send you this study as a reminder that you’re killing yourself, you’re either really lucky or your inbox is broken. Thanks to an observational study called Red Meat Consumption and Mortality freshly pressed in the Archives of Internal Medicine,a slew of bold headlines exploded across every conceivable media outlet this week:
- “All red meat is bad for you, new study says”
- “Red meat is blamed for one in 10 early deaths”
- “Scientists warn ‘red meat can be lethal’”
Media sensationalism aside, the study does seem to spell trouble for proud omnivores. Unlike some similar publications we’ve seen on meat and mortality, this one says that red meat doesn’t just make you die of heart disease and cancer; it makes you die of everything. Following over 120,000 women and men from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional’s Follow-up Study for 28 and 22 years respectively, 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—the equivalent of one hotdog—was associated with a 20% increased risk.
And in case that’s not enough to chew on, there’s more: the researchers waved their statistical wands and declared you could outrun death for a few more years by swapping red meat for so-called “healthier foods” like nuts, chicken, or whole grains. In fact, the researchers suggest that up to one in ten of the deaths that struck their study participants could’ve been prevented if everyone had kept their red meat intake under half a serving per day!
But if you’ve been hanging around the nutrition world for very long, you’ve probably realized by now that health according to the media and health according to reality are two very different things—and even scientific studies can be misrepresented by the researchers who conduct them. Is our latest “killer meat” scare a convincing reason to ditch red meat? Is it time to put a trigger lock on your lethal grass-fed beef when the young’uns are around? Or is there more to this story than meats the eye? (Sorry, I had to.)
Observations vs. Experiments
Before we even dig into what this study found, let’s address an important caveat that the media—and even the researchers, unless they were terribly misquoted—seem to be confused about. What we’ve got here is a garden-variety observational study, not an actual experiment where people change something specific they’re doing and thus make it possible to determine cause and effect. Observations are only the first step of the scientific method—a good place to start, but never the place to end. These studies don’t exist to generate health advice, but to spark hypotheses that can be tested and replicated in a controlled setting so we can figure out what’s really going on. Trying to find “proof” in an observational study is like trying to make a penguin lactate. It just ain’t happening… ever.
Nonetheless, the media blurbs—and even quotes from the scientists themselves—suggest this study has a major case of mistaken identity. The lead researcher Frank Hu claimed the study “provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” despite the fact that the study is innately incapable of providing such evidence. It’s as if someone pulled a Campbell on us. Only an actual experiment, with controls and manipulated variables, could start confirming causation.
But the study’s over-extrapolation isn’t really that surprising. A conclusive experiment is what every observational study secretly yearns to be, deep down in its confounder-riddled, non-randomized heart. And like pushy stage mothers, some researchers want their observational studies to be more talented and remarkable than they truly are—leading to the scientific equivalent of a four year old wobbling around in stilettos at a beauty pageant. Our study at hand is a perfectly decent piece of observational literature, but as soon as its authors (or the media) smear it with lipstick and make it sing Patsy Cline songs on stage, it’s all downhill from there.
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