Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Red Meat for Science Nazi Wannabes

The linked article provides a good example of very uninformative reporting.  A short example:
After years of worrying that tucking into red meat could lead to a heart attack or cancer, you can relax and enjoy the Sunday roast, say researchers.  A report demolishes the ‘myths and misconceptions’ about the meat, saying that most people eat healthy amounts which are not linked to greater risk of disease.  Modern farming methods have cut fat levels, which can be even lower than chicken, while red meat provides high levels of vital nutrients, including iron.  A vegetarian having a Cheddar cheese salad will eat seven times more fat, pound for pound, than lean red meat contains, says a review by the British Nutrition Foundation.  However, the World Cancer Research Fund, which advises people to curb red meat consumption and cut out processed meat, disputed the findings. 

That first sentence is a doozy - what's the difference in saying "researchers" say "red meat is not dangerous", and saying "three homeless guys standing on a streetcorner" say "red meat is not dangerous"?  In terms of scientific certainty, there's no difference at all.  In terms of how we should view their opinions, we'd have to know more about how they arrived at them, and that is not reported on in the article except in the context of the fat content of the product.  Apparently, their logic is "fat consumption will kill you, but red meat has little more fat that common vegetarian foods, therefore, you can safely eat red meat."

That reminds me of a line my dad used to say to tease us when we would say silly things:  "If I had eggs, I'd have ham and eggs, if I had ham."  The version from this article:  "If fat consumption was bad you, then eating red meat would be as safe as eating vegetarian, since a red meat diet isn't necessarily higher in fat than a vegetarian diet."  At least the reporter is consistent in not "confusing" the matter by mentioning that there's no evidence that high animal fat consumption is bad for you, and that based on the world beating health of the Mormons (here), high beef consumption may be better for you than other approaches.  The Argentines repordedly also do very well while consuming good quantities of beef.  With the red-meat-sat-fat Chicken Littles singing their fat-will-kill-you chorus:
1. Brits are hoping for lower fat meats and the market place is providing it
2. Reporters seem to never question the basis for the belief that high fats diets are dangerous
3  The many sources of conflicting data are widely ignored

Where is gets interesting is when the reporter refers to other studies which 'show' different conclusions.  The reporter either doesn't care or doesn't know that the vast majority of "studies" on this topic are epidemiological studies.  These types of "studies" are intended to facilitate the formation of hypotheses which could then be tested via intervention study.  The problem - there's enough money for many epidemiological studies which keep "researchers" employed, but not enough for intervention studies.  Thus, we get one after the other of epidemiological studies, and generally very few, and very small, intervention studies.  Due to the inherent imprecision in epidemiological studies, conclusions from them are all over the place, a fact that is highlighted in this particular article.  Because the author does not differentiate which types of "studies" are which, the average reader would be left to wonder what the science really says about anything.  Well, so would the average science nazi, because all of these epidemiological studies only tell us that lots of folks have lots of ideas about science and health and none of them are proven.

My advice:  don't hold your breath waiting for the big, perfect, government funded long term intervention study ...

Post Script:   ...the World Cancer Research Fund, which advises people to curb red meat consumption and cut out processed meat, disputed the findings.
I wonder if the WCRF could still convince people to donate money to their cause if their message was:
1.  Don't eat grains, they kill people and murder uncounted animals, and are an unsustainable source of nutrition
2.  Reduce carbohydrate consumption to 100 grams per day or less to reduce your risks for all the diseases of civilization
3.  Eat as much meat as you want, preferably wild game meat or grass fed beef/pork/lamb/chicken/turkey
I think we'll find out because I believe that within my life time, (all of) these ideas will be accepted fact.

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