The NY Time published an article the other day titled, “Eat Less Red Meat, Scientists Said. Now Some Believe That Was Bad Advice.” This article talked about a newly published research paper that claimed red meat is not bad for us. The past 50 years of scientific research has led us, i.e. the public, to believe that consuming red meat increases our chances of cancer and heart disease. Consequently, the popular protein trend has been poultry. Poultry is assumed to be healthier than pork and beef. The research article reviewed all of the published literature in the past years related to the negative consequences of red meat. They found that the evidence did not support the claim that red meat is unhealthy. Red meat is simply not linked to diseases such as obesity and cancer. It’s actually not that bad for us. It’s not as unhealthy as the media portrays it. There is little to zero evidence to support the claims that red meat is linked with increased obesity and cancer. The conclusive evidence is zero.
In general, it is nearly impossible to attribute or link diseases, like cardiovascular disease or cancer, with eating only one type of food. One way that scientists attempt to link a particular food with a deadly disease is to pay participants to eat only a very restricted diet/menu for an extended period of time. Part of the participation group is fed the food of interest, whereas the other portion of participants is given a placebo. However, these studies are extremely challenging to find participants for. Very few people are willing to put their lives at risk, by only eating potentially dangerous food for an extended period, for the sake of research. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to force the diet on participants during their daily lives. Researchers cannot monitor participants 24/7 and record all of their food consumption, to ensure that diets are reported correctly. The fact of the matter is that people do not always tell the whole truth about their diets.
The second method to attempt to label red meat as unhealthy uses a survey approach. In this method, researchers survey a large number of people and ask them about what they eat. The problem with these surveys is that it is almost impossible to separate the effects of red meat from other dietary substances. For example, do people who eat read meat also eat fries and soda with their burgers? How do exercise and mental health contribute? Do people who eat less red meat also eat more salads? It is nearly impossible, perhaps wholly impossible, to isolate the consequences of eating red meat from other aspects of diet and life. We cannot link red meat with cancer nor heart disease. The literature does not support the claims.
The NY Times article also raises the broader question of, can we trust scientific research? Better yet, can we trust the reporters of scientific research? To me this, this is the more interesting question. Generally, I think that the scientific literature itself is accurate and trustworthy. In these papers, researchers outline exactly what they did, what they assumed, and the results of their study. The problem lies in how we draw the conclusions. For cases like the red meat controversy, the scientists might draw a conclusion about red meat and its negative effects, based solely on their singular study and their preexisting biases. There’s nothing wrong with this. Generally, the scientific conclusions are honest. Everybody has biases, and as long as the researchers accurately and honestly outline their methods, assumptions, and results, then there is no problem. The problem arises when a third party reporter clings to a single conclusion, or single piece of a conclusion, without questioning or investigating any other bit of the publication or larger body of associated research. The problem arises when the third party does not question the research methods for integrity, or even worse, does not even read the rest of the paper. Third parties are quick to jump to the conclusions section of a technical paper, and simply report a singular result, such as red meat is bad. This is a general, broad claim, lacking technical or descriptive details. Is red meat an immediate killer? Eat one ounce of red meat and die within one second? That’s ridiculous. But how do we know that’s not what the claim, red meat is bad, means. It is a blatantly poor claim, and not worthy of being reported.
The distrust held by citizens and laymen should not be in the scientific reports and research themselves, but in the individuals who report the results, i.e. the individuals who summarize technical documents without analyzing the literature in its entirety. If a reporter simply reads the entire paper, and thinks critically about it, then we would not have such generalized and poor conclusions. We would learn that the results mean “maybe.” Maybe red meat is bad. Maybe this study means red meat should be consumed less. Maybe red meat contributes to cancer. Maybe poultry is healthier. Maybe. Just maybe. The evidence is inconclusive. But I think that raises a larger, general problem with humanity. People are lazy. We don’t want to take the effort to read and think. As a result of our laziness, we read and accept generalized, invalidated statements as truth. I cannot begin to count the number of times that I hear people in the gym make unsupported claims about exercise or nutrition. If you, Mr. Meathead, just read the literature, or conducted an experiment on yourself, then you would realize the idiocy of your statement.
I can’t believe it’s 2020 and skim milk is still a thing. There was once an argument that full-fat dairy was not healthy, because it leads to high cholesterol and high rates of obesity. As a result of these unsupported claims, milk companies created skim milk, in which they removed the fat from whole-fat milk. Removing the fat also removes the flavor; therefore, to compensate for the lack of taste, sugars and other artificial flavoring substitutes were added. When we realized the negative consequences of these fat substitutes, companies stopped adding them into their skim milk products. Consequently, today we have skim milk that tastes like water. And the problem with this skim milk is that our bodies do not get the feelings of fullness that we should, and as a result, we eat more sugars and eat more unhealthy calories from foods other than milk in order to feel satiated. Skim milk is whole milk where all of the natural fats are removed and where all of the natural ingredients that cause a human to feel satiated, are removed. All of this is done in the pursuit of removing fat. In today’s world, where “natural” and “organic” products are popular, why are we will still in favor of removing the natural fats from milk? Concisely, it’s ridiculous that people still purchase skim milk, and it’s incredulous that people believe sugars are healthier than fats. We need both sugar and fat to support our bodies, albeit not gluttonous amounts. And, we have fully vetted the negative consequences of skim milk compared to whole milk. One day, perhaps we will realize that our red meat recommendations are similarly poor. Perhaps reliable research will show that red meat is actually an important part of a healthy diet.
So, is the problem that scientific research is poor? No, I think the problem lies with the people who report the research, and with the people who readily and unquestioningly accept the media’s advice without vetting it. Instead of publishing unverified conclusions, maybe it would be better if we reported conclusions using “maybe.”