Research, Eating Behavior, and Media Stupidity

Several weeks ago, the Harvard School of Public Health came out with a study that suggested the more red meat you eat, the more likely you are to die younger. The anti-CAFO lobby has, OF COURSE, jumped on this, claiming that there’s no control for CAFO vs. Grass-Fed meat, therefore the study must be bullshit. Even BETTER, they claim that the only real way to find out if red meat is actually bad for you is to do an experiment.

Because you can totally assign a random group of people to eat meat for twenty years and see who dies. No ethical problem there, right?

Because there totally was such a thing as grass-fed meat, that people knew and cared about, 20 years ago, that they could control for in 20 years of data.

Because this study is obviously trying to turn people vegan.

While I am fully in support of pastured beef, and meat from happy animals, these arguments irritate the hell out of me for some very specific reasons. Mostly, I’m irritated because these arguments have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ACTUAL RESEARCH THAT WAS DONE.

First of all, the study looked over the course of 20 years, not a few months, and they found specifically that each INCREASE in red meat consumption, particularly process meats, led to an increase in mortality. For example, they found that people who ate a LOT of red meat or processed meat—think 5 or more meals a week—were also more likely to be smokers, have a high BMI, etc. The researchers even go on to suggest that people cut down on their consumption of these foods—note, NOT eliminate them, NOT become vegetarian—but CUT DOWN ON THE DAILY CONSUMPTION OF STEAK AND BACON—in order to reduce their risk of chronic disease.

In other words, they found that people who eat mostly red meat and processed meats aren’t particularly healthy. That’s a “duh” moment if ever I heard one.

But somehow, this has turned into, for some people, a manifesto against all meat, and for some people who eat grass-fed beef, rather than simply showing the abundant evidence that it’s better for you—IN MODERATE AMOUNTS—than feedlot beef, have to jump on the defensive, and attempt to debunk some very interesting findings.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve spent the last several months deeply absorbed in eating behavior research (and may, in fact, spend several more years studying it), but that kind of nonsense gets me really irritated. Primarily because the media loves to turn scientific research into definitive cause-effect relationships (The LA Times reported something like “All Red Meat can Kill You” as their headline for this article), when the research itself is rarely close to definitive, and always notes an ASSOCIATION, NOT A DIRECT EFFECT.

So, to recap: yes, eating pastured beef is better for you than eating beef that comes from Cattle Death Pens. However, that doesn’t mean that living exclusively on steak, meatballs and bacon will EVER BE GOOD FOR YOU. That’s not an argument against all meat; it’s an argument for intelligent and balanced food consumption. If you’re going to make an argument, make *that* one.