Dan Murphy: A Study To Savor

11:11AM Oct 18, 2019
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CAB Bone-in ribeye
( CAB )

Does a single study counterbalance the tsunami of ‘research’ suggesting that red meat has all the health benefits of radioactive waste products? No, but it’s a damn good start. Read on.

After so many years of analyzing the endless parade of research purporting to determine what we’re supposed to eat if in order to live long and prosper, I hold an optimistic, if perhaps naïve, belief that reader-visitors to this space understand that a single study — no matter how good or bad — means next to nothing in terms of guidance to inform a life well-lived.

That said, it’s encouraging to recognize that although the ledger is hardly balanced, there are solid (if only occasional) studies that come to what most people would consider to be an obvious conclusion: Red meat can be consumed without immediate risk of death.

Thanks, all you scientific geniuses, for the vote of confidence.

That latest example of a relatively positive research report — which won’t get much in the way of media coverage, unfortunately — is a study led by researchers from Dalhousie and McMaster Universities in Canada and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The Canadian content and the near-zero familiarity among reporters with the journal that carried the study means that its positive conclusions about eating red meat are unlikely to last beyond a single news cycle.

Nevertheless, if you love the careful, cautious pronouncements of hardcore scientists, you’ll appreciate the conclusion of Dr. Bradley Johnston, the study’s lead author and an Associate Professor of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia:

“We suggest that individuals continue their current consumption. We cannot say with any certainty that eating red or processed meat causes cancer, diabetes or heart disease.”

In terms of a ringing endorsement, Dr. J’s statement ranks that right up there with politicians who, when asked if they favor cutting taxes, reply by saying, “Well, I’m not opposed to looking for ways to mitigate the current tax burden placed on our citizens.”

But at least the Annals study isn’t some epidemiological review, based on what people claim to be eating and drinking, which concludes that meat-eaters get sicker sooner and expire earlier.

As wrong as it gets

In their report, the authors noted that “contemporary dietary guidelines recommend limiting consumption of unprocessed red meat and processed meat,” and went on to cite the following:

  • The Dietary Guidelines for Americans that recommend limiting red meat intake (including processed meat) to a single serving a week
  • The United Kingdom dietary guidelines that limit consumption of red and processed meat to 70 grams (two ounces) a day
  • The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research that recommend limiting red meat to “moderate amounts” and processed meat to basically none — ever
  • The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which labeled red meat as “probably carcinogenic” to humans

Of course, those organizations’ recommendations are the ones that generate the media coverage.

However, the authors of this study, which is titled, “Unprocessed Red Meat and Processed Meat Consumption: Dietary Guideline Recommendations From the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium,” offered an important caveat regarding the apparent consensus that good health requires avoiding red meat.

The following quote from their study is lengthy (and wordy) but it’s worth a careful read, because it hits the nail on the head in explaining why all the self-anointed gurus responsible for mainstream dietary advice are so far off the mark.

“These recommendations are, however, primarily based on observational studies that are at high risk for confounding and thus are limited in establishing causal inferences, nor do they report the absolute magnitude of any possible effects. Furthermore, the organizations that produce guidelines did not conduct or access rigorous systematic reviews of the evidence, were limited in addressing conflicts of interest, and did not explicitly address population values and preferences, raising questions regarding adherence to guideline standards for trustworthiness.”

The study’s authors concluded by offering a “potential solution” to all that nutritional misinformation: Establishing “an independent group with clinical and nutritional content expertise and skilled in the methodology of systematic reviews and practice guidelines” to sort it all out.

Gee. If only such a consortium were already in existence … well, what do you know? The aforementioned Nutritional Recommendations Consortium is ready, willing and able to do just that!

And based on the conclusion of that group’s study reviewed above, I’d say that’s a darn good idea.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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