Filed Under: Big Fat Lies Meat

Lies, Damn Lies, and (Food) Statistics

As we wrote recently at The Daily Caller, the latest study finding a link between red meat and mortality has flaws. Notably, the data requires participants to remember meals they ate months before. Walter Willett, a Harvard researcher behind the new research, took to the Los Angeles Times today to defend its bold claims. But he ends up admitting the weakness of food-related epidemiological research:

In principle, the ideal study would take 100,000 people and randomly assign some to eating several servings of red meat a day […]. But that study, even with any amount of money, in many instances is simply not possible to do. Most people don’t want to stay on any prescribed diet […].

That’s right: A week after headlines warned of a cheeseburger apocalypse, a principal study author concedes that a better study design — namely, one that doesn’t rely on mere memory recall — is “not possible.” Given that the National Cancer Institute has called an increased relative risk of less than 100 percent “small and … usually difficult to interpret,” and in light of the admitted weakness of the study design, perhaps we should take the study’s claim that eating red meat is associated with a 13 percent increased risk of dying with a grain of salt.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Willett from making further — and demonstrably inaccurate — claims. He asserts:

It is pretty clear that people back in the 1950s, eating all this red meat, were not living very long compared to how long we’re living today. Red meat consumption has gone down; poultry has gone up […]. Red meat is not the whole picture, but the reduction probably has been a contributor to the reduction in mortality rates that we have today.

There are several problems with this reasoning. First, Chicago Mercantile Exchange data show that people didn’t cut red meat consumption below 1950s levels until 2007, when the present recession started. It’s not likely that just a few years of low beef and pork eating could change health patterns over decades.

And when you consider other possible causes of increased longevity, Willett’s idle speculation collapses. For instance, people are much more likely not to smoke, infant mortality has fallen significantly, and the roads are much safer than they used to be. There simply isn’t support for the researcher’s claim, other than the latest flawed study.

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