Controversial Study: Lack of Evidence Linking Meat Consumption to Disease
What to eat is confusing enough, but when a major review study hits and makes headlines in The New York Times and every major news outlet, there is a communal head-scratching across the land.
The controversial study was released in early October and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It stated that reducing red meat consumption does little to lower our risk of heart disease and some cancers. This study basically rolled back decades of recommendations by the major medical establishment to eat less meat for the sake of your health and left a lot of people scratching their heads about what to eat, and whether to believe anything you read.
Then a few days later The New York Times reported that the study's lead author, Bradley Johnston, had previously published a study on sugar consumption (and how it isn't as unhealthy as the medical community would like you to think) that had been funded by the International Life Sciences Institute, or ILSI, an industry trade group largely supported by agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical companies. The ILSI is an industry group whose members have included McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cargill, which is the biggest meat distributor in North America. That prior report cast doubt on the recommendation that Americans eat less sugar to benefit their health. Because it was published over three years ago, Johnston did not disclose his conflict when publishing the new study about meat consumption.
When the meat study hit, the medical community reacted swiftly with outrage and anger, since for years public health organizations from the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, to many others, have recommended cutting back on red and processed meat for the sake of your health, to reduce the incidence of certain cancers, stroke, and heart disease. They stuck by their recommendations to lower red and processed meat consumption for health.
When it was revealed that Bradley Johnston, the lead study author. had previous ties to the International Life Sciences Institute, the story went largely un-noticed. Meanwhile the original story had made headlines around the world and on every major news outlet from The Today Show to CNN to all the major newspapers. The damage was done. Doctors and medical groups decried the findings as not fully reliable, and continued to recommend that the majority of the population reduce meat consumption to be healthier and reduce the chance of disease.
The study basically rolled back the connection between meat-eating and the incidence of disease. That was good news for meat lovers, except that a "review" study was a statistical analysis, not a clinical trial or animal study of what actually happens in the lab when animal proteins interact with cancer cells. The authors said that after looking at behavior across populations, meat-eaters were only slightly more likely to have heart disease and cancer than those who mostly avoided easting processed meat and red meat.
Then the second-day stories came fast on the heels of the news and the medical community started to react. Gina Kolata of The New York Times interviewed Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, who explained that this isn't science so much as medical anthropology (my words, not his) and medical doctors have found that interviewing people about their habits is not a reliable source of information when you're isolating habits in a lifestyle-related study.
The backlash was fast, loud and furious. Medical associations and individual doctors were quick to disavow the review study's conclusions, as NPR reported. The outrage among MDs led to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to petition support for their view that this study could dial back years of progress and lead to more disease in the future, and in trying to get patients to eat less meat and more veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds and grains, this is a step back from the path to progress.
"I am outraged and bewildered," says nutrition scientist Christopher Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, in NPR's report. "This is perplexing, given the ... clear evidence for harm associated with high red meat intake," adds Hu. The two doctors are among a group of scientists who signed a letter to the editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine which published the review study, asking for further review, NPR reports.
According to Annals, the study chose to exclusively focus on health outcomes and not the impact of meat farming on the environmental and animal welfare, since these issues "vary greatly in the extent to which people find them a priority." There is overwhelming evidence that the current rate of farming is hurting the environment, as has been widely reported.
The day after the study came out, T. Colin Campbell published a paper refuting the claims. Campbell released his own position paper titled: Hullabaloo! A State of Confused Noise Surrounding Meat Consumption, refuting the science of the study. For the entire statement please see this. He opens his rebuttal with the statement: "There’s a big story making all the lead news outlets today that is the very definition of ‘fake news’." Here is his conclusion:
"This report displays a severe and fatal lack of understanding of the concept of nutrition. It refers to evidence as if nutrition were a derivative of pharmacology; this is a figment of the modern medical establishment’s imagination. Rather than a derivative of pharmacology, nutrition is a science discipline of the highest priority, and our failure to understand this discipline has resulted in an unimaginable number of lives prematurely lost and dollars wasted.
"These authors have failed, miserably, in their understanding of this topic and are doing a great disservice to the public."
Until there is more new science to refute the recommendations to lower weekly meat intake for our health, we're sticking with the Impossible burger (hold the mayo!). For more on how to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet, subscribe to The Beet.