In case you haven’t consumed any health news recently, there is a big beef over research showing red meat is not bad for you. A huge study has contradicted decades of anti-red-meat advice, and the experts who gave that advice are red-faced and livid.
The new research was a systematic review of existing research, conducted by a team of interdisciplinary researchers with no conflict of interest. After eliminating many poorly done studies, and studies done on animals (which have unknown application to humans), the team concluded, “The panel suggests that adults continue current unprocessed red meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence). Similarly, the panel suggests adults continue current processed meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence).”
The problem is that this contradicts decades of research saying that meat, especially red and processed meat, is bad for health, allegedly causing heart disease and cancer. Virtually every medical organization has been telling people to stop eating meat for health reasons.
What are all these experts going to do now that the research studies they were relying on for their recommendations were flawed and biased? Experts hate to be told they are wrong. After all, they are the experts, so who can trump them?
This study did. And the response has been anger from the medical community, a very unscientific response.
In a story on the findings, and the reaction from the embarrassed and defensive medical community, the New York Times wrote, “Already [the study authors] have been met with fierce criticism by public health researchers. The American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other groups have savaged the findings and the journal that published them.”
The Times explains, “While the new findings are likely to please proponents of popular high-protein diets, they seem certain to add to public consternation over dietary advice that seems to change every few years. The conclusions represent another in a series of jarring dietary reversals involving salt, fats, carbohydrates and more.”
Clearly, the Emperor never likes to be told he has no clothes. This is a major rebuke, not only of medicine, but of nutrition research and public policy. As the Times article continued, “Some [medical experts] called for the journal’s editors to delay publication altogether. In a statement, scientists at Harvard warned that the conclusions ‘harm the credibility of nutrition science and erode public trust in scientific research.’”
Harvard doesn’t want the public to realize that its public health recommendations are based on bad science. The public may lose trust. We can’t allow the public to realize that medical advice is sketchy, at best.
Some medical groups don’t like the implications of the study, since they philosophically oppose meat consumption. According to the Times, “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group advocating a plant-based diet, on Wednesday filed a petition against the journal with the Federal Trade Commission.”
Realize that these groups are calling for censorship of scientific information that goes against policy.
This is Lesson One from this study: medicine resorts to censorship when information runs counter to current policy and can embarrass the medical community and those in power.
What about the quality of nutrition science and research?
According to the Times, “The new studies were met with indignation by nutrition researchers who have long said that red meat and processed meats contribute to the risk of heart disease and cancer. “Irresponsible and unethical,” said Dr. Hu, of Harvard, in a commentary published online with his colleagues. Studies of red meat as a health hazard may have been problematic, he said, but the consistency of the conclusions over years gives them credibility.” (Emphasis added.)
Hu is not alone. According to the Times, “Despite flaws in the evidence, health officials still must give advice and offer guidelines, said Dr. Meir Stampfer, also of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He believes that the data in favor of eating less meat, although imperfect, indicate there are likely to be health benefits.”
This is a very revealing statement. Apparently, when we take years of bad research falsely showing meat is bad, and combine all these bad studies, it somehow provides a true result. This is, frankly, frightening. Are we to actually trust bad research if many bad studies have the same false conclusion?
I’ve always learned that two wrongs don’t make a right. I suppose, to these medical experts, many wrongs do make a right. Does anyone still wonder why there is so much confusion and reversal of advice from the medical community?
Lesson Two: Places like Harvard, which create public health policy, are comfortable with drawing conclusions and making health policy advice based on bad information.
There is a further statement by Harvard’s Hu that is revealing. According to the Times, “Nutrition studies, [Hu] added, should not be held to the same rigid standards as studies of experimental drugs.” (Emphasis added.)
Apparently, this also means that there should be a lower standard for giving nutrition health advice to the public than for giving drug advice. Of course, there was never any disclaimer with the anti-meat advice that it was based on questionable research.
Lesson Three: Medical advice is of varying quality, and sometimes outright wrong.
This raises an important question. If scientific validity of research is questionable, and yet public health policy needs to be promoted, how are policy makers to decide on recommendations?
This is where values and political interests come to play.
The Times article gives a clear statement. “The prospect of a renewed appetite for red meat also runs counter to two other important trends: a growing awareness of the environmental degradation caused by livestock production, and longstanding concern about the welfare of animals employed in industrial farming.”
The Times continues, “Questions of personal health do not even begin to address the environmental degradation caused worldwide by intensive meat production. Meat and dairy are big contributors to climate change, with livestock production accounting for about 14.5 percent of the greenhouse gases that humans emit worldwide each year. Beef in particular tends to have an outsized climate footprint, partly because of all the land needed to raise cattle and grow feed, and partly because cows belch up methane, a potent greenhouse gas.”
Here we see another motive behind the dismissal of this large study. There has been a public drive to stop climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and meat consumption needs to be stopped to help achieve these environmental goals.
According to an article in Plant Based News, “Public Health Officer Henning Ansor, of the Public Health Department in Santa Barbara County in the US, said: ‘For the Annals to publish this article (and for the authors to even write it without concern for the environmental effects of food choices) shows, to what extent we as physicians, are out of touch with the real world. It is a disgrace!’” (Emphasis added.)
In other words, if people listen to this study and eat more meat, it can harm the environment. So, let’s tell the public meat is bad for health so we can save the planet.
Other groups, like the Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine, which filed a petition with the FTC against the journal, promotes plant-based foods in order to reduce animal cruelty in factory farming.
While animal welfare and environmental impacts of meat production are real concerns, these are not relevant to the scientific question of the health impacts of meat consumption.
As the authors of the study explain, “The panel chose to exclusively focus on health outcomes because environmental and animal welfare concerns are very different issues that are challenging to integrate with health concerns, are possibly more societal than personal issues, and vary greatly in the extent to which people find them a priority.”
This was some of the bias this new study eliminated. They focused on the health issue of eating meat, and not on the agenda of ending meat consumption to save the planet and stop animal abuse.
People, including doctors and policy-makers, often judge research studies by whether or not they agree with the conclusion. If it jibes with one’s prejudices and goals, then you agree. If it makes you question your prejudices, then you reject the study.
Lesson Four: Public health advice is not based on good science, but on political agendas.
Realize what this means. Public policy decision-makers are arguing that they should continue to tell people that meat is bad in order to save the planet. It’s okay, in their minds, to lie to the public about research if it achieves a desired goal. In other words, the ends justify the means, and public health policy is a lie to achieve a political goal unrelated to individual health.
Can we believe anything we are told by the medical community?
This is why scientists at Harvard warned that the conclusions ‘harm the credibility of nutrition science and erode public trust in scientific research.’”
And they are correct. According to the new study, “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.”
There is a clear pattern here. There are people who call themselves scientists and policy-makers who promote their agendas by lying to the public about health issues.
These are the experts. These are the people the media turns to for healthcare information and advice. They seem comfortable giving nutrition advice based on bad research, and irrationally believe that enough bad research pointing to the same conclusion means the conclusion must be correct.
Time and time again these experts have been shown wrong. And their response is typical denial and rationalizations, and censorship of those who disagree with their agenda. That’s also what peer review is about, which is an editorial process. It guarantees that new research is in line with the current agenda. It doesn’t have to be good research, so long as it achieves the policy goals desired.
And it’s not limited to nutrition. People are wise to question all medical advice. The acceptance of poor research and the promotion of political agendas are not limited to nutrition studies. Lying to the public to achieve a political goal is unethical, and bad science, but seems acceptable to policy-makers at Harvard and elsewhere.
It is no wonder that our healthcare is the most expensive in the world, while being one of the lowest in outcomes. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, “The U.S. spends more on healthcare than any high-income country, yet Americans have poor health outcomes and a worsening life expectancy when compared with other countries, according to a report from the The Commonwealth Fund.“
According to the Commonwealth report, “Here are the three things to know:
1. The U.S. ranked last place among the 11 countries for health outcomes, equity and quality, despite having the highest per capita health earnings.
2. The U.S. also had the highest rate of mortality amenable to healthcare, meaning more Americans die from poor care quality than any other country involved in the study.
3. Poor access to primary care in the U.S. has contributed to inadequate chronic disease prevention and management, delayed diagnoses and safety concerns, among other issues.”
Can you see a pattern? Bad science is used for public policy, with bad outcomes. There may be some political agendas achieved, such as high profits for drug companies, but at the expense of health.
Healthcare in the US is clearly about politics and economics. We definitely need to take medical and public health advice with a grain of salt.
Except that they, currently, also claim salt is bad for you.