Is meat bad for you? No, but junk science and the clueless media are.

September 11, 2010 in Food & Nutrition, Medical Industrial Complex | 14 comments

duncehatI imagine some of you have heard about the new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine claiming that low-carb, meat-based diets raise the risk of heart attacks, other cardiovascular events and death. With headlines in the media like “Low carb, high meat diet has high risks” and “Low-carb diets might be deadly“, you might be (understandably) concerned.

Well, as they say in NYC, “fuggedah-bout-it.”

As many preposterous and poorly designed studies as I read (and let me tell you, I read a lot of them), I haven’t lost the ability to be shocked by a particularly bad one. I know the researchers who publish them aren’t stupid. And in general, I think their motivations are good. But it is truly astonishing to see how easily highly trained scientists can completely abandon reason and critical thinking.

And don’t get me started on the mainstream media. They’re hopeless. Do they even read the junk that comes across their desk before regurgitating it as a sensationalized and vapid news story? I know that news outlets have science reporters on staff. Where do they find these people? I could explain this study to a ten-year old in simple language, and they’d understand right away how ridiculous and worthless it is.

Maybe these researchers and reporters need to eat more meat and fat so their brains work better. Because stuff like this is pretty embarrassing for them.

When I saw this study, I knew I’d have to write about it. After all, a low-ish carb, meat-based diet is exactly what I advocate for optimal health. Fortunately, several of my esteemed blogger colleagues have already dissected, dismantled and otherwise disposed of this piece of scientific garbage. Rather than re-create the wheel, I’m simply going to link to their articles and provide a brief summary of the key points here.

The study claimed that a plant-based, low-carb diet (which we’ll call the Vegetable group) is associated with a lower risk of mortality and disease, while an animal-product based low-carb diet (which we’ll call the Animal group) is associated with an increased risk of mortality and disease.

Does the study support those claims? Hardly. Here’s why:

  • The so-called low-carb diet in the study wasn’t remotely low-carb. The participants got between 37% – 60% of calories from carbohydrates, which is what most low-carb experts would call, um, “high-carb.”
  • People in the Animal group were more likely to smoke and be overweight than the Vegetable group. Smoking and overweight are risk factors for heart disease. This alone could explain the results, but it also suggests that the Vegetable group may have been more health conscious in other ways (like exercise, stress management, etc.) that were not accounted for in the study. This, of course, is the problem with attempting to draw conclusions from epidemiological research – as we’ve discussed several times here before.
  • The Vegetable group didn’t exactly eat a vegetable-based diet. They got almost 30% of calories from animal products (vs. 45% from the Animal group).
  • When you examine the data in the study closely, differences in death rates were unrelated to animal product consumption. That means something else (not eating meat) described the differences seen in the study.
  • Epidemiological (observational) studies about meat intake are notoriously inaccurate, because people tend to lie (or forget) how much meat they actually eat. Since this study was based on nurses and doctors, who firmly believe the “meat is bad for you” hype, and are invested in the medical establishment, the participants may have been more likely to under-report their meat intake.

Of course Dean Ornish has jumped on the bandwagon claiming this study vindicates his completely unscientific claims that a plant-based diet is healthier than a meat-based diet. It does nothing of the sort, as you’ll see when you read the following articles. (I’ve lost all respect for the Dean Ornish’s integrity. I think his heart is in the right place, but he so clearly believes eating meat is bad and wrong that he entirely ignores any evidence that conflicts with his belief, and eagerly distorts any evidence that vaguely appears to support his belief.)

For a full analysis of the absurdity of this study, check out the following articles:

  • Why the latest low carb scare study is flawed, by Jenny Ruhl at Diabetes Update
  • Brand-spankin new study: are low-carb meat eaters in trouble?, by Denise Minger at Raw Food SOS: Troubleshooting on the Raw Food Diet
  • The Atkins study (ahem, ahem) according to Ornish, by Tom Naughton at Fat Head
  • New study shows that lying about your hamburger intake prevents disease and death when you eat a low-carb diet high in carbohydrates, by Chris Masterjohn at The Daily Lipid. (That headline says it all, doesn’t it?)


Marcia September 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Chris – I love love love your blog and am really happy you’re writing about this stuff. However, when you say:

“a low-ish carb, meat-based diet is exactly what I advocate for optimal health. Fortunately, several of my esteemed blogger colleagues have already dissected, dismantled and otherwise disposed of this piece of scientific garbage . . . ”

it sounds as if you’re saying your esteemed colleagues have done all those terrible things to a low-carb diet. Is that what you mean? It’s the word “this” that’s the problem, since it refers to the word diet in the previous sentence. Surely you don’t mean that a low carb diet is a piece of scientific garbage. (I know you don’t.)

Just want to be clear on the subject!


PhilM September 11, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I read your comment on Ornish with interest. I don’t really know the guy but did follow his advice to the letter for decades. I am not sure he is driven to help people staying healthy. If it were so, within a few years of that misguided effort, he would have realized that nutrition and health are a complex subject deserving rigorous scientific approach to make any progress. He hasn’t of course because the message of vegetarian diet and health resonates so strongly with so many of us and he can continue to say exactly the same stupid thing. There is another possibility that he is incapable of appreciating the value of scientific research and analysis, but I seriously doubt that.
In other words, I don’t believe he has good intentions. I see him as a snake-oil salesman with an abundant supply of suckers to impress upon and benefit from.

Chris Curley September 11, 2010 at 7:02 pm

One of the greatest dietary systems or theories I have come across is the one espoused by the Weston A Price foundation.  And a little known fact about Weston is that when he set out to study the dietary habits of isolated cultures he was looking to find a culture that relied on a totally plant based diet.  What he found through his studies of many diverse cultures from all over the globe is that they all relied on animal foods in some capacity.  The question of whether or not meat is good for you or bad for you has much more to do with what kind of meat and from what source, and along the same lines what carbs and from what source than a blanket theory of categorization of Meat vs Carb.  A carb is not a carb is not a carb

Preston September 11, 2010 at 10:11 pm

I’m not sure of Ornish’s motives and I don’t claim to know what’s inside his head.  But it doesn’t really matter- what does matter is how wrong he is on his interpretation of this study and how wrong the study is itself.  Good post Chris, earlier I added to the chorus of boos here:

Byron September 12, 2010 at 6:33 am

I can´t understand what s so difficult to understand that seeking for a kind of gold standard results logically in natural food. Food – just food. Nothing patented or fabricated. Meat, fish, veggies, if tolerated eggs, fruits, nuts and fermented dairy.
My selection is much less  but I´ve no troubles anymore with asthma, atopic dermatitis, hashimoto or mood relevated stuff.

Brooke Schantz, MS, RD, LDN September 12, 2010 at 11:25 am

Hello Chris,

I love your blog title!

I was just curious what, “a low-ish carb, meat-based diet” means to you?  What macronutrient breakdown would you recommend for most clients?  Is this only for the healthy population or would you recommend it for those with specific chronic diseases as well?

Chris Kresser September 13, 2010 at 6:48 am

Brooke: 65% fat, 20% carbs and 15% protein as a rough guide for most people, including those with chronic disease. Those with chronic infections may want to continue further reducing their glucose calories, because most pathogenic organisms feed on glucose (but cannot utilize fat as an energy source). Those folks would probably also benefit from intermittent and ketogenic fasting. The only group that may not benefit from that approach are hypoglycemics.

r-marie September 13, 2010 at 7:40 am

“65% fat, 20% carbs and 15% protein” I’m still not sure how that translates into actual grams or ounces.

Chris Kresser September 13, 2010 at 8:20 am

It depends on your caloric intake.  Assuming a 2,000 calorie diet, 65% of calories would be 1,300 calories from fat.  Divide 1,300/9 (# of calories per gram of fat) and you get 144 grams of fat.  20% of calories from carbs = 400 calories of glucose, or 100 grams.  Protein would be 300 calories, or 75 grams.  Amounts don’t need to be consistent each day.  In other words, you might eat 100g of protein one day and 50g the next. I don’t use scales to measure meals.  This is just a rough guide.

r-marie September 13, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Chris, thank you so much for explaining – I got it now!

r-marie September 13, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Here’s a link I found that makes this process
very easy. I’m sure there are others.

Leah September 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I enjoyed reading your post and really appreciate the information you put up here on your website.  Just make sure and give us nurses and doctors some credit, not all of us buy into western medicine hook-line-and-sinker, especially those of us in emergency medicine.  We know how much BS there is in the traditional medical establishment, especially when it comes to prevention.

Chris Kresser September 15, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Great point, Leah. I know there are plenty of great docs, nurses & PAs out there. I know several personally. My beef is with the triumvirate of Big Pharma, HMOs and institutionalized medicine – not individual practitioners doing their best to help people.

Rodney February 5, 2011 at 8:58 am

So you don’t think that meat has any negative effects? All of those studies and all of the research is false? You do bring up some good points about the “Meat Group” being more overweight and have more smokers…. sounds to me that the “Meat Group” just doesn’t care much about good health… people are trying to figure out what is wrong with this societies eating habits, You can tell me that there is no problem. Anyway you sound just as fanatical towards meat as that Ornish guy does towards vegetables. Now I am going to check out some of those links you posted because I am trying educate myself. Have a good day

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