Science writer Gary Taubes summarizes the recent Harvard study blaming meat for chronic disease in two words: “terrible science.”
“To me, the strongest scientific evidence suggests the opposite [of what was found in the Harvard study,” said Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It (Random House, 2011).
As Taubes noted, the Harvard research involved was an “observational study” (in which scientists observe behaviors and disease rates and infer associations), not a “clinical trial” (in which one group is given a different diet than another to see which works better). “An observational trial cannot determine cause and effect,” he said.
Meanwhile, he added, several clinical trials comparing the red-meat-heavy Atkins diet with others lower in meat but higher in carbohydrates have shown the carnivores to not only lose more weight, but also see improvements in cholesterol levels, triglycerides and blood pressure.
Also, as was noted in the study, people who eat more red meat are more likely to smoke, drink, be overweight and eschew exercise, and Taubes suggested that red meat consumption can also be an indicator of lower socioeconomic status that requires the consumption of low-quality, highly processed meat. Could these factors, not the meat, be causing the earlier deaths in the study? “It is impossible to statistically account for all this,” Taubes said.
In the end, Taubes believes the study could prompt overweight, disease-prone Americans to eat more of what is making them unhealthy (processed grains and sugar) and less of the good fats and protein that could help them lose weight and control risk factors such as high cholesterol.
“The newspapers shouldn’t be reporting on this study; the public shouldn’t be paying attention,” he said. “And God knows we should not be creating public health policy based on it.”