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Red Meat, Biochemistry, and a Little Bit of Sass

April 26, 2012

I get a little sassy when science is tossed around and mistreated. It ticks me off to see a good scientific article go to waste because someone chose the wrong words for a headline and subsequently the article is read and the whole point is misconstrued. Then everyone posts it on social media like it was carved into a stone tablet. There was an article in the paper recently  that cited a scientific study, but worded the information in a way that totally destroyed what the researchers were trying to say. If you actually read the study is talks about association or correlation not cause and effect.

So, let’s get this straight: consuming red meat will not result in premature death, or cause you to die sooner than you would if you didn’t eat it.

Notice the bolded words, cause and result. There is a big difference between a correlation and cause/effect.

If you read my blog you know I love gardening and renovating old homes, but you may not have noticed that I also enjoy food, participate in two Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, and cook from scratch as often as I can. One of the CSAs I belong to is Old Pine Farm. (I took all the photos in this post last summer at the farm). This is a meat CSA, a real farm (not a feed lot) where a farmer and her son raise cattle, sheep, pigs, emu, chickens, some ducks, guinea hens, and turkey’s on occasion. These animals live outside in the sunshine, eat grass and grain not corn. I pick up 18-20 lbs of meat per month from this farm. I eat a lot of red meat (3-4 times per week) and the red meat I eat is not the same the red meat sold in the grocery stores. I’ll get to the reason in a bit.

The cows at my farm share

Here are my issues with this type of article: Choice of Words, Throwing it all in the Same Pot, People Lie.

Choice of Words:

Time to break open the dictionary to make a point:

Webster what is a correlation?

A relation existing between phenomena or things or between mathematical or statistical variables which tend to vary, be associated, or occur together in a way not expected on the basis of chance alone.

ie: The obviously high positive correlation between scholastic aptitude and college entrance — J. B. Conant

Webster what is cause and effect?

Cause: something that brings about an effect or a result

Effect: something that inevitably follows an antecedent (as a cause or agent)

This study showed a correlation between eating red meat and premature death from heart disease. It did not show that eating red meat will cause you to die pre-maturely from heart disease, or directly increase your risk of dying prematuring from heart disease.

Here’s an example. It’s the difference between saying that watching TV causes students to have lower grades, and that  watching TV is associated with bad grades. BIG DIFFERENCE. One sentence says if you turn on the tube, your grades will plummet. The other sentence says that kids who watch TV tend to have lower grades, which infers that there are some other factors attributed to the lower grades (study habits etc…) than just pushing the ON button.

The article in question said at one point: red meat leads to early death. I mean whoooahhh, put on the breaks here. That’s quite a statement. This headline assumes that all red meat from different animals, raised any which way is the same, and that the subjects were truthful in reporting variables (exercise, alcohol intake and tobacco use), and that it leads to death in general whether that be by heart disease or let’s say drowning? Well that can’t be right, so let’s read the article.

People Lie

Talk about free range!

If we go a little further we see that the cause of  premature death they are talking about is heart disease, cancer and outright death (what the heck is outright death? Does getting smashed by a boulder count? Or being trampled by pink fluffy elephants?) . Oh, and this was an observational study, so subjects filled out a questionnaire every other year. A QUESTIONNAIRE. Were there physical exams, or blood samples taken to measure chemistry levels etc..??

I think we all know that people fudge things on paper. Ever been to a dating website? No? How about this: I work in clinical research (if you didn’t know), and I have spent a lot of time with patients participating in all kinds of research trials. I have interviewed patients about symptoms, side effects, and life style choices (sex, drugs, diet, exercise etc..). There is discrepancy from the questionnaires that they fill out, to what they tell me, to what they mention to the nurses, and finally to the physicians. They may tell me that they fell and hurt their hip in the shower, but when the doctor asked if they’ve had any accidents since the last visit the answer is “no”. This deviation from the truth is especially prevalent when someone is forced to put something on paper. Words roll off your tongue more freely than they flow through a pen. The case of healthcare maybe more than others. People don’t like writing down that they smoke two packs per day, so maybe it’s one on the questionnaire, or “gosh, when I fill in the number of drinks I have per week 15 sounds like I’m a drunk, so I’ll put down 5”. The questionnaires are also infrequent which could cause the subjects to summarize what their lifestyle choices are, instead of accounting for them in a daily log.

All in the Same Pot

Just being a pig on a hot summer day.

I have a few more issues, one being that not all red meat is the same. For instance, beef that is fed corn is very different nutritionally than beef that eats grass. Just likes humans, what you feed an animal effects what type of fat it stores and where. If you feed your kids twinkies and hoho’s all day long they will have vitamin and mineral deficiencies because the food they are eating barley contains any, and more importantly the fat from these foods is the bad fat, and is metabolized and stored as bad fat.

What makes saturated fat bad? It’s biochemistry people. Crack open that college text book and take a look. Trans, saturated, unsaturated, monounsaturated etc… are all terms that talk about the chemical bonds within the fat molecule. To simplify it, saturated fats have a nice zig-zag shape because of the single bonds between the carbons that make up the tail of the fatty acids. Unsaturated fats have kinks in the zag-zag chain where there are double carbon bonds. What does all this science mean? The saturated fats zig-zag shape allow then to stack up neatly in tight formations when stored in your cells. The unsaturated fats can’t do this because of the double bonds and just kind of hang out around each other. It takes a whole lot more energy to pull apart the neatly stacked saturated fats, so your body goes for the unsaturated fat first, leaving you with dense hard to process saturated fat in your cells. Also, because the saturated fat packs together tightly at room temperature it’s thick and waxy, exactly the kind of stuff you don’t want to fill the cells lining your arterial walls, especially since its hard to break down and use. Unsaturated fat is oily liquid at room temperature – think olive oil etc..

The Absolute, Ultimate Guide to Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry, Third Edition, David L. Nelson and Michael M. Cox, Copyright 2000 Worth Publishers, all rights reserved

How does all of this relate to red meat? Corn fed beef has higher levels of saturated fats that grass fed beef. Why? Because when the cattle eat corn that’s how their body metabolizes it, breaks it down and stores it. Ever heard of marbling? That’s fat packed tightly into the muscle of the cow. We’ve been taught marbling is good – but it doesn’t sounds all that great now that you know what it is. They say highly marbled meat is more tender because when it’s cooked all the marbled fat melts into the meat. If you cook grass raised beef low and slow, it’s not just as good – it’s better. Stop cooking all your steak at 1000000000 degrees in two minutes, and guess what? IT WILL BE TENDER!

When cattle eat grass the nutrients they are consuming are stored in their bodies in the meat (or muscle). Grass fed beef also has less saturated fat, because cows just don’t turn grass into a lot of dense waxy fat. They also have a better balance of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. I’m sure you’re all heard of these. Well they are no good to you if they aren’t consumed in the right ratios. Oh and psssstt: omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are unsaturated fats! NO WAY! You mean beef has the same stuff in it that comes in those pricey fish oil pills I buy? Who would have thought. Some studies actually show that eating grass-fed beef is just as healthy as eating commercial chicken(stuff at the grocery store for a $1.50 a pound).

In this vein I would like to point out that slapping organic or natural on something does not mean it’s good for you either. Organic chicken and beef is not necessarily free-range grass-eating beef and bug eating chicken. It could be, but it could also just mean they were fed organic corn, had outdoor access at some point in their lives and aren’t full of synthetic hormones. While this is all great, it’s missing a big part of the picture – what they feed the animal matters and corn just doesn’t cut it.

In Summary

The farm

Back to the argument. Not all red meat is the same (as I so fervently explained above). So you can’t put it all in the same pot. Some say grass-fed red meat is just as healthy as commercial chicken. People lie on questionnaires. Heart disease and cancer are caused by a lot of different environmental and genetic factors. A correlation is not the same as cause/effect. I hope that if you read the article, you can now go back and appreciate the correlation between death due to heart disease, lifestyle choices and the ingestion of commercial red meat, and not think you’re going to keel over if you have a pork chop or a steak. I also hope you look into CSAs in your area, and think about making the switch to grass-fed beef and free range chickens. The meat is more flavorful, better for you, and comes from happy animals.

I’m going to end the post here for now…but it’s not over 🙂

On with the comments, because I’m sure some of you don’t agree.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. gatti permalink
    May 1, 2012 9:16 PM

    Great post Rachel! You make me miss biochem.

  2. erineeb permalink
    April 27, 2012 1:05 AM

    Mmm, now I want some steak!

  3. April 26, 2012 10:40 PM

    GREAT post, Rachel! The world needs more critical thinkers like you.

    I find myself questioning everything I read, no matter if I agree with the subject matter or not. I almost always read comments on articles and find myself blown away by people’s ignorance and complete lack of ability to throw together a logical thought or argument.

    Sigh. The hot topic that drives me nuts is dog training and behaviour, as opposed to food though. 🙂


  1. Recipe: Beef Roast with a Sage and Garlic Rub « A Home In College Hill

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