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Michael Greger MD

Michael Greger MD

Posted August 14, 2014

Published in Health

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How to Design a Misleading Study

Read More: animal fat, animal products, bacon, beef, butter, cake, candy, cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular health, cheese, chicken, cholesterol, Coca-Cola, Crisco, fat, fiber, fish, Harvard, heart disease, heart health, industry influence, LDL cholesterol, meat, Pepsi, plant protein, pork, poultry, protein, saturated fat, seafood, smoking, soda, sugar, tobacco, turkey, Twinkies, vegetable protein

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NF-Aug12  How the Meat Industry Designed a Highly Misleading Study.jpg

Imagine working for the now defunct Twinkie division of Hostess and wanting to take the tobacco industry tact of not just downplaying the risk of your product, but actually promoting it as healthy. How would we do that?

Our first problem is that each Twinkie has 2.5 grams of saturated fat, which raises cholesterol, the #1 risk factor of our #1 killer, heart disease. How are we going to get around that?

Well, what if we designed a study in which we took a bunch of people eating our arch-rival, Little Debbie cloud cakes. Now they only have one gram each, so what if we took a group eating five cloud cakes a day -- five grams of saturated fat -- and then cut that saturated fat intake in half by switching them to eating one Twinkie a day. What would happen to their cholesterol levels? Their cholesterol would go down due to their decreased saturated fat consumption. So even though they went from eating five cakes down to one, technically, they went from zero Twinkies a day to one Twinkie a day, and their cholesterol went down (we wouldn't mention the five to one thing).

We publish it and crank out a press release, "New research shows that eating a Twinkie a day can be good for heart health by improving cholesterol levels." The media takes our press release and runs with it: "Consumers can eat a Twinkie every day if they choose, and feel confident that science supports Twinkies' healthy benefits, which now include cholesterol-lowering effects!" Twinkies, we just proved with science, have cholesterol-lowering effects. Too outlandish a scenario? Amazingly, that's exactly what the beef industry did (those above quotes are actual quotes-just replace the word beef for Twinkie).

In a study bought and paid for by the beef industry, beef was added to people's diets. At the same time, the subjects removed so much poultry, pork, fish, and cheese from their diet that they halved their saturated fat intake from 12 percent of their diet, down to 6 percent of their diet, causing their cholesterol levels to go down. If our diet goes from 12 percent saturated fat down to 6 percent saturated fat, it doesn't matter if that 6 percent comes from beef, chicken, lard, or Twinkies. If we cut our total saturated fat in half, our cholesterol will follow, especially if we eat more fiber and vegetable protein as they did in the study.

The researchers conclude: "The results of the BOLD study [standing for Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet] provide convincing evidence that lean beef can be included in a heart-healthy diet that meets current dietary recommendations and reduces cardiovascular disease risk." Crisco could be included. Krispy Crème could be included, as long as we cut our total saturated fat intake. What the researchers fail to mention is that our risk would drop even lower if we dropped the beef, as was pointed out by the chair of nutrition at Harvard in a response to the study.

The subjects in this study went from a high risk of dying from heart disease to... a high risk of dying from heart disease. We need to get our LDL (bad) cholesterol down to 50, 60, or 70 to become essentially heart attack proof (see Eliminating the #1 Cause of Death). For most people, that means eliminating saturated animal fat and cholesterol intake completely.

This study is really just showing how bad saturated fat is from any animal source. Yes, based on saturated fat levels, lean beef is often better than chicken (and Twinkies), but that's like touting the health benefits of Coca Cola because it has less sugar than Pepsi. It does--15 spoonfuls of sugar per bottle instead of 16--but that doesn't mean we wouldn't be better not consuming soda at all. Reminds me of this study: "Cheese Intake Lowers LDL-Cholesterol Compared With Butter Intake...." [emphasis added]

In my video, Bold Indeed: Beef Lowers Cholesterol? you can see the beef industry's release. and how they ended up with the "cholesterol-lowering effects of beef." If we cut out enough poultry, pork, fish, and cheese from our diet, we could replace this with almost anything (bacon grease, candy, frosting, deep-fried snickers bars, sewer sludge, etc.), and still reduce cholesterol levels.

How are Americans exposed to saturated fat? Burgers actually fall well below chicken. See Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero.

The beef industry is by no means alone in having a corrupting influence on the scientific method. See, for example:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image Credit: Seth Tisue / Flickr


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