April 30, 2009

Jane Brody is a liar


I'll put up a more detailed debunking of NYT health shaman Jane Brody's article on the purported risks of eating red meat, probably on Sunday or Monday at GNXP.com, with lots more graphs over broader time periods. In the opening paragraph, the better to frighten everyone, she claims that "Meat consumption has more than doubled in the United States in the last 50 years." Since the article is about the dangers of red meat, the reader is left to infer that this doubling refers to the allegedly dangerous red meat.

Sure it has, you dingbat. That's all I see today -- people gorging themselves on steaks, ground beef, veal, and lamb. She cites no source at all for this claim -- I mean, she's only a journalist.

Turning to reality, here is a look at how consumption of red meat (beef) vs. white meat (chicken) has changed from 1985 to 2006, the most intense phase of the anti-fat hysteria:

Beef consumption dropped from 75 pounds per year per capita in 1985 to 63 pounds in 2006, a decline of 16% in only 20 years. This is actual consumption, not just supply. There are data for all red meat and all poultry, but the change in their values are almost entirely due to changes in the specific foods of beef and chicken (hardly anyone was eating lamb or veal in 1985 to begin with). I pieced the data together from several editions of the USDA's annual Agricultural Statistics, and so could you if you had a free afternoon.

There are also data on supply going back to 1909. These come from a single spreadsheet, one of many that are freely available at the USDA website. Here is the graph:

"In the last 50 years," there has been an increase and then a decrease, as opposed to what Brody implies as a steady increase when she refers to a "doubling." Even there, she is wrong. Starting 50 years ago, in 1959, the retail availability per capita per year of red meat was 134 pounds, vs. 117 pounds in 2007, a decline of 13%. But if we ignore the meaningless time period of "the last 50 years" and instead focus on the period of mainstream anti-fat hysteria, we find a 22% decline from the peak in 1971 of 150 pounds to 117 pounds in 2007.

In short, Jane Brody is a bald-faced liar who couldn't be bothered to spend a single afternoon to check her facts using these bewildering new technologies called the internet and Microsoft Excel. Even worse is that she lacks any common sense, which should have set off her bullshit detector after hearing from some other moron that red meat consumption has "more than doubled" ever since President Eisenhower's heart attacks scared everyone into abandoning red meat.

How lazy, gullible, and innumerate do you have to be to get a lifelong appointment as a health & nutrition gossip at the newspaper of record?

Update: it occurs to me that Brody is one of those people who don't understand rates. Like, maybe meat consumption is going up just because there are a lot more people in the US now than 50 years ago. Obviously the useful statistic is per capita consumption. Still, here is the total availability of red meat, not the per capita availability:

Even here she is wrong. To count the 2007 value as "double" the value of a past year, you have to go back to 1942, not 1959 -- off by 17 years. The increase in total availability from 1959 to 2007 is only 49% -- it increased by half, not by 2.

A commenter suggests that she was referring to all meat, not just red meat, and total rather than per capita consumption. If we use the USDA's data on all meat -- red meat plus chicken -- and use total rather than per capita values, then there was a doubling from 1962 to 2007. So, it's a lie by omission -- the headline and the content of the article are about the alleged dangers of red meat, not simply of meat. "Oh, did I forget to mention I was referring to total consumption of all meat? What would have ever made you think I was talking about how much red meat the average person eats?" She also lies by omission in not saying what the pattern for red meat, the relevant meat for her article, looks like -- a sharp decline.

Jane Brody got a B.S. in biochemistry from Cornell in 1962, before the anti-fat hysteria. Since then, her starving agricultural peasant diet has clearly robbed her of whatever reasoning faculties she had as a young girl. It sure hasn't helped her cholesterol levels -- see here, and a funnier response here.


  1. In her defense, she doesn't actually say "meat consumption per capita" has doubled, just "meat consumption," although this would make the statistic irrelevant to her argument since obviously meat consumption's going to increase with population. I look forward to the full debunking.

  2. Being deceitful or just plain stupid is no defense.

  3. You probably aren't old enough to remember when the big deal was dietary cholesterol. There were these little charts that showed how much cholesterol was in different foods and they even had some (likely arbitrary) max amount for daily consumption.

    Before the dietary cholesterol fad, there was the sugar one. There was a book called Sugar Blues that was popular. I remember my mother reading it.

  4. It's quite ironic that people have been encouraged to eat chicken over beef, considering chicken contains around 9 times more of it's fat as omega six.

    High ratios of omega six fats seem to be the leading cause of inflammation in the arteries, and are likely the leading culprit in the hardening of the arteries (evolution seems to have equipped us for around a 2:1 ratio of n-6 to n-3, the modern diet is more around 17:1 since we switched from "bad" animal fats to "good" vegetable oils)

    For example, despite becoming obese and getting diabetes once they adopt western foods, Eskimos have very low rates of heart disease. Likely because they still eat a lot of the traditional fishes whose Omega 3 fatty acids displace the Omega 6 (n-3 and n-6 compete for the same receptors), protecting their blood vessels.

  5. And accompanying that advice (vegetable fat good, animal fat bad) is the advice to eat more grain, bread, starches, etc. This of course raises our insulin levels.

    Interesting thing about high glucose and insulin levels: they lead to greater inflammation. Take patients admitted to hospitals with sepsis -- the ones with higher glucose / insulin levels have higher sepsis scores.

    I'll try to throw together a short post sometime on higher insulin = higher inflammation.

  6. The statin basher you linked to at the end has it all wrong: Framingham is not about statins, it's about saturated fat in diet. And yes, it's probably been improperly interpreted and blown out of proportion, and yes, the dietary cholesterol scare and the sat fat scare and the red meat scare are based on flimsy data taken too seriously by their authors. But statins are a whole different story. The studies definitively proving the efficacy of statins in extending lifespan of persons with high cholesterol and history of cardiac events are called WOSCOPS, 4S, AFCAPS, and others (see http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=18078013), and there is also JUPITER showing reduced cardiovascular mortality in persons without heart disease and normal cholesterol. I doubt that the beneficial effects of statins are really due to their effect on cholesterol (otherwise non-statin cholesterol lowering meds like fibrates or ezetimibe would have been found to be effective too). Statins may work by causing mitochondrial hormesis or some other yet unknown mechanism but it's clear they prolong life. This is as close to gospel truth as you can get in medicine. To say that statins are bad for you if you have heart disease and elevated LDL because they "cause cancer" is just plainly stupid. Jane Brody may be a loser but statin bashers tend to be idiots.

  7. No effect for women, though, and Jane Brody is female.

  8. According to:

    the effects of statins are the same for men and women. The main reason for inconclusive results of many primary prevention studies regarding women is the low number of women enrolled in the studies, which resulted in lower statistical power. The current recommendation is to treat men and women the same. Taking a statin may be the only thing that Jane Brody is doing right.

  9. My university has a 12-month delay on that journal.

    Do they report that all-cause mortality declines in women with statin use?

    That was the major issue before -- that the thing you really care about (dying at all, no matter what from, since we all die of something) was no different in women who did vs. did not use statins.


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