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Red Meat and The Company You Keep

Snowed in this weekend meant movie-time, and one jewel we watched was The Company You Keep, directed by and starring Robert Redford, about some proverbial legal chickens coming home to roost decades later for some 1970’s-era radicals. By surrender, investigation and intrigue, the radicals who were involved in the bank robbery involving a murder are brought to the justice that has been unable to find them since the time of the crime. It’s entertaining, tender and emotional, and the star-power had my head constantly whipping around, “wait, wasn’t that Julie Christie?!” (Yes, that's the back of her head in the attached photo.) Redford’s character, Nick Sloan/Jim Grant is unjustly implicated in the crime, and the drama evolves around “the company he kept,” for good and for bad. Someone pulled a trigger, yes, and with one exception, the 1970’s cohort has stayed secretive and mutually supportive.

Nice movie, DrD, but what’s the point?

A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition had difficulty separating red meat from the company it keeps. Certain data exists associating red meat intake with increased type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Nutritional researchers, including the famous and infamous WC Willett (I have a theory about him, see below),  hypothesized that greater red meat intake would be associated (note: nothing about causation) with biomarkers of inflammation and glucose metabolism, which would partly be explained by differences in BMI (body mass index = a measure of weight, with no regard for muscle vs fat mass). To investigate their question, they reviewed previously available data from the Nurses’ Health Study.

Yes! Just as I’m sure Dr. Willett was happy to see, greater intake of red meat (total, unprocessed, and processed) was associated with higher levels of inflammation, iron and blood glucose. Whoop! Oh, wait – it seems that after adjustment for BMI, the associations became insignificant (and perhaps reversed, it is not specified in the summary I read). Only iron levels actually correlated with red meat intake, which is not surprising to anyone I think.

The researchers somehow concluded that greater red meat intake is associated with unfavorable plasma markers! And in the next sentence conceded that BMI is responsible for those associations, not the red meat itself! OK, what’s a good analogy?  If 1 person actually committed a crime, but four others often hang out with that person: are those four associated with a crime? Not in any country that calls itself modern, hopefully. What irresponsible medical confabulation!

The researchers somehow (the full article is not yet available) substitute “a meal” (how did they do this when they analyzed existing data?) of non-red meat protein and found all the bio-markers improved. At the level of the released information to date, this makes absolutely no sense, but perhaps someone will fall for it.

(Which reminds me: my theory about Dr. Willett is that he actually has a very low opinion of the intelligence of the general community. I believe he knows perfectly well that high quality, i.e., grass-fed, red meat in the context of a diverse diet is at worst neutral and at best a health benefit. I can only imagine he thinks that distinction is of too great a complexity to expect of the general public, so he would rather just make it simple and have us all avoid red meat. Perhaps keeping company too long at Harvard just does that to some people?)

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