How to Design a Misleading Study

How the Meat Industry Designed a Highly Misleading Study

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 videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Seth Tisue / Flickr

  • guest

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16644106

    Please review this veritable study regarding harmful effects of eating sprouted grains. Do you feel their is validity in this?

    • guest

      Maybe un-sprouted grains are actually safer, as far as this study goes?

  • Leslie

    Dr. Greger, correct me if I’m wrong but it appears most of our fruits and veggie are adequate in the form of vitamin E called tocopherols, and lacking in the tocotrienols form of vitamin E, and it is these tooctrienols that interest me (and others). Now, I’d rather not have to ingest red palm oil, but it does this seems to be the only plant-based source that is high in tocotrienols. Any thoughts on this vitamin E issue, or low fat sources of tocotrienls other than red palm?

    • Eran

      Sunflower seeds are the highest source of vitamin E as far as I know.

  • Coacervate

    This should be presented in all the schools on the same day they introduce the Scientific Method. If you would allow…”Greger’s Postulate # 1. The twin forces of politics and greed act equal and opposite to the force of logic and reason.”

  • Keeth

    Clever but nice try Beef Industry,,

  • Da St

    The word “tact” in the first paragraph should be “tack.” “Tack” is the direction of a boat, and “tact” is not a shortened form of “tactic.” Tact is good manners, reserve.

  • Anna

    I’d really appreciate your take on this study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3917888/ and what exactly is going on with it.

    • Jake

      “Potential limitations of our results are due to the fact that the
      survey was based on cross-sectional data. Therefore, no statements can
      be made whether the poorer health in vegetarians in our study is caused
      by their dietary habit or if they consume this form of diet due to their
      poorer health status.”

      This study was bogus. First, they grouped vegans and all other kinds of vegetarians together. Then, they didn’t even go into detail about dietary habits; “Another limitation concerns the lack of detailed information regarding
      nutritional components (e.g. the amount of carbohydrates, cholesterol,
      or fatty acids consumed).” “Unfortunately, food intake was not measured in more detail, e.g. caloric intake was not covered.”

      Further, “We admit that the large number of participants made it necessary to keep
      the questions simple, in order to cover the large sample.”

      This study was a broad and general look into what people say is going on concerning their nutrition, and I would suggest that vegetarians are more health-conscious and likely to notice their health problems more acutely than meat eaters who say things like “I think I eat healthy” and “I have no medical problems” despite taking pain relievers, excessive caffeine, and other behaviors deemed “normal” and/or “healthy” by the rest of society.

      Hope that helps.

    • Richard

      Dr. Greger loves cherry-picking and any study that goes contrary to his vegetarian diet is non-existent. He is simply vegetarian biased and nothing will dissuade him from following his path, For instance your indicated link does not exist for him or if it does, he will claim that the study in order to be valid must be repeated ad nauseam.

    • kejdzia
  • Guest

    Where can I find the references, sources for this article? Don’t see them. Thanks.

    • Thea

      Guest: Articles are a little different than the videos. When Dr. Greger introduces a new study in an article, he usually links to it. But if he is talking about subject matter that he covered in previous videos, then the article links to the video and you have to go to the video to get to the references. Just look under the video for the link, “Sources Cited” and then expand that section.