Beef Pot Roast

Massive Meat Mayhem, Part 3

We didn’t think the meat mayhem reported last week could get any nastier. We were wrong. That’s because John Sharp, Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, is now requesting an investigation of actions by Walter Willett, Frank Hu, David Katz, and the True Health Initiative related to this big mess. He calls their reported behavior outrageous and unethical. He’s dismayed.

Sharp has made his dismay explicit in a harsh letter to Harvard’s President, Lawrence Bacow. It went to Bacow on Wednesday.

Although Harvard acknowledged receiving the letter, the university hasn’t yet responded.

Brewing Since October

Way back in October, seven papers in the Annals of Internal Medicine made the red meat haters hopping mad. Those papers challenged the presumption that red meat presents a big health risk.

“Looks like this is going to be a serious problem for us,” said David Katz, who runs the True Health Initiative. Then last week, JAMA reported on the messy details of how Katz et al responded to these papers. Annals editor Christine Laine told JAMA she’s never seen anything like this:

We’ve published a lot on firearm injury prevention. The response from the NRA (National Rifle Association) was less vitriolic than the response from the True Health Initiative.

Academic Bullying?

Journalist Nina Teicholz has long been a vocal critic of the dominant narrative about beef’s health hazards. She describes Willett and Hu’s behavior as bullying.

Ad hominems are a go-to strategy for dealing with people whose perspectives don’t line up with one’s own. But such tactics have no place in scientific discourse. Nonetheless, we hear it all the time. If the subject is sugar or red meat, tempers flare and name-calling commences. In Sharp’s letter, he cited the example of Willett labeling Texas A&M Professor Patrick Stover as a representative of “Big Beef.”

Such empty rhetoric is bad enough from politicians. Nutrition scientists should be ashamed to use it.

Not Backing Down from Meat Mayhem

We’ve heard some academics backing away from the True Health Initiative. Perhaps they had no idea this group would run headlong into this massive meat mayhem. The Houston Chronicle reports that even Hu now minimizes his connection to the group:

Hu downplayed his affiliation with the True Health Initiative, noting that there no membership fees or compensation and that he’s one of about 500 members.

But not Katz. On Twitter he says he welcomes an investigation. On LinkedIn, he’s posted a 10-point rebuttal of all the criticism.

This is likely to get uglier before the smoke clears. It is, as we’ve said before, an embarrassment to people who are serious about nutrition research.

Click here and here for more on this sorry mess.

Beef Pot Roast, photograph © R. Miller / flickr

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January 24, 2020

6 Responses to “Massive Meat Mayhem, Part 3”

  1. January 24, 2020 at 8:40 am, Susan Burke March said:

    Nina Teicholz? Who cherry picks studies that support her stories and has written that the US Dietary Guidelines are the cause of the obesity epidemic?
    Good for Dr. Katz for publishing a coherent and evidence-based rebuttal of the guidelines that call for not limiting processed meat. For writing that excellent analogy – guidelines that say there’s no reason to limit processed meat is analogous to saying:
    “New guidelines: No need to quit smoking for good health”
    “New guidelines: No need to exercise for good health”
    “New guidelines: No need to be vaccinated for good health”
    “New guidelines: No need to get sufficient sleep for good health”

    • January 24, 2020 at 8:59 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for adding your thinking on this, Susan.

      We can agree to disagree on this one, though I agree with some of your reservations. But the strength of evidence for harm from red meat isn’t comparable to the evidence for smoking, exercise, vaccination, and sleep. It’s simply not even close.

  2. January 24, 2020 at 11:18 am, Mary-Jo said:

    It is embarrassing and, frankly, encourages inaccuracy about what constitutes health-promoting diet and nutrition when people in such privileged and influential positions in the field of diet and nutrition, tout such absolutism from their own camps. They are behaving not a whole lot better than goopy fringe diet/nutrition quacks. Getting really good data on diet and nutrition and relationships to health and disease, certainly to draw absolute conclusions, is very hard and the most elite academics know this.

  3. January 24, 2020 at 12:24 pm, Stephan Guyenet said:

    The whole situation has left me very disappointed with the state of the nutrition research community. I used to think the craziness was mostly confined outside the research community, but now I see it’s craziness everywhere.

    Part of this disappointment is realizing that some of the claims in the Rubin article are questionable and the article relied quite a bit on implication and innuendo. She has yet to respond to my requests for clarification. So even there I don’t see an objective voice I can really trust. The article alleges vitriol from Katz/THI but I read their letter to Annals and it was quite respectful (even though I don’t support its objective). Katz states he has no knowledge of vitriol from THI members and no evidence was provided for this claim. And Rubin provides no evidence that THI was the source of the bot emails, which the article implies.

    It’s a big fat mess and people are so entrenched in their positions that rational debate and collaboration to move the field forward seem impossible. Or maybe this is a paroxysm marking a transition toward an evidence evaluation framework that de-emphasizes nutritional epidemiology. Time will tell.

  4. January 24, 2020 at 3:40 pm, John DiTraglia said:

    This is embarrassingly ugly. Which says something about the poor science of nutrition.
    I thought that Frank Hu was the undisputed dean of obesity epidemiology.
    Humans are omnivorous.

  5. January 29, 2020 at 9:43 am, David Brown said:

    Stephan Guyenet says, “It’s a big fat mess and people are so entrenched in their positions that rational debate and collaboration to move the field forward seem impossible.”

    Quite so. But more than that, there are gaps in the evidence base that need to be filled. For example, Murine experiments have shown that very low intakes of linoleic acid prevent weight gain no matter how high the intake of saturated fat might be.

    What the researchers did not do was increase linoleic acid above 8% of energy to see how higher than average intakes would affect murine metabolisms.

    In humans there is measurable benefit from the highest intakes of linoleic acid in terms of weight loss and decreased heart attack risk. However, high linoleic acid intake causes varicose veins.

    It’s interesting that varicose veins are associated with a lower risk for heart attack.

    Problem is, linoleic acid probably does not furnish protection from congestive heart failure.

    For example, here is an excerpt from an obituary. “Phil Sokolof, a Nebraska industrialist whose heart attack turned him into a national evangelist of a low-cholesterol diet, died on Thursday in Omaha. He was 82. His death was announced by the National Heart Savers Association, of which he was the founder and president and through which he pursued his campaign against fat and cholesterol. The cause was heart failure, his family said.

    When my own linoleic acid intake was excessive, I was slender. When I stopped eating peanut butter, however, I started gaining weight during the cold months and would lose it during the warm months when I was far more active.

    I attribute the weight cycling to excessive arachidonic acid intake. The problem? I suspect 99% fat-free turkey. Details in this comment: