red meat, stroke, aspirin, Celebrex, glucosamine, arthritis, pain, Glucosamine/chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial, GAIT trial

Look Beyond the Headlines

Look Beyond the Headlines

© 2011 Dr. Dale Peterson &

It is widely reported that only 1 out of 5 people read beyond the headline of a story. This is unfortunate, for rarely does a story’s headline accurately convey the actual content of the article. This is particularly true in the reporting of medical study results.

I regularly come across headlines that capture my attention either because they run counter to what other studies have shown or because what they suggest is illogical. In nearly every instance I discover that the facts are quite different than what the headline suggested.

Cases in point are the headlines that appear intermittently proclaiming “Glucosamine no better than a placebo in relieving arthritis pain” or “Glucosamine of no benefit in osteoarthritis.” In the most recent study, the Glucosamine/chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT – medical researchers pride themselves in creating clever acronyms) glucosamine and glucosamine/chondroitin were compared to a popular arthritis drug, celecoxib (Celebrex) and to a placebo. Looking beyond the headlines I discovered that the toxic drug, celecoxib (which remains on the market solely because it killed fewer users than Vioxx and Bextra the two other drugs in its class) was 21 % more likely to lessen mild arthritis pain by 20 % than the placebo. Glucosamine was 16 % more likely to lessen mild arthritis pain by 20 %. By using a statistical maneuver, researchers were able to state that celecoxib’s ability to relieve arthritis pain was “statistically significant” while glucosamine, which came in a very close second, was declared “not statistically significant.”

One of the challenges in interpreting the study is that placebos are quite effective in relieving mild pain. Sixty percent of study participants with mild pain reported relief from the placebo. Ironically, when individuals reporting mild pain were excluded and only those reporting moderate to severe pain were considered glucosamine/chondroitin was significantly more effective than the placebo. 79 % of those receiving glucosamine/chondroitin reported at least a 20 % reduction in their arthritis pain as opposed to 54 % of those given a placebo. Since 78 % of the study participants were in the mild pain group the overall results painted an overly dim view of glucosamine’s effectiveness.

Headlines appeared early in 2011 regarding a Swedish study published in mid-December 2010. Typical headlines read “Red Meat Raises Stroke Risk” and “Eating Lots of Meat Ups Women’s Stroke Risk.” The first suggests that the study found that anyone eating red meat is risking having a stroke; the second projects an image of women eating double bacon cheeseburgers and 16 ounce steaks. Neither picture is correct.

The study in question looked at the self-reported habits of 34,670 Swedish women. In 1997 they completed a survey that asked about their education, weight, height, smoking history, physical activity, aspirin use, medical challenges, family history of a heart attack, and alcohol consumption. The women were also asked to list how often they consumed various foods, including meats.

Studies based upon self-reported data are possibly the least reliable form of research. It is human nature to write down figures that one thinks one should have or be doing rather than the actual numbers. Actual measurements of weight and height, for example, often find that individuals are slightly shorter and a bit heavier than reported. Smoking intensity and alcohol consumption are generally understated.

Challenges with the type of study aside, its findings did not support what the headlines suggested. None of the women ate what one would consider “a lot” of red meat. The heaviest meat eaters in the study ate less than 4 ounces of red meat a day. Those in the lowest category consumed less than an ounce of red meat daily.

The most serious flaw in the study, which none of the headlines noted, was that fresh meat and processed meats (such as smoked bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, and ham) were lumped together as “red meat.” Since processed meats contain large amounts of sodium and often other chemicals such as nitrates and nitrites, they affect the body much differently than fresh, unprocessed meat.

Pictures accompanying the articles showed fresh hamburger patties and freshly cut steaks, not packages of sausages or luncheon meats. The first sentence of the article at AOL Health also suggested that fresh red meat was harmful, “If you are a woman who loves steak and you eat a lot of it, you may be risking your health.”

In 2010 the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed the medical literature looking at the relationship between red meat and disease development. The researchers were able to find a link between processed meats and cardiovascular disease, but they did not find any increased risk from consumption of fresh meat.

If you are a woman who loves steak you can enjoy a freshly cut fillet or sirloin without worrying that you are promoting vascular disease or increasing your risk of a stroke. Develop the habit of reading beyond the headlines, especially when it comes to those that effect how you live your life.

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