Patrick J. Skerrett

Study urges moderation in red meat intake

A study linking red meat and mortality lit up the media in more ways than one. Hundreds of media outlets carried reports about the study. Headline writers had a field day, with entries like “Red meat death study,” “Will red meat kill you?” and “Singing the blues about red meat.”

The warning from the study, done by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, sounded ominous. Every extra daily serving of unprocessed red meat (steak, hamburger, pork, etc.) increased the risk of dying prematurely by 13%. Processed red meat (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and the like) upped the risk by 20%. The results were published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study included more than 121,000 men and women followed for an average of 24 years. All submitted information about their diets every four years. Over the course of the study, almost 24,000 of the participants died. Death rates among those who ate the most red meat were higher than among those who ate the least.

Because this was the largest, longest study to date on the connection between eating red meat and survival, the findings are worth paying attention to. But they aren’t the last word on the topic, and the numbers need to be put into perspective.

A month ago, a Japanese study of more than 51,000 men and women followed for 16 years found no connection between moderate meat consumption (up to three ounces a day) and premature death. Last year, a study by different researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found no connection between eating unprocessed red meat and the development of heart disease and diabetes, though there was a strong connection with eating processed red meat.

Now for the numbers. Upping your risk of dying by 13% or 20% may nudge you toward becoming a vegetarian—but those are relative risks, comparing death rates in the group eating the least meat with those eating the most. The absolute risks (see them for unprocessed red meat in the table below) sometimes help tell the story a bit more clearly. These numbers are somewhat less scary.

Deaths per 1,000 people per year

1 serving unprocessed meat a week

2 servings unprocessed meat a day

Women

7.0

8.5

3 servings unprocessed meat a week

2 servings unprocessed meat a day

Men

12.3

13.0

The authors of the Archives paper suggest that the increased risk from red meat may come from the saturated fat, cholesterol, and iron it delivers. Potentially cancer-causing compounds generated when cooking red meat at high could also contribute. Sodium, particularly in processed foods, may also play a role. It’s also possible that red-meat eaters may be more likely to have other risk factors for serious, life-shortening diseases.

Try a Mediterranean approach

Given how hard it is to study the effect of food on long-term health, there probably won’t ever be a definitive study of red meat and mortality. The evidence that’s accumulating has me believing that less meat is probably better for health.

One way to cut back on red meat is to follow a Mediterranean-style diet. It is rich in plant-based foods, and doesn’t emphasize meat.

Keep in mind that there’s no such thing as the Mediterranean diet. Instead, there are many ways to go Mediterranean. Here are the basics:

  • Eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds every day; they should make up the lion’s share of foods.
  • Fat, much of it from olive oil, may account for up to 40% of daily calories.
  • Small portions of cheese or yogurt are usually eaten each day, along with a serving of fish, poultry, or eggs.
  • Red meat makes an appearance now and then.
  • Small amounts of red wine are typically taken with meals.

Cutting back on meat can also help the health of the planet. According to an eye-opening book from the Union of Concerned Scientists called The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, meat consumption is the second most environmentally expensive consumer activity, behind how we transport ourselves from place to place. Making one pound of beef for the table creates 17 times more water pollution and 20 times more habitat alteration than making its caloric equivalent in pasta.

That makes eating less meat an excellent two-fer.

Comments:

  1. Confessions

    Great idea! Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll be updating the post text and be sure to include it up there, thanks.

  2. henry

    I am not obese nor overweight but I want to cut down my fat percentage. The increased risk of death could have been entirely caused by lack of green veg in the diet.

  3. Richard

    I really don’t know what to make of the whole red meat issue, it seems like one month you are hearing it’s good for you and the next it’s back to bad. I just try to limit my intake to a minimum in case.

  4. Richard David Feinman

    “Thanks for posting this. It is great to read about the facts and science behind it” ?
    Huh?
    Isn’t this article about how the scientists mis-represented their data (admittedly by sin of omission).
    “those are relative risks, comparing death rates in the group eating the least meat with those eating the most. The absolute risks… sometimes help tell the story a bit more clearly. These numbers are somewhat less scary.”
    So, “more clearly” is not part of the facts and science. The fact that relative risk without absolute risk is widely reported in the literature and the press doesn’t make it any more acceptable. Remember, you can double your odds of winning the lottery by buying two tickets instead of one.

  5. Ryan Bellisario

    I am a meat-lover myself but for some reason I find myself agreeing in this article. Recently, I undergone a rigid training to lose weight. I am not obese nor overweight but I want to cut down my fat percentage. My trainer told me that he read an essay about red meat so he advised me to minimize my red meat intake and settle for more fish and vegetables. After a month, I didn’t just lose weight but I feel lighter as well. Now, every time I eat steak I feel so bloated afterwards. The feeling is not good really.

  6. Ginny McCandless

    There is almost nothing healthy to eat according to many articles. There are articles about how bad sugar is for us and also the sugar substitutes. Vegetables have lots of pesticides and so does fruit, especially strawberries. Red meat may cause cancer. Certain fish are not good to eat. Bread makes us fat. Now Gluten, lactose, and dairy products can cause certain health problems. Dark meat in chicken and turkey is a no-no and the skin. Fried anything is bad and, of course, salt. Nitrates in bacon and other processed meats. Eggs cause plaque to build up in the arteries. Milk chocolate is bad but not dark chocolate. Prepared foods are bad. Also, that we can’t trust that what we think is organic actually is.

  7. Dorothy Green

    A late response. In these studies there is never a distinction between meat that is from naturally fed animals ie grasses for cows and grasses and bugs for chickens and feed lot animals where their feed is mostly corn in the last months of their live. They get sick from it as well because that is not food their DNA understands.

    So maybe that IS the major reason why there is an increased risk. This plus the nitrates may be what going on in the processed meat.

    Most folks I’ve read who defend saturated fats do add that it is only pasture fed animals that are OK to eat and always in moderation. Of course probably too much animal fat and protein especially at the expense of veges and fruit could be problematic.

    Grandfather was a butcher – steak and eggs for breakfast guy. Loved him dearly. Had a belly, died of heart attack age 60, 1950. Don’t think the cows were fed corn then and certainly didn’t get antibiotics.

    We much change our love affair with corn – corn fed animals, HFCS, corn oil. It is killing people and increasing the amount of taxes I have need to contribute to sustain health care costs for chronic preventable diseases.

  8. Elisabeth Muhlenfeld

    What this article does not indicate is what the risk of dying per 1000 people is for those who are vegetarians. Without that, your piece is not helpful even as a corrective.

  9. Rinaldo

    One thing I know red meat is very bad for health. Here in Brazil eat much red meat and 30 my body is already weakened

  10. Bruce T. Miller

    Richard J. Messinger wrote “and then you let the politics of global warming and environmentalism enter into your discussion of the facts.”

    I have read this article three times now and did not see the politics of global warming and environmentalism mentioned anywhere. Now I know I’m 76 years old so what would I know but surely if you really have a need to take a shot at the writers. Try to use a decent and intelligent arguement encompassing factual evidence that can be understood, rather that bringing up a subject that the whole world is divided on.

  11. Paul

    As far as saving the planet is concerned the only way to do this is to place severe limits on human population levels and by placing severe limits on population density in any given area. To get the maximum amount of healthy nutritional value from food while minimizing land damage, maximizing food production, encouraging wildlife etc and reducing unnatural and biodiversity destroying agro chemical input and reducing a gross over reliance on oil use actually requires a relatively large amount of livestock farming even in those places that are apparently ideal for grain growing.

  12. Paul

    The study conclusions about red meat are nonsense and are pure guesswork and conjecture. The data used for the study can not under any circumstances be used to determine what the causes of the increased risk of death were. Cause and effect has not been established. The research authors know this. The increased risk of death could have been entirely caused by lack of green veg in the diet. The red meat intake of the people the data was obtained from could in fact be health improving on average and the data does not show that this isn’t the case. What could be happening is a decrease in green veg intake of 10% causes a health outcome reduction of 20% while an increase in meat intake of 10% causes 5% improved health resulting in an overall 15% health reduction. (A health / diet study in Italy showed this to be what’s actually happening). So, to sum up, the ‘red meat is unhealthy’ result is a wild guess and complete nonsense, authoring and publishing this type of misleading nonsense and attaching great professional accreditation to it should be classed as a serious criminal offence.

    • Bob bramel

      Should have stopped with the idea that the authors didn’t establish causality. They didn’t and they don’t seem to ever discuss alternatives to the weak associations observed. For this they deserve an F grade. And this isn’t the first time for many of them. According to Taubes, as of 2007 Willett was batting zero on correctly assigning causes to his associations. In no other field would such lousy work be published.
      On the other hand, ideas about veggies or other types of meat are equally unsupported. So don’t do what these guys do. Just acknowledge that there is currently no good data establishing meat or veggies as good or bad for mortality.

    • Ravikant

      This reminds me of when I first got to know my hbnausd-to-be’s family. They were all so nice to each other. In my family we spend a large proportion of our time together insulting each other and I couldn’t quite handle all that saccharine niceness! I like to think that I’ve brought my own brand of abuse to proceedings now, though.

  13. Craig Brann

    Not ALL red meat is bad, people. Wild meat such as venison from Deer and Bison, and Grass Fed Beef is very beneficial.

    • Zerin Knight

      Typical response from meat-eaters… Destroy the ecosystem by eating wild animals or feed grain to cattle, a small portion of which could feed starving populations for a year!

      “If you could live happy, healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t you?” George Bernard Shaw.

  14. Ichigao

    you can put a chuck roast on in the morning erofbe going to work and when you come back it should be ready to eat. when you let meat cook on a low temp for a long time it makes the meat tender especially if it is a cheap cut of meat but you don’t want to cook any meat too long because some of it will get stringy. you can stop cooking it now it should have only took 8 hours. but its ok don’t cook it any more. and of course i must ask why are you not going to eat it for another 12 hours?

  15. Adrian

    As a health practitioner, I always educate people to eat healthy food. “We are what we eat”. Fat from animals in meat, pork and poultry is not good for us as mentioned in this article. Eating more natural food will help to lose weight, prevent and treat diseases like hypertension. Here is an article on healthy diet;

    Thanks for sharing this article

  16. Kiran

    How should I cite this study as a source of research for an essay?

  17. Dr. Crystal Walters

    Eating red meat seems to be a sweltering topic. I am intrigued to see if there will be a break down in the various types of red meats and their relative risks. Great article.

  18. cesar

    congratulations good article
    For my part I have chosen to minimize possible red meat,
    exercise
    and early fruit extract different color
    made me feel good
    as in a restaurant when I instructions to restrict what is bad,
    choose a good food and good
    I for my work and outside my home and this restaurant:

  19. Mike

    Interesting stuff. I’m a believer that not all meat is created equally.

    I would be very curious how much the results differ if the subjects were fed grass-fed, naturally raised, red meat.

    –Mike

  20. Anonymous

    I have heard red meat increases chance of cancer. Don’t know whether it’s true or not.

    • Dr. Crystal Walters

      Santiago to this day I have not read of any study that pin pointed red meat causing cancer. The Japenese researchers did a study in 1986. They fed heterocyclic amines to lab rats. After that study a vast amount of researchers begin claiming that there was a connection between meat and cancer. Let me know if this helps.

      • Colleen Lewis

        And with that misleading response, I can’t help but wonder who you work for Dr Waters? A livestock related industry perhaps? I have regularly seen evidence quoted from esteemed sources that links meat consumption to at a minimum bowel cancer. Physiological evidence would suggest the human digestive system isn’t designed for meat, especially not in the quanitities with which it is consumed these days. Teeth, jaw power, intestinal tract length and time for digestion suggest we are designed for – at most – a predominantly plant based diet…aside from any of the very real environmental disasters that animal production causes, and the horrific systemic animal crulety routinely used in production.

      • Marcela

        Is there any product or secirve that you know of where the cheapest is the best? Or the best is the cheapest? You have to decide what is the right balance between low premiums and comprehensive coverage. Cheap insurance will have lower premiums because of the limited benefits provided. Good insurance will not be cheap but will pay greater benefits.

  21. Matt

    Could you put this into perspective in a different context for me?

    What is the increased relative risk of each cigarette smoked in comparison with those who do not smoke? Could you put these figures into a table similar to the one above?

  22. Richard J. Messinger

    I also thank you for posting this. You did fine until the last paragraph and then you let the politics of global warming and environmentalism enter into your discussion of the facts.

    • Colleen Lewis

      There’s no politics in those statements Richard, just facts. I suggest some further reading:
      United Nations Environment Program, ‘Assessing the environmental impacts of consumption and production’, 2010
      United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, ‘Livestock’s long shadow’, 2006
      Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, Millennium Assessments Report, 2005
      World Preservation Foundation: research and science around climate change, food security and global environmental issues.

  23. Santiago

    Thanks for posting this. It is great to read about the facts and science behind it.