Eat Red Meat And Die? Really?

“Ho hum, more evidence that red meat is bad for you,” was my reaction when I saw the new study out of Harvard showing a link between red meat consumption and earlier death. But some of the coverage was fairly alarming — The Los Angeles Times headline is “All red meat is bad for you, new study says.”

So kudos to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a Canadian obesity specialist, and his Weighty Matters blog for putting the latest study in perspective. He runs through the study’s methodological strengths and weakness, and sums up:

So are you going to die if you eat red meat?

Well you’re going to die regardless of what you eat, but this study would suggest that you’ll die ever so slightly younger if you eat red meat each and every day of the week, and even younger still if you eat processed red meat each and every day of the week. Did you catch the caveat of each and every day of the week? It certainly wasn’t hidden in the study.

He notes that even one of the study’s authors, Harvard’s Frank Hu, says moderate red meat consumption of perhaps once every other day should be fine. And for himself, Dr. Freedhoff writes:

I adore red meat. I also adore processed red meat. But ultimately this study just adds more weight to what the bulk of the literature has already concluded – processed and unprocessed red meats aren’t my best protein choices and if consumed daily, carry risks, albeit absolutely small ones, that other protein sources seemingly don’t.

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  • Argentine Beef Eater

    Is this study on Americans eating American, corn fed, antiobitc full beef?  Or does it look at South Americans who do have beef as a large part of their diet, but it is of a different quality?

    • Frank Hummer

      You’ve brought up a good point.  I’d like to see studies about grass fed beef as opposed to grain fed. I looked at some of the raw data. It looked like the people in the middle quintiles of red meat eaters actually did better than the lowest quintiles!

  • Harp_9c

    Of course it’s bad for you. Look what we do to our food sources… ammonia baths, hormones, and who knows what else? What can we as consumers truly do about it, unless I drop my life savings into getting a cow or two, and growing my own food, the way I want? Would if I could, but I’m too busy paying back college loans.

  • Bill Kilpatrick

    This Harvard study, which anybody can read at The Archives of Internal Medicine, is more of a literacy test (and a measure of reader gullibility) than anything else.  Forget the vegans running the experiment, or the sloppy methodology.  Just read the following:

    “Men and women with higher intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to be current smokers, to drink alcohol, and to have a higher body mass index (Table 1). In addition, a higher red meat intake was associated with a higher intake of total energy but lower intakes of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.”
    Still think it’s the meat?

    P.S.  These idiots think bacon is “red meat” and hamburger is “unprocessed.”

    • ActualReader

      Well I guess you failed the reading comprehension test Bill, because immediately after that statement they noted that the relationship persisted after they controlled for all of those variables.

  • Grcool29
  • Reasonable?

    I take umbrage at these types of studies in general.
    Data collection in this study relies solely on self report which is plagued by recall bias.  In addition, people who consume red meat and processed meat on  a Standard American Diet (SAD) also tend to have a high consumption of carbohydrates, which can also contribute to disease.  There are so few people who consume a lot of red meat and low carbohydrates that a study like this can’t measure that effect very well as all.

    To make strong statements about diet, we need more randomized controlled studies. These epidemiological studies are not strong enough methodically to make solid conclusions. unfortunately, the general public and the vast majority of of people with a background in public health don’t seem to understand this.

    • Yep, reasonable

      Of course public health researchers understand the pitfalls of using self-reported data, and include methods to try to account for this. These are pretty smart people, after all. But randomized controlled studies are almost impossible to conduct when it comes to diet (for so many reasons: What’s a good placebo for a hamburger? How do you discount all the red meat a person ate *before* the trial? How do you look at long-term effects–conduct a 30-year trial on red meat?). Epidemiological studies are flawed, certainly, but they’re the best tools we have for something so complex as diet.

  • Anonymous

    Moderation is the key to healthy living.