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All red meat is bad for you—so why eat it?

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A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that eating red meat, whether bacon or hamburger, boosts one's risk of dying young. Is the answer simply moderation?

We've known for years that eating red meat is bad for us, but now there's staggering evidence to support the claim. On Monday, the Archives of Internal Medicine published the first large-scale, long-term study showing that consumption of processed and unprocessed red meat can shorten one's life, including by heart disease and cancer.

Harvard researchers analyzed more than 121,000 men and women who filled out surveys about their health and diet from 1980 to 2006. During that time, nearly 24,000 of the participants died: 5,910 from cardiovascular disease and 9,464 from cancer.

Of course, researchers (and beef proponents) are quick to say there isn't proof that meat causes premature death. This was an observational study, so no cause-and-effect relationship can be identified, which the Beef Checkoff program that funds the Beef Council was quick to point out.

But even after controlling for variables such as age, smoking status and heredity, researchers still found that one serving a day of red meat led to a higher likelihood of mortality:

  • Processed red meat—such as bacon or bologna—was pegged to increase one's risk of premature mortality by 20 percent. Researchers said sodium and nitrites in processed meat could explain the high percentage.
     
  • Unprocessed red meat—such as beef, pork or lamb—led to a 12 percent greater risk.

The great meat debate

At Expo West 2012, So Delicious Dairy Free screened Vegucated, a documentary that follows three omnivores on their journey to veganism for six weeks. Director Marisa Miller Wolfson was on hand to talk to the vegan (that includes me) and non-vegan crowd, some of whom were skeptical about veganism.

The discussion in that room plays out daily in the world each day. But this scientific study shows that it’s not just vegans head butting with paleos anymore.

Now, people who don’t follow a specific diet/lifestyle are increasingly asking: "What in the world am I supposed to eat?" Agave was named a top 5 worst sweetener, and there wasn't any science behind it. Here, there's science. But will it motivate people to change their red meat-eating habits?

Or, is this simply another headline that will cause diehard meatitarians to roll their eyes and order their next pork chop?

Everything in moderation?

Experts say to substitute one red meat serving per day with fish, poultry, nuts, legumes and whole grains. Doing so, researchers estimate that 9 percent of deaths in men and nearly 8 percent in women could be prevented.

Think of what could be prevented if that one red meat serving per day didn’t exist at all. A 40-point drop in cholesterol, speaking from personal experience. Not to mention the environmental benefits of decreased meat production.

This is one area where I don’t believe “everything in moderation” applies. Experts (who I suspect have ties to meat production) say it’s healthier to cut back on eating meat, and to only consume lean, unprocessed versions. But you can also be healthy by not eating any red meat at all.

So here’s the question: After knowing what we know about the dangers of eating red meat, and knowing you can be healthy without eating it—why would you still want to?

I’m truly curious about this topic and would love to hear your opinion in the comments.

Discuss this Blog Entry 17

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 14, 2012

The answer is simple, the pleasure of eating it. Some people find eating read meat (or any meat) delicious. I went a decade with out eating or liking red meat (vegetarian for 5 years, then poultry and fish added, then lean pork). Recently I had some organic, grass fed beef, and found it amazingly delicious. I was truly surprised. Atmy household, we appreciate the variety as well. We eat veg, 3 or 4 nights per week, and add in animal protein on the other nights.

Bob Brown (not verified)
on Mar 14, 2012

Is it possible that people who eat that Burger King Whopper or Big Mac each lunch or dinner are not as likely to care about what they eat the rest of the day as a Vegetarian who makes a conscious decisions each time he or she eats?
Seems likely to me a great difference in dietary conviction exists between the two groups.

Richard Aron (not verified)
on Mar 15, 2012

Veganism is NOT healthy. Eating fast processed food including meat is also NOT healthy. We should eat foods as God created them, not as human manipulated them. Organic, natural, wholesome meat, poultry, fish and vegetables are healthy to eat. People have to know how to include varieties in their meals. In our fast-paced society, we have to eat quickly what's available which in most cases include pizza, burgers, and junk food. Our brain needs healthy meat which provides many vitamins not available in a vegan diet. Being a vegan and looking like a skeleton is not being lean and healthy. Lack of essential nutrients also contribute to deadly diseases.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 15, 2012

I am sorry, but saying veganism is NOT healthy is simply laughable. Our brain does not need meat at all, it actually needs glucose and oxygen.
I am a 27 year vegan with an IQ of 143. and a bodybuilder, 5'9 190lb, >10% bodyfat.
All nutrients are available in a vegan diet.
If your God is from the Bible, then here is what He said we should eat (before falling from grace) Genesis 1:29 "And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, which has seed in its fruit; to you it shall be for food."
I guess God created Vegans. :)
Please watch "Forks Over Knives" and do your body (and your brain) a favor.

Tammy Provence (not verified)
on Mar 15, 2012

Has anyone out there stopped taking nutritional supplements since the study claiming multi vitamins shorten one's life was recently published? Me either....

Sugar is the food of choice for cancer cells and causes diabetes, which leads to heart disease. If we are talking about contaminants in meat (I'm assuming the author means beef specifically) then I'm hearing you and take every precaution to consume clean beef (and all animal protein for that matter).

I see lots of obese vegans and vegetarians in my business. Obesity is the basis for much chronic disease. Let's reduce obesity first, then drill down on the debate on consuming meat. I am also wondering if the author is recommending contaminated, genetically modified plant based foods versus organic animal proteins. I bring up these points because this is not a simple conversation.....

on Mar 20, 2012

Hi Tammy, thanks for your comment. The study that I wrote about above didn't just consider beef as red meat -- it was beef, pork, lamb that were found to increase mortality. Obesity goes hand-in-hand with this topic, because the more red meat one consumes, the more saturated fat. Also, I am against GMOs and do not consume them, nor do I recommend others consume them -- plant or no plant.

Steve Auerbach (not verified)
on Mar 15, 2012

I cross streets even though I know that the traffic traversing my path can kill me. I fly in airplanes even though I know that on occasion some crash. I come home even though I know that the likelihood of suffering an accident there is greater than elsewhere. Yes, I even eat meat. Just call me a crazy daredevil.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 30, 2012

It's not the danger of eating meat that makes people be vegan. It is the way they feel when the food they eat fuels their body and they don't feel sluggish or sick. It depends on what a person eats when they call themselves a vegan. If they eat lots of sugar, refined products, and fat, then they can be sicker than someone who eats meat! The bottom line is...YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT!

Michael R. (not verified)
on Mar 15, 2012

Attended Expo West this year and went by the Daiya display. The people there were just angry and I dont believe people are supposed to be blue. Take a good look at the massive peoblems associated with soy expecially you, Caren with a "C." My diet consisting of 8 ounces of red meat per week is a whole lot healthier than your pound of Monsanto GMO soy per day. Soy equals fibrocystic breast and uterine fibroids. With all those great Steaks out there why would you want to eat SOY?

on Mar 20, 2012

Hi Michael - I visited the Daiya booth as well and had an entirely different experience talking with the CEO than what you describe. Also, I'm not sure why you're mentioning Monsanto GMO soy, because Daiya is soy free. I am against GMOs and I don't eat a pound of soy a day. In fact, I never mentioned soy once in my blog.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 15, 2012

Poor science - correlation does not equal causation.

Did they look at grass fed meats? No.

on Mar 20, 2012

The researchers said any amount and any type of red meat was found in the study to contribute to a higher likelihood of mortality. It is interesting, because grass-fed meat has been found to be better for one's health than other meat... but it's still meat.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 30, 2012

And all meats, no matter whether they are organic or grass fed, are 20% saturated fat and that fat goes right to our arteries and stays there! Have you ever made a hamburger patty or taken meat off a bone and felt the sticky stuff cling to your fingers and hands? That stuff is what over a period of time clogs our arteries. You don't get it from vegetables and fruits. Eating lots of sugar and "liquid" fats can do harm to your organs and cause diabetes on it's own. A "vegan" needs to eat vegetables and fruits to be healthy.

on Mar 23, 2012

An interesting response to the research article posted today:

"Second, I showed examples where many clinical trials do not report variables central to the study. In the present case, 'red meat' covers a wide variety of substances. In the USA, most red meat comes from corn/grain-fed cattle, confined in relatively close quarters, and filled with antibiotics and growth hormones. How much of the adverse impacts reported come from the 'red meat' and how much come from the type of feed and additives? How would the results differ if the cattle were free-range grass-fed and not flooded with antibiotics and hormones? Without addressing these missing variables, the results of the study could be misleading.

While the authors do show that consumption of standard red meat is harmful, and is exacerbated by other harmful substances/practices ((1) sedentary; (2) smoking; (3) drink; (4) obesity; (5) consumption of empty calories; and (6) consuming less fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.)], they do not separate the effects of intrinsic red meat from the effects of processing, additives, and cattle environmental and dietary factors."

on Apr 3, 2012

A sane excerpt from Andrew Weil on this study:

I don't believe anyone needs to eat red meat to be healthy. We can get the protein and essential fatty acids we need from other sources, such as wild-caught, cold-water fish; free-range, omega-3 rich eggs; and tofu, beans and nuts.

If you do eat red meat, less is better than more, and grass-fed, grass-finished beef offers a far better omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid profile, along with fewer contaminants and less fat.

At the same time, the superficial modern-media takeaway and "crisis headline"- red meat is lethal - is highly suspect. Human beings have a long evolutionary history of consuming meat from healthy, foraging four-legged animals, so it is unlikely that this practice is extraordinarily hazardous to health.

Conversely, we have a very short evolutionary history of eating highly processed and unnatural foods, especially industrial beef and pork, refined sugars and polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Being sedentary, smoking, and avoiding fruits and vegetables are also rather recent widespread human behaviors for which we are poorly adapted. I believe that these lifestyle habits - rather than eating red meat per se - are likely to be the true causes of increased mortality.

A far more useful study would be one that compared the health of active, nonsmoking, normal-weight, fruit-and-vegetable eating people, divided into groups depending on whether they get most of their protein from:

vegetarian sources such as beans, tofu and nuts
fish
grass-fed, grass-finished beef and free-foraging pork

I suspect that members of all three groups would show significantly lower "all-cause mortality" than that of most Americans and that the fish-eating group would have the lowest risk by a narrow margin. But we won't know if that's true until such a study is actually conducted.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 16, 2012

To all the red meat people, be aware that there is actually a scientific study that has been done on several millions people: please watch "Forks Over Knives" and your life will change. What more can we say...

Jimmy (not verified)
on Oct 3, 2012

For heart disease, the answer is pretty clear. Some red meats are high in saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease.
When it comes to cancer, the answer is not so clear. Many researchers say it does raise the risk, especially for colorectal cancer.
Azelaic Acid

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