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What’s so bad about red meat?

Posted by medconsumers on March 25, 2012

OK.  If you need more reasons to cut back on the red meat in your diet, here they are: You will not only cut your chances of getting heart disease and cancer but you  will also have a shot at living longer. All the better, if you lay off the processed red meat like bacon and hot dogs (yes, pork is red meat). And now for the bonus: All of the above are also good for Mother Earth. The new information here is the living longer part.

The link between red meat consumption and an increased risk of chronic disease is already well documented. Now researchers, led by Dr. An Pan, Harvard School of Public Health, may have cleared up the uncertainties about increased mortality. They drew on data generated by two large diet/lifestyle studies that—together—followed over 122,000 U.S. health professionals who initially did not have cancer or heart disease.

One is the Nurses’ Health Study (1980 to 2008) and the other is the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986 to 2008). Both studies have about 28 years of follow-up. All participants answered extensive food frequency questionnaires every four years. They were asked, for example, how often they ate a standard serving of protein, defined as 3 oz (which is the size of a deck of cards).

The researchers documented 23,926 deaths, of which 15,910 were attributed to cardiovascular disease and 9,464 to cancer. The upshot: “Red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality.” One standard serving of unprocessed red meat was associated with a 13% increase in the total death rate. One serving of processed red meat like sausage and salami escalates the risk to 20%.  (It should be noted here, that the 13% and 20% increases look worse than they truly are because the annual death rate in the 28-year duration of this study was low. The death rate each year was roughly 1% to 1.5%.)   [Note: For clarifications related to the number of servings, see comments below this post from a co-author of this study.]

In the one study that included both men and women, those with a high intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and have a higher body mass index. What’s more, they ate a larger quantity of food and had lower intakes of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Because high consumption of red meat inevitably displaces other foods, the researchers provided this estimate based on healthy sources of protein like fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains: A standard 3-oz serving of protein from this list is associated with a 7% to 19% lower risk of death.

Anticipating that many people do not want to give up red meat entirely, the researchers measured the advantage of just cutting back. If a person ate no more than 42 grams of red meat daily (a 6-oz. steak), the researchers estimate that 9% of the deaths in men and nearly 8% in women could be prevented. (And if you’re wondering where grass-fed beef  fits into this picture, it didn’t. Even today, only a small percentage of the U.S. population eats grass-fed beef.)

This study was published recently online in Archives of Internal Medicine. It was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

The invited commentary was written by Dean Ornish, MD, whose life’s work has concentrated on researching and promoting non-pharmacological approaches to the prevention of chronic disease. Dr. Ornish praised the study as, “The first large-scale prospective longitudinal study showing that consumption of both processed and unprocessed red meat is associated with an increased risk of premature mortality from all causes as well as from cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

Click here for Dr. Ornish’s healthy way of eating, based on an emerging consensus among nutrition experts.

Now for the environmental costs of eating red meat.  Dr. Ornish points out that animal agribusiness generates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.. And that quarter-pound cheeseburger Americans love so much: It takes 26 oz of petroleum and leaves a 13-lb carbon footprint.

“In addition to their health benefits, the food choices we make each day affect other important areas as well. What is personally sustainable is globally sustainable. What is good for you is good for our planet,” he concludes.

Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers©

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7 Responses to “What’s so bad about red meat?”

  1. doctor fred said

    “… 42 grams of red meat daily (a 6-oz. steak)”

    42 gm is about 1.5 oz; are you saying that there are 1.5 oz of “red meat”
    in a 6-oz steak?

    • No. The authors used 1.5 oz as the definition of standard serving (size of deck of cards) so they could ask the study participants how many servings of protein they consumed daily. The 6-oz steak comes up in another context: If you must eat red meat, try not to eat any more than the size of a 6-oz steak in one day and this will lower the red meat-associated death rate. Anyway, that’s how I understood the paper. It is, unfortunately, no longer available free online.

  2. cy said

    I am wondering why you find this study persuasive.
    To me, there seem to be a lot of problems, for instance, the data comes from questionnaires which were filled out every two or every four years, and self-reported intake of food from participants recalling what they ate in the past years doesn’t seem like it would be very good data.
    Also, the statistical risk of dying is given in only relative risk, and it’s hard to judge those without knowing base numbers.
    Additionally, weren’t statistical studies like these used to justify the use of hormone replacement therapies for women in menopause? That makes me question this type of analysis, but perhaps I’m missing something here.

    • Unfortunately, we are stuck with self-reporting where it concerns diet studies. Your criticisms are valid. The draw was this study’s appearance in Archives of Internal Medicine and the nod to environmental costs in Dr. Ornish’s editorial. Our country’s high rate of red meat consumption is not sustainable.

  3. Hernandez Jose A said

    If the data shows that “high intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and have a higher body mass index. What’s more, they ate a larger quantity of food and had lower intakes of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables,” then, why blame red meat?

  4. Carol Geisler said

    one serving/day? per what?

    • Good question. I sent an email to the co-author requesting clarifications yesterday. Will keep you posted. Added 3/26/12, this response is from co-author, Dr. Frank Hu, Harvard School of Public Health:

      “One serving/day means an increment of one serving/day in our study. For example, if someone eats no red meat at all and he/she starts to eat one serving of bacon/hot dogs per day, his/her risk of mortality is increased by 20%. A similar increase in risk will occur if someone increases the intake from one serving to two servings. It does not mean the risk will increase tomorrow. Since we followed our participants for more than 20 years, the 20% increased risk was an average over the study period. We did not specifically look at how long it will take for the risk to increase, but for most chronic diseases, increased risk accumulates over long-term dietary habits (e.g., 5-10 years). It is possible that the risk will decrease if the individual cuts back on red meat consumption. This is something that we will look into in the next project.”

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