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Eating red meat associated with higher risk of death


CC/Flickr/Sifu Renka

A daily serving of salami increases relative risk of all forms of death by 20 percent.

Eating red meat — particularly processed red meat — is associated with a greater risk of death, according to a study published online Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, also found that replacing red meat with other protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, low-fat dairy products and whole grains, was associated with a lower risk of dying.

“These results indicate,” the Harvard researchers concluded, “that replacement of red meat with alternative healthy dietary components may lower the mortality risk.”

Methodology and findings

Data for the study came from two large, prospective studies, the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and the Nurses Health Study. More than 120,000 health-care professionals were included: 37,698 men and 83,644 women. At the start of the data collection, the participants ranged in age from 30 to 75, and none had been diagnosed with heart disease or cancer. The health and lifestyle habits of all the participants were collected through a series of questionnaires, which were filled out over a period of 22 to 28 years. During those years, 23,926 of the participants died, including 5,910 from heart disease and 9,364 from cancer. Those deaths and their causes were confirmed through medical and public records.

After analyzing all the data, the researchers calculated that each daily three-ounce serving (about the size of a deck of cards) of unprocessed red meat (such as beef, pork or lamb) raised the relative risk of dying from heart disease by 18 percent, of cancer by 10 percent and of all forms of death by 13 percent.

The increase in the relative risk from each daily serving of processed meat (such as bacon, hot dogs or salami) was even greater: 21 percent for heart disease, 16 percent for cancer and 20 percent for all forms of death. Bacon and hot dogs tended to be associated with a higher risk of death than other types of processed meat.

The researchers estimated that the deaths of 9.3 percent of the men and 7.6 percent of the women in the study could have been prevented if everybody had cut back their meat consumption to less than one-half serving (about the equivalent of one hot dog) each day.

Yet only 22.8 percent of men and 9.6 percent of women in the study ate that small an amount of meat.

The researchers also found during their number crunching that replacing a single serving of meat each day with other healthy non-meat protein was associated with a lower risk of dying: 7 percent for fish, 10 percent for legumes, 10 percent for low-fat dairy products, 14 percent for poultry, 14 percent for whole grains and 19 percent for nuts.


It’s important to put the study’s risk assessments in perspective, though. Other lifestyle factors — especially smoking — present a much greater risk of premature death. Smoking, for example, increases the risk of dying from heart disease by 200 to 400 percent and the risk of dying from lung cancer by truly chilling 1,300 percent in women and 2,300 percent in men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Also, this was an observational study, which means it can only show a correlation between two things (in this case between meat consumption and death). It cannot show causation — that the meat consumption actually caused any of the deaths that occurred during the course of the study. Other, as-yet unknown factors may have contributed to the increased risk of death among the meat eaters.

The researchers did, however, adjust their findings for a variety of potential confounders, including age, race, body mass index, smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity levels and menopausal hormone use.

Another limitation of the study involves how the data was collected. Questionnaires can be unreliable.

A growing consensus

In a commentary piece that accompanied the study, Dr. Dean Ornish of the University of California, San Francisco, wrote that “there is an emerging consensus among most nutrition experts about what constitutes a healthy way of eating” — a consensus, he says, that calls for “little or no red meat.”

Kristin Anderson, associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota, agrees. “It’s prudent to moderate your intake of red meat consumption,” she said in a phone interview Monday.

Earlier this year, Anderson and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health published a study that found an association between the consumption of barbecued and grilled meat and pancreatic cancer.

The new Harvard study supports other earlier research on the topic, Anderson added, including a 2009 study that analyzed 10 years of data from more than 500,000 participants. It, too, found that an association between a higher intake of red meat and processed meat and the risk of heart disease, cancer and total deaths.

Reasons for the results

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Scientists have pointed to several ingredients in red meat — saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, nitrites and heme iron (a type of iron derived from the protein in red blood cells) — as possible explanations for the association of meat with an increased risk of heart disease. Controversy surrounds each of these explanations, however.

The leading explanation for the association of meat with an increased risk of cancer — the potential carcinogens that form in meat when it is cooked at high temperatures — is less controversial.

Anderson said the Harvard study’s finding that the substitution of other health protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower death risk is “interesting” and “suggestive,” but not conclusive.

“Although it’s a nice way to try and address the question that many people have [about how to lower their risk of heart disease and cancer], it wasn’t a controlled trial,” she said.

“Still,” she added, “their finding is consistent with the idea that even a moderate change [in diet] can reduce risk.”

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Comments (10)

Where's The Beef?

Did participants in the study eat organic grass fed beef? Or was it corn fed beef pumped up with hormones and raised on factory farms? As ruminants, cattle are designed to eat grass and not cereal grains such as corn.

While I would never suggest large amounts of beef are a part of a healthy diet, as is often the case the devil is in the details.

Grass fed - the fat contains Omega 3,

It has been observed years ago that the fat in a grass fed carcass vs. a corn fed carcass is very different both to sight and touch.... Grass fed animal contain a much better Omega 3 to Omega 6 balance.

Red meat v.s. white meat?

Is the demarcation between red meat and white meat really all that clear?

Is the new focus on red meat the last gasp of the low fat fad

Seems moralistic, which is always a cause for some skepticism. Red meat is a stand-in for the indulgent western diet these days, a diet that involves petrochemicals and wasteful poisonous land use and animal mistreatment and all that, but they don't really have a mechanism for how red meat causes early death, do they? Saturated fat and sodium have been debunked as cause for heart disease and cancer, but don't expect to hear that from the nutritionists. That leaves us with possibly hormones, but that's not what Dean Ornish et all are concerned about, is it.

Obesity and diabetes

Since 1980, there's been a surge in obesity and diabetes. The CDC in Atlanta estimates that 25 percent of the population is now diabetic or pre-diabetic. It is common knowledge that 80 percent of diabetics die of heart disease. Heart failure is now our #1 Medicare expenditure. Only carbs raise blood sugar and call for insulin. This great increase in diabetes and heart failure occurred during a period of time when our consumption of carbohydrates increased and our consumption of saturated fat decreased. Really - what does roast beef or a juicy steak - eaten with a nice salad - have to do with this great increase in chronic disease since 1980?


I was under the impression that the risk of death is about 100% no matter what one eats ...

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

100% death

Glad I wasn't the only one who chuckled at the title.

The language of this report

is imprecise. I say that as a life-long student of how we use words and what those words mean. Here, one would think that not eating red meat, however grown and however processed or not, will save us from death. ("Premature" is only used once, I believe, in the entire piece.)

All of us have a 100% risk of dying. No matter what we eat.

Preventable? death

The article says, "The researchers estimated that the deaths of 9.3 percent of the men and 7.6 percent of the women in the study could have been prevented if everybody had cut back their meat consumption to less than one-half serving (about the equivalent of one hot dog) each day."

Really, we can now prevent death? On the whole, an interesting idea (eat less fatty meat) is run into the ground by a useless "study" and a poorly written article.

Guilt by association

How many in the general public make the distinction between “associated with” and “caused by?” The word “may” is not at all the same thing as the word “will.” As others have said, we all have a 100 percent risk of dying, regardless of diet, exercise habits, sexual proclivities, snow shoveling technique, risk of tornado, or anything else.

There may be something worth noting in comparing grass-fed beef to grain-fed beef, but there isn’t enough grassland to raise enough grass-fed beef to feed us all a beef-rich diet. Beyond that, as in everything, there’s the matter of cost. I can buy grain-fed ground beef for $1.99/pound. Grass-fed, locally-grown ground beef was $6.99/pound at my local Cub store a month ago. Maybe there are a lot of MinnPost readers who can afford that kind of increase in their food prices, but I’m not among them.

My own preferred alternative for protein is fish, but I’ve never liked the flavor of fresh-water fish, and genuine seafood is, like grass-fed beef, reaching the point of no return in terms of prices. Either that, or what I’m seeing in the store – and here, a thousand miles from the ocean, not much of it could be called “fresh,” fish, anyway – goes by names I either have never heard of before (“Swai”), or know only as “junk fish” that used to be discarded.

As in other areas, my own bias is that the ancient Greeks probably had a pretty good idea with the maxim: “moderation in all things.” I have a hard time imagining someone eating bacon every single day, or a hot dog every single day, and I make no claim to being a vegetarian, A varied diet, in moderate quantity, combined with regular exercise and getting enough sleep, seems to me a reasonable way to approach the whole subject.