Study: Red Meat not Only Leads to Disease, It Kills

For decades we have been taught that excess consumption of red meat leads to heart disease and other chronic health issues. That’s what gave rise to the poultry industry in this country. And now, new evidence shows that mortality rates are significantly higher in people who consume high amounts of red meat.

The finding were recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Over 120,000 people were observed over the course of 20-30 years. All were free of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer at the onset of the study. Every 4 years they were questioned about their dietary habits.

Over the course of the years,  there were 24,000 deaths of which 6,000 were from cardiovascular disease  and 9,000 from cancer. People who ate processed red meats (deli meats, hot dogs) daily, had a 20% increase in mortality rate. Unprocessed red meat increased mortality rates by 9%. Replacing one serving of red meat with poultry, fish, or legumes reduced mortality rates.

Conclusion: eat less red meat. But that’s probably old news for virtually all of us…

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  • Brian

    This is not a very scientific study for a number of reasons, but  mainly because the data was collected by a questionnaire, so participants had to remember what they thought they ate. Also correlation does not equal causation. The findings of this study should not be reported as absolute truth, but rather should be used to dive further into what about red meat (were they eating processed red meat from hot pockets or McDonalds? Or was it fresh from the farm?) may cause disease. Or figure out what about the lifestyles of the people involved specifically caused the disease.

    Robb Wolf has a nice summary of why this study isn’t very good, and talks about the kinds of studies we should be doing: http://www.robbwolf.com/2012/03/14/red-meat-part-healthy-diet/

    • Gerome

      Robb Wolf. Robb Wolf…. Where have I heard that name?? Oh, co-owner of a company that sells beef jerky. Yes, really, check out his web site.

      Does the study have design flaws? Sure. Tell me one that doesn’t. I happen to think that we talk this with a grain of salt (or sat fat if you prefer). No, we shouldn’t panic, but thoughtfully consider the implications. Sort of like that story here on carcinogens in cola. Will I get cancer from Coke, ah, probably not. But the advice to avoid it is easy to follow and isn’t any skin off my hide.

      • Brian

        Well, in the article he specifically calls out that he has a conflict of interest because he sells a book that strongly recommends eating beef, which is much better than what most drug makers do when sponsoring flawed studies. 

        The study was based on asking someone every 4 years what they ate… Here’s the questionnaire: 

        http://www.channing.harvard.edu/nhs/questionnaires/pdfs/NHSI/2002.PDF

        I would consider that a major design flaw. It’s hard to remember what I ate last week, let alone the last four years. So to base dietary advice on that kind of study is just foolish. This kind of study should be the basis for a controlled (if not flawed) study, and to dig deeper into what is really the issue. 

        If we are supposed to be taking this with a grain of salt, then the headline should say something like: “Study: Implicating red meat with diseases of civilization” or something similar instead of: “Study: Red Meat not Only Leads to Disease, It Kills”

        If you are interested in a highly detailed breakdown of the study, Mark’s Daily Apple (looking forward to you dismissing this source as well) also has a good write-up: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/will-eating-red-meat-kill-you/#axzz1p6UlWC6t

  • LD

    “Replacing one serving of red meat with poultry, fish, or legumes reduced mortality rates.”

    This is how misinformation on health issues starts.

    The study was not causative, it was associative. The study did *not* conclude what you said, it concluded, per the report, “Substitution of other healthy protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk.”

    That is a massive difference.

  • Robin

    I’m wondering whether there was any mention of the origins of the meat consumed in this study. We didn’t eat red meat for about 18 years but have recently secured a source for reasonably priced grass-fed beef, which is healthier than the grain-and-heaven-knows-what-else-fed beef in supermarkets.  We have half a cow in the freezer but we still limit our consumption to once a week in our family of seven.

    • Brian

      If you click on the link provided in the article, and scroll down to the comment section of the study, it discusses what you are asking (and it’s not too hard to read, still pretty science-y though), but in a word, the answer to your question is: no.

      • Robin

        Thank you.

    • Brian

      If you click on the link provided in the article, and scroll down to the comment section of the study, it discusses what you are asking (and it’s not too hard to read, still pretty science-y though), but in a word, the answer to your question is: no.

  • Lisa

    I think there is a huge difference between eating corn-fed grocery store beef and grass-fed beef.  And if the chicken or fish you eat was also corn-fed it really is not any healthier.

    • Brian

      Agreed. It seems like none of these studies access food quality, and I think that’s really what we need to figure out.

    • J in VA

      I never pay any attention to studies about red meat unless they specifically state grass fed meat. All red meat is not equal!

    • J in VA

      I never pay any attention to studies about red meat unless they specifically state grass fed meat. All red meat is not equal!

    • steady as she goes

       Personally, I eat nothing but grass-fed fish. I insist that do the same.

  • Lisa

    I think there is a huge difference between eating corn-fed grocery store beef and grass-fed beef.  And if the chicken or fish you eat was also corn-fed it really is not any healthier.

  • Brian

    Another well written blog post (by J. Stanton) about why this study doesn’t deserve to produce headlines like the one written on this blog post: http://www.gnolls.org/2893/always-be-skeptical-of-nutrition-headlines-or-what-red-meat-consumption-and-mortality-pan-et-al-really-tells-us/

  • Brian

    Another well written blog post (by J. Stanton) about why this study doesn’t deserve to produce headlines like the one written on this blog post: http://www.gnolls.org/2893/always-be-skeptical-of-nutrition-headlines-or-what-red-meat-consumption-and-mortality-pan-et-al-really-tells-us/

  • http://lifencompass.com Scott @ Lifencompass

    It’s unfortunate how this will be interpreted by some as an agenda by others but the study, is in fact, not created by vegetarians or even vegans, it’s a good ol’ comprehensive study with a lot of people over a long period of time with results that factor up with more recent studies and information about food and diet.
    It seems to me that no matter what kind of study, after study, that comes out of the western world, no one wants to swallow it. The fact is that what you eat affects your health, we know that. Not all body types are the same, some people require different diets, okay we know that too. No one food formula or diet is therefore good for all. We also know that some foods are better for parts of your overall health. Show me the study that shows that there isn’t higher rates of heart disease, and other health inhibiting conditions in the average american who does consume more than the recommended (healthy) amount of red meat.

    I’d like to point out that there isn’t that warning for fruits, vegetables, or legumes. It really easy for people to get all riled up about food, but I don’t see how that solves any problems or helps the case for or against. Being a conscious eater in country where ‘food’ is boxed in a factory and filled with chemicals and dyes, processed or dehydrated for rehydration, run through machines, shipped on trucks, stored in grocery stores or warehouses for months… Let’s not get into the “love dog eat pigs” idea… and then people fry it, butter it, eat it. 

    Probably cawing to the crows here but I’d go so far as to guess that there were other dietary ‘wrongs’ in the works there as well. If you are not conscious enough to know that you should not consume that much meat, processed meat at that, then you probably have a diet all out of whack. 

    • Volney

      “Show me the study that shows that there isn’t higher rates of heart disease”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22333876

      This study was in Japanese med and women, not American, but it does show no affect of moderate meat intake.  There is something to this though.  Maybe it has more to do with with S.A.D.  A McDonald’s Big Mac, fries, and Coke are going to add up to a disaster compared to a salad, fresh fruit, and side of beans.  It is very likely the meat has nothing to do with the increase in risk, but if you compare based on red meat as an end point you get the result you are looking for.  RED MEAT KILLS.

      • http://lifencompass.com Scott @ Lifencompass

        I just need to interject a few points on that. 1. Japan is not on the list of having the highest obesity rates in the world. 2. They do not have a “meat industry” that is protected by the federal government . The difference in meat must be noted from cows that are hand fed and massaged in Japan for Kobe beef, as an example, or hand pressed saki as another food product, versus cattle in america. Industry versus art of food.

        American’s also do not have eat with your eyes or modesty with portion control, as do the Japanese. Generalizing here but I think when we take 2000+ men and woman over a 22 year period, and then average in other studies like last years release of 100+ unrelated studies with processed meat and the average risk of cancer being higher with meat consumption, it’s much like the early findings with cigarettes.

        Buy from the farmer who lives in your city, town, county or state, who treats his animals well. My dad does, he’s not even a foodie. It’s not that hard or expensive.

        I am not looking for a result, I am comparing the wealth of studies over the last 10 years, a majority which support health risks for both men and women who have eat a gross amount, and possibly processed is the klootie here, meat.

        It’s pointless to prove a point, it’s helpful to find and conclude facts.

        http://www.wcrf-uk.org/cancer_prevention/recommendations/meat_and_cancer.php

        I think the confusion is in the study with “factory doctored meat” (chemicals, processing, slurry, etc), “meat product”, “Pink slime” or steroidal / antibiotic abused meat versus what a normal farmer anywhere elese would produce but in America we would call “organic” and tripple the price on.

        The world health organization (i.e. a consensus of government and social study information) makes discoveries should carry a little more weight than “I have the right to eat whatever I want.”

        or, Let me opt out of paying tax for that because you don’t care about your own health.
        not.

    • Volney

      “Show me the study that shows that there isn’t higher rates of heart disease”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22333876

      This study was in Japanese med and women, not American, but it does show no affect of moderate meat intake.  There is something to this though.  Maybe it has more to do with with S.A.D.  A McDonald’s Big Mac, fries, and Coke are going to add up to a disaster compared to a salad, fresh fruit, and side of beans.  It is very likely the meat has nothing to do with the increase in risk, but if you compare based on red meat as an end point you get the result you are looking for.  RED MEAT KILLS.

  • LD

    Brian: Thanks for the robbwolf.com link.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that the risks identified are relative risks, not absolute risks.

    In other words, if the risk of dying for the non-meat eaters was 2%, and that of the meat eaters was 2.2%, that would result is a 10% increase in mortality rate.

     

  • http://www.canadianfoodiegirl.com Andrea T

    People who ate processed red meats (deli meats, hot dogs) daily, had a
    20% increase in mortality rate. Unprocessed red meat increased mortality
    rates by 9%.

    That 11% difference is significant. At some point it stops being food. How about sticking to eating animals that have been fed a clean diet? You are what what you eat eats.

    Do these studies consider the other foods in people’s diets?
    I agree with Brian about the questionnaire.

    I think that studies like this one are a step towards a conclusion but they’re not conclusive themselves.

  • Gerome

    Oh Brian, Hemi is given to sensational New York Post-style headlines. (And I have criticized his approach from time to time as well.) But his takeaway was very reasonable “eat less red meat”. And thank you for the to the survey. It actually asks for your habit over the last year… so a snapshot view over the course of the study. I suspect that for most people, with the exception of seasonal variation that accounts for different supplies of food — or habits (i.e. grilling in the summertime) their diet is pretty static. So, while not perfect, I think it is a pretty good tool to get an accurate measure of the *differences* between individual’s diets. You and I might both be pretty bad at recalling the small details, but I’ll bet the survey could show some significant differences on the big items. (I eat at McDonalds 6 times a week, you eat there once a month…. that kind of difference.)

    This is the study of the week. As ol’ Hemi said — nothing we didn’t know.

    • Brian

      The headline you won’t see from this study: Red Meat: reduces cholesterol… it’s in the study, but no one will pick up on it. 

      http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/archinternmed.2011.2287v1/IOI110027T1

      Maybe the headline should be: Low Cholesterol: Killer in the Shadows? (sorry, having a little fun, now.)The people who reported that they ate the most red meat were also the people who reported that they had higher rates of smoking and lowest levels of exercise. So the causes of disease and death could be because they were smokers, not because they were red meat eaters, or that they were couch potatoes, not because they ate red meat. Or maybe all three just add up to a trifecta of death. It’s hard to say from looking at the data that any of these things is the true cause behind premature death or disease. Like I said before, it’s a good starting point to investigate further.

      Another interesting tidbit… in the nurses study, the people reporting the lowest levels of red meat intake also reported a calorie intake of 1,200 calories a day. If that is the *average* calorie intake for that grouping, then people are reporting that they are eating less than that per day. I could be wrong, but I seriously doubt that many people could sustain on less than 1,200 calories per day over the course of 28 years. Just another point about how inaccurate the reporting can be.

      Someone asked for a study that said the opposite of what this study said. Here’s one that was done over the course of 1 year instead of 28, but it’s a randomized controlled study, so the science behind it is stronger.

      http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/297/9/969.full.pdf

  • Anonymous

    Stupid, over-sensationalized headline. I guess it is supposed to be “attention grabbing” but it is not. It’s just annoying. Tone it down and you’ll get more readers. We like intelligent discourse here, not pandering to hysteria and extremist positions. As someone else noted, the point of the article is not actually “red meat kills.”

  • Beth
  • JanieJ

    I trust observational studies that ask subjects to honestly recall what foods and in what quantities they ate over a period of two years about as much as I trust Lucy not to pull the football away from Charlie Brown.

  • Ann

    I couldn’t tell from this study whether they took into consideration other patterns associated with those who ate red or processed meat on a daily basis. Did they also consume more alcohol? Eat more junk food? Exercise less? Smoke? Consume gallons of soda? A holistic look at lifestyle/dietary patterns would shed more light.

    • Brian

      Yes, the people who ate red meat also reported that they smoked more, exercised less, and drank more alcohol… not sure about junk food or soda. There’s a link in one of my other comments that shows dome of this data.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vered.leb Vered Leb

    you just need to pay attention to ALL this research data…

    look who are the people that were more at risk… obese, smoking, no physical activity.
    does that make any sense?

  • Kira

    I’m pretty disappointed by this article.  You guys normally do fairly balanced and reasonable stuff.  The title is overhyped and and over-the-top, and essentially goes against what the authors were trying to say.  The article emphasises that it is DAILY consumption of red or processed meat that increases mortality rates (and only relatively, not absolutely).  It is barely mentioned here, and it leads to a generally misleading article. 

  • Lisa

    Yeah, um, PROCESSED MEAT is the key here. It’s hardly news that a hot dog or fast food burger is unhealthy. It’s the nitrates and  preservatives, as well as poor diet and antibiotics fed to the animals, not that all meat is inherently bad for you. I’m not even a fan of red meat, but this kind of scaremongering is ridiculous.

  • Lisa

    Since we’re on the topic, can anyone clarify what vegetable grain fed means on a label?  What exactly are vegetable grains, or do they mean vegetable AND grain?

  • Darryl Miglio

    I just read a study that taking supplements increases your mortality.  Taking supplements will make you 1.03 times more likely to die than someone that does not.  Study didn’t mention anything about quality of life of those that do and do not take supplements.  Maybe there is a follow up study to come.

  • Michelle

    Am I missing something? Where does the writter site its sources? Saying Archives of Internal Medicine is not properly siting a source. Many of the articles on this site are like this, not properly supported.