This Very Important Study was recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and it says eating red meat–any amount and any type– will shorten your life span. Then this article in the LA Times came out in March 2012 (followed by subsequent studies), and people everywhere started to panic. The following day, CNN released this story. Full throttle panic ensued.
From CNN: Using data from two long-running studies of health professionals, researchers tracked the diets of more than 121,000 middle-aged men and women for up to 28 years. Roughly 20% of the participants died during that period. On average, each additional serving of red meat the participants ate per day was associated with a 13% higher risk of dying during the study. Processed red meat products — such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami — appeared to be even more dangerous: Each additional daily serving was associated with a 20% higher risk of dying.
Based on these findings, the researchers estimate that substituting one daily serving of red meat with fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, whole grains, or low-fat dairy products would reduce the risk of dying in this stage of life by 7% to 19%. If everyone in the study had slashed their average red-meat intake to less than half a serving per day, the researchers say, 9% of deaths among men and 8% of deaths among women could have been prevented.
“Our message is to try to reduce the red meat consumption to less than two to three servings per week,” says lead author An Pan, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. These types of “studies” make my job difficult due to the amount of damage control I have to employ. So, deep breath. Here goes.
Look, I’m no scientist, but I do know how to think critically, and I also know how to read and analyze a study. There are several problems with this kind of research. First off, this is an observational study, which “draws inferences about the possible effect of a treatment on subjects, where the assignment of subjects into a treated group versus a control group is outside the control of the investigator.” (from wikipedia). This is fairly significant due to the fact that the researchers are “drawing inferences” rather than determining cause and effect. In this case, correlation does not equal causation, and here is why. First off, researchers collected data via questionnaires that asked people to recall what they ate. I’m a nutritionist. I ask people all the time what they ate and most can’t recall what they had for breakfast, much less over the past week. Similarly, if the participants are having red meat, who’s to say it’s not McDonald’s? Fast food with french fries fried in unhealthy oils and a highly refined white flour bun? That will cause early death, sure.
Which brings me to my next point: quality. What types of red meat were these people eating? Fast food? Conventional red meat raised on grain, not grass, altering the fatty acid content to tip the scales in favor of the inflammation-producing omega 6s? Cardiovascular disease is a disease of inflammation, by the way. Red meat that contains hormones, antibiotics, toxins will certainly cause inflammation. What sorts of cooking methods were they using? It’s well known that grilling or charring red meat creates cancer-causing carcinogens, and that red meat should be consumed rare or medium rare.
Also: lifestyle factors. People who eat more red meat may engage in unhealthy practices that make them die sooner. Smoking, heavy drinking, lack of exercise, and eating more red meat (again, quality matters here) and fewer fruits and veggies all play a role in premature death. Here’s the kicker: “Pan and his colleagues found that the men and women in the study who ate the most red meat also tended to be heavier, less physically active, and more likely to smoke and drink alcohol than their peers.” Enough said.
So. We have a largely sedentary group with higher BMIs and unhealthy lifestyle factors eating red meat that’s not organic and grass fed, likely to come from any number of sources (read: McDonald’s), and they have a higher risk of dying. It sounds like these people don’t have plant-based diets and aren’t getting antioxidants from a multitude of brightly colored veggies.
The articles in the LA Times and CNN also point the finger at saturated fat and its implication in heart disease/high cholesterol/death. Read my previous blog post on this subject. Again, we are ignoring the real problems here: too much refined sugar, gluten, processed foods, refined fats and seed & vegetable oils. Soda, refined grain products that break down quickly into sugars (white bread and cereals, I’m looking at you), man-made trans fats, and vegetable oils and canola high in the inflammation-producing omega 6 fats are the real causes behind high triglycerides, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease.
Personally I would never recommend anyone eat red meat every day, because your body needs a variety of different foods. Your diet should be plant-based. That means the base of every meal should be veggies of all kinds: leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, root veggies. Get some fruit, but not too much: it’s still sugar. Get adequate protein for your physiology from a variety of sources: eggs, wild fish, wild game, chicken & turkey, grass fed red meats, organ meat. Eat minimal grains and make everything gluten free, as gluten contributes to inflammation and weight gain too. Eat the good fats: coconut oil, olive oil, butter, palm oil. NOT canola, corn oil, soy oil, cottonseed oil, or partially hydrogenated oils. And for God’s sake, ditch the sodas, the processed foods, and additional refined sugars.
Ok, everyone. Let’s rejoin our daily lives now knowing that red meat alone will not kill us.
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