Should You Be Worried About Eating Red Meat?

The media headlines report that eating red meat will kill you. Let's see if there's substance behind the scary headlines

Credit: Flickr / Geoff Peters

Is eating red meat as dangerous as reported in a recent study?

The blogosphere is buzzing about the recent red meat consumption study published by Harvard researchers

One camp is decrying the results saying there were too many variables to blame red meat for an increased risk of death.

Another camp, which Canadian obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff belongs to, is advising the study has merit, though the media has put a scary, sensationalistic spin on the study’s conclusions.

What Did the Red Meat Study Look At?

The research paper at the centre of the controversy is titled “Red Meat Consumption and Mortality.” If you’re really keen, the entire study is available online.

As the title states, the researchers looked at the correlation between eating red meat and risk of death. They looked at data from 121,342 men and women with 23,926 reported deaths.

After accounting for other factors such as age, body mass index (BMI), physical activity levels, consumption of other foods and many other factors, the scientists concluded that “Red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, CVD, and cancer mortality. Substitution of other healthy protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk.”

Specifically, if you eat red meat every day your risk of death increases by 13% and if you eat processed red meat every day your risk of death increases by 20%.

But read on before you cancel your reservations at The Keg this weekend.

Criticisms of the Study

Critics of the study say that many other variables such as smoking, inactivity and higher BMI among others could be blamed for the increased mortality. But the authors had statistically accounted for these confounding factors so that they could actually look at the association of red meat consumption and death.

The fact that it was an observational study that had participants fill out a food intake questionnaire is also a common criticism.

While observational studies aren’t the best type of research and food questionnaires are known to be inaccurate, this type of research can still provide valuable evidence for health professionals and the public.

What Does It Really Mean?

In the end the paper’s conclusions weren’t saying you would die an early death if you eat meat. They noted associations between red meat intake and earlier mortality. This doesn’t necessarily mean causation. 

However, even if red meat does actually cause earlier death, we’re talking about a few days not months or years. And, it should be noted, this increased risk is for those who ate red meat every day!

Two of the authors have stated they still eat red meat a few times per week so they’re obviously not that concerned.

If You Eat Red Meat Regularly

If you currently eat red meat, I don’t think this research means you should stop. I would recommend cutting down on red meat consumption to maybe every other day at most. And I’d especially cut back on processed meat. An occasional hot dog won’t kill you, though you may want to skip fast food for other reasons.

Many nutrition experts recommend variety in your diet, so eat a variety of protein sources including poultry, fish and dairy. Of course you don’t need to eat meat to get protein so if you’re vegetarian or vegan you’ll be fine as long as you eat a variety of vegetables, seeds, nuts and grains.

Even if do continue to eat meat, increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables is a great idea for improving your health and waistline.

And if your goal is to lose weight, eat fewer calories even if you eat meat.

If you’re active and are looking for more direction on eating well check out my Fuel Your Metabolism workshop on March 29 in Vancouver. I’ll share nutrition tips and strategies to keep you active and healthy whether you eat meat or not.