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Red Meat Consumption Increases Risk of Early Death

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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cut of steak

Steak image courtesy of iStockphoto/Kativ

Over the years, eating too many burgers, steaks pork chops or other red meat products has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. In particular, processed red meat, such as bacon, hot dogs or bologna, has especially strong links to chronic diseases.

But the latest research brings even more dire news for hardcore carnivores. In addition to increasing the odds people will get sick, red meat—whether it is processed or not—can actually increase the risk of premature death overall, according to a study that was published online March 12 in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Researchers, led by An Pan of the Harvard School of Public Health, analyzed health and diet information from more than 121,000 U.S. men and women participating in two long-term health studies. Everyone in the group the researchers assessed had been free of both heart disease and cancer at the outset of the studies.

Over long-term follow-up, as long as 28 years in some cases, more than 13,900 people died—about 9,460 from cancer and almost 6,000 from cardiovascular disease. After adjusting for other factors, the researchers found each daily serving of red meat (beef, pork, lamb or a processed meat, such as bacon, bologna, hot dog, salami or sausage), increased the risk of a premature death by about 12 percent. Processed meat consumption in particular increased these odds even more than did unprocessed meats. And hot dogs and bacon seemed to be the most likely to lead to an early death.

If everyone in the study had limited themselves to 42 grams or less of red meat a day (considered to be about half a standard serving), more than 9,860 early diet-related deaths could have been prevented in the study alone, the researchers estimated.

So if that lamb and ham are off the table, along with all the all-too familiar beef, many people worry that they might not get enough protein with each meal. Fear not, say many health experts, there are plenty of other ways to put protein on your plate that don’t come with such high risks of chronic diseases. Chicken breasts actually have more grams of protein by weight than a piece of beef, and fish isn’t too far behind. The researchers also found that beans, nuts, low-fat dairy and whole grains made for healthful replacements for a red meat meal portion.

And for folks worried about getting enough iron, excess iron from diet has actually been linked to heart attacks and fatal heart disease as well as possibly to cancer, the researchers noted.

Getting to a healthful level of red meat consumption in the U.S. might be an uphill battle. Only about 9.6 percent of the women and 22.8 percent of the men in the studies fell in the low-risk category (of a half-serving-or-less per day) for red-meat consumption.

But contrary to popular thinking, a good diet is as much about what you put in to your mouth as what you omit.

The study found that trading out a serving of red meat for fish or poultry didn’t just negate the red meat risk; rather, it actually improved people’s odds of living longer. Replacing a serving of red meat each day with fish reduced premature mortality risk by 7 percent; for poultry, the reduction was twice that: 14 percent.

Veggies are even better. “Plant-based foods are rich in phytochemicals, bioflavonoids and other substances that are protective,” wrote whole-food diet advocate Dean Ornish in a related essay also published online Monday in Archives of Internal Medicine. “So substituting healthier foods for red meat provides a double benefit to our health.”

Ornish noted that the focus for a healthful diet should be on high-quality over high-quantity: “smaller portions of good foods are more satisfying than larger portions of junk foods.” In addition, he highlights current research-based suggestions for the healthiest diet:

  • Little to no red meat; instead obtain protein from poultry, fish, legumes, nuts or other products
  • Plenty of good, whole-food carbohydrates, such as whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables
  • Little processed or refined carbohydrates, such as white flour, sugar or corn syrup
  • Some good fats, such as omega three fatty acids that are in flax and fish oils
  • Little bad fats, such as hydrogenated, saturated or trans fats

Another benefit to cutting red meat consumption: dialing back out-of-control medical costs, Ornish noted. Avoiding chronic diseases linked to excess red meat consumption could decrease medical spending by billions of dollars.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. llewelly 11:10 pm 03/12/2012

    “Red Meat Eating Increases Risk of Early Death”

    Try:

    “Eating Red Meat Increases Risk of Early Death”

    The first sounds like Dan Brown writing a headline for a dreadfully cartoonish report on the dietary habits of dangerous predators.

    The second arranges the words in a smooth and natural order that does not confuse.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jerzy New 4:39 am 03/13/2012

    The effect is not red meat, but mostly processed food and fried products – well known to be bad for health.

    Yet another poor science at SciAm. No wonder Americans are so wary about science.

    Link to this
  3. 3. patrickh74 9:35 am 03/13/2012

    How about doing the study on processed meat? Seems to me the article says processed meats are far worse for human consumption. And I have read several other studies that seem to say that unprocessed LEAN red meat is just as healthy as a comperable serving size of chicken or fish. How about not muddying the truth about eating red meat. Was this study paid for by chicken or fish advocates?

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  4. 4. Ari LeVaux 11:16 am 03/13/2012

    “…each daily serving of red meat (beef, pork, lamb or a processed meat, such as bacon, bologna, hot dog, salami or sausage), increased the risk of a premature death by about 12 percent.”

    If the study really lumped all red meats together – from grass-fed beef to Oscar Meyer weiners-as the quoted sentence suggests, it’s not telling us anything useful. Oh the irony, having been accused of “Scaremongering” myself by Scientific American.

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  5. 5. Molecule 2:19 pm 03/13/2012

    Did I miss something ?

    “… each daily serving of red meat … increased the risk of a premature death by about 12 percent.”

    So if we do the calculation on one day, it’s times 1.12 more risks, which looks ok (a big dirty meal gives you about 12% more risk of premature death), but if you eat each days for a whole year we have an odd of 1.12 power 365 = 921675991083838259 = about 9*10^17 more risk of premature death !!! This means almost certain death at the end of the year and we know this is not the case! Did I miss something ?

    M.

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  6. 6. hsandste@mac.com 3:11 pm 03/13/2012

    You’ve been fooled.
    See figure 1. How many people eat red meat 2, 3, or 4 times per day on a regular basis?
    2. also carefully examine various tables. Note influence of highest quintiles.
    3. Examine variance “explained”. Correlation coef not particularly high.

    Also note high associations of certain undesirable Life style factors with high red meat intake.

    It is also a fact that red meat is best source of iron and zinc. Deficiencies of both are common. The latter is essential for gene expression, reproduction, immunity,cognition and many other functions. In USA premenopausal women are at special risk because of food choices and mensturation. E orderly also at increased risk, as are low income children. High intakes of foods rich in phytate and other indigestible zinc binders (whole gran cereals, legumes, nuts) increase risk of Zion’s deficiency.

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  7. 7. Less1leg 3:27 pm 03/13/2012

    this is another fine example of another Nanny State blowhard telling others how to live and enjoy a quality of life. What not stuff your tofu sucking attitude where it belongs. We heard this bunk quite a few times about food. Humanity has improved considerably over the millenia. Maybe what I personally doesn’t meet your definition of food. But the last time I looked, man has increased his lifespan measureably to what my Great grandfather had. So what if I eat a fluken steak or a prime rib roast. Big deal! Cave men ate meat, red meat, every stinking human up until modern metrosexuals roamed the Malls of America, enjoyed “red meat”.
    I think this study ascertion was created by anti meat groups trying to BS their way to celebrity status.

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  8. 8. dbltapp 4:34 pm 03/13/2012

    Just to determine how impartial this article is – Ms. Harmon:
    1. Do you eat red meat regularly?
    2. Are you a vegetarian or vegan when it come to food?
    3. Are you a member of PETA?

    Link to this
  9. 9. rmsoran 5:05 pm 03/13/2012

    Red meat under ideological environmentalist attack? The science that is none?
    Possibly both.
    Statistically irrefutable is – according to historic, social and epidemiological data and studies – that the average life span of humans in all modern civilizations across the world increased in direct proportion with the increase in red meat consumption.
    Simultaneously the increase in red meat consumption was accompanied by a absolute and relative decrease in consumption of greens/vegetables.

    The study published on March 12 has – according to my first observations and experience with other earlier studies that tried to come to the same kind of conclusions MAJOR flaws, from a design that was – from a scientific point of view – none, over the methodology and the data collected data to the conclusions based as much on a limited data segment as on the absence of other data significant for a correct scientific statement.
    In other words: Apparently a study that had only one scientifically more than questionable purpose: to get the the outcome (I call it – for statisticians – H1) correspond to the hidden agenda, the ill-fated H0 hypothesis…

    I promise (to myself!) to come back in a few months with the proof that reality was misinterpreted.

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  10. 10. erinjprosser 5:06 pm 03/13/2012

    Wow, people sure are defensive about their meat. Take home message – replacing red meat with healthy alternatives is good for your health – that’s all! No one is forcing you.

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  11. 11. rmsoran 5:13 pm 03/13/2012

    P.S.
    I stopped smoking, drinking and “meating” (eating animal fats and proteins) some time ago. Not because I try to live a “healthier” life, but because I use(d) myself as a subject in research about habits, addiction and discovery/innovation patterns from nanoneurologic, microbiologic, genetic and macropsyhologic perspective.

    Sounds strange, but isn’t. It’s just what’s going on these days at serious scientific institutions :-)

    Link to this
  12. 12. rmsoran 5:41 pm 03/13/2012

    From habits to addictions: smoking, drinking, drugging, meating, killing? Washing, lightening, heating, healing, earning? Living?
    The Brave New World will make them all obsolete, should mission, goals and ideology of the Do-Gooders (“Gutmensch”/”Gutmenschen” – see Nietzsche) Grass Root Party Occupy(!) Gaia
    :-)

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  13. 13. offcenterlevi 5:56 pm 03/13/2012

    Each daily serving increases the risk of premature death by 12%? I’m sorry but that seems completely bogus. If that were really true, I think that I and most other people in this country would be already dead.

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  14. 14. Jerzy New 6:14 pm 03/13/2012

    @hsandste@mac.com
    In Germany, for example, it is relatively common to eat red meat 2-3 times a day. A ham or sausage sandwich for breakfast and supper, a steak or minced meat for lunch. I assure you, Germans are not dying after one year and have life expectancy similar or higher than Americans.

    Germans however, are well aware of real danger of processed food and empty carbohydrates like fish fingers, vegetable lasagnas, pizzas and suchlike, coleslaw and similar calorie-heavy salads etc. These are real danger.

    Link to this
  15. 15. flapinux 6:21 pm 03/13/2012

    It’s irresponsible to use the category “Red Meat”. The carcinogens in processed meat (e.g. sodium nitrite) are going to lower your lifespan. IT’S NOT THE MEAT.

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  16. 16. Wayne Williamson 7:32 pm 03/13/2012

    flapinux…I think you pegged it…but I love bacon(don’t eat it often), guess I’ll have to shell out the extra dough to get the real stuff….

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  17. 17. RockyBob 7:41 pm 03/13/2012

    Another flawed self-reported diet study. How about this as a confounder? Everybody “knows” red meat, and especially processed meats are bad foods. So, when asked to remember food intake, those who “know” that those things are bad, ie, those who are more aware/ concerned about the effect of diet, will tend to underestimate how much they eat, in aggregate, of those foods that are “known” to be bad. A previous study found similar results with red meat (lowest quintile to highest quintile), but, amazingly the highest quintile also had 50% more accidental deaths, more smoking, less vitamin usage, 3 point higher average BMI, etc., etc. In other words, people who admit to more red meat are part of a population that is less concerned about a lot of lifestyle issues. SOME of that is accounted for through multivariate analysis, but never all of it. Small changes (one serving of fish for one of red meat equals 7% reduction!) attributed to diet differences seem well within the unintended bias margin.

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  18. 18. Grumpyoleman 9:35 pm 03/13/2012

    PETA and the eco-locoes figure if they can force us all into practicing vegan, the human brain in 20 generations will atrophy because of the lack of suitable protein and humans will return to scavenging back on the savannas.

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  19. 19. geojellyroll 1:10 am 03/14/2012

    The attack on PETA is comical. Every day each of us is assaulted by the ads of a multi billion dollar meat and processed food industry. Billions spent directed at little Johnny to have him beg mommy to take him for an artery-clogging burger…they’ll even toss in a toy with his Happy Meal.

    PETA doesn’t spend a hundreth of 1 percent of the advertising dollars compared to the crap food lobby.

    Link to this
  20. 20. tabu 1:28 am 03/14/2012

    How Does Eating Meat Affect the Earth?

    Today’s factory farms leave behind an environmental toll that generations to come will be forced to pay. Whether it’s excessive water use or contamination, excessive soil use or erosion, excessive resource use or air pollution, America’s meat addiction is steadily poisoning and depleting our water, land, and air.

    Consider this:
    In an effort to conserve water, you might install a water-saver on your kitchen faucet, saving up to 6,000 gallons of water per year. Most of those savings would be lost if you consumed just one pound of beef (which requires 5,200 gallons of water per pound to produce—compared to only 25 gallons for a pound of wheat). Raising animals for food consumes more than half of all water used in the U.S. A totally vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat-eating diet requires more than 4,200 gallons of water per day.

    Producing just one hamburger uses enough fossil fuel to drive a small car 20 miles. Of all raw materials and fossil fuels used in the U.S., more than one-third is used to raise animals for food.

    A typical pig factory farm generates raw waste equal to that of a city of 12,000 people. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, factory farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined.

    In December 1997, the Senate Agricultural Committee released a report that stated that animals raised for food produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, roughly 68,000 pounds per second, all without the benefit of waste treatment systems. A Scripps Howard synopsis of the report (April 24, 1998) stated: “It’s untreated and unsanitary, bubbling with chemicals and disease-bearing organisms. … It goes onto the soil and into the water that many people will, ultimately, bathe in, wash their clothes with, and drink. It is poisoning rivers and killing fish and sickening people.

    Catastrophic cases of pollution, sickness, and death are occurring in areas where livestock operations are concentrated. Every place where the animal factories have located, neighbors have complained of falling sick.” This excrement is also generally believed to be responsible for the “cell from hell,” Pfiesteria, a deadly microbe, the discovery of which is detailed in Rodney Barker’s “And the Waters Turned to Blood”

    Of all agricultural land in the U.S., 87 percent is used to raise animals for food. That’s 45 percent of the total land mass in the U.S. More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to create cropland in order to produce our meat-centered diet.

    The meat industry is directly responsible for 85 percent of all soil erosion in the U.S., because so much grain is needed to feed animals being raised for food. In the U.S., animals are fed more than 80 percent of the corn we grow and more than 95 percent of the oats. Raising animals for food is grossly inefficient, because you have to put 20 calories of food into an animal to get just one measly calorie back in the form of flesh.

    The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people—more than the entire human population on Earth. According to environmental think-tank Worldwatch Institute, “[T]he easiest way to reduce grain consumption is to lower the intake of meat and milk, grain-intensive foods. Roughly 2 of every 5 tons of grain produced in the world are fed to livestock, poultry, or fish; decreasing consumption of these products, especially of beef, could free up massive quantities of grain and reduce pressure on land.”

    Each vegetarian saves one acre of trees every year! More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat, and another acre of trees disappears every eight seconds. The tropical rain forests are also being destroyed to create grazing land for cattle. Fifty-five square feet of rain forest may be razed to produce just one quarter-pound burger.

    Caring for the environment means protecting all of our planet’s inhabitants, not just the human ones. Animals suffer extreme pain and deprivation on today’s factory farms. Chickens have their beaks sliced off with a hot blade, pigs have their tails chopped off and their teeth removed with pliers, and male cows and pigs are castrated all without anesthesia. The animals are crowded together and dosed with hormones and antibiotics to make them grow so quickly that their hearts and limbs often cannot keep up, causing crippling and heart attacks. Finally, at the slaughterhouse, they are hung upside down and bled to death, often while fully conscious.

    There are a variety of books that address the environmental consequences of America’s meat-based diet, including:

    Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating by Erik Marcus
    Diet for a New America by John Robbins
    Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin

    Link to this
  21. 21. tabu 1:31 am 03/14/2012

    Sunny Acres Farms

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=-slkqYQr29w

    This is your brain on meat! Video… LMFAO !

    http://vegansaurus.com/post/3565276655/this-is-your-brain-on-meat-i-saw-this-video

    Link to this
  22. 22. norhagan 1:51 am 03/14/2012

    Do you have a research data result in India about red meat eater related diseases? Because as far as I know India is a traditional country majority are non meat eaters, they are vegetarian and poultry meat eater.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Jerzy New 6:10 am 03/14/2012

    Geojellyroll, unintentionally, blew it. I like when supporters of PETA themselves slip and say: their propaganda is as much propaganda as adverts of crap food. The difference is not more truth, but less money.

    Which puts very bad light on SciAm, because this site is supposed not to be ANY kind of propaganda, just science.

    Talking people into not eating meat by saying it increases chance of death is as “scientific” as saying: eat your greens or the bogeyman comes and eats you.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Jerzy New 6:17 am 03/14/2012

    RockyBob finally said the real problem.

    Most Americans find healthy food expensive: lean meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. Instead they eat junk food, because corn, potatoes and vegetable fats are cheap to produce. And sell with much higher profit margin, too.

    That’s bad. But SciAm shouldn’t misinform people about the nature of the problem.

    However, if you pick products carefully and shop in larger quantities in cheaper shops, it is possible to eat healthy and stay on budget.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Geopelia 7:12 am 03/14/2012

    In wartime Britain, the meat ration was very small. But there was one red meat that was widely available, whale meat.
    Of course these days no decent person would touch that. But I wonder if any studies have been done to compare it with beef or lamb.
    The wartime rations, so short on meat, sugar and fats, could make a very good diet these days if plenty of fruit and vegetables were freely available too.

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  26. 26. noincision 10:02 am 03/14/2012

    The miriad of confounding variables in a study with this purpose is astounding! The belief that they can be accounted for with math is scientific arrogance at its very worst.

    This is a very harmful study that will have repurcussions for years to come.

    It will be politically correct, and popular though!

    Shame, shame.

    Link to this
  27. 27. shaneknee 7:04 pm 03/14/2012

    It’s laughable and so transparent; witnessing the team from http://www.beef.org with all their interns and workplace assistants typing BS retorts to an article that exposes the truth. I love meat, however, in the typical quantities that we consume, thanks to marketing, the USDA and fast joints, is killing us. But what do the folks from beef.org care. They’re keeping their budget filled by perpetrating the lies of their cattle farmer constituents.

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  28. 28. OBagle 10:44 pm 03/15/2012

    You don’t have to be a billionaire like Steve Jobs to be able to afford a healthy, 100% organic, life-prolonging, vegetarian diet. Strict discipline, self-sacrifice and responsible behavior on our part is the only way to establish a more sustainable future for our ungrateful, mentally deficient “college-educated” children and the wretched refuse of the teeming shores of third-world countries, yearning to destroy the earth anyway. Medium rare, thank you.

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  29. 29. crauther 9:49 am 03/16/2012

    Common people are getting sick with scientists, their ideas and their discovery.If one article reveal about the benefit of beef, after a year or later they starts to curse the beef, so do to the chicken, pork, egg, and even to vegetables and nuts. So best option for this intelligentsia, cram their discoveries to their shelf’s drawer and let allow us to live without any panic.

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  30. 30. SunnyBoy 2:55 pm 03/16/2012

    The author of, “Why We Get Fat” Gary Taubes might disagree with Harvard.

    Link to this
  31. 31. daballa 4:30 pm 04/11/2012

    You can read more about red meats on WhatsInThisStuff.com. Here is an article about beef: http://www.whatsinthisstuff.com/ingredient/Beef

    Link to this

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