Killer Red Meat..?

Last week set a record for silly headlines about red meat and death risk.

  • Eating red meat linked with higher risk of death
  • Eating red meat may boost death risk
  • More red meat in diet tied to higher risk of early death
  • Red meat consumption increases risk of early death.

And on and on, in variations on the same theme: if you eat red meat you’ll keel over dead. As if the meat itself is a a toxin. In which case the streets, offices, schools, cars and shops must be littered with people who have keeled over from eating red meat. I haven’t seen that; something must be wrong with these headlines. Where did this nonsense come from?

The study in question was based on a sampling of data from the very large and decades-long Nurses’ Health Study. The data comes from questionnaires given to health professionals about their diet, lifestyle and health. The food data comes from Food Frequency Questionnaires, which ask people to rate how often they eat this or that food daily, weekly, monthly, or never.

The data was analyzed to as to whether a person’s red meat consumption went up, stayed the same, or went down during an 8-year period. These results were compared to whether or not the person died during the next 8 year period. Turns out there was a slightly increased risk of dying for people who increased their consumption of processed meat products. Meaning hot dogs, bologna, sausages and the like. The increased risk from unprocessed meat (steak, hamburger, pork chops, etc) was weak.

Another finding: people who reduced their consumption of red meat products during the 8 year period had a slightly reduced risk for early death. Well that’s sort of interesting. Does it mean red meat or processed meats cause early death? Or does it mean that the foods that replaced the meat products improved health. You know: vegetables, nuts, poultry, dairy foods. In which case it’s not so much that meat decreases health, but that other foods can improve it.

The study also didn’t look at why a person would increase or decrease red meat consumption. In general, cutting back on meat was linked to efforts to improve health and lifestyle. But who increases meat consumption, particularly processed red meat? Why would someone do that? Cost? Convenience? Taste changes due to aging? The mistaken belief that high meat intake helps with weight loss? Think Paleo Diet, which is strangely heavy on bacon, and which was increasingly in vogue during the later part of the study period.

If that’s the case, then increased red meat consumption might just be a marker for a lifestyle that isn’t particularly healthy. And decreased red meat consumption could be a sign that a person is deliberately making lifestyle changes associated with better health. So it’s not the meat; it’s the lifestyle change.

Perhaps the people in this decades-long study just got better at honestly and accurately filling out the Food Frequency Questionnaire. Or perhaps some of this increased risk of death is linked to the fact that all of the people in this study were getting older. The study did go from 1986 to 2010, a 24 year span. Hmmm.

So, Killer Red Meat?

No, more like high intake of processed red meat is a marker for an unhealthy lifestyle. If your diet is heavy on red meat, particularly processed red meat products — bacon, sausage, hot dogs, bologna and the like — there are a lot of healthier foods you aren’t eating. Plus you’re eating more of the foods that seem to go along with all of those red meat products: fried potatoes, white bread/rolls, sugary soft drinks, chips and snack foods.

What should you do about this? Fill up your plate with vegetables, grain foods, fruit, nuts, legumes. Avoid highly processed foods of all kinds (I include fake plant “meat” in that list). Include modest portions of poultry, fish, fresh unprocessed red meat, eggs or dairy foods at your meals. Meals shouldn’t be focused on giant slabs of steak or over-sized buckets of fried chicken or extra-cheese and sausage pizza.

This study said more about the foods people were not eating as it said about what they did report eating. More plant-based foods and less meat is a good plan. I’d add: drastically less processed food and more whole food.

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