Fewer burgers = longer life

red meat in our kitchen (for the first time?) ...

Photo by Sean Dreilinger via Flickr

The results of a major epidemiological study on the health effects of red meat consumption were published online yesterday by the highly regarded Archives of Internal Medicine. I heard about the study on NPR, but it made headlines all over the place.

The study, which looked at the eating habits of 120,000+ health care professionals in the US over decades, found that “a higher intake of red meat was associated with a significantly elevated risk of total [mortality], CVD [cardiovascular disease mortality], and cancer mortality, and this association was observed for unprocessed and processed red meat, with a relatively great risk for processed red meat. Substitution of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains for red meat was associated with a significantly lower risk of mortality.” In other words, the more red meat you eat, the sooner you die. Seriously, that’s the takeaway lesson!

In the NPR piece and elsewhere, the study’s senior author has a somewhat less dire message: “A moderate consumption [of unprocessed red meat], for example one serving every other day, I think is fine.” On the other hand, processed red meats— like bacon and hot dogs—should be consumed rarely, if at all.

In an editorial that was published alongside the article, Dr. Dean Ornish summarizes what we know about dietary habits and health outcomes and lays out the following (which is a bit lengthier than Michael Pollan’s similar but pithier “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”)

There is an emerging consensus among most nutrition experts about what constitutes a healthy way of eating:

  • little or no red meat;
  • high in “good carbs” (including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and soy products in their natural forms);
  • low in “bad carbs” (simple and refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and white flour);
  • high in “good fats” ({omega}-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, flax oil, and plankton-based oils);
  • low in “bad fats” (trans fats, saturated fats, and hydrogenated fats);
  • more quality, less quantity (smaller portions of good foods are more satisfying than larger portions of junk foods, especially if you pay attention to what you are eating).

In addition to their health benefits, the food choices we make each day affect other important areas as well. What is personally sustainable is globally sustainable. What is good for you is good for our planet.

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4 comments

  1. Chris

    Here’s an alternate view of the study: http://www.cavemandoctor.com/2012/03/13/red-meat-consumption-and-mortality/

    Criticisms of the study from the above link:
    Food data was self reported every four years. I have trouble remembering what I ate a few days ago, so how can anyone accurately summarize their diet every four years?

    The red meat eating group were less likely to be physically active, were more likely to be smokers, more likely to drink alcohol, and had higher BMIs.

    While I avoid eating processed conventionally raised meats, this won’t slow down my consumption of unprocessed grass-fed beef.

    • Todd Ingram

      Thanks so much for the comments and links, Chris! The media definitely love to make a lot of noise and generate lots of hype whenever any new medical study comes out, and this study is definitely not without its flaws. That said, some of the critiques don’t hold up for me.

      First, people (me included, I confess!) who want to criticize a scientific study that they don’t agree with invariably end up using other scientific studies to support their counter-arguments while failing to note the weaknesses of those studies. Amidst some good points, Denise Minger’s post at Mark’s Daily Apple does this quite a bit. She’s in good company, though – Michael Pollan does the same in In Defense of Food, even as he simultaneously does a great job of detailing the weaknesses of much of nutrition science. I think it’s part of human nature that we tend to see information in a way that reinforces what we already believe; I also think we all like to call on the persuasive power of scientific authority in bolstering an argument, even as we question a particular scientific case.

      Second, people seem not to understand statistical control. Yes, participants who self-reported eating more meat were also those who exercised less, smoked more, etc., BUT THESE KINDS OF FACTORS WERE CONTROLLED FOR, so the findings of increased mortality risk among meat eaters are for when the effects of all the other covariates have been taken into account. The controls included many key indices of diet, health behaviors, and factors related to health, including “age; body mass index; race (white or nonwhite); smoking status…; alcohol intake …; physical activity level …; multivitamin use (yes or no); aspirin use (yes or no); family history of diabetes mellitus, myocardial infarction, or cancer; and baseline history of diabetes mellitus, hypertension, or hypercholesterolemia. In women, we also adjusted for postmenopausal status and menopausal hormone use” So, even after accounting for the impact of all these important factors on mortality, the meat eaters STILL had higher mortality risk.

      These issues don’t invalidate all the criticisms (e.g., I am right there with you in thinking that humanely raised, pastured animals provide much healthier meat than factory farmed ones). It does suggest that the media ought to spend less time fear-mongering and more time educating readers/listeners/viewers about statistical principles so we can all be better scientific consumers – not that I think that will happen any time soon!

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