We've known for years that eating red meat is bad for us, but now there's staggering evidence to support the claim. On Monday, the Archives of Internal Medicine published the first large-scale, long-term study showing that consumption of processed and unprocessed red meat can shorten one's life, including by heart disease and cancer.
Harvard researchers analyzed more than 121,000 men and women who filled out surveys about their health and diet from 1980 to 2006. During that time, nearly 24,000 of the participants died: 5,910 from cardiovascular disease and 9,464 from cancer.
Of course, researchers (and beef proponents) are quick to say there isn't proof that meat causes premature death. This was an observational study, so no cause-and-effect relationship can be identified, which the Beef Checkoff program that funds the Beef Council was quick to point out.
But even after controlling for variables such as age, smoking status and heredity, researchers still found that one serving a day of red meat led to a higher likelihood of mortality:
Processed red meat—such as bacon or bologna—was pegged to increase one's risk of premature mortality by 20 percent. Researchers said sodium and nitrites in processed meat could explain the high percentage.
- Unprocessed red meat—such as beef, pork or lamb—led to a 12 percent greater risk.
The great meat debate
At Expo West 2012, So Delicious Dairy Free screened Vegucated, a documentary that follows three omnivores on their journey to veganism for six weeks. Director Marisa Miller Wolfson was on hand to talk to the vegan (that includes me) and non-vegan crowd, some of whom were skeptical about veganism.
The discussion in that room plays out daily in the world each day. But this scientific study shows that it’s not just vegans head butting with paleos anymore.
Now, people who don’t follow a specific diet/lifestyle are increasingly asking: "What in the world am I supposed to eat?" Agave was named a top 5 worst sweetener, and there wasn't any science behind it. Here, there's science. But will it motivate people to change their red meat-eating habits?
Or, is this simply another headline that will cause diehard meatitarians to roll their eyes and order their next pork chop?
Everything in moderation?
Experts say to substitute one red meat serving per day with fish, poultry, nuts, legumes and whole grains. Doing so, researchers estimate that 9 percent of deaths in men and nearly 8 percent in women could be prevented.
Think of what could be prevented if that one red meat serving per day didn’t exist at all. A 40-point drop in cholesterol, speaking from personal experience. Not to mention the environmental benefits of decreased meat production.
This is one area where I don’t believe “everything in moderation” applies. Experts (who I suspect have ties to meat production) say it’s healthier to cut back on eating meat, and to only consume lean, unprocessed versions. But you can also be healthy by not eating any red meat at all.
So here’s the question: After knowing what we know about the dangers of eating red meat, and knowing you can be healthy without eating it—why would you still want to?
I’m truly curious about this topic and would love to hear your opinion in the comments.