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Mar 23

A new study on red meat and mortality

Just do it - thoughts on behavior change from The Reality-Based Community
Mar 14

Last week there was a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (read the full text here) on associations between red meat consumption and mortality risk. The headlines that came from this paper simply characterized it as another study showing that red meat is bad for you (see here, for example). Let’s take a closer look.

What did they do? The investigators analyzed data from 37,698 men and 83,644 women from two previous studies. They assessed meat consumption from self-reported questionnaires and assessed death rates from next of kin, postal authorities, or the National Death Index.

What did they find? Unprocessed and processed red meat intakes were associated with an increased risk of total, CVD, and cancer mortality in men and women in age-adjusted and fully adjusted models. The elevated risk of total mortality in the pooled analysis for a 1-serving-per day increase was 12%  for total red meat, 13% for unprocessed red meat, and 20% for processed red meat. The elevated risks for CVD mortality were 16% for total red meat, 18%  for unprocessed red meat, and 21% for processed red meat. The elevated risks for cancer mortality were 10%  for total red meat, 10% for unprocessed red meat, and 16% for processed red meat. The investigators note that they found no statistically significant differences among specific unprocessed red meat items or among specific processed red meat items for the associations with total mortality; however, bacon and hot dogs tended to be associated with a higher risk than other items.

What do we make of this? This is an interesting study that has the advantage of breaking out meat consumption by processed and unprocessed characteristics. As has been reported previously, there appears to be greater mortality risk associated with eating processed meats. So, I’m really sorry about this bacon, but I think we’re gonna have to start seeing less of each other.

As for the finding that meat is bad for you, it should be noted that the investigators also report that “men and women with higher intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to be current smokers, to drink alcohol, and to have a higher body mass index.” In addition, a higher red meat intake was associated with a higher intake of total energy but lower intakes of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Now, the investigators write that they controlled for these factors in the analyses (which, to be honest, are statistically over my head) and that there were not no significant interactions between red meat intake and body mass index or physical activity level. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that some of the negative effects of lack of activity, smoking, drinking, high BMI, low fruit and vegetable consumption, etc., etc. are not contributing to the effects reported here.

It is also interesting that similar findings were observed when exposure to red meat was assessed just in terms of energy density. Does this suggest that high caloric density or high levels of calorie intake might be a culprit? Perhaps.

What should you do now?

First, don’t believe that eating paleo means eating tons of meat. Remember that the Perfect Health Diet recommends that approximately two-thirds of your diet (by weight) be comprised of plant foods and only one-third of animal foods. Animal foods are in the minority by far.

Second, avoid processed meats. Cut down or eliminate lunch meats, sausages, (gasp) bacon, and other processed meats from your diet. When you do splurge on some bacon or brats, make sure that they are made without the sodium and nitrates. Go to your farmers market and look for products that are uncured.

Third, pay attention to how you prepare your meats. Remember, “slow and low is the way to go.” We’ve talked before about the differences between grilling and BBQing, but the distinction extends to other methods of cooking as well. Try to steer away from frying, searing, and sauteing and opt for methods such as roasting, braising, or slow cooking.

Fourth, know what your meat has eaten. This is one potential limitation of the study - we know that the diet of the animals makes a difference in terms of the fatty acid profile of the meat. Grass-fed animals tend to be healthier and are healthier for us to eat. However, this study (as far as I can tell) could not or did not differentiate between grass-fed meats and factory-farmed meats. Thus, another thing that you can do if you plan on continuing to consume red meat is to always buy grass-fed meat. It will be better for you, for the animals, and for the environment.