This morning’s health headlines are abuzz with rumors about death by bacon and red meat, which is about half the truth of a new study on the effects of daily red meat consumption. The reality is that eating red meat every day is bad for you, and eating processed meat is extremely bad for you. But even the study’s author says his study shouldn’t scare you away from all meat all the time; unfortunately, the message of moderation doesn’t make for catchy headlines.
The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, was based on data from 110,000 people, all of whom were cancer-free and showed no signs of cardiovascular disease to start with, whose diets and health records had been tracked for between 22 and 28 years (the men had participated in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study from 1986-2008; the women were tracked through the Nurses’ Health Study from 1980-2008). Among those who reported daily red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) consumption, overall mortality rates went up by 13%, while eating processed meat (like bacon or hot dogs) increased risk of death by 20%. They also found that regular meat consumption increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, specifically.
While most headlines are focused on demonizing meat (the LA Times‘ take is that “…red meat — any amount and any type — appears to significantly increase the risk of premature death”), the study doesn’t actually present itself as a reason to be totally afraid of meat. For one, the study abstract explains that those who ate red meat daily also tended towards other lifestyle factors associated with disease and death:
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.
Which isn’t to say that red meat consumption isn’t a risk factor, but it’s a good reminder that correlation isn’t causation.
One of the study authors, Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public health, asserts that the take-away isn’t to be scared straight away from ever consuming red meat:
We’re not talking about a vegetarian diet. A moderate consumption, for example one serving every other day, I think is fine.
Their study adds to evidence that eating a variety of vegetables, grains, and proteins without too much saturated fat improves longevity, but it isn’t really proof that anyone who eats bacon on Sunday is doomed to premature death. Unfortunately, the message of moderation isn’t quite as shocking, but it is, for most of us, a lot more comforting and realistic.