Scientists are on quite a “meat will kill you” kick these days.
Every few months some new study pops up blaming red meat intake for everything from heart disease to cancer to flat-out death by anything.
Newspapers and magazines catch on and the sensationalism begins. Bold headlines splash onto newsstands like “All red meat is bad for you,” “Red meat is blamed for one in 10 early deaths,” and “Scientists warn red meat can be lethal.”
Millions of people take these warnings at face value and eliminate red meat from their diets out of fear…but are the sound bites true? Is red meat actually as dangerous as we’re being led to believe?
Read on to find out.
It might sounds like a silly question but do you know what does and doesn’t qualify as red meat?
We all know that cow meat is considered red meat but what about pork? Lamb? Chicken and turkey?
Well, red meat is simply meat that is red when raw and not white when cooked, which includes the meat of most mammals.
Here’s a simple list of red meats:
Chicken and turkey are not considered red meat.
With news headlines like “Red meat triggers toxic immune reaction which causes cancer,” it’s easy to understand why more and more people are giving up the weekly barbecues.
The first thing you need to know, though, is the media loves to misinterpret research and misquote researchers. It makes for better stories.
Another thing you need to know is the difference between observational research and experimental trials.
Observations are the first step of the scientific method and are meant to point the way for further research or generate hypotheses. They can point to correlations but cannot be used to establish causation. Ever.
For example, there’s a statistical correlation between the number of people who drowned by falling into a pool and the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in.
Cage’s movies may be bad but deadly? I don’t think so.
Jokes aside, the point is observational research can never provide enough evidence for establishing what’s really going on.
Only clinical trials allow scientists to create a rigorous, controlled environment where they can test and validate or invalidate theories.
Does the media care about this, though? Absolutely not. All they need is a whiff of a correlation to break a story proclaiming causation.
This is why new stories proclaim vitamins give you cancer and this is what is happening with the red meat scare. The media is taking observational research and reporting correlations as definitive facts.
For example, scientists from Harvard published a study in 2012 that followed over 120,000 women and men and found that a single daily serving of unprocessed red meat was associated with a 13% increased risk of death from all causes. A single daily serving of processed red meat was associated with a 20% increased risk.
That whipped health writers into a frenzy almost overnight, the spark turned into chain lightning, and eating red meat became the new smoking.
There were serious problems with this study and its findings though.
For example, in analyzing subjects’ diets, hamburger was included in the category of “unprocessed red meat,” and was likely a major contributor to the category.
No, not homemade ground beef patties made from pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free cows…just hamburgers. The morsels that fast food dreams are made of.
Another flaw is the study tracked whole grain intake but didn’t track refined grain intake, which means we’re left to wonder about how many of those hamburgers were mashed between fluffy, white flour McDonald’s buns.
Yet another pothole, and this one is pretty large, is how the data on food intake was gathered.
Subjects filled out “food frequency questionnaires,” which are limited checklists of foods and beverages with a section to report how often each was consumed over a period of time.
One of the major and well-documented problems with food frequency questionnaires is people often report what they think they should be eating rather than what they actually ate.
And let’s face it—most of us struggle to remember what we ate last week let alone what went into our mouths over the last six months.
That’s not the only problem with food frequency questionnaires.
Equally vexing is the fact that people tend to underestimate their intake of foods like processed meats, eggs, butter, high-fat dairy products, mayonnaise and creamy salad dressings, refined grains, and sweets and desserts, and overestimate most of the vegetable and fruit groups, nuts, high-energy and low-energy drinks, and condiments.
It’s also known that women tend to be less accurate in their food reporting than men.
As you can imagine, when you combine spotty memory with reporting biases, the results are…less than reliable.
And yet the studies hijacking news headlines every few months very often involved food frequency questionnaires for data gathering.
Another thing you have to keep in mind when looking at observational research is how other factors inform the bigger picture.
For example, when you review the data in the Harvard study on the lifestyles of the subjects, you find that, according to food reports, the people eating the most red meat were the most physically inactive and likely to smoke and the least likely to take a multivitamin supplement.
Their daily calorie intake was also higher and they were more overweight, drank more alcohol, and tended to eat less healthy foods in general.
Little-to-no exercise…being overweight…smoking…drinking alcohol regularly…eating too much junk food…that’s a pretty darn good recipe for dying young, with or without red meat.
The long story short is it’s just more of the same. Observational research, design and execution flaws, and the rest of it.
So where does all this leave us, then? That we should thumb our noses and eat all the red meat we want? Not necessarily.
Red meat has quite a few health benefits.
And given what we now know about the overhyped risks associated with eating red meat, there’s no reason to feel guilty for eating a juicy steak or hamburger.
That said, there are a few things you should know about how it can affect your health.
Research shows that some people (myself included) have a genetic polymorphism that may increase the risk of colorectal cancer from eating meats that are cooked at very high temperatures, like frying or grilling to the point of being well done.
The simple explanation is cooking meat this way creates several types of compounds that may contribute to cancer, and while the association isn’t conclusive yet, I’m playing it safe and limiting my intake of grilled or overcooked meat. (And yes, this applies to all meats including red meat, fish, and poultry.)
Another potential risk comes from processed meat products like hot dogs, hams, bacon products, pre-packaged deli meats, and other products that are pink, cured, and preserved with sodium nitrate.
There’s good evidence that two substances found in these foods—nitrates and heme—contribute to the formation of carcinogenic compounds known as nitrosamines in the body, which increases the risk of cancer.
The research shows that it’s reasonable to assume that eating too much processed meat can cause cancer but without controlled interventions, which would never pass an ethics board due to the possibility of actually giving someone cancer, we can’t say for sure.
Personally I treat processed meats the same as I treat grilled or overcooked red meat.
I’m not afraid to have a hot dog or some deli meat now and then but I eat very little of these types of foods and recommend you do the same.
The take-home message of this article, and of the research we’ve discussed, is this:
- Don’t be overweight
- Exercise regularly
- Don’t smoke
- Limit your alcohol intake
- Eat several servings of fruits and vegetables per day
- Avoid processed meats
- Avoid overcooked red meats
Do all that and you’ll be in the best possible position to live a long, vital, disease-free life.