We need to talk about red meat ...

Last week, you probably heard about a study purporting to show that consuming any amount of red meat significantly upped your risk of premature death. If that news has you freaked out, I highly recommend reading Deborah Blum's roundup of high-quality news coverage of this study. Her piece explains what the study does say, what it doesn't say, and why some evidence is better than other evidence. The takeaway: You should probably be reducing the amount of processed meat that you eat (but we already knew that).


  1. BTW, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive.”

    1. A little suspicious that you bring him up. If I didn’t know you were hassenpfeffer, I’d swear you were carrots.

  2. It is unfortunate that you link to a link roundup article posted in a blog with the link styles set to appear the same as the body text. I had to dig into the source to figure out that there are actually links to the pieces mentioned. The link to Denise Minger’s writeup, for example, is in the text “in a pos”.

      1. Fair comment. On revisiting the source, apparently “you must be logged in to post a comment” actually contains one of these hidden links to where one can then register to comment. Which, is more hurdle than I care to jump, so I will remain content to express my indignation here.

  3. Define processed? And where exactly is the evidence to support reducing processed meats. All those studies are observational as well.  

      1. Not that it would change my diet all that much, but I went to a butcher shop and got some awesome minimally processed bacon that I put on the natural hamburgers I grilled Saturday. 

        So I also wonder specifically, does cured=processed? 

        1. And if it does then why would that make it bad?  There’s about 10 times the amount of  nitrites in green leafy vegetables than there is in bacon. I just don’t understand Maggie’s comment that we already knew eating processed meat was bad. How do we know this?

          1. Found this via google: 

            “Q. Some vegetables contain nitrites, do they cause cancer too?

            A. It is true that nitrites are commonly found in many green vegetables, especially spinach, celery and green lettuce. However, the consumption of vegetables appears to be effective in reducing the risk of cancer. How is this possible? The explanation lies in the formation of N-nitroso compounds from nitrites and amines. Nitrite containing vegetables also have Vitamin C and D, which serve to inhibit the formation of N-nitroso compounds. Consequently, vegetables are quite safe and healthy, and serve to reduce your cancer risk.”

          2. Salt-preserved vegetables, commonly called pickles, do seem to be associated with gastric cancer.

    1. Bologna, hot dogs, packaged lunch meat, some sausages I think.  Pretty much shit that looks like this:

        1. Junk food is pretty obvious to me. There’s no official definition of bad processed meat AFAIK. But, I sprinkle common sense on it and go from there. Other than that, there’s this…


          1. So, what about the minimally processed bacon mentioned above?  Where does that fall? Does curing meat mean it’s now processed?

            That’s the point, I think. While bologna is obvious, not all of it is.

          2. I’m pretty sure bacon is considered a processed meat. Bacon also has quite a few detrimental health risks (cancer, heart disease, etc.) as many other processed meats do. Eating bacon every day probably isn’t a very good idea for anyone who is health conscious.

            – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

            Processed meat is usually red meat preserved via smoking, curing, or salting and it includes many favorite American foods in addition to bacon:

            Hot dogs


    2. Nitrates are a known carcinogen. The rate of stomach cancer went down dramatically in America when refrigeration was introduced–we started eating fresh meat more often instead of smoked hams, etc.

  4. It seems rather hypocritical to condemn _eating_ red meat when we ourselves are _made_of_ red meat.

      1. Always heard that cannibals compare Human more to Pork than Beef. Interesting when you sit and think about it. I’d cite interchangability between a few organs, but I don’t know if what I’m thinking is fact or just pop nonsense.

        I do know pigs are often used for carcess study ballistics and the like due to similar body size (citation needed.)

        1. Actually, The Myth Busters used to use pigs for their own studies, because they are fairly close to humans.  So!

  5. I’ve completely stopped listening to these “Eating/doing/drinking too much of X will increase the risk of getting Y by Z percent” studies. Yeah, there are certainly some things that really are bad for you, but I’d rather live a little and eat a nice steak even if it may up the odds that I catch something or other. I’d rather take my chances than live in crippling fear of seemingly everything. Newsflash, we’re all going to die some day anyway.

    1.  A few years ago I realized that I was experiencing an immense amount of psychological damage from worrying about traffic. Now I walk down the middle of the street and I’ve never felt so alive!

    2. This is an understandable reaction. It’s the very nature of observational studies to find correlations that ultimately never lead to a causal relationship. That is why you see studies finding contradictory findings.  Besides smoking and lung cancer I can’t think of a single observational study that has ever panned out to be correct. Health epidemiologists have done the public a huge disservice by popularizing and making national health decisions based on a field of study which simply cannot by definition prove a causal relationship.

      1. In this case, there is an extensive body of research going all the way back to 1850 connecting dietary cholesterol and heart disease.  The biological mechanisms for arterial plaque formation (and in turn, how these plaques cause heart attacks) are well understood and documented, even if all the variables that explain why we don’t all get heart disease from our cholesterol-heavy diets are not.   

        The causal connection between meat consumption and mortality was already proven.  What the newly published study attempts to do is quantify the degree of risk.

        1. Please show me links to the clinical studies that prove this. I’ve read pretty much every major piece or clinical research on the topic and I’ve never seen it.

  6. Doesn’t freak me out much. Maybe we’ll have less mystery-foam exploding pig shit-holder if you all eat less of them. http://motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/02/explosive-hog-farm-manure-foam

  7. uh, the Deborah Blum analysis of the Harvard study (or was it an analysis of popular media reporting on the Harvard study) was pretty weak.   

    Having spent some time reading and thinking about the original article by the Harvard researchers  (http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/archinternmed.2011.2287 ), including reading some of the cited prior and supporting research, I have some concerns about one of the issues Blum raises:  unreliability of self-reported food consumption.   But it’s my assessment that, if anything, the results were affected by under-reporting  of all foods (including red meat) by some participants, which would have served to understate the impact of avoiding meat.   My reason for suspecting under-reporting are the low daily total calorie averages for those in the low meat consuming quintiles.   If these quintiles were compromised of a combination subjects who actually omitted meat from their diets and some who just misreported, the effects of meat avoidance would be attenuated.

    But the big picture that Blum seems to completely miss is that the Harvard article is based on the analysis of over 100,000 study participants over more than 20 years.  These are huge numbers, against which Blum approvingly cites nostrums from skeptical journalists like herself that we should take the findings “with a grain of salt.”   

    Like others, I had trouble finding the links to the articles and blog posts Blum references, but I did read the one Blum says “eviscerates” the Harvard study at “Mark’s Daily Apple.”    That author did a decent job on food consumption mis-reporting (coming to similar conclusions as I do about the direction of  bias), and even seemed to somewhat understand the “fancy pants math tricks” the Harvard researchers used to control for confounding variables and covariance of things like meat consumption and smoking.   But he/she ultimately dismisses the Harvard study on the basis that “observational” studies are weak and unpersuasive.  I guess the whole field of epidemiology should just quit their jobs right now.   

    And I suppose we ought to reject the conclusions of the IPCC as well, as all they’ve done is identified observed correlations between GHG concentrations and temperature . . .. if they really want to prove the AGW hypothesis, according to Blum and Mark’s Daily Apple, I guess we’ll need a double-blind controlled trial with two earths, etc.

    1. A couple things to bear in mind:
      1) The Mark’s Daily Apple guy has an immense axe to grind. I’m not familiar with the Harvard study, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were grinding the other side of the axe. I mean, they didn’t try to shield their study from the press, right?
      2) No, we shouldn’t stop doing observational studies, but we should NEVER, EVER let them escape academia. Aside form hypothesis generation, they are worthless at best.
      3) Food studies in general are publicized far, far before they’re hatched. Food science is stupidly complicated, and applying reliable research results to actual eating is extremely hard.
      4) Relating to point 3 (food science is stupidly complicated), the simplifications I see in food research are mind-bogglingly crazy. Pro tip, if you feed mice a mix of glucose, corn oil, and whey protein, you are not studying macronutrients, you are studying glucose, corn oil, and whey protein. Your results are not transferable  to real food.

      Really, there’s a lot wrong with nutrition research, but it pales in consumption to the horribleness that is nutrition research reporting, and the researchers are largely to blame. The lead of the Harvard study told a reporter, for instance, “When you have these numbers in front of you, it’s pretty staggering.” This is irresponsible. The responsible thing to say is “We don’t understand why we got the results we did, or if there were other factors that we didn’t control for. Our study shows that it’s extremely importent to do experimental studies to determine the effects of different types of meat on health.”

      And that’s really what it comes down to: experimental studies. You can do observational studies all you want, but that’s not going to get you answers, just point you at interesting questions. We have the military, we have prisons, we have public schools, we have nursing homes. All of these are places where you can do AB studies on real people and draw real conclusions. You don’t need to do anything approaching immoral. All of these populations are eating crap food anyway, almost anything would be an improvement. Change their diets and see the results. Hell, for most of them, you can do longitudinal studies spanning years. Instead, we continue to throw money at inexpensive observational studies that give us the same questions we’ve had for decades. 

    2. What part of “it’s an observational study” don’t you understand? Any critique of this research should stop here. I don’t care if the sample size is the population of the world. It’s irrelevant. Epidemiology cannot by definition prove anything. Only in health research do the journals let the ‘scientists’ get away with this type of crap.

      I agree with your point.  They should just quit now.  Or better yet stop writing journal research reports as fact and do the hard work of performing a clinical study. This is the SAME Willet using the SAME test group to show that estrogen lowered heart disease. What did the followup clinical studies show? That it actually raised heart disease. Has Willett ever been right?

  8. But see if you cut out meat out of your diet completely, you don’t have to worry about annoying  debates likes “is this processed meat or not?”  Plus you feel better, there’s less damage to the environment, you’re not contributing to slaughterhouses, everybody wins!

      1. Cept for the mercury. And the other life killed in the process of catching salmon, or raising it. Oh right, the latter’s not about me. Carry on, then, eh?

        1. Well, wild Pacific salmon.

          People ought to be much more focussed on including foods in their diet rather than excluding them. Vegetarianism, veganism, raw-foodism, they’re all defined by what one doesn’t eat rather than what one does, and that’s not sufficient for a healthy diet. Fear of contaminants regardless of level plays into this.

          Besides specific medical issues, I think folks on those kinds of diets would benefit from occasional cheating, provided they do so intelligently. It’s a way of hedging one’s nutritional bets. If you’re a vegetarian, eat some Alaskan salmon occasionally. If you’re doing Atkins or paleo, eat a slice of whole-grain bread or some pasta once in awhile.

  9. Any human who gets between me and some delicious red meat risks offering themselves as an alternative.

  10. Best efforts of the perpetual anxiety industry notwithstanding, the mortality rate for Homo sapiens sapiens remains stubbornly stuck at 100 percent.

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