Study Says to Eat Less Red Meat: What this Really Means

If you could lower your risk of heart disease and cancer by choosing what is on your plate, would you?  Most of us would without question, but what if that meant giving up your regular burgers, steaks, or side of bacon?  Researchers at Harvard revealed the results of a study on red meat consumption this week.  If you are a meat lover, what they found may make you rethink your dining habits.  Oklahoma Heart Institute Cardiologist Dr. Eric Auerbach looks at the study and how we should interpret these findings.

Red Meat: The culprit or the victim?

The study “Read Meat Consumption and Mortality,”conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and to be published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is an interesting read that is sure to generate some controversy.  I found the WebMD review by Brenda Goodman to be a succinct and balanced overview of the study.  The findings were based on food consumption questionnaires obtained from over 120,000 health care workers over a period that spanned decades.  Briefly, the Harvard researchers found that red meat consumption was associated with increased deaths from both heart disease and cancer.  They concluded that substituting protein from either lean animal sources or from vegetable sources could possibly lower the risk of premature death by as much as 19%.

Now, as a guy who loves a good steak, I must be quick to point out the limitations of this sort of research.  The study demonstrates an association between red meat consumption and disease, but association is not causation.  One is tempted to conclude from the study that red meat was the cause of the excess heart disease and cancers, but there are confounding variables in this sort of study that could also explain the findings.  The authors point out that the men and women with the greatest red meat consumption were the very same men and women who were most likely to smoke, most likely to be overweight, most likely to drink alcohol, and least likely to consume fruits and vegetables.  In other words, the red meat eaters were an unhealthy group altogether.  In that context, early heart disease and cancer is not terribly surprising, and might not have been due to the red meat in particular as much as the lifestyle in general.

On the other hand, this study adds to a large body of evidence that supports the health-promoting benefits of a diet rich in high nutrient plant foods.  These sorts of epidemiological studies will always have problems with potential confounding, but the consistency of the results is also supported by a lot of other lines of evidence leading to the conclusion that the human body operates best on low calorie density, high nutrient density, high fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts.

So, I think the findings of this study should strengthen our resolve to fill our diets with vegetables, fruits, and unprocessed plant foods of all sorts.  To that foundation, adding small servings of red meat as a tasty complement is unlikely to cause harm.  In fact, if the meat is lean and produced in a health-promoting manner (such as from grass-fed animals raised without hormones and antibiotics), that sort of addition might even be positively good for you.

Eric G. Auerbach M.D.


Source: Written by Amanda Armstrong in collaboration with Dr. Eric G. Auerbach, MD, FACC