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April 25, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 1 Faves: 0

Latest Research Links Red Meat to Increased Mortality

By Jessica Corwin MPH RDN More Blogs by This Author

A recent study released by the Harvard School of Public Health demonstrates an increased risk for cardiovascular and cancer mortality among participants that consume red meat.

Lead author, An Pan, was actually quoted saying “Our study adds more evidence to the health risks of eating high amounts of red meat, which has been associated with type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers in other studies”.

For those who eat red meat, this news flash is enough to draw concern. But is the risk truly valid?

First let’s review some basic facts about red meat.

How Does Red Meat Compare with White?

We have long been told that white meat (chicken, fish) is better for us than red meat (cows,pork, sheep, horse, duck) due to red meat's higher content of cholesterol-raising, inflammation-inducing saturated fat and cholesterol.

But how big a difference is there really?

Roasted Skinless Chicken Breast

Broiled Sirloin Steak







Saturated Fat









When we compare a lean beef cut to the superstar of lean animal proteins, the chicken breast, the difference is clear. When compared with lean white meat, lean red meat is still higher in total fat and saturated fat and if we were to take a look at processed red meats instead of that steak, we would find even worse health effects due to added heme iron, sodium, and nitrites.

Now that we understand the difference, let’s get to the study.

Eating Red Meat Increases Risk of Death

When I viewed the original study, I was actually quite impressed.

Researchers followed the health of nearly 38,000 men and 84,000 women for up to 28 years – all of whom were healthy at the beginning of the study (relying on data from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the Nurses’ Health Study).

Throughout the years, participants completed diet questionnaires as a measure of their food choices. By the end of the 28 year period, 5,910 people had died from cardiovascular disease and 9,464 had died from cancer. What is capturing the media’s attention is the fact that a single daily serving of unprocessed red meat (meaning not corned beef, hot dogs, or bacon) was associated with a 13% increased risk of death.

For those opting for a daily serving of processed red meat instead, the risk jumped to 20% or 1 in 5.

Replacing Red Meat Reduces Risk

On the bright side, those who replaced even one serving of red meat with a lean protein had a reduced mortality risk. The specific correlations are very interesting:

  • 7% reduction with fish proteins
  • 10% reduction with bean/legume proteins
  • 10% reduction for low-fat dairy product proteins
  • 14% reduction for poultry proteins
  • 14% reduction for whole grains proteins
  • 19% reduction for nut proteins

However, even this data does not tell us the whole story. How many vegetable and fruit servings did they have per day? Did they eat breakfast? What types of fish were they eating and how were it prepared? Would they have chosen pop, juice, alcohol, or water to go with their protein? Surely all of these factors would also play into their disease risk!

I Want To Be Healthy, But I Still Like Red Meat. What Should I Do?

Not to worry red-meat eaters! You needn't ban beef from your diet to reduce your risk. Just cut down your consumption.

If you are currently dining on red meat twice each day, this study simply indicates that it may be better for your health if you cut down to one or less - in fact, the study advised 0.5 servings of red meat or less per day.

While Harvard would like to see red meat cut out of our diets entirely, the USDA Dietary Guidelines offers a more lax recommendation: replace meats higher in solid fats (aka. red meat) with fish, fat-free dairy, nuts, and lean poultry cuts.

Think Balance.

It is also important to look at your overall diet.

Are you:

  • Following MyPlate?
  • Sticking to a serving size of lean red meat that resembles a deck of cards?
  • Enjoying it on a plate made up of 50% fruits and veggies and 25% whole grains?

OR are you grabbing a Whopper twice a day with a large side of French fries and a coke?

Most of us should aim for less than 16 grams of saturated fat in our diets each day... how does your diet stack up? Is there room for that red meat or do you need to do a bit of rearranging with other food choices higher in fat? It all comes down to balance and moderation.

Aim for the good old 80/20 rule. Try to make healthy choices at least 80% of the time, hopefully all of the nutrient-rich, antioxidant-packed choices you are making will help to counteract the occasional poor choice that lacks nutrition yet is overloaded with calories, fat, and sodium. Though in all honesty, unless you are at a baseball game, do you REALLY need that hotdog?

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1 Comment

  • great article Jessica thanks for putting this into perspective! I mean who doesn't love a good steak once in a while? I know I sure do.

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