The Red Meat Debate

By Laura Fujita

Two days ago the LA Times published a story about a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine claiming that all red meat appears to significantly increase the risk of premature death.

The study was conducted by a group of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and examined the eating habits of more than 110,000 adults over a long-term period of 20 years. The study found that a daily 3-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat in one’s diet was correlated with a 13% greater chance of dying during the study. This number increased to 20% if an extra daily serving of processed red meat, such as bacon, was added to one’s diet. The data collected was based on participants’ self-reports about their food intake.  

An Pan, the lead author of the study, stated, “Any red meat you eat contributes to the risk.” In fact, as red meat consumption increased, so did participants’ mortality risk. Furthermore, the study found that eating alternatives such as poultry, fish, nuts, and legumes resulted in lower mortality risk. These results took other factors such as age, physical activity, and family history of heart disease and cancer into account.

The study has received some criticism since it was published on Monday. The American Meat Institute was the first to rebuttal, stating that the study’s use of self-reported data was considered “unreliable”. Another critic proposed that the real issue is the quality of the meat as opposed to the quantity, stating, “I think this study is more of an indictment of industry practices than it is of red meat itself. Our food industry is killing us.”

So, what does a vegetarian such as myself think of all this? To be honest, I do have some issues with the way the study was presented. For one, although the study did take other risk factors into account, there was no mention of lifestyle risk factors such as smoking or alcohol consumption. Factors like these could have potentially contributed to the results that were found. Another issue I have is related to the quality vs. quantity argument. It’s quite likely that a majority of the meat that was consumed by participants was grain-fed as opposed to grass-fed. Grain-fed cattle gain weight much more rapidly than grass-fed cattle, and thus are quicker and cheaper to produce. Grain-fed meat also contains more fat than grass-fed meat, making it tastier, more tender, and therefore more appealing to consumers. Eating higher-fat meat, not meat itself, may have contributed to the results of the study.  

You probably think it’s weird – a vegetarian opposing a study claiming you should eat less red meat? Yes, I would like it if people chose to eat less (or no) meat. However, I am also a student of Health Promotion, and that means maintaining a critical mindset when it comes to reading health information. I want to ensure that such information is being presented truthfully and accurately.

My final verdict: Personally, I think the study does leave out some important factors that need to be considered. However, I do hope at the very least that this study will raise some awareness and get people to start being more mindful about what foods they are consuming. It never hurts to re-evaluate what you’re eating!

Some suggestions:

¨      Consider cutting down on red meat (remember – one serving is 3 oz., which is approximately the size of a deck of cards).

¨      Try switching to healthier options such as lean poultry, fish, tofu, legumes, beans, or nuts.

¨      Try Meat Free Mondays!

¨      If you don’t want to cut down on your red meat consumption, perhaps consider switching to higher-quality meat (i.e. local, grass-fed, free range, organic meat that is free of antibiotics, hormones, and other preservatives). However, don’t just assume that a label saying it’s “grass-fed” automatically means it is “healthier”. Do some research! Find out how the animals are raised, what they’re fed, and where they come from before purchasing anything. Be an informed consumer!

¨      Check out this article on CNN that discusses the grain-fed vs. grass-fed debate.  

To read more posts by Laura, visit her personal blog Inspiring Healthy Living.

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About Jav Girl

1) Background: - Originally from Guelph, ONT, - Honours Bachelor of Kinesiology from McMaster University, - Workplace Wellness & Health Promotion (WWHP) Post-Graduate Certificate from Centennial College - Completed my WWHP placement at UHN - Hired at UHN August 2008 2) Passions: - I love to run! Nothing beats a runner's high! =) 3) Achievements: - Competed at the National Track & Field Champions for Javelin [I named my javelin 'Orville' after the Wright brothers who invited the airplane - as I wanted my javelin to 'fly'] 4) "I love what I do because . . . it allows me to help others incorporate aspects of a healthy lifestyle into their lives. I've always wanted to help people get active and live better lives; I just never knew it could be my day job.' 5) Book Recommendation: 'Mindless Eating' by Brian Wansink and 'The Happiness Project' by Gretchen Rubin

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