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When Harvard School of Public Health declared eating red meat is associated with higher death rates, a chill went through the Paleo community.
The researchers collected dietary information every 4 years from more than 120,000 people over more than 20 years. They concluded that one serving every day of unprocessed red meat was associated with a 13% increased death risk. One serving of processed red meat (one hot dog or two slices of bacon) was associated with a 20% increased risk of death.
They also found that cardiac deaths of red meat eaters increased 18% with one daily serving of unprocessed red meat and 21% with processed red meat. Cancer deaths increased 10% and 16%.
While vegetarians smugly shook their heads, members of the Paleo blogosphere were quick to defend red meat and discredit the study.
"Red meat is NOT bad for you. Now blue-green meat, THAT'S bad for you!" ~ Tommy Smothers
Criticism of the study by Minger and others noted:
- The study is observational - not a controlled experiment. It shows an association between red meat and death, but says nothing about causation. Big difference.
- Researchers relied on diet questionnaires once every four years. Who can remember what they ate yesterday, let alone for the past four years?
- No distinction was made between meat from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs, also known as factory farms) and organic, grass-fed beef. As the Alliance for Natural Health points out, corn-fed beef has over 20 times more omega-6 fatty acids (associated with arthritis, chronic inflammation, and cancer) than omega-3 fatty acids (which help blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and strengthen the heart). But grass-fed beef has seven times more omega-3s than omega-6s. Grass-fed beef also has less total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories, and more vitamin E, beta-carotene and vitamin C.
- Those eating the most red meat had the least "healthy" profiles. They were the least physically active, the most likely to smoke, the least likely to take a multivitamin, had higher BMIs, higher calorie intakes and higher alcohol use. Who's to say it's the meat that's doing them in?
- The numbers may not be as bad as the authors lead you to believe. Minger reminds us that a 20% increased risk of death sounds dramatic but all it means is this. If your risk of dying is 5%, then a 20% increase takes you up to 6%. Yawn.
Minger warns about buying into the headlines and media hype. In fact she points out that in this study red meat eaters had the lowest levels of blood cholesterol. That, of course, did not make headlines. And another study found that Paleo diets high in meat don't lead to atherosclerosis or cardiovascular disease.
To learn more about Denise Minger's work, read her book Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health.