Red Meat and Mortality

A major new study links consumption of red meat to premature death. But is beef really to blame?

This week, results from one of the largest studies of red-meat consumption and premature death ever undertaken were published. Writing in the March issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, the researchers come to a grim conclusion: “Red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality.”

A study of 500,000 people between the ages of 50 and 71 responded to “food frequency questionnaires” in the baseline year of 1995. The study’s authors examined disease and mortality trends a decade later.

The Washington Post trumpeted the results of the study with the sharp-edged conclusion that middle-aged and elderly Americans who ate four ounces of red meat a day “were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the ten years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer.”

Archives published an accompanying editorial by professor Barry Popkin at the University of North Carolina, which concluded: “…the need is for a major reduction in total meat intake, an even larger reduction in processed meat and other highly processed and salted animal source food products, and a reduction in total saturated fat” (my emphasis).

The response of the beef and pork industry wasn’t surprising. A spokesperson for the American Meat Institute complained that the study’s findings were based on “unreliable self-reporting.” A spokesperson for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association suggested, “Those with increased risk also were two to three times more likely to smoke, they had under-consumption of fruits and vegetables and they were more likely to be overweight. So there are a lot of unhealthy behaviors that complicate the findings of this study.”

What is curious about the study, Popkin’s editorial, and the response of the meat industry is that they all proceed from a common bias: Red meat is intrinsically heavy in saturated fat. Since virtually all beef consumed in the United States during the course of the study was finished in feedlots on heavy rations of corn, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and growth hormones, there is no way for the study’s authors to distinguish between the nutritional qualities of beef raised on native grass pastures and those finished in feedlots.

The results of the study point out that heavy consumption of “processed meats” is most likely to cause disease, but they do not take the logical next step, which is to consider all meat raised on artificial diets under industrial production standards to be processed. This is not just a semantic problem.

Dr. Kevin Weiland, an internal medicine physician in Rapid City, South Dakota, and author of The Dakota Diet, has worked with obese and diabetic Native Americans. He encourages his patients to shift their red-meat consumption to buffalo, venison, or beef raised on local pasture grasses. Not only is grass-fed red meat high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in omega-6 fatty acids, but it’s also high in essential micronutrients and vitamins, and low in saturated fat.

Weiland and other experts argue that the emergence of obesity and related diseases in the United States correlates directly with the change of diet in cattle from grass to corn.

A shift from feedlot production to native pasture opens up a wider discussion about carrying capacity, land conservation, and pricing, which Popkin begins to address in his editorial. But he does not consider the consequences of a shift from corn back to grass, and he concludes by suggesting that healthcare practitioners should advise their patients “to consume small to moderate amounts of red meat and processed meats….” Researchers have yet to examine whether the proper advice might be to demand an end to feedlot production and a return to grass-fed red meat.

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