Red meat and death: Were our ancestor so smart?

A fascinating study published recently is definitely worth a read in this day of low carb high-fat diet trends.  The study followed over half a million Americans aged 58 to 71 years, for 16 years.  

That is a huge sample size so worth taking very seriously.  Many of the participants were dead by the end of the study; bad for them but helpful for research on death and stuff.

Here is what the research showed:

Red meat linked to death and other horrible stuff.

Yes – red meat consumption is linked to death and stuff, lots of different types of death and stuff.  Or put in science-speak: those that ate more red meat had higher death rates by almost all causes than those who ate less red meat.

Going free-range/grass-fed isn’t going to save you.

The findings were similar for red meat and processed meat. 


However, maybe because processed meat has been so demonized in recent decades the consumption of it might have dropped which could blur these findings.

What sort of death stuff is linked to red meat?

Heart disease, cancer, stroke, liver disease, respiratory disease (quite the resume).  Interestingly liver disease was the highest.  This surprised the researchers too.  After all, red meat usually gets its bad press in relation to cancer and heart disease.

Is there any bad stuff you might be saved from by going mad for red?

Yes, meat lovers appear less likely to die of Alzheimer’s.  However, this might be a red herring as Alzheimer’s has a tendency itself to change diet.  Hard to keep to your usual diet if you don’t know what you normally eat or what time of the day it is or if you become institutionalized.

Is it really red meat or something else?

Well maybe.  This kind of study is what is called ‘correlational’.  That is – it shows these things are linked, but this kind of statistical approach cannot prove one thing ’causes’ another.  It may be that it does (let’s face it – it probably is) but this particular study can’t support that assumption.

The researchers did also explore other factors and found that serious meat eaters did not tend to be pissheads and actually ate a lot of vegetables.  Get this too for interesting: the lower meat eaters were the higher smokers.

This all means that it is unlikely that the link is spurious – as in caused by other factors not taken into consideration.  Like when you notice height and maths ability are related in children, you know height does not improve maths ability because a third factor – age is more likely to be behind this.

Is white meat our saviour?

Maybe, the white meat eaters had less death and stuff.  But whether that is the active consumption of white meat or an associated lower consumption of red meat is unknown.  Even processed white meat may be OK, but there isn’t really the data to confirm.

What about Pigs?

Sorry to say for pig lovers – pork is classified as red meat.

Why might red meat be the devil?

The researchers propose a number of potential ways that red meat and death and other horrible stuff could be linked.  Two likely suspects are oxidative stress (which is potentially part of the aging process and red meat promotes oxidative damage and inflammation) and known mutagens (ouch they sound terrifying) in red meat.

How do we know people didn’t lie or forget?

As the questions asked about typical consumption, yes, forgetting or fudging answers is a legitimate concern.  To address this concern, the researchers validated certain sub-samples getting them to write down what they ate daily, then they adjusted for errors across the larger sample.  The approach they took was conservative. As in, if anything, red meat is linked to more death and stuff than they reported.

Links / Resources

Too busy to read about it – bored by my summary?  It was discussed by the fabulous Dr Norman Swan on the health report on Australia’s RN Radio.  Here is a link to the show:

The research is here:

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