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Saturday
Apr072012

Will Eating Red Meat Really Kill You?


The news was recently on fire with headlines declaring red meat consumption raises the risk of death. Pretty scary stuff! No doubt, some of those who just heard or read the headlines have become terrified at the thought of eating red meat. Each year a new study seems to say something along these same lines. Though the headlines draw attention, such sensationalized sound bites could be worse for peoples’ health than the information found in the stories they promote.

Before you stick your nose up at sirloin or blow off other cuts of beef, you should understand what the study showed. Even if you just don’t like to eat red meat, you’ll know the truth so you can share it with your friends.

The Full Story

Red meat has been attacked for years. Sometimes it’s wrongfully attacked as people mistakenly warn against saturated fat. Other times, certain types of red meat are attacked for being highly processed or conventionally raised. In reality, we’re talking about three types of meat.

  • Processed meats: These include meat found at most fast food restaurants, and in premade dishes and frozen meals. It also includes deli meats, sausages, hot dogs and other such processed meats with preservatives.
  • Conventionally raised, unprocessed meats: These include steaks, ground beef and other fresh cuts of meat.
  • Grass-fed/pasture-raised, unprocessed meats: These include the same cuts of fresh meat, but the animals were raised and fed humanely and naturally. The nutrient value of animals raised in such a way is superior, and they are treated better than animals on many conventional farms. You may also find some processed meats, such as hot dogs and sausages, made from the same type of meat, and without preservatives and other additives. They could fall into this category as well.

The mistake so many people make is talking about all meat as the same. It certainly isn’t. Processed, conventional meats may very well lead to unwanted health problems. However, as we’ll see below, there is a significant lack of scientific support to suggest eating unprocessed red meat, especially naturally raised red meat, is unhealthy.

The research paper that has created so much media attention is titled “Red Meat Consumption and Mortality,” and was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. You can get a free copy of the published article here. If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, we’ll take a look at some of the key points below. There seems to be a strong bias against meat consumption from the beginning of the article, as the authors include the following sentence in the first paragraph:

“Substantial evidence from epidemiological studies shows that consumption of meat, particularly red meat,1 is associated with increased risks of diabetes,2 cardiovascular disease (CVD), and certain cancers.”3

The authors cited three previous studies in the sentence above. In the first study they cite, a research group looked at data from two large population studies, the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and the Nurses’ Health Studies I and II. The published article was called “Red meat consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes.” Researchers found an increased risk of type II diabetes in those who ate meat. The more meat people claimed they ate (in food frequency questionnaires), the higher their risk of diabetes. But the group who ate the most meat also:

  • Had the highest percentage of smokers
  • Had the highest percentage of people with hypertension
  • Had the highest percentage of family history of diabetes
  • Had the highest intake of total calories
  • Consumed the most alcohol
  • Consumed the most trans fats
  • Consumed the most soft drinks

Do you see the problem with pointing the finger at red meat? You’re looking at people who made some of the worst diet and lifestyle choices possible. It just so happens that they also ate more meat, or at least that’s what the questionnaires said.

The sentence above also claims meat has previously been associated with cardiovascular disease, and cites an article from the journal Circulation, a publication of the American Heart Association. In this particular meta-analyses, researchers found total meat consumption was related to heart disease. When red meat and processed meat were combined, the risk of heart disease increased. However, the study authors concluded “Consumption of processed meats, but not red meats, is associated with higher incidence of CHD and diabetes mellitus. There are two key points here. First, unprocessed red meat was not associated with cardiovascular disease, even though that’s what the authors above suggested in their introduction! Second, how could the authors of “Red Meat and Mortality” have missed this? They seem to have exaggerated what the study that they cite themselves actually said.

Finally, the third part of their introduction suggests meat consumption increases the risk of cancer. The journal article they cite comes from Nutrition and Cancer. You may be assuming this was an exaggeration as well, and you’d be correct. The study, titled “Well-Done Meat Intake, Heterocyclic Amine Exposure, and Cancer Risk” points out that well-done meat can be carcinogenic, or cancer causing. However, the point is not that meat itself is cancer causing. Rather, the way the meat is cooked may be cancer causing. Grilling or other high-temperature cooking methods create carcinogens, which are cancer-causing agents. By avoiding the overcooking of meat, the cancer-causing effects would be negated.

Hopefully you can see by now that the study that made the news had a significant amount of bias against meat consumption, as the first three studies that were referenced in it did not actually show what the authors said they did. If you’re still not convinced, we’ll take a look at the actual study below and how it was interpreted. I think you’ll see the idea that “red meat kills” is far from the truth.

Study Method

Based on the way “Red Meat Consumption and Mortality” has been presented in the news, one would think it was brand new research, but the study group actually used data from two other studies that have been around for a while, and looked at the data in a different way. In these studies, participants were not asked to follow any specific diet. They were simply asked what they ate every couple years, and then they were tracked for associated health problems as the study went on. In total, data from 37,698 men and 83,644 women were included in the study.

Classification Problems

The participants completed food frequency questionnaires every four years. As for meat, the two categories for which people specified the frequency with which they ate it were:

  • Unprocessed red meat: “beef, pork, or lamb as a main dish, hamburger, and beef, pork, or lamb as a sandwich or mixed dish.”
  • Processed red meat: “bacon, hot dogs, sausage, salami, bologna, and other processed red meats.”

Do you see a problem already? Unprocessed meats could include fast food hamburgers and sandwiches, or even pre-mixed frozen meals which all can contain vegetable oils, preservatives and other unhealthy ingredients. When we work with people on nutrition, we think of “unprocessed meats” as a fresh cut of beef, grass-fed hamburger and other meats in their natural state. That’s quite different than the way the participants in the study had to classify processed and unprocessed meats. Based on the way foods were classified, and knowing what the Standard American Diet looks like, there were likely a lot more “double quarter-pound cheeseburger and fries” meals that were classified as unprocessed meat than those that were categorized as processed.

Was It Really the Meat?

The data from all participants was put together and arranged into five groups of increasing meat consumption. Once participants were arranged into quintiles by meat consumption, their data was averaged. This is where it gets really interesting. Q1 had the lowest levels of meat consumption, Q5 had the highest. Remember, according to the study authors, being in Q5 means you eat more meat and you have a higher likelihood of dying. They suggest it’s because of the meat, but look at the data below.

It doesn’t take an expert to understand the problem with blaming the higher rates of death just on meat. According to the data, those with the highest rates of death ate the most red meat, but they also:

  • Averaged the least weekly activity, which is known to be related to heart disease and mortality
  • Had the highest BMI. Though BMI is not the best measure of whether someone is overweight, in a large population like this, studies show it would be accurate to say the Q5 group was the most overweight, a known contributor to heart disease and early death.
  • Had the highest percentage of smokers, a known contributor to heart disease and early death
  • Had the lowest percentage of multivitamin users, suggesting a lower intake of antioxidants, important in reducing levels of oxidized cholesterol and other free radicals which lead to heart disease and aging
  • Had the highest calorie intake, which can contribute to aging
  • Drank the most alcohol, which can have a negative effect on hormones related to a healthy metabolism
  • Had the lowest intake of fish, which provide omega-3 fatty acids important for heart health and reduction of chronic inflammation

Most interesting was that the group who had the lowest rates of death had the highest cholesterol, and those with the lowest cholesterol were in the group with the highest rates of death. So much for the hypothesis that low cholesterol is good for you! Of course, there were no headlines declaring low cholesterol levels increase mortality.

It would seem the study’s authors could have just as easily said alcohol, smoking, gluttony, sedentary lifestyles or nutrient deficiencies appear to increase the risk of death, and left meat alone. Is it possible meat was partly to blame? Yes, it’s possible. But this type of study cannot show that to be the case, and no study to date has done that either. 

Summary

We were told to avoid cholesterol because for a time, cholesterol was to blame for heart disease and mortality. Then saturated fat took the blame. With no research to support saturated fat as a villain in our diets, the finger is now pointed at common sources of such fat or cholesterol—specifically, red meat.

To date, no study has shown red meat causes negative effects on health. In fact, increasing protein in the diet is consistently shown to support weight management and improve overall health, especially as people age. While there is cause for concern about the way cows, and all other animals are raised, that is a separate issue which makes choosing grass-fed and pasture-raised animal food options a wise choice. Nonetheless, the two issues should not be blurred as one is a nutritional issue and the other is a moral issue.

Red meat is a significant source of important nutrients like carnosine, creatine, B vitamins, conjugated linoleic acid and others. Avoiding red meat takes people one step further from foods humans traditionally ate for most of our existence. Rather than pointing the finger at meat in studies such as this, it would be wise to focus on the more likely contributors to heart disease and early death: lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, stress, lack of sleep, environmental toxins and nutrient deficiencies. 

Written by Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (10)

We typically write our articles 2-3 weeks before they are published on the site. Since writing this article, a couple other outstanding blog posts have been written which I also recommend. Rather than editing the above article, I thought I'd just post them here in the comments. Check out these related articles/blog posts by:
Gary Taubes: Science, Pseudoscience, Nutritional Epdemiology, and Meat
Peter Attia: Is red meat killing us?

April 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

This is a great article. Well researched & scientifically debunked. As a former researcher who's read many poor studies, I'm thrilled to see LF not jump on the bandwagon. Thanks for being an unbiased advocate for your members!

April 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusie Duarte

Gotta Love media sensationalizm. Awesome article Tom!

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Fink

How is a cow that is raised and fed humanely and naturally more healthy for me? I question this science and I feel that you are biased in your reporting Tom. Yes traditional feed animals are fattened on a corn diet for the last 6 months of their lives and they will contain more marbling. If you choose a lower grader of meat with lower marbling content than that will be as healthy as grass feed beef as grass feed beef is lower in fat at least in my non scientific opinion. Tom could your provide references.

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Once again "science" is used to blind, deceive and confuse. Sad.

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua Nicklin

@Susie, Casie: Thank you

@Steven: Grass-fed beef has a better nutrient profile. In addition, when cattle are fed their natural diet, they don't end up with the kinds of diseases those fed corn get. That means a reduced or eliminated need for antibiotics. They would also be more likely to be free of hormones. I'd recommend checking out the www.eatwild.com for more detail on the benefits of grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, etc.

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Protein increases acidity in the body. When PH balance is in an acid state cancers will thrive. When body is in neutral balance, cancer receptors are off. The cure is here or heart desease n cancer, you just have to gain knowledge

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe D

@Joe: Do you have any references for that? The only research I've seen linking cancer and acidic environments is in test tubes. It was shown that putting certain cancer cells in an acidic environment increased cancer growth. However, the human body isn't like a test tube where you can make the cellular environment more acidic. The body maintains a very tight control of its acid/base balance, or our cells would die. It's bit of a stretch to assume since protein could have a slight acidic effect that it would increase the growth of cancer, but if you have some research on it, I'd love to read it. Also, consumption of vegetables would offset any acidic effect. Paleolithic research shows humans ate animal protein for most the the existence of humans and there's no indication cancer was an issue until recently. On the other hand, carbohydrate, specifically sugar, HAS been shown to increase the rate of cancer growth.

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Foods do indeed affect the production of metabolic acids and foods that are high in minerals can help counteract that acidity, which when excessive does go on to cause health problems, mainly kidney stones and osteoporosis. However, the association of acidity with cancer is an issue that takes some sorting out. Here is some info I hope you all find helpful.

1. Sebastian et al (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 76, No. 6, 1308-1316, December 2002.) painstakingly calculated the net acid load of modern diets and compared it to net acid load of pre-agricultural (paleolithic) man. Using various ratios of meat to plant food intake, with the max meat intake being 35% (mostly wild game, so meats were lean) they found that all paleolithic diets were alkaline producing and caused no net acid load. This is despite the fact that they ate animal protein. Compared to that, modern diets caused 48 meq of net acid per day. In calculating which food patterns were responsible for this in modern diets - they reached an astounding conclusion - it is not our meat intake but the intake of GRAINS AND HIGH CALORIE/LOW NUTRIENT FOODS, like white flour, sugar and what they called separated fats (mainly oils) that caused the high acid load. Because animal proteins are high biologic availabilty and because higher protein intake helps preservation of muscle mass with aging - the authors recommended that to keep an alkaline diet, we should eat lean meats BUT replace grains, flours, sweets and high intake of oils with vegetables of all types (roots, tuber, vegetables, greens) and fruit. Interestingly, cereal grains accounted for 38% of the net acid load in modern diets. So to address the issues above - getting rid of meat is not the way to achieve an alkaline diet. Getting rid of grains and sugar and replacing them with vegetables is the way. Grass fed beef is close nutritionally to a wild game meat, much leaner and lower in cholesterol while being higher in the muscle-preserving Conjugated linoleic acid, so it is a better option. High intake of grain fed beef is not a good idea - if that is all you have available, I advise not eating it more than once a week. Either way - increasing one's intake of vegetables is crucial for helping to maintain an alkaline diet and body.

2. Acidity and cancer. High intake of the acid-causing foods (grains and sweets, not meat) is associated with increased cancer risk. However, scientists feel it is due to the fact that these foods cause increased production of insulin. High insulin levels are associated with increased cancer risk (Gunter et al. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2008.) So, the dietary factor most strongly associated with the development of cancer is intake of high glycemic index foods, especially sweets (Gnagnarella et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2008;(87):1793-1801.) It just so happens these are also the foods that create acidity in the body. It's a technicality. People think the acid environment itself is causing cancer, because of the fact that cancer patients often have very acidic saliva and urine. However, cancer cells themselves create acid, because of the type of metabolic respiration they follow, anaerobic respiration. This type of metabolic energy production produces a lot of lactic acid. That is why the body becomes so acidic in cancer patients. Granted if following a typical modern diet, the average person will most likely already be too acidic. However, studies have not found that simply creating alkalinity will eradicate cancer. Certainly increasing one's intake of vegetables and fruit helps fight cancer, but it's more likely they help because of the cancer fighting compounds they contain, than simply the alkalinizing properties.

To get back to the comment that meat causes acidity and therefore causes cancer - it's important to distinguish that a high acid diet is bad for us, but it's the glycemic response that is probably what is causing the increased cancer risk. And the optimal diet for preserving alkalinity is lowered intake of grains, sweets and separated fats, while eating animal protein with high intake of vegetables of all types and some fruit.

So, the bottom line? Get rid of sweets, don't rely on too many grains either, and don't blame cancer on meat. Eat meats that are raised on their natural diets, which also happen to be leaner meats, and LOTS of vegetables and greens and some fruit to eat a diet that will be more alkaline. This is important for bone and kidney health and keeping more muscle as you age. Reduced intake of high glycemic index foods should be favorable for lowering cancer risk as well.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura LaValle, RD,LD

This post is in response to Steven. Steven, I raise free-range chickens which get vegetable trimmings, milk and yogurt that has soured, bread trimmings, plenty of outside time, grass clippings and worms, grasshoppers, insects, etc. The first time I cracked open one of my eggs, I was shocked at how dark yellow the yolk was. The flavor of these eggs is way beyond what you buy at the store. Those yolks are higher in carotenoids than store-bought eggs (as well as other vitamins and minerals). Although I am not ready to buy grass fed meat yet, I am in the process of overhauling our diet. From what I have read through the Fluorish newsletter, our processed food supply is downright immoral. Now I look for whole foods, stay out of the center aisles, take multi-vitamins, etc. I absolutely do not believe the hype about red meat consumption. And I can attest to the fact that whatever the animal eats and how it lives will definitely affect the nutrient level of the meat! Just the fact that my chickens get outdoors in the sunshine makes for a better egg since sunshine contributes to better calcium absorption and stimulates the pituitary gland to lay more eggs. Plus an animal that is happy is less stressed out which keeps stress levels down; stress hormones contribute to bad flavors in meat.

April 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR. Phillips

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