Recent headlines again screamed that meat consumption is bad for your health. The headlines were based on a large, long-term study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It followed more than 500,000 adults between the ages 51 and 71 for more than 16 years.
So, it got a lot of attention. But I’d call it “fake news.” And here’s why…
The media reports emphasized the finding that eating more red meat increased risk of death from nine common diseases by up to 26 percent.
But buried below the headlines was the finding that eating more white meat decreased risk by 25 percent — almost exactly the same amount, making the meat risk a wash statistically.
Now, let’s dive even deeper into the study. In addition to the statistical wash, I saw two major problems in the study’s design.
First of all, the researchers lumped together processed and unprocessed meats — a clear problem, since we should strive to avoid processed meat, both red and white, and all processed foods.
For example, the red meat category included unprocessed meat (such as grass-fed beef, pork, hamburger, liver, and steak) and processed (such as smoked bacon, cold cuts, ham, sausage, and hot dogs). It also included pork, per the USDA’s livestock classification, since it contains a high level of myoglobin, a similar protein constituent as beef.
In the white meat category, researchers included unprocessed meat (chicken, turkey, fresh fish, canned fish) and processed (cold cuts, “low fat” sausages, and hot dogs made from poultry).
Overall, 25 percent of the red meat people consumed was processed. While just nine percent or less of the white meat people consumed was processed. So — people who ate less red meat overall, also ate less processed meat overall.
When you look at the findings from this perspective, it seems clear the reported increase in death rate stems from eating more processed meats — not from eating more red meat. Even common sense tells us that eating more processed meats isn’t healthy. And red versus white doesn’t mean anything, unless you want to ignore the other findings from the study to continue a career of giving out politically correct, but faulty dietary advice to the public.
But you won’t find that scientifically correct analysis in the research report. And certainly not in the politically correct headlines.
So, what can we really conclude?
One central finding is clear: Total meat consumption was not bad in the study. So — the researchers should have used that finding as the point of departure for further discussion and analysis.
But being statisticians, they didn’t go that far.
The second problem with the study has to do with what else the participants ate (or didn’t eat).
As I always say, you have to look at a person’s complete diet. Including use of dietary supplements. Not just one or two elements of the diet.
But the new study only focused on meat consumption. Some prior studies have linked higher red meat consumption with lower consumption of fruits and vegetables. So, the red meat eaters in the new study may have actually been suffering from some fruit and vegetable nutrient deficiency. And we don’t know about dietary supplementation because the analysis didn’t survey participants about it.
(I also report on a new study in the upcoming July issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter that shows it’s more important to get more healthy foods like fruits and vegetables than it is to just avoid unhealthy foods. If you’re not yet a newsletter subscriber, click here to learn how to become one.)
Two more factors to consider: iron and nitrates
Meat is animal muscle. And all animals have iron in blood and muscles. So — you get some iron in both red and white, unprocessed and processed, meats. The researchers did look at the independent effect of iron intake, since they know excess iron increases the risk of cancer, infections, heart disease, and death. And a large proportion of the increased mortality with red meat in the study was accounted for by iron intake.
Plus, processed meat also contains nitrates, and potentially other additives and chemicals. You want to avoid processed meats with additives and nitrates. (And avoid dietary supplements with extra iron that you don’t need.) For processed red meat, the influence of nitrate intake on mortality was even higher, and iron intake to a lesser extent.
The myth about not eating red meat persists in North America and Europe (as does the myth of pushing iron supplements). But studies from Japan and other Asian countries don’t show any negative effects of red meat consumption. And studies from ALL countries show the benefits of eating more white meat (primarily unprocessed), which includes seafood and poultry.
Western researchers continue to bark up the wrong tree. Their own results show that eating fresh, unprocessed meats is just fine. But they should really look at the effects of eating processed foods, including processed meats, with too much iron.
Three reasons why meat is still important
There are three reasons to ignore the breathless headlines and keep on eating meat:
- Eating unprocessed, natural meat gives you healthy proteins, fats, and bioavailable minerals, which you can’t get from other sources.
- Many older Americans don’t get enough protein to maintain muscle mass. And meat is the best source of complete proteins.
- Most Americans are deficient in calcium (which should not come from supplements), magnesium, selenium, and other minerals that come from meat.
The real problems in America come from eating foods with too much iron and too many unhealthy, processed foods of all kinds.
My old colleague, Dr. Barry Graubard from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) was the third author of the new report. He worked on our team with Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg to publish our analysis of NCI’s own data in the early 1990s, linking excess iron with higher rates of all cancers and deaths.
Dr. Graubard and his team on the anti-meat bandwagon should look up from the numbers on their calculators and begin to get a clue about human nutrition. As I can attest, the real science on meat has been clear for a long time.
“Mortality from different causes associated with meat, heme iron, nitrates, and nitrites in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study: population based cohort study,” BMJ 2017; 357:j1957