Red Meat is Still Not Bad For You, But Shoddy Research and Clueless Media Are

This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.

I don’t think I’ve ever posted two blogs in one day, but this is a special circumstance.  I’m sure most of you have heard the “alarming” news reports yesterday about the “study” recently published that “proves” – once and for all – that red meat is killing you.  I received a number of emails, Facebook comments and Tweets from concerned readers, especially people who have recently switched to a Paleo diet and are now wondering whether they’re shortening their lifespan as a result.

In my fantasy world, researchers don’t make the most rookie mistake in the book (claiming that correlation is causation) and science reporters actually have a clue how to critically analyze a scientific study, rather than just parroting what they read on the AP newswire.  Alas, reality is not so forthcoming.

I’m sitting in the airport on the way to the PaleoFX conference as I write this, which means I don’t have time to write a full critique of the study myself.  Fortunately, my esteemed colleagues have relieved me of that responsibility, so I can simply direct you to their articles.

The first is over at Mark’s Daily Apple, written by Denise Minger.  The second is at Robb Wolf’s blog, written by Robb himself.

After reading those two articles, you will surely be disabused of the notion that the study everyone is trumpeting as a “definitive” condemnation of red meat is anything of the sort.  And my hope is that the more of these critical analyses you read, the more you will question what you read in the mainstream media.

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  1. SharoN McDonnell MD MPH says

    Hello, I don’t believe the the nurses health study is poorly designed it is just poorly designed to answer this question. It is a longitudinal study of a group of people expected to be relatively healthy and watching them over a long period of time. Like the physicians health study the nurses study has helped clarify some issues relating to cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality over the past years. That said, nutritional recall is an unimpressive methodology particularly over years. In a longitudinal study the controls come from within the study and it should not be faulted for that. The biggest issue that I see, beyond the measurement method, is that the diets reported by participants of the study cannot be generalized to the diets of today’s omnivores. To answer those questions we might start with much more specific indicators and outcomes. Yes there might be controlled trials but one would be delighted to have a longitudinal study for such purposes. I think one of the traps here is reductionist thinking using one input and one outcome in what we know is a complex adaptive system. I think it is fair to say that if we are talking about nutrition and health that univariate associations are unimpressive. It is an interesting statistical finding that does not seem to have been disseminated responsibly and adds to the cacophony stretching credulity for the consumer. Too bad.

  2. says

    Red meat might not be bad for you, but studies showing “Red meat is bad for you!” might be bad for us financially.

    Pastured meat has gotten more expensive in the stores around me during the past year or two, far outpacing inflation. I can’t speculate as to all the causes. But when demand for organic veggies went up, prices went way down. If demand for pastured meat is independent of demand for grain-fed meat, cool. But if not, prices might go up a little bit with every news spike?

    • Joanna says

      Kamal,
      There are several reasons for the recent rise in meat prices – just one being the severe draught in the US south last year requiring herds to be sold or in some cases moved north to states like Wyoming where there was available pasture. Also, with economic development overseas there is more demand for meat for a growing international middle class. Many factors drive up the price of red meat.

  3. Sharon says

    Chris, when I saw this on my local news, I was just furious. Of course, when they throw in the words Harvard Study, they think all the lemmings will perk up and pay attention.
    I sent the links to this older man that I know at my gym who is a wrestling coach. He thinks meat is a terrible thing and this is what he wrote back to me..
    “Remember, the most heart healthy places on earth have populations that eat little or no meat. The most renowned heart health doctors in this country recommend diets absent of meat. You don’t need it and there are many health issues associated with having meat as a staple in your diet.”

    Notice how he says “heart health doctors”. Yeah..like who are they? Dr. Oz? Dean Ornish?? Give me a break! Some people refuse to be open.

    • Charlotte says

      Where do you get your information from Sharon? The cultures who don’t eat meat have the lowest life expectancies in the world. Many of vegetarians have admitted to me that they practice the diet due to animal welfare, not human health! All of the books I have read indicate that traditional cultures ate diets with plenty of humanely raised meat, and their diets were much higher in fat. People have been eating red meat for billions of years. Heart disease started in 1912 my darling. A vegan diet might be better than the standard American junk food and unhealthy fats/sugar, indeed one might detox. But diet is not just about detox it is about nourishment. We need high fat animal foods to nourish our bodies. In the long run such a vegan diet will lead to nutritional deficiencies. The protein and nutrients found in beans, nuts and grains are not easily digested or well assimilated. By the time you get done properly preparing that stuff for the human digestive system, you could have hunted down a squirrel.

  4. says

    Saw this as well and was waiting for the media onslaught.

    From my personal study of the topic, I find that it’s the synergy of red meat plus high starch/simple carb diet that seems to be problem aka Standard American Diet, think “burger and fries”.

    Most people still lack ample leafy greens and vegetables. High protein, particularly from red meat, plus a lack of vegetable intake can be an inflammatory cocktail (except perhaps following high-intensity or very long duration exercise). Let’s not forget complications from eating charred, processed, and cured meat.

    For instance in my study of osteoporosis, much debate follows the acid-alkaline debate and “leeching” of calcium from bones. Again the protective effect of vegetables protects from bone loss at a higher rate than the rate of bone loss associated with high protein intake.

    Doesn’t make for as great of a headline, but the “truth” always seems to lie in the grey, context-dependent details.

    • Chris Kresser says

      I don’t think that red meat + whole foods starch (i.e. tubers) is an issue at all. A high-fat diet with a lot of refined starch and vegetable oil – yes.

      • says

        Great point Chris. I think we have to get away from the whole ‘one’ food is dangerous or one food is the ‘savior’. This is silly reductionism that doesn’t work in health and nutrition. We need to start thinking in terms of systems and combinations, which you do and are a leader in doing. That is the only way I think you can cohesively explain the health of diverse cultures from Kitavans to Eskimos, without resorting to ‘outlier’ arguments. I also think dietary changes also change as you age and sex, which I am sure you know better than most. That’s one of the reasons I think VLC works great generally for middle aged and old dudes. It seems to work well with older dudes when the metabolism slows down a bit, I think. What’s great about paleo is it isn’t dogmatic, allows flexibility, and is principle and systems based. Love your updates. I learn a lot. Thanks.

  5. Dave Anderson says

    I have no objections to a balanced diet that includes animal protein. Humans are omnivores after all!

    There is a huge problem in this country for lower income people (a growing segment in recent years). It is difficult to meet nutrition needs on a limited budget, especially for larger families. Most grocery stores offer food that is nutritionally empty or actually destroys health. I expect that diets could be much improved, even if it means making some compromises.

    I really don’t want to be eating very much food that was mass-produced using hormones, chemicals, etc. I made the decision this week that I will not eat anything with corn in it, because “GMO corn” now seems to be ubiquitous. [GMO=genetically modified origin.] I think hamburger (when it is mass produced) is very bad for us, because of the “slime” that is added. “Slime” is the word used to describe the processing of the carcass to collect every last scrap, grind it up and process it with ammonia. (Same thing for hot dogs.)

    One problem I have is affording sufficient meat that is high quality. What would be a useful strategy for someone that could, each week, only afford to buy 8 oz. of a “medium” cut of red meat or 12 oz. of turkey or chicken breasts? In general, I cannot afford the cost of organic food, because it is at least 35% more expensive.

    I try to use whole foods as much as possible. Along with two or three 4-oz. servings of meat, each week, I include some nuts/seeds, milk, grains, vegetables and fruit. (A small garden helps.) I also take prescriptions and a minimal number of supplements that my alternative medicine M.D. has prescribed.

    If anyone has great ideas about how to pay for a balanced diet with adequate protein, I’d be glad to hear them. One other thing: please everyone, enjoy red meat!

  6. gregory barton says

    Thanks Chris.

    Anyone who blinked an eyelid at reports of this study would do well to revisit Tom Naughton’s lecture, Science for Smart People:

  7. Henny says

    Does anyone have any links to medical studies that have been done refuting this type of information (i.e. red meat will kill you)? While I am in minority of people that seem to think red meat is not bad for you (like most of you on sites like these), like it or not the majority of people are not convinced unless there is “proof”. And by proof I mean the type of proof they are looking for – published studies from conventional, reputable sources.

  8. Carmen says

    I have a question about red meat vs. poultry. My doctor, who has shown me a lot of the studies that you reference on your website, also says red meat is OK. He says pastured beef is best. But he says that you can actually eat the grain fed beef because cows convert this to cholesterol which we easily digest. However, he says that poultry do not make this conversion. They are fed corn and flax which are very Omega 6 heavy and this gets transferred to us in the meat. So he actually doesn’t recommend eating poultry because it is so omega 6 rich. I have seen this on the NIH KIM2 data as well. I see that you and many other paleo diets still recommend eating poultry even though omega 6 will cause inflammation. Does this sound correct? Do you infer the same information?

  9. Smushy says

    AND MOST people believe red meat IS good for you, which is why majority of people eat it consistantly. The media generally doesn’t want you to stop eating red meat, unless there’s a different product they’re saying is better, which will profit them more. And MOST people buy into the media.

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