NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 26, 2009

Should we be wary of eating red meat? Taken at face value, a new study from the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that might be a good idea -- but a more careful consideration does not, says Ruth Kava, Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.

One flaw of the study is that participants in the study didn't actually measure the amount of foods they ate:

  • While this may not be very important for foods and beverages that are purchased in discrete quantities (e.g., a fast food hamburger or a bottle of soft drink), meat can be purchased and consumed in a wide variety of forms and sizes.
  • Thus, the accuracy of the data depends on how well participants can estimate the quantities of the various foods they consumed, as well as how accurate they are when they recall how often they ate or drank particular items.
  • Neither of these estimates is the most reliable indicator of actual consumption.

Intake of various food items was ascertained only once -- at the start of the study.  There is no information about whether or not people changed their diets over the course of the follow-up period -- this may well have had an impact on any disease-diet relationships.

The increases in risk did not reach the levels that would make most epidemiologists sit up and take notice -- a relative risk of 2 (a 100 percent increase) or greater:

  • In fact, the increased risk of all deaths in the men in the highest group of red meat intake was 31 percent and for cancer was 22 percent.
  • For women, the corresponding increases were 36 and 20 percent.
  • As the authors concluded, the highest intakes of red and processed meats were associated with "a modest increase in risk of total mortality, cancer, and CVD mortality in both men and women."

At best, this study supports the oft-repeated advice that a healthful diet should be based on moderation, variety and balance, says Kava.

Source: Ruth Kava, "Does Red Meat Increase Risk of Early Death?" American Council on Science and Health, March 24, 2009.

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