Red Meat: Unsafe at Any Feed?

Research suggests eating red every day keeps longevity away.
Cutting back on red meat and replacing it with vegetables, grains, or fish can have a major impact on public health. (Photo: Getty Images)
Mar 13, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Red meat has gotten a bad rap of late, but the newest study to skewer marbled food flesh might be the most damning yet.

Following 110,000 people over 28 years, researchers at Harvard University confirmed on Tuesday that consumption of red meat in any form increased the odds of dying during the study. Adding a three-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat daily (imagine a steak the size of a deck of cards) increased the odds of dying by 13 percent, whereas an extra daily serving of processed meats like salami or bacon bumped chances up to 20 percent.

Scientists also found that swapping out steaks for the occasional fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains had a significant impact on health—a 7 to 19 percent lower risk of dying during follow-up. As Dean Ornish, M.D., of UC San Francisco writes in an additional commentary: "In other words, what we include in our diet is as important as what we exclude, so substituting healthier foods for red meat provides a double benefit to our health."

But is beef really all that bad?

To point out the obvious, not all red meat is made equal. Grass-fed cows that graze on open pastures are not fattened on cornfeed, and their meat has less overall fat, more omega 3s, and other "good" fats. Not only is grass-fed meat better for the planet than meat from grain-fed cows (grass consumes less energy), but it's also more humane and natural. As Michael Pollan wrote in The New York Times in 2002: "A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef. ...humans may not be well adapted to eating grain-fed animals."

Then again, beef will never be better for you (or the planet) than a salad. The bottom line is, if you like red meat, learn to enjoy it in moderation. In most Asian cuisines, beef is used in broths and to enhance flavor, never as the main course. As this study shows, replacing the centerpiece steak with a more balanced diet incorporating a variety of grains, vegetables and fish can pay dividends later in life. Said lead researcher An Pan to the Los Angeles Times: "If you want to eat red meat, eat the unprocessed products, and reduce it to two or three servings a week. That would have a huge impact on public health."