April 1, 2010
The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on March 12, 2012, attracted an enormous amount of press with its results suggesting that our popular diet staple, red meat, increases the risk of dying prematurely by an average of 12 percent and up to 20 percent if that meat is processed, as it is in hot dogs and bacon. Journalists and bloggers across the globe immediately began spreading the news and sharing their reactions, often with alarmist tones and titles, such as “Will Eating Red Meat Kill You?,” or better yet, “Eating All Red Meat Increases Death and More Reasons to Never Eat Meat.” It has definitely been interesting and sometimes entertaining to follow the publicity of the study, as it is with many other research studies of this high-profile nature that attract a lot of media attention (Do Pink Slime or Tuna Scrape ring any bells?). To spare you an exhaustive discussion of my own personal insights on the media coverage on this study, I will instead point you to a very thoughtfully crafted and scientific analysis, “The Red (Meat) Scare,” by Deborah Blum on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s website.
In all seriousness and amidst all the media hype, this study is an important contribution to the growing body of evidence on the health risks associated with the high meat American diet. Not only did the Harvard researchers find that eating red meat was associated with an increased risk of death from all causes, but they also found a dose-response relationship with the risk of death increasing as the amount of meat consumed increased. Kind of scary, if you ask me; but the good news is that the researchers were able to quantify how replacing one serving a day of red meat with other foods, such as legumes, nuts, or whole grains, can reduce the risk of death by between 10 and 14 percent. So there is hope… quantifiable hope that reducing red meat intake by replacing it with more healthful sources of protein can, in fact, confer significant health benefits, including improved longevity!
Well, that’s what we’ve been saying as part of the Meatless Monday campaign for years — cut out meat one day a week in order to help improve your health (and the health of the planet). This study certainly helps support the campaign on its own account, but my question was: can we somehow extrapolate the results to show the reduced mortality of cutting out red meat one day of the week and replacing it with other protein sources?
After some very helpful correspondence with two of the study’s authors, Qi Sun and An Pan, and with the help of our Preventive Medicine Resident, Michael Crupain, we were able to crunch some numbers and effectively quantify how giving up meat one day a week can ultimately lower the risk of death from all causes. The size of the risk reduction, of course, depends on how much someone is already eating (i.e., how high their risk is to start with). The table below shows the magnitude of the risk reduction hypothesized by the Harvard study if a person were to substitute equal sized servings of legumes, whole grains, or nuts one day per week for the number of servings of meat they would normally eat that day.
To give an example in words, if you are some
one who normally eats about three servings of red meat every day and then you cut out all red meat on one day a week, say Mondays, and replace it with equal standard servings of legumes, whole grains, or nuts, then you would have a 4.4, 6.3 or 8.6 percent, respectively, reduced risk of death. Alas, with this fun data extrapolation activity, the numbers still do work out to effectively support going meatless one day of week to improve one’s longevity!
Of course, this is only a statistical estimate based on the data collected from this one particular study, and the real benefits of reducing red meat intake may be more than we thought if we factor in the premature morbidity of heart disease and cancer, as well as the environmental impacts associated industrial meat production. I will also just caution against interpreting these numbers literally to mean that you should be replacing your three servings of meat a day with exactly three servings of nuts to get the maximum benefit… Not really the case. There are a variety of healthy, nutrient-rich foods, such as these listed above that can be used to replace meat in the diet and it’s all about finding a good balance.
These numbers are small but still meaningful, and as researcher An Pan expressed in our emails back and forth, “I think it is very important progress towards our goal!” He also added that from their calculations of population attributable risk, approximately 8 percent of premature deaths would be preventable if everyone reduced red meat consumption to fewer than 3 servings a week (a lofty goal considering our average consumption is currently upwards of 3 servings a day!). We’ve still got a ways to go, but hopefully this provides good motivation to take charge of your health, listen to your mother’s best advice to eat your fruits and vegetables, and join the growing Meatless Monday movement.