Meat and Mortality

Red meat and processed meat consumption are associated with “modest” increases in overall mortality and deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to National Institutes of Health researchers.  This goes for both sexes.

Data are from the huge NIH-AARP Diet and Heart Study, a prospective cohort trial involving  over 550,000 U.S. men and women aged 50-71 at the time of enrollment.  Food consumption was determined by questionnaire.  Over the course of 10 years’ follow-up, over 65,000 people died.  Investigators looked to see if causes of death were related to meat consumption.

What do they mean by red meat, processed meat, and white meat?

Red meat:  all types of beef and pork (wasn’t there a U.S. ad campaign calling pork “the other white meat”?}

White meat:  chicken, turkey, fish

Processed meat:  bacon, red meat sausage, poultry sausage, luncheon meats (red and white), cold cuts (red and white), ham, regular hotdogs, low-fat poultry hotdogs, etc.

What did they find?

See the first paragraph above.

Studies like this typically look at the folks who ate the very most of a given type of food, those who ate the very least, then compare differences in deaths between the two groups.  That’s what they did here, too.  For instance, the people who ate the very most red meat ate 63 grams per 1000 caories of food daily.  Those who ate the least ate 10 grams per 1000 cal of food daily.  That’s about a six-fold difference.  Many folks eat 2000 calories a day.  The high red meat eaters on 2000 cals a day would eat 123 grams, or 4.4 ounces of red meat.  The low red meat eaters on 2000 cals/day ate 20 grams, or 0.7 ounces.

The heavy consumers of processed meats ate 23 grams per 1000 cal of food daily.  The lowest consumers ate 1.6 grams per 1000 cal.

Comparing these two quintiles of high and low consumption of red and processed meats, overall mortality was 31-36% higher for the heavy red meat eaters, and 16-25% higher for the heavy processed meat eaters.  (The higher numbers in the ranges are for women.)  Similar numbers were found when looking at cancer deaths and cardiovascular deaths (heart attacks, strokes, ruptured aneurysms, etc).

It’s not proof that heavy consumption of red and processed meats is detrimental to longevity, but it’s suggestive.  The “Discussion” section of the article reviews potential physiological mechanisms for premature death.

The researchers called these differences “modest.”  I guess they use “modest” since most people eat somewhere between these extreme quintiles.  The numbers incline me  to stay out of that “highest red and processed meat consumer” category, and lean more towards white meat and fish.

The study at hand is from 2009.  Another research report in Archives of Internal Medicine this month supported similar conclusions. (Click for Zoë Harcombe’s critique of the study.)

The traditional Mediterranean diet and Advanced Mediterranean Diet are naturally low in red and processed meats, but not designed specifically for folks with diabetes.

Steve Parker, M.D. 

Reference:  Sinha, Rashmi, et al.  Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million peopleArchives of Internal Medicine, 169 (2009): 562-571.


Filed under cancer, coronary heart disease, Stroke

4 responses to “Meat and Mortality

  1. I’d be interested to know what the numbers would look like if they compared conventionally raised beef/pork to organic and grass-fed beef/pork.

  2. Stephen

    This was just yet another observational study, useful for forming a hypothesis for scientific study, no more no less.

    There are a whole host diet and lifestyle variables that could account for these “modest” results.

    The crime is when observational studies are peddled as fact.

    • Yes, Stephen. I bet you’ve heard this old saw: “Correlation is not causation.” Quite right. Nevertheless, personally I’m tending to favor fish, chicken, and eggs over red meat. But I still eat a lot of red meat and don’t worry too much about it.