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Is It Really Risky to Eat Red Meat?

An analysis of six studies suggests that if you eat red meat you may run a higher risk of heart problems, However, the additional risk is small.
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Last fall, a series of research papers published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that people who eat red meat are not more likely to die prematurely from heart disease or cancer than those who do not. This news stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy. Many nutrition experts rejected the analyses that involved both randomized controlled trials and over 100 studies including six million volunteers.

How Safe Is It to Eat Red Meat?

Now, a new analysis of six studies has produced conflicting information (JAMA Internal Medicine, online Feb. 3, 2020). The investigators collected data from nearly 30,000 participants. These people provided baseline diet data and then were followed for almost 20 years.

The authors found a small association between eating more red meat, processed meat and poultry with cardiovascular disease. Fish had no impact on mortality, either positive or negative. Unlike some previous studies (Journal of Internal Medicine, Oct. 2018), this analysis detected no protective effect from eating fish.

The absolute risk difference was almost 2 percent for people who ate two servings of processed meat weekly compared to those who ate none. In other words, what researchers call the effect size was small over 30 years. People eating processed meat such as salami, bologna, bacon or ham had a higher risk of cardiovascular complications, however. 

Learn More:

If you’d like more advice on what you should eat for better health instead of warnings on what not to eat, you might like our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies.   In it, we describe three different diets that have been shown in studies to have health benefits.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Zhong VW et al, "Associations of processed meat, unprocessed red meat, poultry, or fish intake with incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality." JAMA Internal Medicine, online Feb. 3, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.6969
  • Zhang Y et al, "Association of fish and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids intakes with total and cause-specific mortality: Prospective analysis of 421 309 individuals." Journal of Internal Medicine, Oct. 2018. DOI: 10.1111/joim.12786
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My husband and I stopped eating meat from animals with four legs more than a decade ago. The reason was that it was causing digestive upset because we just weren’t digesting it well. Even a tiny amount of beef in well-cooked stew (mostly for flavoring) caused digestive problems. Amazingly, people ask us if we are vegetarian, although we continue to eat poultry and seafood as well as cheese and eggs. We are both in our 70s and believe this change has helped us to feel better.

My grandparents and great grandparents ALL ate beef, pork and wild game. They died at the ages of 95, 93, 92 and 89. Most poulty is raised on ANTIBIOTICS. Why would anyone WANT to live so long that they end up in a nursing home? We will continue to eat beef, steak, poultry and fish! Better than processed junk. At least you are getting some iron and protein with the beef!

To my mind the bigger danger of eating red meat is the environmental damage done, particularly in terms of water. I read years ago that it takes over a million gallons of water to get one beef cow to slaughter. Couple that with the pollution of the big feedlots, and that is a more deadly impact in my mind.

This article raises more questions than it answers. Questions such as: who funded the study? If the American Beef Council was one of the funders for instance, it’s hard to take it seriously. Also, 2 servings a week? That is not even close to what the average American consumes. If someone is only consuming 2 servings a week, and they get a 2% increase in risk, what is it like for folks that have red meat or poultry at almost very meal which is a significant part of the population?

I enjoy burgers and steak as much as anyone, but the overall body of evidence that is out there keeps saying the same thing. If you want to stay healthy, your diet should be predominately whole plant foods.

Is there a free access link to the Journal of Internal Medicine, please?

The abstract is available at the link we provided. The full text is unfortunately behind a paywall.

Like other studies, this one only compares red meat to no red meat. It never considers grass-fed meat to mass feed lot beef. I’m convinced the product is different enough to warrant this distinction.

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