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Study: Even a Little Red Meat Is Bad For You

RP Siegel | Friday March 16th, 2012 | 7 Comments

A 20-year study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that the consumption of any kind of red meat significantly increases the likelihood of premature death. The study, which tracked 110,000 people over two decades found that the consumption of a little as 3 oz. of unprocessed red meat per day, increased the death rate by 13%. An equal size portion of processed red meat, such as bacon or hot dogs added to the diet will increase the chance of premature death by 20%. That’s just about as high as the risk due to smoking cigarettes which is rated between 20-30%.

According to senior author Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, “This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death.”

Mortality was due to both cardiovascular disease and cancer. The data found that the risk correlated directly with the amount of meat consumed. All study participants were free of cancer and heart disease at the outset. They were given detailed questionnaires every four years that summarized their eating habits.

The study did find significantly lower risks with alternative protein sources including fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy and whole grains.

The researchers found that close to 10% of the deaths could have been prevented if all the participants had consumed less red meat.

If people took these results to heart we might see a reduction in beef consumption. Many individuals are already cutting back. According to Beef Magazine, the per-capita beef consumption level last year was 57.4 lbs annually. That’s a 13% drop from a decade ago and a 25% drop from 1980.

If that trend continues that could be good news for our planet. Cattle and beef production are considered a primary threat to the global environment. Impacts include:

  • Deforestation – 40,000 square miles of Amazon forest cleared
  • Soil erosion – overgrazing is turning western pasture land into desert
  • Water scarcity – almost half the US water consumption goes to livestock
  • Water pollution – Cattle produce nearly 1 billion tons of waste each year
  • Depletion of fossil fuels – an average family consumes 260 gallons of gas along with their beef
  • Global warming – including methane, the equivalent of 4 gallons of gas burned for every kg of beef raised
  • Biodiversity loss – more species in the U.S. have been eliminated or threatened by livestock grazing than by any other cause

Some claim that these numbers have been improving. A Washington State Dairy Science study by Jude Capper, found that “cattlemen used 33 percent less land, 12 percent less water, 19 percent less feed and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy in 2007 to produce the same amount of beef as they did in 1977.” That was primarily the result of force-feeding grain to cattle in concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFO), which accelerates the time and resources required to bring an animal to market. But as Doug Gurian-Sherman, Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, these calculations do not take into account the enormous amount of concentrated waste, or water demand, or the other secondary factors necessitated by these conditions, such as the widespread use of antibiotics.

Most agree that if you must eat beef, grass-fed is the way to go. It’s more humane, the animals eat a more healthy natural diet, and the waste is just kind of deposited in the pasture, where is fertilizes the soil, which eventually produces more food.

Capper, claims that grass-fed beef takes 2.5 times as much energy as CAFO beef. But that was based on the assumptions that the grass pasture lands are chemically fertilized, which they generally aren’t. Oh, and by the way, Capper co-wrote the paper with a CAFO supplier.

So, in summary, if eating beef is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes and as bad for the planet as driving a car, I trust you’ll know what to do with that information.

[Image credit:markhig:Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Dave

    “So, in summary, if eating beef is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes and as bad for the planet as driving a car, I trust you’ll know what to do with that information.”
    I understand the general thrust of this article, but that sentence just reeks of the kind of nauseating piety that does the sustainable movement such a disservice.    

  • http://www.elainefortune.com elaine fortune

    Are you saying the free range cattle are not exposed at all to pesticides, antibiotics and steroids as are cramped “beef” farms?  This is difficult to believe.  I love red meat, but don’t eat it every night, but chicken is just as bad if not worse unless they are free range chickens.

    It is an impossibility for these animals to not be exposed to chemicals….we are all exposed to chemicals that cause cancer and other diseases on a daily basis.  If we drink milk or eat dairy we are exposed.  Its a little late to erase all the pesticides, antibiotics, and steroids we consume on a daily basis because its everywhere now.  Just maybe its higher in cramped quarters where animals can’t move to develop properly so therefore give steroids to “pump up the volume’.

    • RP Siegel

      I am not suggesting that anything is completely “chemical-free” these days, although most foods labeled as organic will be the closest to that. The full impact of agricultural chemicals on human health will not likely be known for decades. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to see strong links to cancer. But, chemicals aside,there are a number of other things that make eating beef unhealthy in addition to pesticides, antibiotics and steroids, including high fat and cholesterol. Then there is the environmental impact, which is considerable.

  • Elaine

    Hey, I’m on the same page as you are.  Once I saw a documentary about our score worldwide to other countries in the safety of the food we eat, I ran to my freezer to check if it was Tyson or Foster Farms (those being the biggest offenders of both cruelty and use of steroids and chemicals)…guess what…that is what I had.   I no longer buy their product and since I can’t afford to buy organic foods I switched brands, but now with this new news of adding pink slime to beef I’m completely turned off on hamburgers.

    All I was trying to say is we are the worst country for keeping pesticides, steroids, and antibiotics out of our food products.   I studied wildlife biology so do know the environmental impact of all this.  You don’t need to be a scientist to know when you drive by one of these farms that something is VERY wrong!  Do you see anyone doing anything about it?  I don’t.

  • Alex

    Great article!

  • Shelle

    Growth hormones don’t have a significant effect on red meat. Most feed lots use a estrogen based growth hormone. Cattle given hormones have only about 5 nanograms, compared with wheat germ that has 3,400 and soybean oil that has over 1 million. Also it takes more energy for grass fed cattle because they take longer to finish, it isn’t necessarily true they are treated better. I think that people should do more research on the cattle and beef before any assumptions are made.

  • Angua

    seriously? bacon and hot dog? no wonder