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If Red Meat Would Kill You Before Your Time, Would You Still Eat It?

The association of animal protein (especially that loaded with highly saturated fat) and increased health risks is not new. Does the threat of death, as opposed to unpleasant diseases like cancer and heart disease, make a difference in how consumers behave?
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It sounds like some hypothetical question that people might ask at a party, except it's not.

A recent study you've heard about here, and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, has concluded that red meat increases death from all causes including cardiovascular disease and cancer. This stands whether a person eats processed (hot dogs) or unprocessed (steak) meats.

Without exaggeration, this is big news!

Why big? First, the study is published in a mainstream medical publication, known for conservative inquiry, not an alternative health journal, in which results could be dismissed -- if unfairly -- as biased or having an axe to grind. Second, the study pool is mammoth and long-term.

The data is from the Nurses' Health Study (1980 and 2008) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986-2008). Together, they followed more than 120,000 men and women over 2.96 million "person-years." The subjects, whose diets were determined through food frequency questionnaires, were nurses and other health professionals. Generally, as populations go, this one is educated and more likely to have an interest in, or at least knowledge of, healthy lifestyles, as well as the financial ability to obtain quality food and health care. I imagine many of the folks tracked were like you and me, and might read something about diet and health in The Huffington Post.

The authors concluded that substituting one serving per day of other protein sources (like fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy and whole grains) for one serving of red meat was linked with a reduced risk of death between 7 percent and 19 percent. They estimated that 9.3 percent of men's and 7.6 percent of women's deaths could have been avoided by the end of the study if everybody had eaten less than half a serving (42 grams) per day of red meat.

So the party game gets more nuanced... Would you give up red meat if it decreased your risk of death 10 percent? What about 20 percent? Would your answer be different if the question were substituting one meal of vegan chili or broiled fish for your favorite burger? What if this lowered your risk of death by 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent? Pick the number that would get you to change your eating habits!

Perhaps this is akin to what educated people in the 1950s would have asked about quitting cigarettes when the first studies about the health hazards of smoking were published... discussed, likely, over a meal of beef steak followed by a cigarette. It took years, with many more scientific studies amplifying the dangers, before the nasty truth about smoking made a difference in people's behavior.

I don't suggest that red meat is as bad as smoking -- the study does not support this. Smoking is a far greater health hazard! However, this meat study comes on the heels of those like The China Study and others that suggest our reliance on red meat is not healthy and that we'd best shift protein sources to leaner and healthier animal proteins or, better yet, plant proteins.

As some have pointed out, there are drawbacks to the Archives study. It is unlikely that the participants partook of the grass-fed, organic, and/or free range meat widely available today, due to consumer demand. This is the kind I feed myself and my daughter when I cook red meat, which I do occasionally and enjoy immensely. It is leaner and contains a healthier omega-3/omega-6 ratio than standard grain-fed beef. Only now are we learning how pink slime has infiltrated our food chain. Study participants likely had no idea -- so results may be skewed.

Objections aside, the question is will this study on the health effects of red meat change how you eat?

The association of animal protein (especially that loaded with highly saturated fat) and increased health risks is not new. Does the threat of death, as opposed to unpleasant diseases like cancer and heart disease, make a difference in how consumers behave? The fact is that our nation is getting fatter, eating worse, getting unhealthier -- according to myriad sources. This is despite a load of research about the crummy effects on health of the wrong kinds of food.

Is the problem that these studies are only read by the converted or the healthy among us?

How will the meat industry respond to this latest rebuke? Will it persuade some to renew their love affair with beef? Will the debate fade while we return to our burgers and steaks -- avoiding the pink slime, if we're lucky, but suspicious there might be some other less-than-appetizing textured meat product brewing on the horizon?

I suspect for many, it will be burgers as usual. For others, it will involve a shift to quality grass-fed red meat sources, although the latter crowd, along with the vegans and vegetarians for that matter, likely are aware of the link between their health and the food they eat and will eat the right foods anyway.

While death may come equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes, it doesn't answer the quotidian question -- what's for dinner?

That's for you to answer.

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