Is Red Meat Really a Death Sentence?

Categories: Wake Up Call

Marshall Astor.jpg
Marshall Astor
The end?

This week is shaping up to be a truly heartbreaking one for lovers of red meat, bacon and fatty foods in general. Two new studies have emerged to make horrifying claims about the survival chances of the frequent meat eater.

The (Possibly) Bad News:
The first study concerns the consumption of red meat and its correlation with increased mortality from, well, everything. To quote from the editorial that accompanied the piece, "Is red meat bad for you? In a word, yes."

The second study looked at the sperm of men with diets rich in fat. Their conclusions? Men who packed away the saturated fats tended to have significantly lower sperm counts.

Digging a Little Deeper:
That first study, from Harvard School of Public Health, claims to demonstrate a correlation between the consumption of any amount of red meat and increased mortality. Processed meat products, such as much-loved bacon, increased your chances of dying even more. Dr. Dean Ornish, an outspoken proponent of meat-free living, wrote an editorial to accompany the study. In it he advocates for the virtual elimination of red meat consumption. He pithily concludes, "In short, don't have a cow!"

That second study, which appeared in the the medical journal Human Reproduction, said men with the fattiest diets also had the worst sperm counts. Conversely, men who consumed plenty of omega-3 fats, usually found in fish, tend to have better looking sperm. By better looking we mean, "favorable sperm morphology," which is a fancy way of saying that they don't have two heads and an extra tail.

The (Possibly) Good News:
The obvious good news is: If you have already gone vegetarian you have brand new material to shame your meat-eating friends and family with.

For the rest of us it may be helpful to remember that these are correlation studies. These scientists have looked at a mountain of data and identified that, for reasons we aren't completely clear on, people who eat red meat or tons of fat tend to have these problems. The exact reason why red meat causes people to drop like flies remains to be positively identified although these studies might help point the way towards that end.

There is also always a possibility that these studies could be wrong or more precisely, not totally correct. Both studies rely upon participants filling out questionnaires from memory and that can be a tricky business. That said, there are ways of correcting for the errors that naturally arise from these techniques and, without delving too deeply into statistical analysis, they work fairly well. The second study fully admits that their results are preliminary and that a larger and more rigorous study would be needed to confirm their results.

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Thank you for mentioning that these are correlational studies--they do not prove cause and effect but rather are considered reasons to investigate further. Could be that it's not the meat at all or perhaps that it's the way the meat is cooked or that it's what else the men eat or that they don't exercise or a million other variables. As for the fat, remember that fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids are still providing....fat. And that just eating fish but not consuming other sources of important nutrients (meaning vegetables and whole grains, nuts and seeds and fruits) puts people at risk for a variety of ailments. So before we all purge our freezers of rib eye (my favorite) and stock up on salmon (BTW...lots of other fish provide omega-3s besides salmon), take a breath and remember, eat sensibly in a way that you can do the rest of your life. From your friendly foodie dietitian.

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