Will Red Meat Go the Way of the Cigarette?

It's certainly not having a good time of it lately.


Danger, Will Robinson? (Photo via Thinkstock.)

Yesterday the news broke: red meat’ll kill you. How much red meat? All red meat, say the study authors — or to quote exactly the lead author as he told it to the Los Angeles Times: “Any red meat you eat contributes to the risk.” Well, damn. Does this mean I should skip the fancypants steakhouses going forward?

The evidence for the headlines stems from a massive, long-term, 120,00-person study made up of a combination of two of Harvard’s famously long-running projects, the Nurses’ Health Study and its male counterpart, the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. For over 20 years, every two years researchers have been sending out questionnaires to thousands of medical workers across the country, male and female, inquiring about their meat intake, vegetable intake, exercise, smoking, weight, hormones, antidepressant use, mineral status (via toenail clippings, in case you wondered) — pulling in everything they could to see what shook out. It’s the kitchen sink approach to science, but it can be very useful. (Prime example: a research cousin of these studies, the Framingham Heart Study, was the landmark study that nailed the link between smoking and heart disease.)

In this particular analysis, researchers found several interesting items. The meat of it (pun intended), is the tie between red meat and death and disease. In this cohort, a one-serving-per-day increase in meat consumption was tied to a 13 percent increase in total mortality, 20 percent for processed meats. More meat meant more heart disease and more cancer. Interestingly, more meat also meant an unhealthier lifestyle: almost across the board, the more carnivorous the subject, the heavier they were, the less they exercised, the more often they smoked, and the less often they ate vegetables, nuts, and fish — although do note, the meat relationship held even when statistical analyses accounted for lifestyle.

Unsurprisingly, the red meat industry isn’t totally thrilled with the results, but this is hardly the first blow. Red meat’s certainly a known risk factor for colon cancer, and just this year, it’s been linked or relinked to heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, esophageal cancer types, pancreatic cancer, stroke … and it’s only March.

I wasn’t very cognitively aware around the time that cigarettes began to go out of vogue, when they were transformed from go-everywhere cool accessory held by everyone from the rich to the poor, but I can see how reviled they are now. Is it possible that something similar could ever happen to red meat? I’m not trying to make predictions; I’m genuinely asking. Meat is a huge part of our culture, a staple in almost every restaurant around (Grasshopper and Veggie Galaxy notwithstanding). Nobody — or at least, not very many people — will likely give up a good steak on the weight of these studies alone. I’m certainly not, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t already been trimming back on the stuff over the past few years. It’s expensive, it has a huge environmental toll, and with its negative health impacts, you know it’s costing us big-time health care dollars, too. Is it possible that in a generation or so, cultural views battered by these rising costs and effects will shift dramatically enough that meat will be as damned and outcast as cigarettes are now? Or is its nature as a foodstuff, with nutrient value in its own right, strong enough to keep it around and steady in our diets?