Does Red Meat Really Cause Cancer?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
For the record, let me just state that I am currently sitting in my kitchen, writing this blog, and watching the Simmental cows and calves graze on lush, green pasture land outside my deck window.  Yes, many of those calves will end up as retail cuts of beef.  Yes, I eat beef.  Yes, I am a farm girl, and have been since my birth over 50 years ago. So I was somewhat concerned that red meat (beef, pork and lamb) has been recently cited as a major risk factor in increased death due to diseases such as heart disease and cancer.  But before you throw up your hands in frustration and start shaking your finger at the food police, read on.

What the Study Reported: The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, reported that red meat, and particularly processed meat, increases the risk of cancer and heart disease.  This prospective observational study (1980-2008) assessed the eating habits of 37,698 men and 83,644 females every four years, using a food frequency questionnaire.   Subjects were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at the beginning of the study.  The researchers tracked the participants for several decades and documented the onset of diseases and death.   Lead author, Frank Hu from the Harvard School of Public Health, reports staggering statistics from the study.  Participants who consumed about one serving of red meat per day had a 13% increased risk of mortality when compared to those who were eating little meat.  The biggest concern was with processed meat, which increased risk of death and disease by 20%.  Processed meats include items such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, brats, metts, and luncheon meats.  Hu estimated that substituting one serving per day of alternative protein-rich foods, such as fish, poultry, nuts, legumes or lowfat dairy for red meat and processed meat could decrease mortality risk by 7-19%. 

Putting It All Into Perspective: It is important to point out that this is an observational study, not an experimental study.  This means that the study looked at what people reported eating (or remembered eating) every 4 years, for approximately 25 years, and the correlation to disease.  This study did not control the participant’s daily diet, food choices, nutrient intakes, exercise habits, weight, etc.  Well-designed observational studies, as this one is, only ''point'' in the direction of health risks and possible ways to improve health.

The Steps to Take:  The take-home message from this study is one that you've probably heard before: It's all about moderation and variety.  That’s right folks…good ole moderation and variety. Red meats, like beef, pork and lamb should not be demonized.  They are rich in protein, zinc, iron, vitamin B-12, selenium, vitamin B-6, and thiamin. You can still incorporate these meats into a healthy diet, using the following guidelines:
  • Take a quick inventory of the protein-rich foods that you are consuming.  If all you are seeing day after day is beef, pork, lamb and more beef…it may be time for a little more variety in your protein sources. Include poultry, chicken, turkey, fish, seafood, low-fat milk products, beans, lentils, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds.
  • Remember, a platter of meat is not one serving; rather, the general nutrition guideline is to fill only a 1/4 section of your 9-inch diameter plate with a protein-rich food.  That’s about a 4-ounce cooked portion.
  • Red meats can easily stay on your plate several times throughout the week when using a 4-ounce cooked portion.  If you are looking for specific numbers, I suggest an upper limit of about 5 servings of red meat per week.
  • If you are in need of specific entrée ideas for alternative protein sources, try:  fish tacos, veggie and cheese lasagna, bean burgers, ground turkey chili, or BBQ grilled chicken breasts.
  • View processed meats as flavorings, condiments or garnishes rather than as main entrées.  Look for bacon and deli meats without added nitrites to lower cancer risk. 
  • Remember to safely cook your meat to prevent the production of chemical compounds that may increase cancer risk.  Select lean cuts of meat and trim all visible fat.  Marinate the meat when possible; this sets up a barrier against the heat and lowers the production of cancerous compounds.  Use a lower grilling temperature and place the grill rack or broiler pan at the highest setting, away from the heat source.  Remove the food from the heat source as soon as it is cooked.   Avoid eating any blackened or charred food.
There is no need to feel the need to say good-bye to your long-term friendship with beef, pork or lamb. I know I’m not.  However, it is time to meet and greet your meat with common-sense portion control and to include a variety of protein-rich foods in your diet.

What are your plans for consuming beef, pork and lamb?  Do you plan to cut back on your use of hot dogs, brats, metts, and sausages this summer?

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JUDY1676 7/11/2020
Thanks for the information Report
JUDY1676 7/11/2020
Thanks for the information Report
PLCHAPPELL 5/23/2020
So many factors besides meat Report
Great article! Report
Person raising beef says beef is good for you. Next week on SP, RoundUp smoothies.
I’ve long disagreed with Ms. Hand and her anti vegetarian stance. Now I know why. Report
This is 7 years old; how about an updated view, statistics, etc?
We may never be certain Report
Very helpful and interesting article. Report
Certainly our eating habits have changed over the years. We do eat neat and generally share a meat dinner out. The biggest problem for us are the meats containing nitrates . That is still a work in process.,Fortunately I love tofu, and my husband will tolerate it mire lately but even too much of that ( soy) can be harmful, so potion control, variety, moderation. Report
There is no way I could give up meat of any kind. 🙂 Report
Good to know. Report
"particularly processed meat" it is more the processing that our food is put through that makes it bad for us Report
Great article. Report
Good article and great perspective Report
Have a Google Alert set up to send me any new health research as it is published and comes out. Just yesterday I read an article about new research showing a relationship between rapid growth of cancerous cells and consumption of sugar. Report
I'm not a big fan of beef. I generally eat chicken, turkey, lean pork, fish, eggs and legumes for protein sources although I do like pastrami and will have that 2 or 3 times a month on my lunch roll. I may have a beef roast 3 or 4 times a year if someone else is cooking it. The same with lamb. I prefer venison and kid but again don't eat them very often. Report
Great articles Report
I eat beef, just less than I used to. I will never quit eating meat but I do try to have meatless meals occasionally. Report
I've always enjoyed beef, but am eating much less of it nowadays. Mostly because of the way cattle are "finished" in feed lots with GMO corn. I'm still seeking a reliable source for true grass-fed beef. Report
I think it's so funny that people seem to think that they can avoid heart disease and/or cancer so easily. Basically, if you live long enough, you will get these things. The one thing you can say about life is that no one gets out of it alive. Stop being so afraid and enjoy life. Report
I use a variety of meat and poultry...including lots of ocean caught fish...plentiful in our
Caribbean Waters...Combined with veggies and ground provisions! Report
We try to vary our meals as much as possible in my house (otherwise I get very bored, which makes me more tempted to buy junk food!). In the last week we have had meals with ground beef, beans, tilapia, chicken and cheese as the primary sources of protein. I've tried to get my family into doing a meatless meal once a week, and so far they only thing they will do is quesadillas - tortilla, bit of oil, soft mozzarella cheese, salsa, and cooked black beans. I've started buying more frozen fish whenever it is on sale; tilapia is actually very easy to cook with. Report
I eat beef, pork, chicken, tofu and beans. I prefer to stay vegetarian through lunch and eat meat at dinner. Report
A GREAT book to read is "The Optimum Nutrition Bible" by Patrick Holford. It breaks down what foods are healthy, which aren't, why & give tips on purchasing better quality foods. -t
I detest lamb. I do like lean beef and pork. Chicken is the main source of protein in my house. We do eat tofu and beans, too. Report
I eat red meat, lamb and pork and I enjoy it. But I also eat fish and poultry and do all this in moderation. We are no longer big meat eaters but still enjoy it sometimes. Report
Excellent review of the article! Too many times the media looks for a few lines in a report to use as a headline, which in turn becomes terribly misleading and inaccurate. Moderation is what works for me as well as avoiding most of the processed meats except for occasional use. I'm glad to live in a country where we can choose what and how much we eat, and that goes for me (a meat eater) as well as the vegans and vegetarians. Make your own choices, but please don't knock the rest of us for our personal choices. Report
I gave up eating meat 20+ years ago. Just the thought of people still trying to excuse themselves from the pain and suffering of animals who are slaughtered because of their desire to eat the rotting flesh of animals is disgusting. Report
Moderation is the key for me. In many of these observational studies, they fail to mention the *other* risk factors that those same people who developed cancer had going for them--smoking, drinking, environmental exposure, genetics, etc. Observational studies alone are not enough to convince me to stop eating meat at this point. I don't eat huge quantities, I generally get grass-fed and/or antibiotic free meats, and frankly I like a good steak from time to time. Report
funny how red meat was put with processed meat in the same category! personally I automatically think this experiment is faulty just for the reason.

personally, if I don't eat red meat, not a lot of it, but in small amounts several times a week, I get raging headaches.

eggs and red meat make me feel really good. Report
I am thinking that if I need to make sure I am eating only moderate amounts of these meats to not cause myself heart disease or cancer, then not eating any of it should pretty much guarantee I won't. Report
I agree with the moderation in all things philosophy, and with portion control.

I take issue with the premise of "causation" of cancer, heart disease, etc. There is a big difference between causation and correlation. I am tired of media leaping to the causation conclusion when at best, the research shows a correlation, and in this case, the observation methods are very non-scientific.

So, yeah, I read the current research but take them with a grain of salt. Folks commenting have very good points about genetically engineered foods, pink slime, and so on. I think a LOT of factors contribute to the development of various conditions and diseases and we can take steps to eat a healthier diet, without sensationalizing the research. Report
Beef is great, as is pork, lamb, goat, chicken, and fish. Add lots of veggies and these meats are even better.
We love beef but only eat it once or twice a week.
Excellent article. Report
I really enjoyed your blog and couldn't agree with you more! Variety and moderation is going to be my new motto :) Report
Thank you for pointing out that this was only an observational study. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't think I could accurately remember the amount of various protein sources I have eaten over a 4 year period of time. If I didn't use the nutrition tracker, I couldn't remember what I ate last week!

Most studies listed by others commenting have serious flaws in their data. They were looking for a correlation between eating meat and either cancer or heart disease, so those were the points they published. Google "The China Study: Fact or Fallacy" for some great insight into the science used in the study.

As for me, I will continue to eat my two 3-ounce servings of meat a day - pork (raised on our farm), beef (raised on our neighbor's farm), chicken, and fish. A varied diet, and moderation is the key! Report
Variety and moderation Report
moderation. moderation. moderation. and local, sustainably grown animal protein - no CAFO meat! Report
I miss my Midwest roots where fresh corn was picked from the neighbor's farm for dinner that evening. Gettting beef, lamb, veal, pork direct from the butcher who knows you by name or spliting a whole lamb from an Indiana farm into parts for each of three households. Now I worry about meat glue and pink slime when purchasing meat from the local grocery store chains. Report
Humans ate meat long before they became farmers who grew grain. Report
I've read "The China Study," and "Mad Cowboy." Both of these books make a convincing case that eating meat, whether it's processed or not, is unhealthy. All meat contains artery-clogging cholesterol. All meat contains saturated fat. I suggest a plant based diet. Read Dr. Joel Fuhrman or Dr. John McDougal. They're leaders in plant-based nutrition. Your body, and our world, will thank you.
I eat very little of the processed meats like hot dogs and all that have the nitrites in them. I will sometimes get all-natural sausages, but not often. I don't know how much processed meat actually contributes to cancer. My aunts ate sandwiches with lunch meat just about every day and one was 99 (one month shy of 100) when she passed. The other was 91 and did have cancer, but still had lived a very long and healthy life.
I mostly eat chicken anymore, but if beef is on sale low enough I will buy it. When I was going through chemo I was told to eat beef for the B-12 because I am slightly anemic all the time.

Don't know if humor is appreciated... but around our house we don't eat "red" meat, because we cook it. : )

In reality, I eat far less than the rest of my family. And it is NOT a daily fare on the table. We do buy our beef direct from the farmer, so no shopping for it at the store.

It surprises me how many relatively health-conscious people that I know, regularly eat somewhat charred meat off the grill. No thanks! Report
I don't know I have no intentions of changing my diet drastically. I think genetics plays a huge factor in this . My maternal grandpa was a farmer and he ate copious amounts of red meat and lived well into his 90's. Yeah I agree about processed versus unprocessed. I also used to eat game meat as my Dad loved moose hunting. I think he was right when he said it was healthier. It often tasted better too. Report
I don't like pork or lamb and eat beef/chicken very rarely. I know I should be eating the alternatives more often to make up for it. Report
== What are your plans for consuming beef, pork and lamb? ==
Absolutely no intention to change my current habits. I'm an omnivore, I enjoy red meat in addition to everything else. Unless it is directly making me ill or a true scientific study can show a very specific correlation rather than an observational "connection", I'm not eating based on being afraid it might be a risk factor to something. (I'd have to stop breathing if I was that afraid.)

== Do you plan to cut back on your use of hot dogs, brats, metts, and sausages this summer? ==
I really don't need to cut back. I'm really limited in my consumption of them anyway - and learning about added sodium levels in processed meat has already made me lean further from them. (Sodium I can SEE the factual reasons for limiting, and so I actually take care in that area.) Report
I'm a pretty devoted carnivore... I love red meat! We don't eat it as often as we used to. I DO need to work on my portion sizes... I love it a little TOO much! It's rare that I eat less than 6 ozs. But... I do eat a lot of chicken! Report
I was raised on a farm, and no longer eat red meat. The blogger said that the key is in eating it in moderation, and the results are based only on observations, not experimental! Read "The China Study" by Caldwell Esselstyn, or see the movie Forks Over Knives. These are based on scientifically proven results that meat eating increases heart disease, even in moderation. Take your pick, cancer, and or heart disease. Report
Great Blog! I am also a rancher that producess beef for consumption. I will always eat beef! I felt your content was well thought out and made great sense. Moderation is the way to go! Report
What a well thought out, easy to understand review of the study!! I'm so glad SP has a registered dietitian to help guide its members :)

"That’s right folks…good ole moderation and variety." Right on! Report
Processed meats contain other substances not found in unprocessed meats. Perhaps there could be a connection there? Too often those types of studies are presented as fact when in truth they are far from conclusive. I am currently not eating beef anyway as I am trying to determine if I may have a beef allergy, so this really won't change my habits. I like chicken better, anyway. Report