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New study shows that eating red meat has no impact on health


A newly published study shows that red meat probably has no positive or negative health benefits. Previous observational studies on red meat consumption and lifespan have attempted to find a signal in a sea of noise, so we didn’t have much information as to the “healthiness” of red meat.

We have some evidence that some types of processed meats may increase the risk of cancer, but otherwise, the studies are all over the map with regards to a link between meat and overall health.

A clinical trial is the best way to determine whether meat has health benefits or costs, but they are difficult to do with nutritional studies. It’s challenging to control the amount of meat consumed and to find health effects months or years later.

This new study utilized a novel statistical approach to determine if there was any causality between meat consumption and overall health. As I often do, let’s take a look at the study and present their findings.

steak food red meat
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Red meat and health paper

In a paper, amusingly titled “Grilling the data,” published on 12 February 2024 in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, Dena Zeraatkar, PhD, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and colleagues examined 15 studies on unprocessed red meat and early mortality. The studies included in this review reported 70 unique ways to analyze the association.

Their initial analysis of the data on red meat consumption showed widely disparate effect estimates from a reduced risk for early death to a 2X higher risk. The median result might lead one to conclude that eating meat was associated with a slightly higher risk of early mortality.

But the researchers decided to look at the data in various ways. They generated 20 random unique combinations of covariates, which narrowed the number of analyses to about 1400. About 200 of these were excluded due to implausibly wide confidence intervals. 

The researchers then had about 1200 separate ways to analyze the datasets — they chose the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) longitudinal cohort study from 2007-2014. They then deemed each of the more than 1200 approaches plausible because they were derived from peer-reviewed papers written by experts in epidemiology. 

Anyway, enough with the statistics lesson. Here are the key results:

  • The median hazard ratio was 0.94, which would mean that there was a slightly lower mortality risk from eating red meat, but it was not statistically significant.
  • The range of hazard ratios was relatively large. They went from 0.51, or a 49% reduced risk for early mortality, to 1.75, or a 75% increase in early mortality.
  • Of the 48 analyses deemed statistically significant, 40 indicated that red meat consumption reduced early death and eight indicated that eating red meat led to higher mortality.
  • Nearly half the analyses yielded unexciting point estimates, with hazard ratios between 0.90 and 1.10.
ingredients for delicious lunch with meat and vegetables
Photo by Jacob Moseholt on Pexels.com

Summary

The most interesting part of this study was that they used over 1000 different types of analysis of one set of observational data. Most epidemiological studies only use one method of analysis, which may or may not mean anything.

However, this analysis makes one important point — eating red meat does not reduce or increase your risk of early death. If you want to eat a good steak, go ahead, it’s probably not going to cause harm.

I know some of my readers will try to claim that maybe not eating meat, becoming vegan or vegetarian, will reduce your risk of early death. Maybe, but these results show that it doesn’t matter much. And there is just the same amount of variability in epidemiological studies on vegans and vegetarians.

In my humble opinion, nutritional studies provide so much variability in data, that it’s hard to find anything useful in them. However, these researchers have developed a new methodology for reviewing all of the data that may lead to better conclusions in the future.

Citations

Michael Simpson

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