Is Red Meat Really Bad For You?

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Study after study has suggested an association between red meat consumption (especially processed red meat) and bad health outcomes like cancer, heart disease, and even diabetes. But recently, an article was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine arguing that red meat may not be that bad after all. So how are we to sort out the truth? Direct primary care to the rescue!

First, we have to recognize that nutrition research is extremely hard to do. To use the gold-standard experimental design—a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized prospective trial—is nearly impossible and quite expensive, so we’ve had to rely on less rigorous study design methods. The main method that’s been used is the observational study method. The main problem with this method is that many variables can exist that confound the results. Observational studies tell us about correlations—say, between red meat consumption and an increased risk of cancer or heart disease—but they can’t tell us if read meat consumption causes an increased risk for cancer and heart disease.

This new study wasn’t actually a new study but rather a new interpretation of a series of old studies. What this new study did was throw out studies that were so poorly designed that the authors of the current study believed their results weren’t valid. When they did that, the studies that were left suggested the relationship between red meat consumption and poor health wasn’t nearly as strong as previously believed and that the harms attributed to red meat weren’t nearly as large as we’d thought.

It’s important to recognize that the authors of the current study aren’t saying that red meat isn’t harmful. What they’re saying is that there’s insufficient evidence to conclude that it is. Further, they said if red meat consumption is harmful, the degree of harm is likely small.

In my view, the real answer to the question, “Is red meat really bad for you?” is that we don’t know—but that if it is, the degree to which it is bad for you is probably too little to worry about.

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  • Dr. Lickerman, thank you for posting this. The conflicting information is indeed confusing, so this really helps.
    – Linda