A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that eating red meat was associated with an increased risk of early death and an increased risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
But is red meat inherently unhealthy? I don't think so.
First of all, it's important to realize that this was an observational study, so it doesn't determine cause and effect. It just shows an association among people reporting what they ate every four years. And in my opinion, the study didn't ask the right question.
Researchers differentiated between unprocessed red meats like beef, lamb and pork, and processed red meats like bacon, hot dogs, sausage, salami and bologna. They found that processed red meat was even more harmful than unprocessed red meat, especially hot dogs and bacon. (This isn't surprising because separate studies have linked processed and smoked meats to several kinds of cancer.)
Researchers took into account lifestyle differences like exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption of the women and men who participated in the study. But they did not take into account the sources of the meats and how the animals were raised.
It's really the diet of the animals we eat that determines the effects they have on our health.
Most of the red meat consumed in the United States comes from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) where they are fed grains and exposed to pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs. As a result, their meat (and milk and eggs) contain chemical residues and pro-inflammatory fats that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, among other life-threatening illnesses.
Unlike their grain-fed CAFO counterparts, wild game and animals raised on pasture who forage for their food are good sources of anti-inflammatory fats. The healthy fats in grass-fed meats actually reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
Grass-fed meat may not be as easy to find as grain-fed meat, but its health benefits and superior flavor far outweigh the extra effort it takes to track it down.
Look for pasture-raised and grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy products at your local farmer's market. Some grocery stores are starting to offer grass-fed beef. So far, I've been able to find it at Whole Foods, Fairway and Trader Joe's.
Pan A et al. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012 Mar 12. [Epub ahead of print]