Red meat is bad for you? Burger off!

“Medical researchers churn out scary-sounding studies about steak and bacon faster than McDonald’s produces Big Macs.” In reaction to the latest scare study out of Harvard,’s deputy editor, Rob Lyons, argues that the really striking aspect of this latest study and numerous others, is that the “eat-meat-die-young panic keeps rearing its ugly head so regularly, based on study after study with equally feeble risk ratios and numerous confounding factors”.

It’s official, it seems: red meat – particularly processed red meat – will be the death of you. ‘Small quantities of processed meat such as bacon, sausages or salami can increase the likelihood of dying early by a fifth, researchers from Harvard School of Medicine found. Eating steak increases the risk of early death by 12 per cent’, declared the Daily Telegraph yesterday. BBC1 Breakfast’s resident GP, Dr Rosemary Leonard, told millions of viewers the link was ‘very, very clear’.

The study, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, followed two groups of people: 37,000 men enrolled in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986-2008) and 83,644 women from the Nurses’ Health Study (1980-2008). The two groups filled in detailed questionnaires about their health and eating habits at the start of their respective studies and then were followed up every four years.

The topline results were that, after adjustment for major lifestyle and dietary risk factors, there was a 13 per cent increase in the risk of death for each portion of red meat eaten per day and a 20 per cent increase in mortality for each portion of processed meat consumed per day. This is not the first study to suggest that eating meat is bad for you. But that might simply mean that this study shares many of the same problems that all the other studies have had.

However, before we get to the problems, here’s some brighter news. At the end of the study, the members of the two groups studied had, on average, reached the grand old age of 75. How many had died along the way? Less than 20 per cent. Those who started the study were four times more likely than not to reach 75. So, whatever your eating habits when it comes to eating red meat or processed meat, the most important lesson is that most people live a long time these days. ‘Early death’ is very much a relative concept.

The authors claim that 9.3 per cent of deaths in men and 7.6 per cent of deaths in women could be avoided by eating little or no red meat. To put that into some back-of-an-envelope statistical perspective: multiplying that 9.3 per cent by the 20 per cent who actually died shows that about 1.8 per cent of red-meat eaters would die by the time they were 75 because of their meat-eating habit. Even if that claim were absolutely accurate (and even the authors call it an estimate), would you really give up your favourite foods for decades on the slim possibility of an extra year or two of old age?

Secondly, the biggest risk factor in this study wasn’t whether you ate lamb or beef instead of fish or lentils. The thing most likely to determine whether you live or die – apart from old age, of course – is whether you are male or female….. Read the full article