No Red Meat Diet - The Harvard Version

Harvard doctors have some good news for you: the magic number you should be aiming for is five servings


“It is possible that the digestibility of fruits and vegetables and the availability of nutrients and other bioactive compounds of these foods may have reached a plateau at five servings for most people,” Dr. Frank Hu, Harvard School of Public Health professor, told Health Day.

If you live in Japan and still eat red meat, you are contributing to a way of life that supports imports of beef and pork and chicken from abroad. How do you think that is economically feasible? Well, it is not. And, it is NOT healthy. Recent data from long-term studies show that eating red meat (beef, hamburgers, pork, sausage, etc.) will cut your life expectancy. Not only that, living in Japan, are you sure you will get the health care/insurance/pension/whatever to support you if you keep on indulging?

The no red meat diet seems that much more compelling, as the new research data keeps coming in.

Meat consumption in relation to mortality from cardiovascular disease among Japanese men and women.

This study that documented 2685 deaths due to total cardiovascular disease in Japan, fails to convince me that meat consumption was not the cause.

Consumptions of meat (beef, pork, poultry, liver and processed meat) were assessed via a food frequency questionnaire administrated at baseline survey. Hazard ratios (HRs) of mortality from cardiovascular disease were estimated from Cox proportional hazards regression models according to quintiles of meat consumption after adjustment for potential confounding variables.


During 820,076 person-years of follow-up, we documented 2685 deaths due to total cardiovascular disease including 537 ischemic heart diseases and 1209 strokes.

Cutting red meat-for a longer life

New data shows substantial benefit in eliminating or reducing consumption of red meat and substituting healthier proteins.
Red meat: in addition to raising the risk for colorectal cancer and other health problems, it can actually shorten your life. That's the clear message of the latest research based on data from two ongoing, decades-long Harvard School of Public Health studies of nurses and other health professionals. It appears "healthy meat consumption" has become an oxymoron.
"This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death," according to Dr. Frank Hu, one of the senior scientists involved in the study and a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
How should you respond to this latest blow to red-blooded American cuisine? How much meat can you eat? And if not meat, what types of protein should you substitute?

Meat and mortality

In the study, published April 9, 2012, in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a team of Harvard researchers looked for statistical links between meat consumption and cause of death. The populations scrutinized included about 84,000 women from the Nurses' Health Study and 38,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.
People in the study who ate the most red meat tended to die younger, and to die more often from cardiovascular disease and cancer. These people also tended to weigh more, exercise less, smoke tobacco more, and drink more alcohol than healthier people in the study. Yet even when the researchers compensated for the effects of unhealthy lifestyle, mortality and meat remained associated.

Portion Control

Portion control
A 3-ounce portion of meat would fit in the palm of your hand.

What the study found

After 28 years, nearly 24,000 people in these two studies died from cardiovascular disease or cancer. How much and what kind of meat did they eat while they were alive?
Using questionnaires, the scientists asked the people in the study to estimate how many servings of meat they consumed. Unprocessed red meat included beef, pork, lamb, and hamburger at serving sizes of 3 ounces, or a portion about the size of a deck of playing cards.
Processed meat included bacon, hot dogs, sausage, salami, bologna, and other processed items. Two slices of bacon represented 1 serving; so did one slice of cold cuts.
The study determined that each additional daily serving of red meat increased risk of death by 13%. The impact rose to 20% if the serving was processed, as in food items like hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts.

What it means for you

What does a 13% increased "risk of mortality" (for each additional serving of unprocessed red meat) mean for an individual? Dr. Walter Willett, a senior scientist on the team and the chair of the departments of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, suggests this way of looking at the study results:
"If someone is age 60 and has a 50% chance of dying in the next 25 years, adding one serving a day would increase his risk of dying in that time to about 57%, and if he had two servings a day, this would be about a 63% risk of dying in that time."
In other words, the effects of unhealthy foods are relative to where you start, and eating red meat—the study shows—comes with a mortality tax. But there is also a hefty mortality dividend to cutting back on red meat. Consuming less than half a serving (1.5 ounces) per day of red meat could have prevented about one in 10 premature deaths in men in the study.

Protein substitutions for
red meat that can reduce your early mortality risk

Substitute a daily portion of red meat with a healthier protein source to reduce mortality risk by the indicated amount:
Red Meat Substitute Reduced Risk
Fish -7%
Legumes, low-fat dairy -10%
Poultry, whole grains -14%
Nuts -19%

Substituting healthy proteins

The study points to an even greater benefit if you substitute meat with equivalent servings of more healthful protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains. The benefit was 7% for substituting fish, 14% for poultry, and 19% for nuts.
Again, says Dr. Willett, there is a clear mortality dividend for such substitutions. 

"If someone who has a 50% risk of dying in the next 25 years replaces one serving of red meat per day with chicken, the risk is decreased to about 42%, and to about 40% if nuts replace red meat."

What should you do?

The prudent course would be to try to reduce red meat consumption if you already haven't. On an individual level the exact benefit is hard to predict, but you can bet that reducing meat consumption—particularly processed meat—is likely to score you an advantage. "Making these kinds of decisions is like being a smart gambler," Willett says. "Nothing is guaranteed, but this is putting the odds in your favor." 

It's a menu many men can live with—literally.


Anonymous said…
Hi Kurashi,

Great question, really got me thinking:

" Living in Japan, are you sure you will get the health care/insurance/pension/whatever to support you if you keep on indulging?"

In what sense do you mean? Literally, for somebody (foreigner) who say isn't covered by health insurance?

Or, are you alluding to the idea that one day insurance companies and the State won't pick up the hospital tab for heavy meat eaters? Is that the direction you see it heading?

On a different vine, what's your take on Japanese horse meat, venison and wild boar? Apart from the health angle, my own idea is that Japan will eventually go the way of sizable horse, deer and inoshishi farms.

Martin J Frid said…
Thanks Ken, great questions.

I mean it in the sense that the insurance system (and the pension system) could collapse as the population ages. More old people on unhealthy diets means more hospital days and more expensive treatments in many cases. Some level of health care will of course be available, but will it be sufficient? As meat eating seems statistically to lead to worse health (esp. if the diet is generally poor) I'm inferring that "we" can't afford this as a society, and even less on the individual level.

You are legally obliged to pay into the national health system, and I think we should all do that out of solidarity. It covers dental care too which is great as you get older!

Smokers are in a similar situation, which has motivated many to quit. I don't think it would be possible to discriminate against meat eaters (or smokers...) but I see your point!

Horse meat, venison, wild boar (and in Sweden elk and deer very common - wild, I should add) are probably not much better or worse than meat from raised animals like cattle or pig. From a health point of view, the less you indulge the better. Ever tried meat-free Mondays?

Farmed horses for meat? I don't think so... In the future, Japan will have huge problems supplying feed for all its raised animals (most feed is imported today in the form of soy).

Chicken can be sustainably raised but by that I don't include the large scale factory farms we have today.
Pandabonium said…
Good post. Thanks!

Most people get too much protein. Rather than substitute sources as the good doctor suggests, one would benefit by eating less animal products and more fruits and vegetables and forget about protein counting. (going from meat to vegetable sources is still a good idea). Even vegans tend to get more protein than they need. But animal proteins come with saturated fat and cancer promoting elements, so the less of those the better.
Martin J Frid said…
Good points about proteins. I agree - and I think a problem most meat eaters ignore is that while they get a lot of proteins, they don't get enough of other nutrients. Take calcium, for example (good for our bones).

If you eat broccoli and even better, moroheya (very easy to grow) you'll get plenty of calcium.

I like to compare humans to other intelligent large animals like gorillas, elephants, horses, cows, buffalo, giraffes, and for those of us from the Northern hemisphere, moose and deer... All of which manage fine on a herbivore diet, in spite of their size.

Why should humans be any different? All large and small apes are basically herbivores in the wild.
Anonymous said…
Hi again Kurashi,

Got it! Thanks for answering my questions.

Peace Freak said…
The "health" insurance system that Japan has (and that many other countries have) should, in my opinion, be called a "sick" insurance system.

Most people normally purchase some insurance when they buy a car (or a house). If they cause damage to the car or house (they give the door a kick and dent it), standard insurance cover is not going to cover the damage they caused.

It is not quite the same for "health" insurance.

Health insurance companies don't care whether you smoke, eat junk food, red meat, a kilo of sugar every day or whatever. It doesn't matter to them if you never do any exercise.

A few years down the track when you end up with lung cancer, diabetes or a heart problem that requires an operation (these days the cost in the US is around $100,000), the "health" insurance system doesn't bat an eyelid, it's ready to pay the bill.

Damm strange, if you ask me...

Not so many years ago in China, people visited their doctors on a regular basis, even when they were healthy. They paid their doctor to keep them healthy. When they got sick they stopped paying him.

This sounds like the right way to do things, if you ask me.

The current "health" insurance system is not really designed to look after you. It is designed to keep the bank accounts of your doctor, your surgeon, and the pharmaceutical companies "healthy".


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