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Harvard’s Meat and Mortality Studies

Monday, March 12, 2012, the Harvard Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study concluded that red meat consumption was associated with living a significantly shorter life—increased cancer mortality, increased heart disease mortality, and increased overall mortality.

March 14, 2012 |
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On Monday, March 12. 2012, the results of two major Harvard studies were published.  37,000 men; 83,000 women; the Harvard Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and the Harvard Nurses Study.  Back in the 80s, researchers at Harvard started following these 120,000 people who were initially, free of known heart  disease and cancer at the beginning.  A few decades later though when about 24,000 had died including about 6000 from heart disease and 9,000 from cancer.

Meanwhile, all along, every four years, the researchers were checking in and keeping track of everyone's diet.  What did they find?  Conclusions: Red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality and cancer mortality meaning a significantly shorter lifespan.  No surprise given the associated greater risk of dying from heart disease and cancer.  And this was after controlling for age, weight, alcohol, exercise, smoking, family history, caloric intake and even the intake of whole healthy plant foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

So it's not like the people eating more meat were dying prematurely because they were eating less vegetables.  They seemed to be dying prematurely because they were eating more meat.  The substitution of other healthy protein sources is associated with lower mortality risk.  The most powerful protector they found was nuts associated with dropping mortality risk 19 percent.

Why?  Because food is a package deal.  The chair of Harvard's nutrition department [Walter Willett], who in his "Essentials of Healthy Eating Guide", explains about picking the best protein packages by emphasizing plant sources of protein rather than animal sources.

See, to the metabolic systems engaged in protein production and repair, it's immaterial whether amino acids come from animal or plant protein.  However, protein is not consumed in isolation.  Instead it's packaged with a host of other nutrients.  Right?  That's the baggage I am always referring to.  Right?

The quality and amount of fats, carbohydrates, sodium, other nutrient in this protein package may influence long term health.  For example, results from the Harvard Nurses Study suggests that eating more protein from beans, nuts, seeds and the like while cutting back on refined carbs reduces the risk of heart disease as we saw in the new studies.

So, what's Harvard's bottom line? Go with plants.  Eating a plant based diet is healthiest.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ed Lynch.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

For some context, please check out my associated blog post: Avoid Carnitine and Lethicin Supplements

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/mgreger/ Michael Greger M.D.

    Those familiar with the science will not be surprised by the findings of the two new Harvard studies. Remember the NIH-AARP study I profiled in Meat & Mortality? Half a million people studied—the largest forward-looking study on diet and health in history—and they found the exact the same thing. If the science is so strong why isn’t it reflected in our dietary guidelines? See Dietary Guidelines: Science vs. Corporate Interests. Nor should it surprise that nuts are so healthy. See Halving Heart Attack Risk and Is Peanut Butter Good for You? And speaking of nuts, have you seen the NutritionFacts.org tag cloud? I have videos on more than a thousand nutrition subjects.

    For my thoughts on the American Meat Institute’s reaction to the study, see my Care2 post here.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/lucy/ Lucy

      “Those familiar with science”? I’m sorry, but this study is as far from actual science as one can get.

      http://www.marksdailyapple.com/will-eating-red-meat-kill-you/#axzz1qtUVE7U9

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

        I see your a paleolithic advocate. The half science and faulty, misconstrued evidence your group purports is simply NOT science. Dr. Greger covers the paleo diet here on his free e book
        http://www.atkinsexposed.org/

        Im sure that if you see more videos on the website, you will come to find that a plant based diet can reverse heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease. A high meat diet cannot do these things.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670735069 Tan Truong

        How about a deeper look:
        http://youtu.be/0GD_9UXHg_k

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/capebreton/ CapeBreton

    Interesting study. Nuts did stand out once again as offering much benefit despite the high fat content (or perhaps because of the types of fats?). But I was surprised to see that poultry fared much better than legumes as alternatives to red meat. If as Harvard’s Willet says it is the “whole package” that comes with the protein, surely legumes have much better packaging than does factory farmed chicken and turkey? Your comments on that would be appreciated.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins
    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/archaedus/ Archaedus

      I try to raise awareness on the hazards of eat animal-based products. Just last week I put together the following write-up on eating chicken. You may find it informational. Feel free to copy it and share it with friends and family :).

      ——–
      Many people consider chicken as a health food: you know, ‘gotta get your lean protein.’ Considering that slaughterhouses are killing more birds in one day (25-30 million) then they did in an entire year during the 1930′s, everyone has been dupped. Here are two links comparing 100g of skinless, roasted (I gave the poultry industry the benefit of the doubt) chicken and 100g of red meat hamburger.

      http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/poultry-products/694/2
      http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/beef-products/6196/2

      ‘Lean’ protein is nothing more than a gimmic.

      It doesn’t stop at the macronutrients, not by a long shot. Aside from getting fed their own fecies and rendered animal, chickens now grow over twice as fast thanks to genetics and growth stimulants (3lbs bird in six weeks compared to four months). So fast in fact that these animals can not handle the weight of their own internal organs and are rendered breathless after a few steps. So fast that large slaughterhouses must despose of an average of 500 lbs worth of dead chickens due to what is called “flip over” disease- the chickens die from a heart attack as early as one month old. Chickens life expectancy is around 10 years.

      Beside the numerous amount of documentation on cockroach, fly and maggot infestation found in these plants, contamination is also a problem in the poultry industry. According to a USDA micobiologist, there are as many as 50 different opportunities for cross-contamination to occur. The largest offending point of cross-contamination is the chilling pool. Dubbed as ‘fecal soup,’ this large vat is where the recently “cleaned” birds are left to soak in a pool of chilled water that is brimming with all sorts of excrements. An interesting side note is that these corpses absorb an average of 8% of their weight of this filth. Thats right, poultry eaters around America spend more than $1 billion dollars on this bacteria soup that is sold as poultry weight every year.

      What about inspection? The larger slaughterhouses can see as many as 500,000 corpses leave every day. Each inspector has roughly two seconds to inspect each body for over 12 different diseases as well as other abnormalities (by the way, as a result of popular demand in the poultry industry, feces, sores, scabs lesions and broken bones are considered “trimmable conditions” and are no longer condemnable). Federal regulations allow for the sampling of 10 corpses out of ever 15,000. That is less than .1%.

      So what sort of contamination are we talking about? For starters, a reporter who interviewed 84 USDA inspectors wrote that “millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.” As for bacteria, an Agricultural Department study showed that over 99% of broiler chickens have tracable amounts of E. Coli bacteria, 30% of chicken consumed is infested with salmonella and 70-90% are contaminated with a pathogen called campylobacter. Look it up, campylobacter is no joke. Contaminated chicken kills as little as 1,000 and sickens as many as an estimated 80 million Americans each year.

      This does not include the horrific living conditions, killing practices and environmental
      damage that is a result of eating chicken.

      Sources:
      “Food Inc.”
      “Slaughterhouse” by Gale Einsnitz
      “Mad Cowboy” by Howard F. Lyman

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/thea/ Thea

        Archaedus: thanks for the above links.

        For anyone who clicks on the links, you may find yourself confused. The problem is that the two links (at least when I clicked them) defaulted to different units for the chicken vs the beef. Once you have the two go to the same unit, you will see what Archaedus is talking about.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670735069 Tan Truong

         Thanks Archaedus!

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

    The authors of the study on NPR said people can eat red meat 3 times a week, but only a few ounces, the size of a deck of cards. I don’t think anybody is going to follow that advice. They emphasized “moderation”, I hate that word. Moderation kills!

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/thea/ Thea

    So timely and so well explained. I wish we could get these videos into our schools.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/gnewtong/ gnewtong

    Did they quantify the increase in mortality? Sure it’s more healthy to eat less red meat, but by how much?

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/MacSmiley/ MacSmiley

    Just when I think I’ve got all the facts down straight, I read something surprising like this:

    Red Meat Halves Risk of Depression
    [in Australia]

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9158235/Red-meat-halves-risk-of-depression.html

    Evidently there’s a bell curve involved, and the livestock in Australia is mainly grass-fed.

    Is it possible that we vegans and vegetarians could be missing some unknown nutrients found only in meat, especially us long-time plant only eaters?

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

      This information is interesting indeed, but it doesn’t tell us too much. We have an abundance of data showing how red meat is causative with chronic illnesses. There is no nutrient in beef we are missing in plants (except b12) and meat in this case is the one missing nutrients! Check out this video about mood and diet.
      http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/improving-mood-through-diet/

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/MacSmiley/ MacSmiley

    We already know about B12, which is why I said I wonder about UNKNOWN nutrients.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

      I was simply pointing out that plants have all that meat has except b12. I directed you to a link showing how mood was related to diet. If one is eating a high meat, low carb diet, they may experience “brain fog” which can give coincidentally give some people the appearance of having a happier mood.
      http://www.atkinsexposed.org/atkins/31/Cognitive_Impairment.htm

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/MacSmiley/ MacSmiley

    Just found this today:

    Five Questions: Walter Willett on red meat

    http://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-five-questions-walter-willett-20120324,0,4545134.story

    I like Dr. Willett’s honesty when answering the question about grass-fed meat: “We don’t know for sure.”

    Previous studies mentioned about mood improvement or “brain fog” are based on the intake of industrial factory-farmed meat, which most of us will agree is a killer, one way or another, especially when consumed in typical American and Atkins portions.

    I wonder if Dr. Willett has seen the Australian study.

    I’d be really interested in any comments Dr. Greger can give on that study. Any flaws in design? Methodology issues? Conflicts of interest in funding?

    Then again, perhaps the secret is a combination of grass-fed beef and Vegemite? ;-)

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/natian/ natian

    I cannot find the actualy study, it may not be published yet. I know the study was of 1000 women in the gelong region. that is an small study in one region only. The interesting thing is that the author says that they found that if you eat more than the recommended amount you will also be more likely to suffer depression. So there is a magical number of grams per week/day that reduce the risk. Sounds very inconclusive and I don’t think we need concider it in the light of the large body of data liking ill effects to meat.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/natian/ natian

    Yes I’m all for the plant based diet. I have been total vegetarian, (vegan, but I wear leather shoes and woollen jumpers) for about 30 yrs.

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    For some context, please check out my associated blog post Harvard’s Meat and Mortality Studies!