For some time doctors have been worried about the amount of red meat we eat, particularly processed meat such as bacon, chorizo, ham, hot dogs, pancetta, sausages, salami, etc. Now comes an authoratative research study from Harvard School of Public Health ; the results say we should take care. Announcing the research, senior author Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, says : “This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” However, it is red meat and processed meat that are suspect, not white meat (chicken, turkey, etc), nuts, fish etc.

What researchers found out at Harvard

Researchers found that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality. The results also showed that substituting other healthy protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, and legumes, was associated with a lower risk of mortality. “Our study adds more evidence to the health risks of eating high amounts of red meat, which has been associated with type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers in other studies,” said lead author An Pan, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH.

Take note of the words ‘high amounts’

If you like meat, this means you should be careful how much you eat every week. There is no guidance – yet – but it probably means if you eat an average portion of meat every day, you should cut down and replace the protein with another type. And if you have a plate-sized steak for breakfast – you are likely to be in trouble. Researchers studied 37,698 men from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study for up to 22 years and 83,644 women in the Nurses’ Health Study for up to 28 years who were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at baseline. Their diets were assessed through questionnaires every four years. A combined 23,926 deaths were documented in the two studies, of which 5,910 were from cardiovascular disease and 9,464 from cancer. Regular consumption of red meat, particularly processed red meat, was associated with increased mortality risk. One daily serving of unprocessed red meat (about the size of a deck of cards) was associated with a 13 percent increased risk of mortality, and one daily serving of processed red meat (one hot dog or two slices of bacon) was associated with a 20 percent increased risk. Among specific causes, the corresponding increases in risk were 18 percent and 21 percent for cardiovascular mortality, and 10 percent and 16 percent for cancer mortality. These analyses took into account chronic disease risk factors such as age, body mass index, physical activity, and family history of heart disease or major cancers. Red meat, especially processed meat, contains ingredients that have been linked to increased risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. These include heme iron, saturated fat, sodium, nitrites, and certain carcinogens that are formed during cooking.

So what do you do ?

Think what you are eating. If you can, replace red meat with another healthy protein source such as poultry or fish. Replacing one serving of total red meat with one serving of a healthy protein source was associated with a lower mortality risk :
  • 7 percent for fish
  • 14 percent for poultry
  • 19 percent for nuts
  • 10 percent for legumes
  • 10 percent for low-fat dairy products
  • 14 percent for whole grains.
The researchers estimated that 9.3 percent of deaths in men and 7.6 percent in women could have been prevented at the end of the follow-up if all the participants had consumed less than 0.5 servings per day of red meat. As Hu says, “ choosing more healthful sources of protein in place of red meat can confer significant health benefits by reducing chronic disease morbidity and mortality.”

Talk to your dietician or doctor

Before cutting red meat out completely, talk to a medical professional. Red meat isn’t all bad, and offal in particular used to be prescribed for certain illnesses. Now, when I had had a massive heart op., my surgeon tentatively suggested liver, etc. and was pleased when I said I was happy to eat this – about once a week.

Poultry and Game

This ticks all the dieticians’ boxes, but be careful of the source. If you have ever seen the dreadful conditions under which battery hens are kept, this would put you off for life. McDonalds has just announced it is sourcing chicken for its nuggets to be served at the London Olympics from sources ‘overseas’, but so far hasn’t given any guarantees that these will be free-range. Beware of poultry labelled as ‘Fresh’ or ‘British’. Neither means free-range, and is just a marketing ploy to make customers think they are buying ‘free-range’. They are not. It is only ‘free-range’ if it states this clearly on the label. But most game is free-range, and pheasant, partridge etc. in season (Aug/Oct – February) is not only tasty, but lower in calories than meat.


Not only is fish delicious, but it is good for us, particularly the ‘coloured’ fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, etc. The studies didn’t take into account smoked fish, but ask dieticians about smoked salmon, trout etc. Dieticians say we should eat one – two servings of fish a week per person.