I Have a Beef with Harvard’s Red Meat Study

April 1, 2012

By Anna Varriano

A recent study from Harvard School of Public Health researchers that was published online in the Archives of Internal Medicine last month claims that eating red meat is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality (deaths).

Since this study came out, I’ve heard quite a few people jumping on the ‘red meat is going to kill you’ band wagon. Before any of you do that, here are a couple of things you should consider:

  1. Many experts have pointed out several flaws with the Harvard study; and
  2. The study completely ignored the numerous health benefits of pastured grass-fed meat.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

1 – Study Flaws

I recently listened to a 30 minute interview broadcast on wbai.org (World Broadcast Associates Inc) called “Red Meat: Bane or Boon: A Look at the Medical Evidence”,which exposed the following flaws of the Harvard study:

  • The Harvard study was an ‘observational study’. This type of study doesn’t use classic control groups, rather it draws inferences about ‘possible’ effects. These types of studies are often fraught with flaws as they do not establish clear or valid ’cause and effect’ relationships. To establish a valid cause and effect relationship, the researchers should have used an ‘interventional study’, where one group eats no red meat, the other group eats red meat, and every single other thing about the two groups is exactly the same; then the two groups are followed for a period of time. In this type of study, since red meat is the ONLY variable that is different between the two groups, the outcome can be linked to the absence or presence of red meat in the diet with a satisfactory level of validity (aka ‘statistically significant’).
  • Reknowned nutrition writers and professors of advanced statistics have found critical errors with the study design.  Nutrition writer Denise Minger (http://rawfoodsos.com) prepared a recent analysis of the new Harvard red meat study and she noted “the folks eating the most red meat were also the least physically active, the most likely to smoke, the least likely to take a multi-vitamin, had higher BMIs which is a measurement of obesity, higher alcohol intake, and a trend towards less healthy non-red meat food choices.  Although the researchers tried their darndest to adjust for confusing factors, not even fancy-pants math tricks can compensate for the immeasurable details involved in unhealthy living – as well as the tendency for folks to misreport their diet and exercise habits and whatever mild insanity emerges from trying to remember every food that hit your tongue over the past year.”
  • Ned Cox, professor of advanced statistics at Texas A & N International U, who has dissected several medical studies included that the Harvard researchers in this study made a critical error in failing to control for two factors that skewed the results – gender and diabeties:
    • GENDER – the women consumed a lot more red meat than the men, yet they died at lower rates than men, but the authors averaged the results of the women with those of the men, so this key distinction was submerged
    • DIABETES. The second factor he said the researchers should have controlled for was diabetes incidence due to excess calorie intake. Prof. Cox analysis found that the more red meat that was consumed, the fewer people died from diabetes

He stated “The data reported by the authors suggests that when we control for biological sex and incidence of diabetes, an extra 234 grams of red meat per day, is associated with a REDUCTION in mortality of approximately 23%. That was the exact opposite of what was reported by the authors”. Then he notes, not incidentally, that what sounds like a big effect, this 23%, is a minute effect, just like the effect of the red meat on mortality that was reported by the authors – e.g. the actual number of deaths aren’t even that big in the first place, but in any case, when controlled by these other factors, it’s actually not an increase, it’s a reduction.

In addition to the numerous research flaws, the study also completely ignored loads of relevant information from a biochemical and nutritional perspective:

  •  ‘a meta, or combined analysis of 167 cholesterol  feeding experiments found that raising dietary cholesterol  had a negligible effect on blood cholesterol and no link to CHD risk” (1)
  • “There are human cultures consuming 80% of their calories in the form of saturated fat with NO coronary heart disease” (1)
  • It is a BIOCHEMICAL FACT that dietary cholesterol (e.g. eggs, butter and red meat from grass-fed/pastured animals) has little impact on increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.  We get into trouble when the body is allowed to CREATE cholesterol (which it will do when we’re not getting enough from naturally raised animal products such as eggs, butter and red meat!). The creation of cholesterol and fat in our bodies comes from the modification of sugar molecules – glucose and fructose – from wherever they come from – and this is what is hazardous to our health. This  is where it gets dangerous…when we’re creating cholesterol and from glucose….NOT from the consumption of cholesterol  from healthy food items that contain it. It’s also important to note that it’s not just the obvious sources of sugar that contribute to this problem (e.g. cakes, candies, soft drinks, processed foods, etc), but also from foods that are metabolised (broken down by our digestion) into sugar, such as grains and grain products. (2)

2 – Meat Flaws

While I have several health concerns regarding grain-fed, feedlot meat (what is typically sold at most grocery stores), and feel that its consumption may very well lead to all of the health risks mentioned in the Harvard study, grass-fed, pastured meat supports good health.

The Harvard study completely ignored the difference between meat from animals raised in crowded feedlots that are typically fed genetically modified corn and routinely given liberal doses of antibiotics, versus pastured, grass-fed beef. Why is this a big deal? Consider the following:

  • Among its numerous health benefits, compared to corn-fed, feedlot beef, pastured grass-fed beef is 4x higher in vitamin E, 5x higher in total omega-3 fatty acids, 4x higher in selenium and higher in B1, B2, calcium, magnesium and K; each of which have been found at different degrees to help prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression (5)
  • The omega-3 fatty acid profile of grass-fed meat is similar to that of fatty fish (3)
  • Grass-fed cows produce meat that is higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy fat that fights obesity; carotenoids, organic antioxidant pigments that protect cells from cancer-causing free radicals and promote healthy immunity and reproductive function; and vitamin E tocopherols, which protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer (3)

A comprehensive study conducted by researchers from California State University (CSU) in Chico, and the University of California (UC), Davis, that was published in Nutrition Journal in 2010 is just one of many that shows the major differences between grain-fed, feedlot meat and grass-fed, pastured meat.

In this study, researchers evaluated the way feeding cattle grass, which is their natural food of choice, compares to feeding them grains, which is not their natural food of choice and is often responsible for making them sick. They found that in virtually every nutritional category evaluated, grass-fed meat was far superior to grain-fed meat. The saying “you are what you eat” applies to animals too you know! How healthy would your fat and meat/muscles be if you were not only given corn or soy meal or random ‘by-products’ to eat all your life, but also forced to live in conditions that were so crowded and unsanitary that antibiotics had to be routinely added to your feed so that you’d live your miserable and unhealthy life long enough to make it to the slaughter house?

Pastured grass-fed meat (or ‘happy cow’ as we call it in our family) offers many health benefits, and in my opinion, it is an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. It should not be lumped in with corn-fed, feedlot beef! I would bet that if the Harvard researchers did a study of people who ate pastured, grass-fed meat versus those who ate corn-fed feedlot beef, their conclusions would be strikingly different.

To learn more about the benefits of grass-fed meats, I encourage you to visit:http://www.eatwild.com/basics.html and to check out the references listed at the bottom of this article.

To purchase grass-fed beef and other red meats, take a trip to your local farmers’ markets. Ask questions about how the animals are raised – and if you have time, visit the farm. If you live in the Ottawa area, check out Dobson’s Grass Fed Beef Farm http://www.dobsonfarm.com/history.html. I’ve purchased my meat from Dobson Farm for several years now. It’s delivered to my door, cut to my wishes, it’s a great value (I buy a quarter cow at a time) and it tastes great. To find other sources of grass-fed red meat, click on the link to your local WAPF chapter athttp://www.westonaprice.org/local-chapters/find-a-local-chapter and then go to the ‘Where to Shop Tab’.

Variety and moderation are the keys to so many things in life – including our food and our health. A piece of pastured grass-fed beef with several servings of veggies is a wonderfully balanced, healthy and nutritious meal.




  1. Vegetarian Myth: Food justice and Accountability by Lierre Keith, 2009 (this book has a chapter debunking the alleged link between red meat and various illnesses and death)
  2. Dr James Carlson (http://www.drjamescarlson.com) – quote from WBIA broadcast



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