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Harvard’s Meat and Mortality Studies

On Monday, the results of two major Harvard studies were published, following more than 100,000 men and women—and their diets—for up to 22 years. They found that red meat consumption was associated with living a significantly shorter life—increased cancer mortality, increased heart disease mortality, and increased overall mortality. The studies were featured in my video-of-the-day today, which can be viewed above.

The American Meat Institute immediately sent out a press release: “A new study in today’s Archives of Internal Medicine tries to predict the future risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease by relying on notoriously unreliable self-reporting about what was eaten and obtuse methods to apply statistical analysis to the data.” Alas, yes, the Harvard researchers were not telepathic and did indeed have to ask people what they were eating. The Meat Institute criticized the esteemed researchers for using “survey data – not test tubes, microscopes or lab measurements….” No beakers either, I bet! Nor sizzling electric arcs, nor panels with pretty flashing lights. No, just cutting edge epidemiological science, however “obtuse” this may be to the American Meat Institute.

The Meat Institute asserted that “nutrition decisions should be based on the total body of evidence, not on single studies….” If two prospective cohort studies—the gold standard of observational studies—following more than 100,000 people for two decades published by one of the most prestigious institutions in the world isn’t good enough for the Meat Institute, how about the largest such study ever—the NIH-AARP study, “Meat Intake and Mortality: A Prospective Study of Over Half a Million People.” What does the largest forward-looking study on diet and disease in human history have to say on the subject? Watch Meat & Mortality for a distinct sense of déjà vu.

I think the most interesting finding in the new Harvard studies is that even after factoring out known contributors of disease, such as saturated fat and cholesterol, they still found increased mortality risk, raising the question: what exactly is in the meat that is so significantly increasing cancer death rates, heart disease, and shortening people’s lives? A few possibilities include heme ironnitrosamines, biogenic amines, advanced glycation end products, arachidonic acid, steroids, toxic metals, drug residues, viruses, heterocyclic amines, PCBs, dioxins, and other industrial pollutants.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

Image credit: Dennis Burger / Flickr

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at


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6:26PM PDT on Oct 9, 2013


11:19AM PDT on Sep 2, 2012


12:41AM PDT on May 4, 2012

“A month ago, a Japanese study of more than 51,000 men and women followed for 16 years found no connection between moderate meat consumption (up to three ounces a day) and premature death. Last year, a study by different researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found no connection between eating unprocessed red meat and the development of heart disease and diabetes, though there was a strong connection with eating processed red meat.”

Surprise, surprise: the results depend on whether the researchers are animal rights/abolitionists or genuinely concerned with human health…

11:54AM PDT on Apr 22, 2012

I see there are cannibals around.

8:35AM PDT on Apr 10, 2012

yes--the devil's in the details--e.g., what is the composition of what is defined as "meat."

11:38PM PDT on Apr 4, 2012

Thank you for clarifying, James, and I agree. I apologize for misreading that your were sorta incidentally sweeping in these small, local guys.

For a touch more clarification, did you mean "Demand" when you said "factory farms continuing to dominate as long as supply is there"?

I think with these excessive and unjustified government subsidies they have ways to continue to oversupply the market and undercut prices from more ethical and humane operations. This is what has lead to the devastation of the vast number of small American farmers.

6:40AM PDT on Apr 3, 2012

Pego - "As is so often true, James, you are quite wrong about small, local farms" You can see how this statement can be misleading, if you weren't meaning to single me out, but it's cool - I see what you are saying. Also, my comments weren't necessarily about industry sponsored studies, they were about factory farms continuing to dominate as long as supply is there. These horrific places will continue to provide an extremely high percentage (95-99%) of "food" as long as demand doesn't decrease severely. That's been my point. Do you disagree?

12:10AM PDT on Mar 30, 2012

Yeah Kerrie

Anemia runs in my family. The members who've tried even liberal vegetarian diets have wound up sick and taking shots to make up the dietary lack. It doesn't seem to work to take the veg versions, they just don't absorb. Hilarious was my sister persisting and winding up having to eating liver 3 days a week to make up for the 4 vegan days. There just comes a time when you have to admit you are no longer qualified to call yourself a vegetarian (much less a vegan).

11:57PM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

No James

The "Always wrong" is the part where people (yes, you too) so often take industry-sponsored studies to have any real meaning about real food. We need to look at who paid for the study and stop taking known liars at face value. That is why so many people have generally stopped really beleiving the "latest" studies. Someday, (I fondly hope against all evidence) people will stop buying into fad diets.

11:45PM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

I hardly 'eat' that much anyway...I meant! lol

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