Red meat: What is a 13% increase in the risk of death?

Butcher holds out a steak

Eating an extra portion of red meat every day will increase your risk of death by 13% annually, according to a new study. It sounds scary - but is it?

Harvard Medical School researchers have concluded that a diet high in red meat can shorten life expectancy.

They studied the diets and health of more than 120,000 people over the course of more than 20 years and found that red meat is associated with an increased risk of fatal heart disease and terminal cancer.

Over the study period, an extra portion of unprocessed red meat was associated with an overall 13% increased risk of death annually (and the figure for processed meat was even higher).

But what does this mean?

The easiest way to understand it is to think of how this might affect two friends who live very similar lives, according to David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University biostatistician, and the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk.

Start Quote

When he's sitting eating his extra burger, that person is losing half an hour of life ”

End Quote David Spiegelhalter

Imagine that the two friends are men aged 40, who are the same weight, do the same amount of exercise and do the same job.

The only difference between them is that one eats an extra portion of red meat every day - an extra 85g, or 3oz.

"Let's say that every work lunchtime one of them had a hamburger and the other didn't.

"What the study found is that the one who likes the meat had a 13% extra risk of dying. They're both going to die in the end, but one has got this extra annual risk of dying."

But what does that extra risk amount to in practice - for these two average people? The paper doesn't say.

Spiegelhalter has been working it out.

"The person who eats more meat is expected to live one year less than the person who doesn't eat so much meat. You'd expect the 40-year-old who does eat the extra meat to live, on average, another 39 years, up to age 79, and the person who doesn't eat so much meat, you'd expect him to live until age 80."

So all those headlines, and it turns out we are talking about whether you might live to age 79 or 80.

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Maybe you feel willing to sacrifice that year in order to enjoy a life full of roast beef and steak sandwiches.

But Spiegelhalter says there is another way to look at the statistics, which might make the issue seem more urgent. That one year off the life of this 40-year-old hypothetical burger eater is equivalent to losing half an hour a day.

"On average, when he's sitting eating his extra burger, that person is losing half an hour of life because of that meal. On average, it's equivalent - scaled up over a lifetime - to smoking two cigarettes a day, which is about half an hour off your life.

"Or, it's equivalent to being a bit overweight - about 5kg overweight - which I am, so I'm losing, on average, every day, half an hour off my life expectancy."

Which is why Spiegelhalter had just been out for a run when he spoke to the BBC. (And perhaps why he became the first OBE to take part in BBC Television's Winter Wipeout assault course challenge.)

A hamburger Tasty, but too many of these could shorten your life

So, that's the numbers explained. But should we really believe the findings of this study? Does eating red meat and processed meat cause cancer and cardiovascular disease and shorten life?

Well, no we can't say there's cause and effect here. All that can be said is that there appears to be a strong correlation between eating this kind of meat and having these health problems.

So another question springs to mind - could eating red meat just be perfectly healthy in itself, but correlated with some hidden health risk?

The researchers at Harvard couldn't run a randomised controlled trial where half the participants ate burgers for two decades and the other half didn't, but they could use statistical techniques as the next best thing.

They statistically controlled for a wide number of other potential risk factors, such as alcohol consumption, calorie intake, activity levels, and family history of cancer.

The link between red meat and cancer may still be a coincidence - as there may be other factors the researchers haven't controlled for - but they have certainly tried to rule out confounding factors.

In addition, Spiegelhalter points to the fact these findings chime with those of other studies.

Personally, he is going to eat more fish in the future and think of red meat as a treat. But, in the same breath, he confessed to be harbouring some tasty looking sausages in his freezer.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    @.50. jimmy_the_shoe
    I wish,........certain people would stop insulting others.
    There are some very intelligent comments on here which show a greater understanding of certain aspects of the science than those who carried out this study.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    I'm going to live in the centre of a nuclear reactor. Statistically, no one has died doing this, so it must be very safe, no?

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Reminds me of an email sent to me with two photos. They were both of women who were 50 at that time. One was a woman who insisted on being the right weight, eating the right thing, etc. She looked more like 60+, all wrinkly and skinny. The other was of a woman who is more rounded and enjoys her food, Nigela Lawson. I know which route I am taking as I don't want to look like the first woman!

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    I Smoke, I'm overweight, don't do enough exercise, don't eat enough fruit and veg, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Red meat.

    I'm screwed!

    But as said, While I'm enjoying perhaps 70 years of happiness and contentness, the non smoking, healthy eating, exercising peeps can enjoy another 10+ years in some old peoples home!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    What is a 13% increase in the risk of death?

    Leaving your house significantly increases your chance of death, going outside in force ten gale increase the chance of your death, the list goes on.
    Two thing's we can be sure on until the boff's say otherwise.... there's a 100% chance you'll die at some point in your life and you'll probably pay taxes for most of it which pay for stupid research.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.


    If life expectancy in the bronze age was 30 that means they must have been eating about 50 burgers a day.

    This is a scientific fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    We are omnivores so can and do eat everything, but I think moderation is not a bad thing. After all the NHS is straining under the weight of people who over indulge, and it's not really about living to 79 or 80, it's about years of ill health because of bad diets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    The difficulty is, as Prof S points out, you cannot run a trial where the only difference is whether or not the participants eat burgers (or steaks or..). Observational studies have all sorts of 'confounders'. 'Controlling' for them (as best you can), gives you an estimate of effect. Critically, what we don't have is the uncertainty round this estimate. It should be in the paper. (goes to look)

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Good article and explanation of what the stats mean.

    I'd have added the word 'could' into at. As increased risk doesn’t mean something will definitely happen. Eating an extra burger could mean that man dies at 79, (statistically) but not always.
    The more things you do to increase your risk of dying early, the more chance you will. I think it’s good to know which ones give more chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Eating Salads and other "rabbit food" doesn't make you live just seems that way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Can I get fries with that, I'll take my chances at 75

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    It is misleading to say that "researchers have concluded that a diet high in red meat can shorten life expectancy". The study merely says that red meat consumption is *associated* with increased risk.
    Correlation is not cause. People with healthy lifestyles might eat less red meat, but also be less overweight etc. That does not show that red meat is unhealthy, and the study does not claim that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Beef meat is increasingly more expensive to produce. Do the health scares about red meat have a positive correlation with the rising cost of producing beef? Where does our beef come from and are there air miles involved?
    One has a greater risk of dying as a result of poor health care than from consuming beef. Eat the beef if that is your fancy and cut down on the large portion of chips.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I'm going to die anyway , so I'm having a nice "blue" steak tonight . .Goodbye cruel world !

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    A 20 something nurse told me I should lose weight when I went to the hospital for a purely elective operation as my BMI was too high. I told her that when she got to my age (56) she'd realise that it was far more important to be happy with yourself and how you live your life than to be in the correct bracket in their statistics. Some people are genetically big, others aren't!

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    If one believes in evolution, the red meat could not have been too a high risk of death since red meat and bone marrow contributed to human evolution and brain development.

    This study is a classic example of message management and what happens when you post a study result without careful consideration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    @46.wjpshaw "we didn't evolve to eat grains"

    Take a mirror. Look at your teeth. What exactly do you think those nice flat grindy molars are for!? Could it perhaps be... Plant matter :O

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    "...which I am, so I'm losing, on average, every day, half an hour off my life expectancy...Which is why Spiegelhalter had just been out for a run when he spoke to the BBC."

    But - did that run take more than half an hour? If so, skip the run and enjoy the extra spare time to do something more productive...

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Meat is not the same as 100 years ago! It's to adulterated!

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    The other bit you need to take into account is that they are talking RISK or probability.

    Every time you flip a coin you have a 50% chance of getting heads - but you may NEVER get heads. Or you may get heads every time.

    The researchers are using risk because a proportion of their statistical data (the people) was showing an unwelcome result.

    But it is still a "risk"


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