“Men and women with higher intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active and were more likely to be current smokers, to drink alcohol, and to have a higher body mass index. In addition, a higher red meat intake was associated with a higher intake of total energy but lower intakes of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.”
That quote comes directly from the research report from the Harvard School of Public Health, which was widely covered in the consumer media with headlines essentially saying “eating red meat will kill you.”
The study, reported in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, involved surveys and health tracking of a large number of subjects over a period of 22 years. The researchers found a higher incidence of red-meat consumption among study participants who developed diseases or died during the study period.
The opening quote illustrates a problem with this type of research, especially when researchers, or the media, draw conclusions not supported by the study’s design. The researchers, in this case, concluded greater consumption of red meat is “associated” with higher mortality risk. The media, naturally, interpreted that to mean one thing causes the other and “red meat will kill you.”
I would suggest that in reality, the study shows an "association" between people’s overall lifestyles and their level of red-meat consumption.
Let’s imagine two test fictional test subjects. We’ll call them Jim and Bob. Both are 45-year-old males with relatively non-physical employment. Both had “slipped” a bit in terms of diet and exercise through their early adulthood, eating unbalanced diets, lots of fast food, maybe drank too much, rarely exercised and gained significant weight.
But at some point, Jim decided to make some changes to improve his health. He began an exercise program and kept at it. He started eating more home-cooked meals including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. He made oatmeal for breakfast instead of eggs and bacon. He cut back on his beer consumption and got a better night’s sleep. Popular culture led him to believe (rightly or wrongly) that red meat makes people fat and damages their health, so he substituted more chicken, fish or beans.
Bob, on the other hand, didn’t have the interest or motivation to change. He kept eating a diet high in simple carbohydrates and calories and short on plants. He drank more than he should and smoked more than anyone should. He thought about exercising, but stayed on the couch instead.