Dear Mark: Increased Red Meat, Reduced Carb, Increased Death?

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions. First, what’s the deal with the new Harvard study claiming that eating more red meat increases the death rate? Does it actually prove this? Second, how about the one claiming that reduced carb diets also increase death? Should you worry? And finally, why do I recommend eating locally farmed farmer’s market produce, even if it isn’t organic?

Let’s go:

Hi Mark,

What’s your take on this Harvard study?

“those who increased their daily servings of red meat over an eight-year period were more likely to die during the subsequent eight years”

It’s total nonsense with very little applicability to MDA readers.

Red meat eaters were more likely to be smokers.

Red meat eaters weighed more.

What else did people change as they added or removed red meat from their diets over the eight years?

The study doesn’t say much.

What we know:

Those who ate more red meat as time wore on also ate more calories per day—roughly 400 more. Those who ate less red meat as time wore on tended to reduce their overall calorie intake.

Those who ate more red meat as time wore on also gained more weight.

The simplistic urge is to assign blame for these changes to the increase in red meat, since that’s what the study is studying and that’s what they keep mentioning throughout the paper. But there are a million other variables that could have caused it, that likely did cause it, because that’s how cause-and-effect works in this world. Or rather, causes-and-effect.

And remember: this wasn’t an interventional study where one group was told to avoid red meat and one group was told to eat more red meat. This was data pulled from two different studies done decades ago, gathered by asking people what they ate on a typical day and then following up with them at a late date to see who died, who got cancer, who gained weight. It wasn’t explicitly about red meat. So, this is a mishmash of remembrances of what some people think they might have eaten, and the researchers from today’s particular paper homed in on the red meat and tuned out everything else.

This isn’t about individual people. These are abstract numbers.

One of the more interesting notes in the discussion section of the paper was this line:

Unprocessed meat consumption was only associated with mortality in the U.S. populations, but not in European or Asian populations.

I’ll be revisiting that line in the near future. For now, though, any ideas what could be going on?

Mark, do low-carb diets increase all-cause mortality? Hearing from lots of people about this latest one…

He’s talking about this one.

This is another piece of nonsense. Instead of studying legitimate low-carb diets like keto, Atkins, or basic Primal Blueprint, it separated people into four tiers of “low-carb” intake.

  • Tier one got 66% of their energy from carbohydrates.
  • Tier two got 57% of energy from carbohydrates.
  • Tier three got 49% of energy from carbohydrates.
  • Tier four—the one with the highest mortality risk—got 39% of energy from carbohydrates.

Now, I could probably hit “send” and stop the post right now. I mean, that about says it all. In what world is 39% of calories from carbohydrates a low-carb diet? How is that the “lowest-carb” diet? Pure madness.

The study also didn’t discuss diet quality. What kind of fats, carbs, and protein are these people eating? What exactly are they omitting and including? How’s their omega-3 intake? They eating mostly chicken, mostly beef, or plants?

All we know, in addition to their macronutrient ratios, is that people in the “low-carb”/39% carb group:

  • Smoked the second most.
  • Ate the least saturated fat.
  • Drank the most alcohol.
  • Exercised the least.

Really what this study is saying is that eating the high-fat, high-carb Standard American Diet will increase your mortality. This is no surprise.

As I’ve said before, you should pick a macronutrient—fat or carbs—to focus on and go with it. Sure, Michael Phelps could eat 10k calories of McDonald’s and maintain optimal performance, body comp, and health because he’s burning through it all, but you’re not him and you’re not training at an Olympic level for five hours a day. Trying to hang out in no-man’s land where you’re kinda high-carb, kinda high-fat is a bad idea for most people. You could make a 39% carb diet “better” by going with Perfect Health Diet principles, sticking to healthy Primal sources of starches and fats, but that doesn’t work for everyone.

You mentioned going to Farmers Markets every week. I would love someone to explain to me the push for buying local and going to Farmers Markets. Every time I hear them mentioned I cringe a little. I certainly understand buying local, and I agree with that, IF the fruits and vegetables are organic. Usually they are not, so I stay away from local and avoid the toxins/pesticides.
I can only assume that those who buy local don’t mind the pesticides, and if they juice, drinking a glass of chemicals.
What am I missing here? I would love to buy local, but sadly it’s rarely organic. I’d rather buy non-local organic.

Have you ever talked to the supposedly non-organic farmers?

In my experience, the vast majority of vendors at the farmers markets are using organic methods even if they aren’t certified. Reason being, organic certification is quite stringent to attain. It’s a multi-year process.

They have to go chemical-free for years. If they’re at year three of the conversion to organic, they can’t advertise “organic” but for all intents and purposes they’re there.

It costs money. Farming is a hard way to make a living. Going legit might represent a big chunk of cash that they can’t quite justify at the moment.

Go to a market, and go frequently. Get to know the people there. Look the farmer in the eyes and ask how they grow. The majority of the ones I’ve met are doing things right. They’re small operations. They’ve got their kids pitching in and helping out. They’re using man/womanpower and precision and know-how. They aren’t flying crop dusters to carpet bomb the entire field with chemicals.

Another (big) advantage of local produce is the freshness. Fruit and vegetables that travel fifty miles after being picked the day before are a world of difference from produce picked last week and shipped halfway across the country (let alone world sometimes).

That’s it for today, folks. If you have any questions or comments about today’s questions and answers, write in down below.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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16 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Increased Red Meat, Reduced Carb, Increased Death?”

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  1. I know people who owned orchards and farms. The organic certification is a bit of a sham in the US. If there is a collection of farming lots near each other and the middle one is organic, they are still getting run off from the conventional land neighboring them and ‘benefiting’ from the pesticides. It has become an expensive marketing badge. Though this was over a decade ago, so maybe they improved the process.

    I went to a market and talked to a local farmer and asked if their produce is organic and he cringed at me when I asked . They can’t afford the certification and their produce is not soaked in pesticides, it is just as clean and healthy as any other “organic” ones. Probably also fresher and better quality than the big farms. Also, it allows you to support local efforts to provide fresh products and cut out expensive shipping that uses a lot of fuel, which impacts the environment.

  2. What is going on is in other countries they do not pump the animals full of chemicals.

  3. Thank you for sticking up for local farmers selling at farmers’ markets! My experience is the same as yours, and their produce + eggs have far more flavour than the certified organic items I find at my local stores.

  4. As a farmer – livestock and grain producer – may I add a little perspective.

    Firstly, I appreciate that people are wary of anything labelled “chemical”. There have been, and maybe still are, some very serious errors made in the past. I don’t like them myself, however…..

    1. In many cases, we use them less than is often thought. Partly because they are expensive and we don’t like to waste money.
    I haven’t used HGPs (hormonal growth promotants) for decades. Too many markets don’t accept them despite the fact that there is more of the exact same hormone in an egg or a glass of milk, than in a large steak from a treated steer.
    I don’t use antibiotics other than on the rare occasions in which they are needed to treat a sick animal – just as you treat a sick human with the same products.

    2. Despite the common failings of “modern science” the standards for registration of agricultural chemicals are pretty damned high. Withholding Periods – length of time between application of product and grazing/slaughter/harvest – are always greater than required for safety and the maximum permissible residues are always orders of magnitude lower than minimum detectable effect.

    As Mark has said, “the poison is in the dose”. Your liver can deal with the odd errant molecule, just as it has been dealing with extremely toxic alkaloids in many of our foods, for te whole of human history.

    I’ll say it again. I “get” that people are wary and appreciate that health-conscious people want to minimise their exposure to unknown potential dangers. I’m only asking that you be reasonably sceptical of stereotypes.

    We aren’t trying to poison our customers.

    Cheers….. Peter.

  5. I have considered the problem with local/non-organic vs. organic from elsewhere. When weighing the decision, I try not to go by marketing. If you really believe those pretty organic bell peppers from Mexico are truly organic after being packaged and shipped around the world, then the marketing tactics are working. There are a lot of ways to label imported produce without fully disclosing what is used. I use the dirty dozen list to help make decisions on non-organic foods that I can buy locally, I never buy strawberries where I live because they don’t grow here. If a food is in season, grown locally and plentiful where you are, that has a much greater benefit to the environment than out-of-season, shipped from Timbuktu, organic produce. Let’s not forget how much pollution planes/fuel creates and pretend the run off from that is good for agricultural projects. When in doubt, grow it yourself

    1. The dirty dozen list IS marketing by pro conventional farming groups. Just because it keeps getting repeated doesn’t mean it isn’t farming. And yes, the shipping system for organic does have to keep the food separate, not physically touching, for organic food. That’s part of the reason for the cost. And the reason why many butchers prefer to keep Grass Fed, because they don’t need to keep it separate. To bow to all practicality though, we’d be giving up a lot.

      1. So to be clear, the dirty dozen is Env Working Group’s baby, it doesn’t take into account GMOs, just pesticides. Organic gives you protection from both of these things and the practices they use ensure that the soil is maintained in a fertile fashion so you’re not eating food grown with chemical fertilizers, but in otherwise poor soil. That’s a nutritional benefit too. Organic is still vitally important to health, it’s not about just pesticides.

  6. Unprocessed meat consumption was only associated with mortality in the U.S. populations, but not in European or Asian populations.

    Almost all industrial meat production in the US is GMO soja fed. This is not the case in the European Union.
    “Unprocessed meat” that has only eaten industrialy processed FrankenFoods should not be considered unprocessed.
    The only real objective comparison would be vs strictly grass fed organic meat.

  7. Great minds think alike Thankfully there are at least two bona fide Organic farmers at my local farmer’s market, a truly Organic produce delivery company, several CSA’s and even one of the farms that provides Organic Valley milk in my local area. The reason why Whole Foods and such don’t have organic meat is because they’d have to have a separate meat case just for organic. Which a local butcher does have. I do make a few exceptions, but I could stick to Organic year round strictly and not starve.

  8. Desperately seeking some help, Ive been paleo, low carb for 10yrs. Keto at some points. In the last two, i had cut out red meat, it was causing a lot of inflammation, and eventually I discovered that any type of fat, even the healthy ones (coconut oil, avocados, fatty fish) organic or non, lean chicken breast… all of it was creating an extreme amount of mucous in my body, that led to chronic fatigue, weakness and basic inability to function
    Walking to the car merited a nap.
    So i have to follow an extremely low fat diet. If i do eat fats, they digest fine, no digestive issues
    Ive tried enzymes, bile salts, ive had my gallbladder looked at…
    Its nearly impossible to stay paleo without eating meat, especially since i dont do well with nuts.

    Ive read other keto/lc/paleo forums where people have a similar reaction to fats… i remember when i was younger i was carb sensitive and carb triggered mucous.. irony
    .. they no longer do this… but fats do…

  9. Mark,

    You continue to simply LEVEL the lazy assaults levied at the “low-carb community” and what not.

    I enjoy it every time… While sipping my collagen coffee, no less. Cheers ~ Jacob

  10. Steaks seem to be very red these days and, if you cut into them they have what I assume is a darker more natural color. What are they treating “unprocessed” meats with?
    Also, is hamburger considered a processed meat?
    Good ol’ packaging doesn’t reference anything else but you’ll often see that same brighter red, making me think it’s getting coated with some antioxidant.
    Any health outcomes associated with whatever they’re coating meats with?