Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Red Meat Consumption Increases Risk of Early Death


cut of steak

Steak image courtesy of iStockphoto/Kativ

Over the years, eating too many burgers, steaks pork chops or other red meat products has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. In particular, processed red meat, such as bacon, hot dogs or bologna, has especially strong links to chronic diseases.

But the latest research brings even more dire news for hardcore carnivores. In addition to increasing the odds people will get sick, red meat—whether it is processed or not—can actually increase the risk of premature death overall, according to a study that was published online March 12 in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Researchers, led by An Pan of the Harvard School of Public Health, analyzed health and diet information from more than 121,000 U.S. men and women participating in two long-term health studies. Everyone in the group the researchers assessed had been free of both heart disease and cancer at the outset of the studies.

Over long-term follow-up, as long as 28 years in some cases, more than 13,900 people died—about 9,460 from cancer and almost 6,000 from cardiovascular disease. After adjusting for other factors, the researchers found each daily serving of red meat (beef, pork, lamb or a processed meat, such as bacon, bologna, hot dog, salami or sausage), increased the risk of a premature death by about 12 percent. Processed meat consumption in particular increased these odds even more than did unprocessed meats. And hot dogs and bacon seemed to be the most likely to lead to an early death.

If everyone in the study had limited themselves to 42 grams or less of red meat a day (considered to be about half a standard serving), more than 9,860 early diet-related deaths could have been prevented in the study alone, the researchers estimated.

So if that lamb and ham are off the table, along with all the all-too familiar beef, many people worry that they might not get enough protein with each meal. Fear not, say many health experts, there are plenty of other ways to put protein on your plate that don't come with such high risks of chronic diseases. Chicken breasts actually have more grams of protein by weight than a piece of beef, and fish isn't too far behind. The researchers also found that beans, nuts, low-fat dairy and whole grains made for healthful replacements for a red meat meal portion.

And for folks worried about getting enough iron, excess iron from diet has actually been linked to heart attacks and fatal heart disease as well as possibly to cancer, the researchers noted.

Getting to a healthful level of red meat consumption in the U.S. might be an uphill battle. Only about 9.6 percent of the women and 22.8 percent of the men in the studies fell in the low-risk category (of a half-serving-or-less per day) for red-meat consumption.

But contrary to popular thinking, a good diet is as much about what you put in to your mouth as what you omit.

The study found that trading out a serving of red meat for fish or poultry didn't just negate the red meat risk; rather, it actually improved people's odds of living longer. Replacing a serving of red meat each day with fish reduced premature mortality risk by 7 percent; for poultry, the reduction was twice that: 14 percent.

Veggies are even better. "Plant-based foods are rich in phytochemicals, bioflavonoids and other substances that are protective," wrote whole-food diet advocate Dean Ornish in a related essay also published online Monday in Archives of Internal Medicine. "So substituting healthier foods for red meat provides a double benefit to our health."

Ornish noted that the focus for a healthful diet should be on high-quality over high-quantity: "smaller portions of good foods are more satisfying than larger portions of junk foods." In addition, he highlights current research-based suggestions for the healthiest diet:

  • Little to no red meat; instead obtain protein from poultry, fish, legumes, nuts or other products
  • Plenty of good, whole-food carbohydrates, such as whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables
  • Little processed or refined carbohydrates, such as white flour, sugar or corn syrup
  • Some good fats, such as omega three fatty acids that are in flax and fish oils
  • Little bad fats, such as hydrogenated, saturated or trans fats

Another benefit to cutting red meat consumption: dialing back out-of-control medical costs, Ornish noted. Avoiding chronic diseases linked to excess red meat consumption could decrease medical spending by billions of dollars.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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