It’s not uncommon for many Americans to consume at least one serving of red meat each day. However, it may be time to rethink this practice, as a new study published in the American Medical Association’s Archives of Internal Medicine links red meat consumption to a shorter life span.
Researchers analyzed the meat-eating habits of 37,698 male participants (aged 40-75 years) in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and 83,644 female participants (aged 30-55 years) in the Nurse’s Health Study.
Those who consumed red meat, especially those who consumed a lot of it, were at increased risk of premature death, including death due to cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer.
What Counts as “Red Meat”?
Both unprocessed and processed forms of red meat were included in the study. Unprocessed red meat was defined as “beef, pork, or lamb as a main dish, sandwich, or part of a mixed dish,” and included hamburger. Processed red meat was the term used for meat products such as bacon, hot dogs, sausage, salami, ham luncheon meat, and bologna containing beef, pork, or lamb.
One serving was defined as the equivalent of 3-ounces of unprocessed meat, one hot dog, or two slices of bacon, and light eaters reported consuming half a serving or less daily, while heavy eaters enjoyed two or three servings per day.
Over a period covering about 25 years, 23,926 deaths were reported. Of those, 5,910 deaths were the result of CVD and 9,464 deaths were cancer-related.
Researchers found that increasing red meat consumption by just one serving raised the death risk by 13% for unprocessed red meat and 20% for processed red meat. And of the processed meat products, bacon and hot dogs were the worst offenders, being associated with higher risk than other items.
They estimated that 9.3% of deaths in men and 7.6% in women could have been prevented if the individuals consumed fewer than half a serving per day of total red meat. The same applies for 8.6% of men and 12.2% of women who died from CVD.
What’s the connection?
Researchers suggested that the link between red meat and mortality may be due to the fact that red meat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease from saturated fat and cholesterol. Also, excess dietary iron has been linked to heart attacks, fatal coronary heart disease, and increased cancer risk.
Additionally, while unprocessed and processed meats contain similar amounts of saturated fat and iron, other compounds found in processed meats, particularly sodium and nitrites, might explain why they are “worse.” High levels of sodium elevate blood pressure; nitrite and nitrates, which are preservation agents, concentrate in the blood and can result in impaired insulin response.
And don’t forget, cooking meat at high temperatures is known to create carcinogenic compounds.
What Should We Eat Instead?
Fortunately, substituting just 1 serving of red meat with other protein sources has a positive effect on mortality risk. In the study, consuming 1 serving of fish instead of red meat lowered risk by 7%, poultry by 14%, nuts by 19%, legumes by 10%, low-fat dairy products by 10%, and whole grains by 14%.
He cautiously states that while the results should not come as a surprise, given red meat’s association to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer in previous studies, he believes “a small amount of red meat is still okay as part of a healthy diet.” A small amount means just 3-ounces of lean, unprocessed red meat in one day.
As Dr. Hu mentions, we shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve been hearing about the negative effects of animal proteins for quite some time now, and when it may affect our quality and quantity of life, it might be time to sit up and pay attention.
The Bottom Line
While the study is compelling, red meat consumption per se may not be the issue. Instead, it may correlate to other unhealthy behaviors that red meat eaters are likely to engage in and collectively this is what leads to higher mortality rates.
For example, participants in the highest meat consumption group (5th quintile; 2.36 servings per day) were more sedentary, had a higher BMI, more likely to smoke, have diabetes and hypertension, consume more calories and alcohol, and eat fewer fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, than those in the lowest red meat consumption group (1st quintile; 0.22 servings per day).
In its 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the government recommended that Americans substitute more plant-based proteins for animal protein. This study, along with many others, seems to reinforce the idea that we should be eating far less red meat and instead opting for a far more plant-based diet. If we did that, cardiovascular disease and stroke – the #1 killer of men and women – would probably be greatly reduced.
Even Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D., renowned for reversing heart disease in his patients by drastically reducing their total and saturated fat intake and placing them on a plant-based diet, chimes in at the end of the study. He reminds us that plant-based foods are rich in phytochemicals, bioflavonoids, and other protective substances. Thus, “what we include in our diet is as important as what we exclude, so substituting healthier foods for red meat provides a double benefit to our health.”
And reducing our red meat consumption would have a domino effect, he claims, by: reducing healthcare costs related to chronic illnesses, reducing greenhouse gases from animal agri-business, which generates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined, and conserving the massive amounts of water and grain expended on livestock.
Our recommendation is to eat a primarily plant-based diet that is balanced. Protein is an important component of a healthy diet and you should add high quality protein sources such as nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. When adding animal protein, opt for fish first and then poultry. If you want to selectively add red meat, be sure to add only the leanest cuts.
The good news is that effective March 1, 2012 all cuts of meat must be labeled to include number of calories and grams of total fat and saturated fat in the product. In addition, products that include the term “lean” (i.e. 85% lean) but are not actually low-fat must also list the fat percentage. This labeling change should make your job of finding leaner cuts just a bit easier.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.