Red Meat Boosts Risk of Early Death
A large-scale study examining the effects of meat consumption on mortality has confirmed what myriad smaller ones have suggested — frequently eating red and processed meats increases your risk of mortality by at least 33%.
To assess the link between eating meat and risk of premature death, researchers at the National Cancer Institute followed more than 500,000 people for 10 years, 70,000 of whom died over the course of the study. The size of this study is what makes it so important, since it provided an opportunity to investigate the relationship between meat consumption and age at death. At the start of the study, the participants, aged 50 to 71, completed a questionnaire that asked how often they ate specific foods and also about their portion sizes. “Red meats” included beef and pork, while “processed meats” included sausages, hot dogs and all cold cuts.
Participants who ate the most red and processed meats, most often and in the largest portions, were at higher risk for death from heart disease or cancer, and for death overall than those who ate the least red and processed meats. Researchers measured and controlled for a variety of critical co-factors, including alcohol intake, smoking, physical activity, weight and total caloric intake and their impact on longevity. This essentially means that when compared with people who eat just one ounce, people who eat five ounces of red meat daily are a third more likely to die, Barry Popkin, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of The World Is Fat, told me. He added that if you eat just a single ounce of processed meat — or one hot dog each week — mortality risk is similarly raised, noting these results were identical for women and men.
Participants who ate the most white meat (which included fish and tuna) had a slightly lower risk — about 10% to 15% — of death. In an editorial accompanying the study, published earlier this year in Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. Popkin said: “The consensus is not that we should all become vegans or vegetarians. Rather, the need is for a major reduction in total meat intake.”
THE PROBLEM WITH MEAT
Where breast cancer and colorectal cancer have both been linked to cooking method as well as saturated fat content, this study is the first to implicate red and processed meats not just in those two cancers but in total cancer deaths, as well as cardiovascular deaths and overall mortality. According to Dr. Popkin, there are several factors that make these meats a poor meal choice…
*Cancer-causing compounds form when meat is cooked at high temperatures, as when it is grilled.
*Meat is high in iron, which is thought to promote cancer when consumed in excess.
*Meat intake is likely to contribute to elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels, increasing the risk for heart disease.
*Processed meat, even if it’s low-fat, contains cancer-causing nitrites.
CHANGING YOUR DIET
According to Dr. Popkin, reducing red meat intake to just once a week, at most, and completely eliminating processed meats would save the lives of a million men and just under a million women in the 50 to 59 age group over the next decade. “People could cut their individual risk by 30% over 10 years,” he noted — adding “that’s a pretty big saving.” For long-term health benefits, Dr. Popkin suggests choosing poultry, fish and legumes, rather than red meat, as sources of protein. Also, he advises, those who have risk factors that increase their likelihood of premature death, such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer or heart disease, or who are overweight or obese, should be “especially wary.” “If you’re at greater risk for disease to start with, eating red meat will increase your risk even more.”
Barry Popkin, PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is author of The
World Is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies and Products That
Are Fattening the Human Race (Avery).