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Before Eating Red Meat, Think Twice and Live Longer

Before you grab a sizzling steak from the grill or order up a rare burger at a restaurant, stop and think twice. When you reconsider eating red meat and make a healthier menu choice, you give yourself a chance to live longer. Here's why.
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Before you grab a sizzling steak from the grill or order up a rare burger at a restaurant, stop and think twice. When you reconsider eating red meat and make a healthier menu choice, you give yourself a chance to live longer. Here's why.

Red Meat and Your Life

A number of studies have evaluated the impact of eating red meat on health and lifespan, but one of the largest and longest was conducted by a research team at Harvard School of Public Health and published in March 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Data was collected on 83,644 women from the Nurses Health Study and 37,698 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, and the investigators were interested in how much meat each of these adults consumed over a 22-year to 28-year period.

The bottom line of the study? The more red meat you eat, the greater your risk of dying and of developing heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. If you are reading this while consuming your fourth hamburger of the week, you may want to put it down before you continue the article, because it could save your life.

The researchers divided the amount of meat consumed by the participants into five categories, ranging from the most (2.4 to 3.1 servings daily) to the least (less than half a serving daily). When they compared individuals who ate the most red meat with those who ate the least, the red meat lovers had a 30 percent greater risk of dying than the so-so meat consumers.

To dish out the findings in another way: Every serving of unprocessed meat you eat is associated with a 13 percent increased risk of early death, and every serving of processed meat (e.g., hot dogs, salami, deli meats) you eat is associated with a 20 percent increased risk of dying early. The investigators also found that even after they allowed for the fact that adults who ate the most red meat tended to exercise less, smoke and drink more alcohol, and have a greater body mass index than their peers who ate less meat, red meat lovers still had a greater risk of dying earlier.

What's So Bad About Meat?

Eating processed and unprocessed meat is associated with a list of health risks. For example:

  • Both types of meat contain a significant amount of saturated fat and cholesterol, two risk factors for cardiovascular disease

  • Red meat is a source of heme iron (as compared with non-heme iron, which is found in plants). Heme iron is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes
  • High consumption of red meat and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Processed meats have high levels of sodium and nitrates. Sodium can raise blood pressure and therefore the risk of stroke and heart disease, while nitrates may damage blood vessels and are associated with insulin response
  • Eating red meat that is well done or very well done may increase a man's risk of prostate cancer, including a higher risk of advanced prostate cancer. In fact, a new study from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine supports "a role for carcinogens that accumulate in meats cooked at high temperatures as potential PCA [prostate cancer] risk factors."
  • Men who eat the most red meat are more likely to develop prostate cancer and more likely to get advanced cancer than men who eat the least amount of red meat, according to a large study.
  • "But I Like Red Meat!"

    People who argue that they like red meat and processed meats and want to find reasons why it's safe to eat them will find a friend in the Cattlemen's Beef Board and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. These organizations partially funded a study in which the authors reported there was no association between eating a lot of red meat and the development of prostate cancer. This study represents an example of why it is important to look for any conflicts of interest when reviewing the results of scientific studies.

    Red Meat and Red Meat Options

    Let's return to the Harvard study, in which the authors emphasized that while they are not telling people to stop eating meat, they do encourage individuals to consider protein options. In fact, they note that "We estimated that substitutions of one serving per day of other foods (including fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains) for one serving per day of red meat were associated with a 7 percent to 19 percent lower mortality risk."

    Of course, eliminating meat from one's diet is also an option. Stepping away from the Standard American Diet (SAD) or "killer diet," as it is referred to by Dean Ornish, M.D., well-known author and nutrition expert, can significantly reduce not only your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, but other health problems as well, including obesity, arthritis, gallbladder problems, digestive disorders, and more. High-protein meat substitutes can be incorporated into your current diet plan, and if you need help making the switch, there are plenty of tips on transitioning to plant protein. For additional help in reducing your intake of red meat, The Prostate Diet offers scores of suggestions to support and nurture your prostate health as well as your overall health and well-being.

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    Alexander DD et al. "A review and meta-analysis of prospective studies of red and processed meat intake and prostate cancer." Nutrition Journal 2010 Nov 2; 9:50

    Chao A et al. "Meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer." JAMA 2005 Jan 12; 293(2): 172-82

    Joshi AD et al. "Red meat and poultry, cooking practices, genetic susceptibility and risk of prostate cancer: results from the California Collaborative Prostate Cancer Study." Carcinogenesis 2012 Jul 20

    Pan A et al. "Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies." Archives of Internal Medicine 2012 Apr 9; 172(7): 555-63

    Sinha R et al. "Meat and meat-related compounds and risk of prostate cancer in a large prospective cohort study in the United States." Am J Epidemiol 2009 Nov 1; 179(9): 1165-77.

    Zhao Z et al. "Body iron stores and heme-iron intake in relation to risk of type 2 diabetes? a systematic review and meta-analysis." PLoS One 2012; 7(7): e41641