Study Finds Eating Red MeatBy Rob Stein
Contributes to Risk of Early Death
Washington Post Staff Writer
Eating red meat increases the chances of dying prematurely, according to a large federal study that offers powerful new evidence that a diet that regularly includes steaks, burgers and pork chops is hazardous to your health.
The study of more than 500,000 middle-age and elderly Americans found that those who consumed the equivalent of about a small hamburger every day were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the 10 years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer. Sausage, cold cuts and other processed meats also increased the risk.
Previous research had found a link between red meat and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, but the new study is the first large examination of the relationship between eating meat and overall mortality.
"The bottom line is we found an association between red meat and processed meat and an increased risk of mortality," said Rashmi Sinha of the National Cancer Institute, who led the study published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
In contrast, routine consumption of fish, chicken, turkey and other poultry decreased the risk of death by a small amount, the study found.
Although pork often is promoted as "white meat," it is believed to increase the risk for cancer because of its iron content, Sinha said. It is often grouped with red meat in nutritional studies.
"This would be the Rolls Royce of studies on this topic," said Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. "This is a slam-dunk to say that, 'Yes, indeed, if people want to be healthy and live longer, consume less red and processed meat.' "
There are many explanations for how red meat might be unhealthy: Cooking red meat generates cancer-causing compounds; red meat is also high in saturated fat, which has been associated with breast and colorectal cancer; and meat is also high in iron, which also is believed to promote cancer. People who eat red meat are more likely to have high blood pressure and cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Processed meats contain substances known as nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer.
Regardless of the mechanism, the research provides new evidence that people should follow long-standing recommendations to minimize red meat consumption, several experts said.
"The take-home message is pretty clear," said Walter Willett, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health. "It would be better to shift from red meat to white meat such as chicken and fish, which if anything is associated with lower mortality."
The American Meat Institute, a trade group, dismissed the findings, however, saying they were based on unreliable self-reporting by the study participants.
"Meat products are part of a healthy, balanced diet, and studies show they actually provide a sense of satisfaction and fullness that can help with weight control. Proper body weight contributes to good health overall," James H. Hodges, the group's executive president, said in a written statement.
For the study, researchers analyzed data collected from 545,653 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, participating in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. In 1995, the subjects filled out detailed questionnaires about their diets, including their meat consumption. Over the next 10 years, 47,976 men and 23,276 women died.
After accounting for other variables that might confound the findings, such as smoking and physical activity, the researchers found that those who consumed the most red meat -- about a quarter-pound a day -- were more likely to die of any reason, and from heart disease and cancer in particular, than those who consumed the least -- the equivalent to a couple of slices of ham a day.
Women who ate the most red meat were 36 percent more likely to die for any reason, 20 percent more likely to die from cancer and 50 percent more likely to die from heart disease. Men who ate the most meat were 31 percent more likely to die for any reason, 22 percent more likely to die of cancer and 27 percent more likely to die of heart disease.
In contrast, those who consumed the most white meat were about 8 percent less likely to die during the study period, the researchers found. Poultry contains more unsaturated fat, which improves cholesterol levels, and fish contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to help reduce the risk of heart disease.
The risk was also elevated among those who consumed the most processed meat, which included any kind of sausage, cold cuts or hot dogs. Women who consumed the most processed meat, about an ounce a day, were about 25 percent more likely to die overall, about 11 percent more likely to die of cancer and about 38 percent more likely to die from heart disease. The men who ate the most processed meat were 16 percent more likely to die for any reason, about 12 percent more likely to die of cancer and about 9 percent more likely to die of heart disease.
Experts stressed that the findings do not mean that people need to eliminate red meat from their diet but instead should avoid eating it every day.
"You can be very healthy being a vegetarian, but you can very healthy being a non-vegetarian if you keep your red meat intake low," Willett said. "If you are eating meat twice a day and can cut back to once a day there's a big benefit. If you cut back to two or three times a week there's even more benefit. If you eliminate it entirely, there's a little more benefit, but the big benefit is getting away from every day red meat consumption."
In addition to the health benefits of reducing red meat consumption, a major reduction in meat consumption would probably have a host of other benefits to society: reducing water shortages and pollution, cutting energy consumption, and tamping down greenhouse gas emissions -- all of which are associated with large-scale livestock production.
"There's a big interplay between the global increase in animal food intake and the effects on climate change," Popkin said. "If we cut by a few ounces a day our red meat intake, we would have big impact on emissions and environmental degradation."
and further reading
Yoda the Ancient
Daf-2 and longevity
Reengineering the body?
Caloric Restriction: pitfalls
Stress, telomerase and aging
New treatments for aging brains
World's Oldest Supercentenarians
Can slight caloric restriction prolong life?
Caloric Restriction: humans vs nonhumans