Harvard Says Your Red Meat Consumption Is Slowly Killing You

Consuming red meat has always proven to be quite complicated. Some cite its inclusion in our diets as a necessary source of protein. However, others don’t believe we need it that much, especially because we’re often guilty of over consuming it.

That said, a recent study has now found a potential correlation between the high consumption of red meat and the risk of early death.

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The study, published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, was formulated by a team of researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts and led by Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology and chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the university.

The intent of the study was to look at whether changes in red meat consumption from 1986 to 1994 influenced mortality in 1994 to 2002, and whether changes from 1994 to 2002 influenced mortality in 2002 to 2010.

For the study, the researchers used data from  53,553 US registered female nurses, aged 30 to 55, from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and 27,916 US male health professionals, aged 40 to 75, from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). At the start of the study, all the participants were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Tracking both groups between 1986 and 2010, the researchers had each participant complete a self-reported questionnaire every four years.  These questionnaires inquired about how much red meat and other foods they consumed daily and in the past year, ranging from never or less than once per month to six or more times a day.

The results

Researchers used state records and the national death index to confirm deaths during the study period. In doing so, they found that the total number of deaths reached 14,019 (8,426 women and 5,593 men). And the leading cause of death? Cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and neurodegenerative disease.

The researchers found that an increase in daily servings of red meat would likely result in death. Specifically, consuming processed red meat 3.5 times a week or more was associated with a 13% higher risk of death. Also, the consumption of processed red meat increased the risk by 9%. The results applied to every participant, regardless of their age, physical activity level, dietary quality, smoking status or alcohol consumption.

What do the researchers believe?

“This long-term study provides further evidence that reducing red meat intake while eating other protein foods or more whole grains and vegetables may reduce the risk of premature death,” said senior author Frank Hu in a statement.

Granted,  the study was observational and had some limitations. For one, they did not look at the reasons for changes in red meat consumption. This is important as said changes could have influenced the results. That said, the researchers do have some idea as to how the consumption of red meat influenced mortality. They believe that it was due to a list of components that compromise cardiovascular health. This includes saturated fat, cholesterol, heme iron, preservatives, and carcinogenic compounds produced by high-temperature cooking.

For one, sodium nitrite/nitrate is a food preservative found in processed meats (such as bacon, sausage and hot dogs) that helps to prevent harmful bacterial growth as well as the color and flavor of the meat. Unfortunately, as well as preventing harmful bacterial growth. However, when cooked at high temperatures, sodium nitrite produces nitrosamines, which are compounds that have been linked to pancreatic, colorectal and stomach cancer(1). If that isn’t enough to convince you, during the 1970s, the United States Department of Agriculture attempted to ban the preservative, yet they were vetoed by food manufacturers who argued that, at the time, they had no alternative for preserving packaged meat products.

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Additionally, a separate study found a link between TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide) – a gut bacteria byproduct formed during the digestion of animal products such as red meat – and a heightened risk of atherosclerosis – a disease whereby plaque builds up inside your arteries, eventually narrowing them.

Is eating red meat dangerous?

In November last year, a group of researchers from the University of Oxford called for a tax on red meat on processed meat, claiming that if each country implemented the tax and raised the price of meat by 80%, 220,000 yearly deaths would be prevented and there would be savings of $40bn(1).

However, the taxing of red meat isn’t a guarantee. Therefore, you’ll need to take a proactive stance with your diet.

The researchers also found that increasing one’s intake of certain foods could lower the risk of death. These foods include nuts, fish, poultry without skin, dairy, eggs, whole grains, or vegetables. The increase in their intake was associated with a lower risk of death during the study period.

“To improve both human health and environmental sustainability, it is important to adopt a Mediterranean-style or other diet that emphasizes healthy plant foods,” Dr. Hu said in a statement.

A plant-based world

With increasing studies highlighting the detrimental effects that meat intake can have on health, many individuals – including well-known celebrities – have started to turn to plant-based diets and brands have begun to notice. The Good Food Institute found that between 2016 and 2017 sales of plant-based foods grew by 8.1% and investors put $13 billion into alternative meat companies in 2017 and 2018 (3). 

Fast food chains are offering meat-free options to consumers with meals that feature plant-based and  produced by  plant-based alternative manufacturing companies. These fast food chains include White Castle, Burger King and Del Taco.

Adopting a plant-based diet

The Blue Zones are five areas around the world that have high rates of longevity (inhabitants regularly live up to the age of 100 and beyond) and are also virtually free of diseases. One of the common trends associated with the five areas is the fact that they’ve all adopted a plant-based diet.

For each zone, the inhabitants consume a diet rich in legumes, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil, fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, only one zone doesn’t eat meat as the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California are strict vegetarians. However, the other zones only consume meat five times a month. Also, more often than not it’s not even the main dish on the plate. Rather, it rather serves as a small side or as a way to flavor dishes (2).

A plant-based diet provides the body with vital nutrients and minerals that can help to prevent inflammation, thus reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and obesity. Furthermore, a plant-based diet is just as good for the planet as it is for the Earth as it helps to conserve water and preserve animal and plant habitats. 

The age of conscious consumerism is upon us. As a result, people want healthy, sustainable and organic food. That said, where does one start? Do they go vegan? Vegetarian? Or do they simply adopt a Mediterranean diet, making room for the occasionally free-range, grass-fed steak?

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