Red and Processed Meat Kill
Just a few days ago, we reported on a study that found that meat eaters get less colon cancer than vegetarians. And now, just to confuse the heck out of you, a new study from the National Institutes for Health and the AARP tracked 545,653 individuals aged 50-71 for more than a decade and discovered that those who ate the most red meat died in greater numbers. Surprise, surprise!
The results of the study showed that after controlling for lifestyle factors such as smoking and exercise, those subjects who ate the equivalent of a small hamburger daily had a 30 percent elevated risk of death from all causes, but particularly from cancer and heart problems. Breaking the results down, women who ate the most red meat raised their risk of death overall by 36 percent and their risk of dying from heart failure by a whopping 50 percent! Meat-and-potato loving men fared slightly better, with a 31 percent elevated risk of death but only a 27 percent increased risk of heart failure.
Processed meats also had deadly effects. Those who ate about a mere ounce daily of sausage, cold cuts, hot dogs, or bacon (an ounce is the equivalent of about a slice-and-a-half of deli turkey), raised their risk of dying within ten years by 25 percent for women and 12 percent for men.
Dr. Barry Popkin, a nutritionist from the University of North Carolina who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, commented that reducing intake of red meat and processed meat would result in a "meaningful saving of lives...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.'"
Meanwhile, study director Dr. Rashmi Singha summarized the findings by saying that 11% of all deaths in men and 16% of deaths in women could have been prevented if subjects had reduced their red meat consumption. "We found the consumption of red and processed meat is associated with a modest increase in overall mortality, as well as cancer and cardiovascular mortality in both men and women."
One wonders though, why Dr. Singha chose to lower the representation of the numbers by blending them with the statistics for all causes of death. Either he is a master of understatement, or he was trying to circumvent a meat-lobby backlash. Certainly a 50-percent increase in death by heart disease for women isn't "modest," nor is a 30-percent increased risk of dying overall.
Meanwhile, in what seems at first look to be good news for those who just can't imagine life without eating flesh, the study also found that consumption of white meats such as chicken and turkey (the unprocessed kind) actually lowered risk of death. Those who ate the most chicken and fish were eight percent less likely to die than those who ate the least. Oddly, the scientists included fish as a "white meat," which makes it impossible to differentiate the impact of eating poultry versus eating fish. (And no, pork is not the other white meat.) Also, before you start laughing at vegetarians, a close look at the source document indicates that those subjects who ate the most white meat also ate the least meat overall, by a wide margin, and so it isn't clear if their advantage came from eating white meat, or simply from eating less meat altogether.
Not surprisingly, the meat industry had dismissive comments in response to the study. The president of the American Meat Institute, James Hodges, remarked, "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."
Now that's a spin that any politician might envy. Meanwhile, Mr. Hodges' colleague at the National Cattleman's Beef Association, Shalene McNeill, echoed his sentiments. "As is often the case with epidemiological research on this subject, it is hard to draw substantial conclusions about any one food," she said, while further insisting that lean meat can prevent disease when part of a balanced diet.
The most vehement argument came from the dietician for the National Pork Board, Ceci Snyder, who said that the report, "attempts to indict all red meat consumption by looking at extremes in meat consumption, as opposed to what most Americans eat."
My goodness! Is she calling pork a red meat? I think Ms. Snyder forgot her employer's ad campaign. But more to the point, Ms. Snyder should do her homework. The average American eats half a pound of meat daily, and consumption is on the rise. Compare that to the "heavy meat eaters" in the study, who only ate a quarter of a pound a day. We are hardly looking at the "extremes in meat consumption."
In spite of all the protest from the industry, the researchers hold firm that this study makes a clear argument for reducing red meat and processed meat in the diet. "The bottom line is we found an association between red meat and processed meat and an increased risk of mortality," said Dr. Singha. And Dr. Popkin took the results a step further, noting that if the public cut back on meat consumption, we'd reduce greenhouse gases as a side benefit, also reducing water shortages and energy consumption.
"There's a big interplay between the global increase in animal food intake and the effects on climate change," Dr. 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 of course, cleaner air also leads to longer life, so it seems a no-brainer to swap burgers for beans, at least a few days a week.
Bottom line: as I recommend in Lessons from the Miracle Doctors, if you're going to eat meat, keep your consumption of all animal products to three ounces a day, or less.