Heart Health & Problems With Meat | Jon Barron's Blog

Date: 04/07/2009    Written by: Jon Barron

Red and Processed Meat Kill

Red Meat, Processed Meat, Cancer

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.


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    Submitted by Adam on
    April 7, 2009 - 11:49am

    The amazing thing is that we are still doing studies on this subject. Why cant we take that money and put together an epidemiological study on the Baseline of Health program (including diet) and its effect on mortality? That'll be the day.

    Submitted by E. Orf on
    April 27, 2009 - 8:44am

    I would also like the grass fed beef question to be addressed, if you don't mind, Doctor. I also have heard no negative responses to the grass fed beef products as far as health issues.

    Submitted by Frank Mann on
    April 26, 2009 - 2:24pm

    I think if they had used Grass Fed Beef in this study the results would have been much different!!!

    Submitted by Jon Barron on
    April 27, 2009 - 3:59pm

    Look, I'm all in favor of grass fed beef. I frequently talk about the need to eat organic, grass fed beef if you're going to eat beef. But I'm guessing that would not have substantially affected the results of this study. The study found that the consumption of white meats such as chicken and turkey (the unprocessed kind) produced different resutls; it actually lowered the risk of death. Those who ate the most chicken and fish were eight percent less likely to die than those who ate the least. It is important to understand that the animals used here were not free range, organic fed. The diets fed mass produced chickens and turkeys is even worse than the grain feed used to fatten cattle. It includes canibalized parts from chickens and turkeys infected with leukosis (cancer tumors), large amounts of antibiotics, and arsenic (yes, it's a government approved additive) -- and yet the results were not the same as that found with beef -- that is unless the turkey or chicken was processed!!! Processing produced the same results.

    So again, grass fed is good, but I still have a problem with more than 3 oz a day of beef, and I don't think it would have substantially affected the results of this particular study based on the variables I just discussed above.

    April 26, 2009 - 2:47pm

    I am surprised that Jon (of all people) seems to have missed one big flaw in this and other similar studies...
    All these meat studies involve the use of red meat from cattle raised on grains (soy, corn, etc.) Cattle as we all know should eat grass, not grains. Moreover, the cattle in these studies are force-fed and given anti-biotics and growth hormone, etc.
    I have yet to see a study featuring free-range cattle that shows health risks. (There is plenty of evidence to the contrary however. This is what our ancestors ate safely for eons).
    These studies prove just one thing: that grain-fed, red meat with its high levels of Omega-6 and low levels of Omega-3 causes health problems.
    The same can be said of vegetables grown with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetic modification. In fact, any food that has been messed up by modern farming and/or preservation methods is injurious to health. So why single out meat?
    In fact, grass-fed red meat has many benefits such as being rich in B12, L-Carnitine, CoQ10, SOD, etc...ALL of which are very important not only to overall health but for healthy heart function (and yet researchers and doctors warn people with heart disease to avoid red meat)!
    I think a far more productive line of research would be to look for ways to get back to nature, be it with cattle, vegetables or anything else.
    Ray Shelton

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