Red Meat Health Facts: Is Red Meat Bad For You?

Too much red and processed meats could shorten your life, according to a large study.

March 25, 2009

Beat the meat habit: More vegetables on your menu could translate to better health.

How bad is red meat for your health really? A study of more than half a million people found that eating large amounts of red meat, and any processed meats, increases your overall risk of dying, and your risk of dying from cancer or cardiovascular disease. The study was just published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. An accompanying editorial made the point that not only is red meat tough on your health, but it is a burden for the planet, too: Livestock production uses 15 to 20 percent of the world’s water, and pollutes even more of it. (It’s a tough week for meat lovers. This study adds to other bad news for meat eaters, including that eating red meat more than ten times a week may raise the risk of age-related vision loss.)

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Researchers compared the eating habits and health status of 322,263 men and 223,390 women enrolled in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, starting in 1995; participants were 50 to 71 years old when they signed up. The people who reported eating the most red meat ate more than eight 3- to 4-ounce servings a week, while the people on the low end ate about a serving a week. Over the next 10 years, the men who ate the most red meat had a 31 percent greater risk of death than the men who ate the least amount. The women who ate the most red meat faced a 36 percent increase when compared to the women in the low red meat-eating group.

If you love a burger, the food police aren’t going to come and take it out of your hands. But do you have to eat one at every meal? Cutting back on red meat in your diet may have wide-ranging health effects. It’s not exactly clear why red meat is linked to a higher risk of death, but Barry Popkin, PhD, author of The World is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race (Penguin, 2009) says saturated fat is most likely to blame. He also wrote an editorial that accompanied the study, which pointed out that reducing meat consumption will not only heal ourselves, but the planet, too. For instance, he says, it takes 2 to 5 times the amount of water to raise livestock than it does to grow food crops. The United Nations also found that livestock are responsible for nearly 20 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions—even more than transportation.

Whether you want to protect the health of you and your family, the environment, or both (hey, it’s all connected), here are easy ways to make better meat choices.

• Cut out processed meats. The mix of artery-clogging fats, salt, and nitrates in processed meat make it a poor choice any way you look at it, Popkin says. He considers eating even less than 1 hotdog a week as a hazardous meat choice. So try to avoid it.

• Designate a meat-free day. The study isn’t saying you have to go vegetarian to be healthier (Popkin himself eats meat), but if you eat a lot of red meat, you should definitely cut back. Try cutting out meat completely at every meal one day of the week, every week, and then add another day when you feel your family’s ready. Rethink the notion that every meal should include meat. “We created a system that ignored fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and really focused on sugar and livestock,” says Popkin.

• Know meat’s place on a plate. One 3- to 4-ounce serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards, so it shouldn’t be the biggest edible on your platter. Fill at least half of your plate with fruit and/or vegetables. And be sure your meal plan includes white meat, which in this study included chicken, turkey, fish, hotdogs made from poultry, canned tuna, and poultry cold cuts. In the study, those who ate the most white meat had a lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and overall death than those who ate the least.

• Make better red-meat choices. Another advantage to cutting back on red-meat meals: It saves money, allowing you to buy healthier, tastier, meat that will better slake a carnivore’s appetite. Organic, grass-finished beef boasts 60 percent more omega-3s, 200 percent more vitamin E, and 2 to 3 times more conjugated linoleic acids, which help ward off heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. As an added bonus, certified-organic cows are raised without added hormones or routine antibiotics, and the grass or grain they eat cannot contain pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms.

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