Switch Red Meat for the Other Meats

Eating red meat linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Digging into that steak may leave you with more than a full tummy - red meat also appears to be associated with a higher risk of dying, from cancer, heart attack, stroke or in general.

Better options for protein, include fish, nuts, legumes and poultry - all of which were associated with a lower risk of death.

"Substitute fish, poultry and nuts for red meat."

An Pan, a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, led the study that involved two long-term, large-scale prospective studies.

In one study, the researchers tracked 37,698 men for up to 22 years, and the other study tracked 83,698 women for up to 28 years. None of the participants in the study had cardiovascular disease or cancer when the studies began.

The participants' diets were tracked using questionnaires every four years. Across both groups, 23,926 participants died: 5,910 from cardiovascular disease and 9,464 from cancer.

The data from the studies revealed a link between eating red meat and overall likelihood of death. One serving of unprocessed red meat each day had a 13 percent higher risk of death, and a daily serving of processed red meat, such as lunch meats, hot dogs or bacon, had a 20 percent higher risk.

Those consuming unprocessed red meats each day were 18 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, or 21 percent more likely if they were eating processed red meats.

Likewise, unprocessed red meat was associated with 10 percent greater risk of dying from cancer, and processed red meat was associated with a 16 percent higher likelihood of cancer death.

These higher percentage associations held true even when researchers controlled for other risk factors, including age, weight, exercise frequency and a family history of heart disease or cancer.

"Our study adds more evidence to the health risks of eating high amounts of red meat, which has been associated with type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers in other studies," Pan said.

Various ingredients in red meat that have previously been associated in past research with chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

Some carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, are created during the process of cooking or processing red meat, and the heme iron, saturated fat, sodium and nitrates in red meat have been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

While this study cannot establish that red meat caused the deaths among the participants, the association lends support for people to make healthier choices to get their protein.

In fact, the researchers calculated lower risks in mortality for each type of red meat alternative that participants ate. Those eating fish had a risk decrease of 7 percent, and eating poultry and whole grains had a 14 percent lower risk.

Other mortality risk reductions included 10 percent less likelihood of death if participants substituted one serving of legumes or low-fat dairy products for a serving of red meat.

The highest decrease in cardiovascular, cancer or overall risk of death was seen in replacing a red meat serving with a serving of nuts, which reduced the risk by 19 percent.

"This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death," said co-author Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health.

"On the other hand, choosing more healthful sources of protein in place of red meat can confer significant health benefits by reducing chronic disease morbidity and mortality," Hu said.

The research team calculated that about 9 percent of the men's deaths and nearly 8 percent of the women's deaths could have been prevented if they had eaten just a half serving less of red meat each day.

Eve Pearson, a licensed and registered dietitian in Fort Worth, Texas, said it's still important to keep these findings in context.

"Although this study controlled for some other risk factors and the population studied was quite large, one thing that isn't discussed here is the overall lifestyle habits of these individuals with the higher red meat consumption," Perason said.

She pointed out that it would be worthwhile to investigate whether occasional consumption of red meat may have similar mortality effects as daily consumption. Meanwhile, she counsels clients to get their protein from multiple foods.

"At the end of the day, we know it's important to eat a variety of protein sources to obtain a variety of nutrients," Pearson said.

The study appeared online March 12 in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The research was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Cancer Institute. The authors reported no financial conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 12, 2012
Last Updated:
March 14, 2012