Adults who increase the amount of red meat they consume over the years also increase their odds of dying sooner than those who hold steady or reduce meat intake, suggests a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
Researchers examined data on eating habits over time for more than 53,000 women and almost 28,000 men and found that when people increased their total red meat consumption by at least one-half serving a day over eight years, they were 10% more likely to die over the next eight-year period than those who didn’t boost their meat intake.
Processed meat like bacon, sausages and cold cuts appeared more likely to hasten death. Boosting processed meat consumption by at least one-half serving daily over eight years was tied to a 13% greater risk of death during the following eight years, compared to an increased risk of 9% with unprocessed meat.
The study findings suggest that it’s wise to reduce red meat intake, especially processed red meat, and choose healthier protein sources such as fish, nuts, and beans and lentils instead.
The lead researcher noted, “To live a long and healthy life, besides eating an overall healthy diet, it is also important to maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and avoid smoking.”
While eating lots of red meat is often associated with other unhealthy habits like smoking and getting too little exercise, the study accounted for these factors and still found red meat tied to a shorter lifespan.
About the study
The participants did not have heart disease or cancer at the beginning of the study period. The researchers followed them through two sets of eight-year periods. The study team looked at whether changes in red meat consumption from 1986 to 1994 predicted mortality from 1994 to 2002, and whether changes from 1994 to 2002 predicted mortality from 2002 to 2010.
Researchers also found significant associations between increased red meat consumption and increased deaths due to heart, breathing and brain disorders specifically.
They didn’t find a benefit from merely reducing red meat intake by one-half serving daily. However, cutting back on red meat and replacing it with nuts, fish, skinless chicken or turkey, dairy, eggs, whole grains, or vegetables was associated with a lower risk of death during the study period.
How red meat may reduce longevity
The study wasn’t designed to prove whether or how fresh or processed red meat might directly cause an early death, which is something that is still unknown.
It’s always been thought that saturated fat in red meat might be to blame.
But the wide range of types of death linked to red meat in this study are not influenced by saturated fat, suggesting that if red meat actually does cause early death, it’s unlikely to be due to the fat content. It’s important to tease out the precise harmful compounds, and reducing these.
In the meantime, people may benefit from small efforts to cut back on how much meat they eat.
Adding at least one meatless day to your weekly menu is a step in the right direction.
Source: The BMJ, online June 12, 2019.
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