Before you dig into another hamburger, consider this: Americans who ate the most red meat boosted their overall risk of death by 30% during a 10-year period compared to those who ate the least, according to a new study. And before you switch to cold cuts instead, keep in mind that people who consumed the most processed meat raised their overall risk of death by at least 16%.
Researchers at the National Cancer Institute studied a decade’s worth of data on the eating habits of 545,563 men and women who took part in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. Participants filled out a diet history questionnaire that asked about 124 different foods, and the researchers used the responses to group people into categories based on how much red meat, white meat and processed meat they ate. Over the course of the study, 71,252 people died.
Those who ate more red meat were more likely to be smokers, overweight, exercise less and eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Among the one-fifth of people who ate the most red meat, the median intake was 62.5 grams per 1,000 calories per day; for the one-fifth who ate the least,it was 9.8 grams per 1,000 calories per day.
Men who were big meat eaters had a 22% increased risk of death from cancer and a 27% higher risk of cardiovascular disease compared with men who ate the least. For women, high red meat consumption raised the risk of death from cancer by 20% and the risk of heart disease by 50%, according to the study, to be published in Tuesday’s edition of Archives of Internal Medicine.
Processed meats weren’t much better. The median intake among the top quintile was 22.6 grams per 1,000 calories per day, versus only 1.6 grams for those in the bottom quintile. Men who ate the most processed meats were 12% more likely to die from cancer and 9% more likely to get heart disease, while women boosted their odds of a fatal cancer by 11% and of heart disease by 38%, the study found.
The researchers calculated that if the heaviest red meat eaters ate as little as the people who consumed the least, they could prevent 11% of deaths among men and 16% of deaths among women.
The process of cooking meat produces several carcinogenic compounds that could be contributing to the higher risk of death, the researchers said. In addition, the iron in red meat may cause oxidative damage, while the saturated fat has been linked to breast and colorectal cancer.
Still hungry? Try white meat or fish. The more of that people ate, the less likely they were to die from cancer or anything else.
You’d also be doing the environment a favor, wrote Barry M. Popkin, a global nutrition and economics expert at the University of North Carolina, in an editorial that accompanies the study. Meat production takes up far more resources than growing fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, including two to five times as much water, he wrote. He also cited a recent United Nations report that blamed livestock for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions –- making them bigger polluters than all the cars and trucks on the planet.
-- Karen Kaplan
Photo credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times