We’ve been warned about the potential dangers of eating a diet high in red meat for years.
But now, a new study published in The BMJ today, reveals that increased meat consumption over a long period of time could put you one step closer to the grave.
The long-term study, which examined the dietary changes of over 53,500 women and almost 30,000 men, shows that an increased intake of red meat is linked to a heightened risk of death.
“Increases in red meat consumption, especially processed meat, were associated with higher overall mortality rates."
The researchers, from the USA and China, found that adding half a serve of red meat or more to your daily diet could increase your risk of death by 10 per cent. Meanwhile, eating an extra half serve (or more) of processed red meats – bacon or salami – every day may increase your mortality risk by 13 per cent.
“Increases in red meat consumption, especially processed meat, were associated with higher overall mortality rates,” states the study, led by Yan Zheng of China’s Zhongshan Hospital and Fudan University.
What to eat to reduce your risk of death
The good news is that reducing your red meat intake while eating more whole grains, vegetables, or other protein foods may reduce your risk of death.
“A decrease in total red meat consumption and a simultaneous increase in the consumption of nuts, fish, poultry without skin, dairy, eggs, whole grains, or vegetables over eight years was associated with a lower risk of death in the subsequent eight years,” the study reads.
“These findings suggest that a change in protein source or eating healthy plant-based foods such as vegetables or whole grains can improve longevity.”
The study used data acquired from female nurses aged 30 to 55 and male health professionals aged 40 to 75. All participants were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at the start of the study.
The team examined the link between changes in red meat consumption over an eight-year period with mortality during the next eight years, starting from 1986 to the end of follow-up in 2010.
During the study period, over 14,000 people died. The leading causes were cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
“These findings suggest that a change in protein source or eating healthy plant based foods such as vegetables or whole grains can improve longevity.”
Pay attention to dietary balance and food quantity
Nutritionist, Dr Rosemary Stanton, supports the study’s findings. However, she notes that although red meat can part of a healthy diet, maintaining dietary balance among the core food groups is important.
“The value or problems, associated with any particular food depend on the quantity consumed,” says Dr Stanton, a visiting fellow from the School of Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales.
“Where red meat makes up only a small part of the diet, as in some Asian countries and in some of the traditional Mediterranean dietary patterns, few problems can be identified. Equally important is the fact that in such dietary patterns, more vegetables are consumed, along with more nuts and legumes.”
The study was the first of its kind to examine the association between changes in red meat intake and subsequent risk of mortality. But it cannot prove cause and effect.
Dr Lauren Ball is an NHMRC and Senior Research Fellow in the Menzies Health Institute Queensland at Griffith University says overall, the research adds evidence on the consequences of diets that are high in red meat.
“The findings present a contemporary challenge for Australia, given the impact of red meat consumption on the food industry, farmers and climate change,” says Dr Ball, “as well as the prominence of red meat in current diet fads such as low carbohydrate or ketogenic diets.”
Dr Ball adds that it’s important to note that the study looked at the change in meat intake, rather than actual intake.
“[That] means we can’t arrive at a clear answer on how much red meat we should eat to promote optimal health.”