People who eat a lot of red meat are more likely to die at any given time than those who go light on the burgers and hot dogs, according to a U.S. study that followed more than 100,000 people over several decades.
Researchers whose findings appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine said that the more servings of both processed and unprocessed red meat people reported eating daily, the higher their chances of dying over a more than 20-year span.
“Red meat and especially processed red meat contains a lot of compounds and chemicals that have been linked to chronic disease risk,” said Frank Hu, at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study leaders.
Research has suggested that the saturated fat and cholesterol in red meat is linked to plaque buildup in arteries, which increases the risk of heart disease, while cooking red meat produces more carcinogens. A recent study said that eating more meat was associated with a greater risk of kidney cancer.
Hu and his colleagues used data from two large, ongoing studies of U.S. doctors and nurses who filled out regular questionnaires about their typical eating habits as well as physical activity, smoking and family history.
The current report includes information from about 38,000 middle-aged men followed for an average of 22 years after their first survey and 84,000 women tracked for 28 years.
The lightest meat eaters reported getting half a serving or less of meat per day, while the study’s biggest meat-lovers had red meat twice or three times daily.
Three ounces (85 gm) of unprocessed meat, one hot dog or two slices of bacon was counted as a serving.
About 24,000 participants died over the two-plus decades that researchers followed them. Hu and his team calculated that the chance of dying was 12 percent higher for every extra serving of red meat the men and women had eaten each day.
Each extra serving was also tied to a 16 percent higher chance of dying from cardiovascular disease in particular, and a 10 percent chance of dying from cancer — even after taking into account other aspects of health and lifestyle that could influence the chance of dying, such as weight, smoking, the rest of their diet and socioeconomic factors.
Substituting one daily serving of red meat with fish, poultry, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy products or whole grains was tied to a seven to 19 percent lower chance of death, Hu and his colleagues reported.
“The results are not really surprising given that previous studies have found consumption of red meat is linked to diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers,” Hu said.
“What’s surprising is the magnitude … Even a small amount of red meat is associated with a significantly increased risk of mortality.”
He said it’s probably a combination of chemicals and compounds that are found in red meat, including saturated fat, cholesterol and lots of salt — especially in processed meat — that account for increased health risks in meat-eaters, although his study can’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Though he doesn’t necessarily recommend everyone drop their burgers at once, Hu said it’s not a bad idea to try to cut back on red meat, given this and other evidence of its less-than-stellar health record.
“We’re not talking about everyone becoming a vegetarian — I think a small amount of red meat is still okay as part of a healthy diet,” he said.
“We’re talking about no more than two or three servings of red meat a week. Basically, red meat should be an occasional part of our diet and not a regular part of our diet.”