Is red meat harmful to your health? Worse yet, can red meat increase your risk of dying? In a unique study of more than 121,000 adults, investigators have reported that the more red meat you eat, the greater your risk of dying and of developing life-threatening diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. (Pan 2012)
The study was conducted by a team at Harvard School of Public Health and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in March 2012. Data from a total of 83,644 women (ages 30-55) from the Nurses Health Study and 37,698 men (ages 40-75) from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study were evaluated. The investigators were interested in the amount of meat each of the study participants consumed over a 22- to 28-year follow-up period.
The amount of meat consumed by the participants was divided into five categories, ranging from the most (2.4 to 3.1 servings per day) to the least (less than 0.5 servings per day). When the investigators compared individuals who had consumed the most red meat with those who had consumed the least, they found those who ate the most had a 30 percent or more increased risk of death.
More specifically, each serving of unprocessed meat was associated with a 13% increase in the risk of early death, while each serving of processed meat was associated with a 20% increased risk of dying early. Processed meats include items such as hot dogs, salami, luncheon meats, pepperoni, and sausage, which typically are high in sodium (salt) and nitrates.
The adults who ate the most red meat were also less likely to exercise and more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and have a higher body mass index. However, the reviewers took these factors into account when reporting their findings.
How Meat Causes Disease
According to Qi Sun, MD, one of the study’s co-authors, red meat increases the risk of health problems because it is a significant source of saturated fat and cholesterol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Red meat is also a significant source of heme iron (while plant foods are a source of non-heme iron), which is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.