That juicy steak or burger might be more dangerous than you think. Red and processed meats have long been linked to heart disease. New research suggests their regular consumption could increase your cancer risk as well. So what are the options for beef fans? How much is too much?
Red Meat Popularity
Red meat has long been a staple of the Western diet. In the United States, cowboys and cattle are part of the country’s national identity. Australia is tied with the U.S.––in both places the average person consumes around 100 kilograms of meat a year. Eating red meat is seen as a sign of affluence. It’s no accident that steak houses are used to celebrate everything from landing a new client to winning a tournament. Japan’s world-famous Kobe beef retails for over $150 a pound. Today the world produces four times the amount of meat that it did 50 years ago.
It’s not just beef–pork, veal, and lamb are also connected to an increased risk of heart disease. Conflicted carnivores cheered an Annals of Internal Medicine recommendation in 2019 that adults eating processed or unprocessed meats did not have to change their habits. The authors suggested there was limited evidence to support negative outcomes for meat eaters. The advice was soon challenged. One of the authors didn’t disclose funding from the meat industry––leaving the entire study open to charges of bias and skewed results. In early 2020, a different, more comprehensive examination by researchers at Northwestern University came to a far different conclusion. Examining six studies involving nearly 30,000 Americans who were tracked for an average of almost 20 years, the study found a small but significant connection between eating just two servings of meat per week and a higher risk of heart disease. While many people have been reducing meat consumption, the study suggested that anything less than total elimination of animal protein increased your risk. Even worse, chicken was on the list as well. Fish was the only “meat” that was considered safe.
Changing Your Habits
Besides raising your risk of heart disease, consumption of red meat has been connected to a host of problems. Environmentalists advocate plant-based diets because they believe raising cattle uses more resources than raising crops. They also see it as a contributor to climate change. Rising rates of colorectal cancer may be linked to red meat as well. Members of France’s landmark NutriNet-Santé study, which was designed to examine associations between health and nutrition, wrote down everything they ate or drank over a one-day period. Some 41,000 people over age 40 participated. The study learned that people who ate diets rich in plant-based foods including lentils and leafy greens, fruits, and whole grains, while limiting red meat, soda, and alcohol had lower instances of cancer. This World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) diet was compared to others. The diet’s adherents had a 12% lower risk of cancer overall. It was particularly protective against prostate and colon cancer.
Studies like that one and the one at Northwestern suggest that red meat isn’t the only culprit. Processed meats like those you’d find packaged in plastic at the grocery store––like sausages, hot dogs, ham, and bacon along with lunch meats––may also be cancer causing. Any cured or smoked meat is risky. Switching to a plant-based diet can lower your cancer risk. If you choose to reduce your consumption, you won’t be alone. In the U.S., some two-thirds of survey respondents said that they had reduced their consumption of meat in the last three years. In other Western cultures, meat consumption is similarly declining. While veggie burgers and sausages have had fans for decades, there seems to be a new plant-based “meat” released every month. With the press and praise of a tech start-up, Beyond Meat promises meals that taste just like the burgers and steaks many of us grew up with.
Even if you don’t switch to plant-based foods, it’s worth taking a hard look at your diet. Just reducing your red meat consumption can help. So can using meat more as a flavor than as the main part of the meal––adding it to a stew or a large bowl of broccoli, for example. Try eating plant-based during the week, while indulging your carnivore cravings on the weekends. If you find your energy and attitude improving, maybe it’s time to leave meat behind.
Written by John Bankston
- Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry, or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality | Cardiology | JAMA Internal Medicine | JAMA Network
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- Unprocessed Red Meat and Processed Meat Consumption: Dietary Guideline Recommendations From the Nutritional Recommendations (NutriRECS) Consortium | Annals of Internal Medicine
- The NutriNet-Santé Study – Full Text View – ClinicalTrials.gov
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- Reducing meat consumption in the USA: a nationally representative survey of attitudes and behaviours
- Beyond Meat