Red Meat and Premature Death

March 12, 2012

Red Meat and Premature Death 

 ReferenceArchives Internal Medicine, March 2012 

 Early death from eating red meat!  This sounds really awful.  But the study was very large;  38,000 men for 22 years and some 84,000 women for 28 years.  The participants filled out a food frequency questionnaire every four years about their eating habits in the last week, and data was extrapolated from that.   

The data is compelling.   Those who ate a serving of red meat every day, about the size of a deck of cards had a 13% increased risk of cancer and heart disease.  If the meat was processed, meaning a hot dog or salami or sausage, the risk rose to 20%. Interesting data in the study was what happened if nuts were substituted there was a 19% lowering of mortality.  If chicken was substituted, there was a 14% reduction and fish had a 7% reduction.  

The conclusion was that premature mortality could be reduced 7-9% if everyone ate fewer than 3 servings a week of red meat, and really reduced their processed meat.  They blamed saturated fat, nitrites, and sodium as the potential causes of the increased morbidity. I take this at face value and will add it to my practice, but I think you, my reader should have a more nuanced and sophisticated consideration of the data.  

It just doesn’t make sense quite the way it is and I think needs a bit more context.  There are societies around the globe where meat-eating has been the predominant nutrition and folks have had very little cancer or cardiovascular disease.  We don’t have studies of this magnitude, but I think the exception has to be considered and alternatives have to be entertained. Maybe the issue is “meat in America”.  That may be different than meat elsewhere.  We are pretty certain that the meat itself is not different one place to another.  The protein, the red part just can’t be that different.  Muscles don’t change their content much at all.  

But something else changes dramatically.  The fats!  Our meat in America is raised on feedlots, being fed corn and beans.  The subsequent product has 30% of its calories coming from saturated fats that aren’t seen in meat raised on grass in a natural state.   Animals raised in the wild have only 7% of their calories in meat coming from fat, and most of that is omega fatty acid fat.    Those fats acts like hormones when they hit your body sending very different messages to your metabolic system.  

Notice, in this study that risk was reduced when nuts were substituted.  Nuts are a rich source of omega fats, particularly omega-3 s that are precursors to anti-inflammatory eicosinoids.  Natural meat once upon a time, when grass raised, was rich in omega-3s.   I think the indictment shouldn’t be on the meat, per se, but the processing of meat that injects chemicals, and the raising of animals on feedlots.  The product becomes toxic. 

 WWW.  What Will Work for Me?  My script going forward is that feedlot-raised meat raises your risk for premature heart disease and cancer at least 20%.  That can be ameliorated if you change your protein source to nuts where your risk is reduced 20% for a total compared risk reduction of 40%.  But I’m not going to indict grass-raised meat.  That study hasn’t been done.  And I suspect strongly that it would show less harm than this study.  For now, living in America…..I’d pass on the sausage and bacon, reduce my red meat to less than once a week and go for the fish, chicken, and almonds. 

Pop Quiz

1.   If you eat a serving of red meat every day (the size of a deck of cards) your risk of sudden death goes up how much?                         Answer:  13%

2.  You you swap that out with salami, hot dogs, bacon or bratwurst, your risk goes up?              Answer:  20%

3.   If you substitute chicken, what happens to your risk?   Compared to red meat, down 14%.

4.   And fish was better by how much?                   Answer: 7%

 Written by John Whitcomb, MD   Brookfield Longevity and Healthy Living Clinic,  262-784-5300