Diets high in red meat and in processed meat shorten life span not just from cancer and heart disease but from Alzheimer's, stomach ulcers, and other conditions as well, a National Cancer Institute (NCI) study has found.
In fact, reducing meat consumption to the amount eaten by the bottom 20 percent seen in the study would save 11 percent of men's lives and 16 percent of women's.
"The consumption of red meat was associated with a modest increase in total mortality [deaths]," says Rashmi Sinha, Ph.D., lead author of the study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
"This fits together with the findings of the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF UK) and the American Cancer Society (ACS), which recommend limiting the consumption of red meat," adds Dr. Sinha, who is a senior investigator at the NCI. "This is something new in the sense of mortality."
Previous studies of red meat consumption usually found an association with cancer incidence. The authors pointed out, though, that many pooled studies had been conducted by vegetarian groups.
Last year, NCI researchers reported that a quarter-pound hamburger or a small pork chop eaten daily could put you at increased risk for a variety of cancers.
This latest study echoes that finding: The more red meat and processed meat you eat, the greater your risk of dying from cancer.
But the American Meat Institute objected to the conclusion, saying in a statement that the study relies on "notoriously unreliable self-reporting about what was eaten in the preceding five years. This imprecise approach is like relying on consumers' personal characterization of their driving habits in prior years in determining their likelihood of having an accident in the future.
"Meat is an excellent source of zinc, iron, B12 and other essential vitamins and minerals," the statement continues. "The US Dietary Guidelines say to eat a balanced diet that includes lean meat. In this way, you derive a wide array of nutrients from many different sources. It's the best return on a nutritional investment you can get."
Dr. Michael Thun, vice president emeritus of epidemiology and surveillance research at the ACS, however, says the study's findings "support previous studies and also support the ACS nutrition guidelines."
These guidelines include choosing fish, poultry, or beans instead of beef, pork, and lamb; choosing leaner cuts of meat; and baking, broiling, or poaching meat rather than frying or charbroiling it.
For the study, the researchers looked at more than a half-million people, ages 50 to 71, to find out what they were eating over the span of a decade. Participants tended to be Caucasian and educated with fewer smokers and more vegetable-and-fruit eaters than in the general population. During that time, more than 71,000 people died.
Men and women eating the highest amount of red meat were found to have a 31 percent and 36 percent higher risk, respectively, of dying from any cause than those eating the least amount.
Women eating the most processed meat were 25 percent more likely to die early than those eating the least of this type of meat, while men had a 16 percent increased risk, the study found.
Causes of death for those in the study included diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, ulcers, pneumonia, influenza, liver disease, HIV, tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and more.
Dying from cancer also was more likely among those eating the most red meat: 22 percent higher for men, 20 percent for women.
The risk for death from cancer increased 12 percent for men and 11 percent for women who ate the greatest amount of processed meat.
Similarly, the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was higher by 27 percent for men and 50 percent for women; for processed red meat, the risk was 9 percent higher for men and 38 percent higher for women.
However, people who ate the most white meat showed a lower risk of dying.
The authors also noted a 24 percent higher risk of dying from heart problems among men who had never smoked and who ate more white meat. Women faced a 20 percent higher risk.
Meat contains many carcinogens as well as saturated fat, which might explain the increased mortality risk, the authors explain.
Dr. Jay Brooks, chairman or hematology and oncology at Ochsner Health System in Baton Rouge, La., described the study's findings as "provocative."
He says, "The question is how much of it is the meat and how much is the extra calories. Calories per se are a strong determinant for death from cancer and heart disease. This should make us think about our calorie intake."
Always consult your physician for more information.
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Improving eating habits and increasing physical activity play a vital role in health.
Here are some recommendations for adults:
Eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. A vegetable serving is one cup of raw vegetables or one-half cup of cooked vegetables or vegetable juice.
A fruit serving is one piece of small to medium fresh fruit, one-half cup of canned or fresh fruit or fruit juice, or one-fourth cup of dried fruit.
Choose whole grain foods such as brown rice and whole wheat bread. Avoid highly processed foods made with refined white sugar, flour, and saturated fat.
Weigh and measure food in order to gain an understanding of portion sizes.
For example, a 3-ounce serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards. Avoid supersized menu items.
Balance the food "checkbook." Taking in more calories than are expended for energy will result in weight gain. Regularly monitor weight. Avoid foods that are high in "energy density," or that have a lot of calories in a small amount of food.
For example, a large cheeseburger with a large order of fries may have almost 1,000 calories and 30 or more grams of fat.
By ordering a grilled chicken sandwich or a plain hamburger and a small salad with low-fat dressing, you can avoid hundreds of calories and eliminate much of the fat intake. For dessert, have fruit or a piece of angel food cake rather than the "death by chocolate" special or three pieces of home-made pie.
Remember that much may be achieved with proper choices in serving sizes.
Accumulate at least 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity activity on most, or preferably all, days of the week. Examples of moderate intensity exercise are walking a 15-minute mile, or weeding and hoeing a garden.
Look for opportunities during the day to perform even ten or 15 minutes of some type of activity, such as walking around the block or up and down a few flights of stairs.
The food guide pyramid is a guideline to help you eat a healthy diet. The food guide pyramid can help you eat a variety of foods while encouraging the right amount of calories and fat.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have prepared the following food pyramid to guide you in selecting foods.
The Food Pyramid is divided into six colored bands representing the five food groups plus oils.
Orange represents grains: Make half the grains consumed each day whole grains. Whole-grain foods include oatmeal, whole-wheat flour, whole cornmeal, brown rice, and whole-wheat bread.
Green represents vegetables: Vary your vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green- and orange-colored kinds, legumes (peas and beans), starchy vegetables, and other vegetables.
Red represents fruits: Focus on fruits. Any fruit or 100 percent fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, or pureed.
Yellow represents oils: Know the limits on fats, sugars, and salt (sodium). Make most of your fat sources from fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. Limit solid fats like butter, stick margarine, shortening, and lard, as well as foods that contain these.
Blue represents milk: Get your calcium-rich foods. Milk and milk products contain calcium and vitamin D, both important ingredients in building and maintaining bone tissue. Use low-fat or fat-free milk after the age of two years.
Purple represents meat and beans: Go lean on protein. Choose low fat or lean meats and poultry. Vary your protein routine - choose more fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans.
Always consult your physician for more information.