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Can Less Red Meat Add Up to a Longer Life?

Study Ties Red Meat to a Higher Risk of Death From Heart Disease and Cancer

Industry Response

Beef producers point out that this is a specific type of research called an observational study, which can’t prove cause and effect. They say other studies have shown that eating lean beef can be part of a healthful diet.

“If there is one thing scientists agree on, it is that responsible dietary advice must be drawn from a look at the entire body of evidence, including rigorous, gold-standard randomized control trials when they are available,” Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, executive director of Human Nutrition Research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says in a written statement.

“In the case of beef, there are several randomized control trials which have convincingly shown that lean beef, when included as part of a healthy, balanced diet, improves heart health by lowering cholesterol,” she says.

“Most recently, the BOLD (Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet) study showed that eating lean beef every day, as part of a heart-healthy diet, could reduce [unhealthy] LDL cholesterol...” McNeill says.

Why Worry About Red Meat?

Red meat is high in protein, which helps maintain muscle. It’s also high in heme iron, which can be helpful for those who suffer from anemia, or iron deficiency.

But along with its virtues, red meat also is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, for example, which are thought to contribute to heart disease and cancer.

Processed meats like bacon and salami are often high in sodium, which may contribute to high blood pressure. They also contain preservatives like nitrites, which have been linked to cancer, such as pancreatic, kidney, and bladder cancers.

And cooking meat, including red meat and chicken, at high temperatures, by grilling or broiling it, for example, is known to generate chemicals linked to cancer.

Still, the study does not prove that red meat is directly harmful to health. It could be that people who eat lots of red meat are just also more likely to engage in other behaviors that may shorten their lives.

Indeed, researchers note that people in the study who ate a lot of red meat were less likely to exercise and were more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and be overweight than people who didn’t eat as much red meat.

Knowing that, however, researchers were able to adjust their data to try to account for the influence of those other unhealthy behaviors.

The study echoes previous research which has also linked diets high in red meat to a shorter life span.

In 2009, a study by the National Cancer Institute found that people who ate the equivalent of a quarter-pound burger or small steak each day had about a 30% greater risk of dying over 10 years than people who only ate red meat occasionally.

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