“In other words,” he wrote, “what we include in our diet is as important as what we exclude, so substituting healthier foods for red meat provides a double benefit to our health.”
Hu and colleagues said that the saturated fat, cholesterol, heme iron, sodium, and nitrites in red meat might explain some of the risk of cardiovascular death, and that some compounds either found in red meat or created by high-temperature cooking - including nitrosamines, nitrosamides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heterocyclic amines - are potential carcinogens and might explain some of the risk of cancer death.
Red Meat and Fat Content
When most people think of red meat, they think of fatty burgers and steaks. These cuts of red meat are unhealthy because they are high in saturated fat. Saturated fat is a problem because it clogs the arteries which makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. Individuals who consume foods that are high in saturated fat increase their likelihood of developing heart disease. But not all red meat is high in saturated fat, and some studies have shown that consumption of lean red meat doesn’t cause a significant increase in cholesterol levels. Most studies focus on red meat itself without controlling for fat content, so it’s unclear whether all red meat or just fatty red meat is unhealthy.
Red Meat and Cancer Risks
Certain types of cancers, including colon, breast, stomach and prostate cancer, are more common in individuals who consume large amounts of red meat. It’s important to remember, however, that cancer studies group together all types of red meat. Bacon, cold cuts, hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs and other beef products vary in fat content and might not harm the body the same way. Still, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends individuals limit red meat consumption because it contains compounds that might promote cancer. In addition, studies suggest that individuals who consume the most white meat, like chicken and turkey, live longer than those who consume the most red meat. It appears that a significant percentage of those who consume the most red meat die due to cancer or heart disease, which are both associated with red meat consumption.
They acknowledged that the study was limited by potential errors in measuring red meat intake and by the uncertain generalizability of the findings outside of the study population, which was predominantly non-Hispanic white health professionals.
The study was funded by grants from the NIH and by a career development award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The study authors reported that they had no conflicts of interest.
Primary source: Archives of Internal Medicine
Source reference: Pan A, et al “Red meat consumption and mortality: results from two prospective cohort studies” Arch Intern Med 2012; DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287.
Additional source: Archives of Internal Medicine
Source reference: Ornish D “Holy cow! What’s good for you is good for our planet"Arch Intern Med 2012; DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.174.