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Is Red Meat Really That Bad For You?

Is Red Meat Really That Bad For You?

Whether it’s grilled at neighborhood cookouts, offered at hot dog stands at a baseball game or cooked up for a family dinner, it’s not hard to find red meat on the menu. Still, red and processed meats have had a long, bad rap for their impact on health and longevity. Are they really that bad?

Let’s look at the science.

Supporting the evidence against red and processed meats, a 2013 meta-analysis of meat-diet studies revealed that people who ate the most red meat had a 29 percent increase in mortality compared to those who ate the least. And a 2012 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that red meat consumption was associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular and cancer mortality. The study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, looked at up to 28 years of diet and health data from a pair of large studies that included more than 121,000 men and women. Scientists found that each additional serving of red meat per day upped risk of death by 13 percent. Alarmingly, processed foods like hot dogs, bacon and cold cuts were even worse: each additional serving increased risk of death by up to 20 percent.

 But what exactly is it about red meat consumption that can shorten life span?  “Typically, what affects longevity, especially in the U.S., is chronic disease,” says Janis Jibrin, MS, RD  “If we can stave off heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and other major killers, then our chances for living a longer and healthier life shoot up.”

One reason mortality risks increase with red meat consumption is that it’s high in saturated fat, upping your risk of heart disease. “Red meat also contains heme iron, which is an oxidant, meaning that in excess it can promote the formation of free radicals in the body,” explains Jibrin.  “These destructive molecules promote plaque in arteries and damage DNA, which raises cancer risk.”

But there’s more: charring red meat at high temperatures—think flame broiling—can produce harmful carcinogens that appear to raise cancer risks.

Does that mean no red meat—ever?
Environmental issues aside, I don’t think red meat should be banned entirely from your diet,” says Jibrin. “It’s not clear how risky unprocessed meats like steaks, burgers and plain cooked meats are if eaten in moderation.”

If you’re a big red-meat eater ready to cut back, Jibrin suggests that you do so gradually so that you don’t feel deprived. Here’s how:

  1. Practice moderation. But what’s moderation? In the absence of a unified recommendation from health authorities, Jibrin recommends erring on the side of caution by limiting unprocessed red meat to eight ounces per week. Or follow the American Institute of Cancer Research’s guideline of no more than 18 ounces per week. In terms of processed meats, nutrition experts advise avoiding these high sodium, high fat foods as much as possible. One strategy would be to save the hot dogs, deli meats and bacon as occasional, special treats.
  2. Mix it up with a vegetarian dish. Not all of your burgers have to be meaty. These veggie burgers are just as hearty and tasty—but a whole lot healthier.
  3. Cut back gradually. Jibrin suggests that if you eat meat nearly every day, try having it just four days a week, adding chicken or fish to the menu instead. Or reduce the amount of meat that you use in a recipe. Instead of all-beef Sloppy Joes, use half the ground beef and sub in beans along with more onions and other vegetables.  Try making burgers with ground turkey. Jibrin suggests going for the lean (93 percent) instead of extra lean (99 percent) turkey, which can be dry.
  4. Try the Mediterranean diet. A growing body of research stands behind the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. The foods found on this eating plan—veggies, fruit, whole grains and heart-healthy fats like nuts and olive oil—are all deemed best for cardiovascular health and a longer life.
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