Should You Swear Off Meat?

Should You Swear Off Meat?

Maybe you saw the recent headlines that blared scary warnings like, “Eating meat in middle age is AS DEADLY AS SMOKING.” The claims were based on a recent study that found that middle-aged people who eat lots of animal protein were more likely to die early than those who ate less meat. A finding like that is enough to turn a carnivore into a carrot-cruncher, but is the concern real? 

First, some background: The study, conducted by an international team of researchers and published in the journal Cell Metabolism, looked at health and diet records of over 6,300 Americans age 50 and older. It found that people between 50 and 65 who got more than 20% of their calories from animal protein were 75% more likely to die during the study’s 18 years of follow-up, compared to people who ate low amounts. And they were four times as likely to die of cancer.

Among people who ate moderate amounts of animal protein (10-20% of calories), the cancer risk was three times higher. (For reference, animal protein makes up about 15% of the average American’s diet.) On the other hand, people who got most of their protein from plant sources, such as beans, nuts and soy products, showed no increased risk. A companion study using mice suggested that a certain growth hormone triggered by eating animal protein could be responsible for the cancer link.

Experts have long known that eating lots of red meat, which is full of saturated fat, hikes the risk of cancer and heart disease, but the study suggests that too much of any kind of meat is dangerous. “It is interesting (and new) that the issue appeared not to be fat, as we have largely assumed, but animal protein,” says Sharecare’s Chief Medical Officer Keith Roach, MD. 

Dr. Roach notes, however, that this type of “observational” study can’t prove that protein caused the increased risk of death, and the findings come with more than a few caveats. For one thing, the data didn’t distinguish between different types of meat—healthier choices such as chicken or fish versus hamburger and pork, for example, which contain high amounts of saturated fat. It’s also possible that the low-protein group had a healthier overall lifestyle, though the authors tried to correct for that. And the participants in the study completed a single 24-hour diet survey, which may not be an accurate measure of their diets. And, in a hard-to-explain twist, among people over age 65, the effects seemed to reverse: People who ate more protein actually lived longer.

Though the study raises a lot of unanswered questions, and much more study is needed, the bottom line is not all that different than the nutritional advice you’re used to. “I think it supports recommendations to eat less meat,” says Dr. Roach. Make fruits, vegetables, and grains the focus of your diet instead, and when you do eat meat, choose lean types. The authors note that their findings agree with the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes healthy fats and carbohydrates and has been shown to help people live longer.

Medically reviewed in April 2019.

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