Cut Your Meat Consumption to Better Your Health

Cut Your Meat Consumption to Better Your Health

When it comes to protein, ditch the red and go for green.

According to the USDA and the National Chicken Council, every year the average American consumes more than 108 pounds of red meat (beef, lamb, veal and pork). That includes 64 pounds of pork as ribs, chops, bacon and processed meats (often loaded with harmful additives). That’s a lot, but it’s less than in the 1970s. In 1971, the average was 149.6 pounds per person, per year. Unfortunately, red meat consumption has started climbing back up recently. That’s a serious problem, because red meat consumption threatens your health in ways you probably never imagined.

In a new 16-year-long observational study of more then 500,000 adults, researchers from the National Cancer Institute found that eating red and processed meats ups the risk of dying from heart disease and cancer. But you probably already knew that (even if you ignore it!). That info has been in the news since a 2010 Harvard study nailed the red meat–heart disease connection, and a 2015 study in The Lancet conducted by researchers from The International Agency for Research on Cancer pinned down the red-meat-cancer connection.

The new news? This latest research found eating red meat also ups your risk of dying from respiratory diseases by more than 70 percent and diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, infections, Alzheimer’s and stroke by more than 15 percent. It gets you coming and going. There’s no organ or system in your body that isn’t negatively impacted by eating red meat.

What accounts for this beefy roundup of health woes? The researchers speculate that it’s related to two particularly damaging inflammatory triggers in red and processed meats—heme iron and nitrate/nitrite. Heme iron is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. It’s also closely related to the metabolism of nitrate/nitrite (additives found in processed meats) and the formation of compounds that increase the risk of insulin resistance, coronary heart disease and cancer.

Waving a white flag
If you give up red and processed meats, you still have some healthy animal protein options. White meats—chicken, turkey (always skinless please) and fish like salmon and ocean trout—don’t seem to cause the health woes associated with eating red meats. In fact, the researchers found that folks who ate the most poultry and fish and dodged processed meats (including those that contained white meat) had a 25 percent reduction in their risk of all-cause mortality over the course of the study compared with folks who ate the least amount of white meats.

So where should you get your protein from? In addition to opting for two to four servings of fish such as salmon and trout weekly, and sticking with skinless poultry a couple of times a week (limit portions to three to six ounces), you can turn your attention to plant-based proteins that deliver all the muscle-building power you need, plus fiber and vitamins/minerals.

Conclusion: Eliminate red and processed meats from your diet—especially if you have heart disease or diabetes. Aim for seven to nine servings daily of fruits and veggies. Make sure to include beans, nuts and 100 percent whole grains. And embrace so-called white meats—in moderation.

Planting a good idea
Consider trying Meatless Monday (the campaign is a joint effort of Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and other public health and academic/medical organizations) to get in the swing of it. The rest of the week, you can dish up a tofu taco for Tuesday lunch or wild mushroom soup on Wednesday night, or even tempting tempeh Thursday morning—you get the idea.

Some healthy recipes to get you started include this avocado smoothie and this easy vegetarian chili. As you fight off that roster of serious health hazards, you’ll gain healthier digestion, clearer skin and a younger RealAge.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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