The Growing Case Against Red Meat

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In more news that has steak lovers feeling deflated, a study published in this week's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine finds that people who indulge in high amounts of red meat and processed meats, including steak, bacon, sausage and cold cuts, have an increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease. The findings add power to the growing push — by health officials, environmentalists and even some chefs — to cool America's love affair with meat.

The analysis of more than half a million Americans between the ages of 50 and 71 found that men in the highest quintile of red-meat consumption — those who ate about 5 oz. of red meat a day, roughly the equivalent of a small steak, according to lead author Rashmi Sinha — had a 31% higher risk of death over a 10-year period than men in the lowest-consumption quintile, who ate less than 1 oz. of red meat per day, or approximately three slices of corned beef. Men in the top fifth also had a 22% higher risk of dying of cancer and a 27% higher risk of dying of heart disease. In women, the figures were starker: women in the highest quintile of consumption had a 36% increase in death over a 10-year period compared with women who ate little red meat; eating lots of meat was associated with a 20% higher risk of dying of cancer and a 50% higher risk of dying of heart disease. (Read "A History of Beef, Times Two.")

The data for one of the largest analyses of meat consumption and mortality to date were first gathered for the National Institutes of Health and AARP Diet and Health Study in 1995. Researchers then tracked deaths for 10 years, until 2005, using the Social Security Administration Death Master File and the National Death Index, controlling for factors such as age, race, education, body-mass index and alcohol intake. (See pictures of a perfect steak instead of eating one.)

"Basically, the consumption of red and processed meat was associated with modest increases in mortality," says Sinha, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, who is careful to emphasize that the institute is a research organization and does not make health recommendations. She suggests, however, that the fat content of and heavy iron concentration in red and processed meats, along with high-temperature cooking methods that can lead to the development of carcinogens, may increase the risk for disease and death. In contrast, the study found that higher white-meat consumption was associated with a lower risk of death. (Read "Meat: Making Global Warming Worse.")

Dr. Barry Popkin, a nutrition epidemiologist and economist who directs the interdisciplinary obesity program at the University of North Carolina, would use a term other than Sinha's "modest." "You're talking about a lot of deaths that would be prevented by cutting your processed meat or cutting your red meat," he says. He suggests framing the issue in real terms. A McDonald's Big Mac contains 7.5 oz. of red meat, Popkin points out. So if your diet consists of a Big Mac every other day — roughly equivalent to the highest quintile of meat consumption in the study; in other words, the typical American diet — you could cut back to one Big Mac a week and see dramatic health benefits.

See pictures from an Iowa steak fry.

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