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Does Eating Meat Increase Your Risk of Dying?
What the Evidence Reveals


Asking a meat lover to give up burgers and steaks is likely to evoke some powerful opposition, just as asking a vegetarian to sit down to a plate of meatballs would. Yet, increasing evidence appears to be confirming that eating a meat heavy diet may, indeed, be bad for your health.


Should you resist chowing down on your next burger for the sake of your health?

This is certainly not what a largely meat-loving nation like the United States wants to hear. According to the Agriculture Department, Americans ate 119 pounds of red meat each in 2008, which amounts to just over two pounds a week, along with 106 pounds of poultry.

What does the evidence really say about meat and your health, and is there possibly more to the scenario than meets the eye?

The Research on Meat-Eating Doesn’t Look Good

The latest evidence, a federal study of more than half a million American men and women, found that eating meat does raise mortality risk. The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that eating the equivalent of a quarter-pound hamburger daily for 10 years gave men a 22 percent greater risk of dying from cancer and a 27 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease, compared with men who ate just 5 ounces of red meat a week.

Women, meanwhile, who ate a lot of red meat had a 20 percent and 50 percent greater risk of dying from cancer and heart disease, respectively, than did women who ate less.

Processed meats also increased risks of those diseases, although at rates slightly lower than red meat.

Meanwhile, people who ate more white meat like chicken and fish had lower risks of death.

Separate studies have also linked red meat to a number of chronic diseases, including:

  • Breast cancer

  • Colon cancer

  • Prostate cancer

  • Heart disease

Conventionally speaking, it is because of findings like these that the common healthy diet mantra in the United States sounds something like this:

"The less red meat the better," Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in a Time magazine article. "At most, it should be eaten only occasionally. And it may be maximally effective not to eat red meat at all."

Is Cooking the Culprit?

There are a number of theories for the connection between red meat and cancer and other health problems. One of the primary ones is based on the fact that it contains saturated fat, which the American Heart Association says is the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol.

However, there is another factor as well, and that is that cancer-causing compounds are created in meat when it’s cooked. Among them:

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  • Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): Heterocyclic amines form when food is cooked at a high temperature, either by grilling, broiling, frying or searing. The longer you cook your meat, and the higher the temperature, the more HCAs that are formed. The worst part of the meat, from an HCA perspective, is any blackened section.

  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): Barbecue grill smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. When the smoke surrounds your food -- particularly when fat drips onto the heat source and causes excess smoke -- it transfers PAHs to your food.

  • Avanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): Advanced glycation end products are also produced when meats are cooked at high temperatures, such as while grilling, frying or broiling (they're also produced when foods are pasteurized or sterilized).

AGEs, according to researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, build up in your body over time leading to oxidative stress, inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease.

There is a devoted group in the natural health care field who therefore maintain red meat can be very healthy, as long as it’s minimally cooked.

What About Processed Meats?

If you eat hot dogs, bacon, ham, luncheon meats, corned beef, smoked fish or any other type of processed meat, you are almost assuredly consuming nitrites. When you eat nitrites, they can be converted into nitrosamines, which are potent cancer-causing chemicals, in your body.

Can Meat be a Healthy Part of Your Diet?

The American Dietetic Association advises that Americans can eat six ounces of lean red meat five or more days a week and still be eating a diet that could decrease cholesterol levels. Surprisingly, they say lean beef is just as effective as skinless chicken when it comes to lowering cholesterol.

If you want to reduce the potential health effects from eating red meat even further, also pay attention to these guidelines for being a healthier meat eater:

  1. meat marinade

    Marinating meats with an acidic marinade, red wine or beer before cooking them can cut down on the cancer-causing substances formed.

    Choose red meat sources that have been raised in humane, natural ways -- which means being raised on pasture, or grass-fed. Grass-fed beef has been found to contain less fat and more omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and other beneficial compounds compared to grain-fed beef.

  1. Avoid meat that comes from factory farms. Conventional meat is typically raised on corporate factory farms that are inhumane to animals and unhealthy for you. Animals raised in mass factory farms are pumped full of antibiotics, hormones and other drugs (about 70 percent of all antibiotics and similar drugs produced in the United States are given to livestock and poultry), while being fed an unhealthy mix of pesticide-laden grains.

If you are not familiar with factory-farming practices and what that means for the food you feed your family, The Meat You Eat: How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America's Food Supply, is a highly recommended book on the topic.

  1. You can reduce the amount of PAHs when you grill by not cooking fatty meats, or by putting a layer of foil between the meat and the coals.

  1. Marinate your meats before grilling or broiling them using lemon juice, vinegar, red wine or beer; it can reduce HCAs by 90 percent or more.

  1. Consider cooking your high-quality meats less, to rare or medium-rare temperatures at most.

  1. If you love lunchmeat, pepperoni, bacon, sausage and other cured meats, look for nitrite-free varieties in your grocery store. If they're not there, request them!

Recommended Reading

 The Pros and Cons of Being a Vegetarian: What the Experts Say

The Number of Approved Meat Additives Expanded by the FDA -- and None of the Additives Need to be on the Label


Archives of Internal Medicine March 23, 2009;169(6):562-571 March 23, 2009 Cancer Prevention and Survival

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