Dangers of Eating Red Meat: Dr. Heather Fields
5 Health Concerns Linked To Red Meat
Categorizing red meat as potentially cancer-causing refers most directly to colorectal cancer, but even the strongest scientific evidence in this area is still considered somewhat limited. It looks like processed red meat—think hot dogs, sausage, and bacon—may be the real culprit. Processed meats were designated Group 1 carcinogens by the WHO, a more dangerous ranking than the Group 2A given to unprocessed red meat, because many contain nitrates and nitrites, salts that are thought to be directly related to cancer. "We can't say there's a safe level of intake of processed meat," says Carolina Guizar, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with New York City meal delivery nonprofit God's Love We Deliver. "It's pretty clear that the more processed meat you have, the greater your risk for colorectal cancer."
That's true, but—and this applies to all health and nutrition studies, not just red meat—that risk needs some context. The WHO found that eating five strips of bacon a day raised colon cancer risk by 18%. For starters, you're probably eating less than that. But even if you were eating five pieces a day, you, average American, start out with about a 5% chance of ever developing colorectal cancer in your lifetime. Increasing that risk by 18% brings that lifetime risk up to 5.9%, which is still incredibly small—to put it another way, you'd have a 94.1% chance of never getting colorectal cancer.
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Still, Guizar says, it doesn't hurt to give yourself some extra protection. You can counteract some of the negative effects of red and processed meat with overall healthy habits known to keep cancer risk low, like getting lots of fruits and veggies, maintaining a healthy weight, and quitting (or never starting) smoking. How you cook red and processed meat can also limit cancer risk. When grilling burgers, add spices with cancer-fighting antioxidants like rosemary and oregano. A 2010 study found extracts from these spices can reduce the formation of carcinogens when meat was grilled. Raw, antioxidant-rich tomatoes or onions make for tasty hot dog toppings to offer similar benefits, Guizar says. And cook meat at a lower temperature for a longer period of time when you can to prevent charring, since that black burnt stuff is known to contain cancer-causing agents.
You've long been wary of the saturated fat and cholesterol in red meat, no doubt, but the research examining the link between eating red meat and heart disease has actually been mixed. In one review of 11 different studies, four found an increase in heart disease risk when people ate more red meat while five didn't, Guizar says. Another review found only a weak link between red meat and heart disease, but a stronger link between processed meat and heart problems.
It actually might be the salt in processed red meat that's the big concern, says Simin Liu, MD, ScD, professor of epidemiology at Brown University's School of Public Health who researches nutrition and heart disease, among other topics. "Sodium in particular is a risk factor for high blood pressure, which in turn elevates heart disease risk," he says. Iron intake from red meat has also been linked to heart disease and heart attack, he adds, not to mention saturated fat probably shouldn't be let entirely off the hook.
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But there's a lot left unknown by the existing research, much of which relies on people remembering the food they ate—sometimes years ago—and reporting accurately how much of it they ate and when. We can make some guesses from these studies about the relationship between eating red meat and future heart disease, but we don't know what else might account for that relationship in this type of research. "Observational studies are not as accurate as double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies," Bauman says. "You don't always know if you're getting 100% accurate information from people. You also don't know if the particular item—like red meat—is what accounts for the change in their health or if it's some other confounding issue contributing to the change." People who don't eat red meat, for example, may also be eating lots of fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly, she says. Or maybe a group of particularly health-conscious people in the study don't fess up about the fact that they actually eat bacon every Saturday at brunch.
Liu's research estimated that for every serving per day your red meat intake increases, your risk of type 2 diabetes goes up by somewhere between 9 and 18%. Again, processed meat seems to be more problematic than unprocessed, and (noticing a theme yet?) nitrites and nitrates seem to be to blame, Liu says. Some of the same cancer-causing chemicals that can form while cooking red meat are also toxic to the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, at least in studies of animals. Of course, eating red meat could cause you to pack on a few extra pounds, which could in turn increase diabetes risk, Liu adds. But it's frequent consumption that he's most concerned about. "The average healthy person should not be worried about having a hamburger or a steak occasionally," he says. The study results come from comparing people who eat red meat five or more times a week and people who eat it less than once a week. "Red meat consumed in modest portions and low frequency would not convey high risk of developing type 2 diabetes," he says.
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It's not like any of these diseases sounds particularly healthy—and certainly all of them can lead to an early demise. But some research suggests independent of these and other conditions, red meat consumption might shave years off your life all on its own. For every additional serving per day of unprocessed red meat, your risk of dying of any cause goes up by 13%. Before you run to the fridge to toss last night's leftovers, remember your risk of dying is still small—people who ate the least amount of unprocessed red meat in the study had a 1.08% chance of dying and people who ate the most had a 1.23% chance. In other words, a hamburger's probably not going to kill you.
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We still need more research, Liu says, to understand exactly how red meat affects disease risk and what might be the optimal amount to eat if you're going to indulge. In the meantime, there are a few simple steps we can all take to be a little bit healthier:
- Always pick a lean cut of red meat, like fillets.
- Watch your portions. "We recommend if you're going to have red meat it's about the size of a deck of cards, which is roughly 3 or 4 ounces," Bauman says. "Restaurant burgers can be half a pound!"
- Spread servings of red meat throughout the week. In general, try to eat no more than 11 to 14 ounces of red meat a week, Guizar says. "Instead of a giant steak once a week, consider meat a side dish and eat smaller portions throughout the week." Even better, save red meat for occasional splurges.
- Look for nitrite- and nitrate-free versions of your favorite processed meats.
- Think low and slow: Cook red meat at lower temps for longer periods of time rather than grilling or frying.
Video: Red Meat Linked to Increased Diabetes Risk
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