The Shocking Truth About Red Meat

Are you worried about dying? If so, you are not alone.  Facing our own mortality is a common concern – one that we deal with every day as physicians. 
Many of the patients in my cardiology practice are there because they are worried about dying.  That is not what they say of course, they come for recommendations on treating high cholesterol or blood pressure or because of a family history of heart disease, but what they really want to know is how they can avoid the leading cause of death…… heart disease.
Fortunately there are a lot of ways to lower the risk of heart disease (and death).  Treating high blood pressure and cholesterol or helping someone quit smoking are the things that we doctors usually focus on, but in our practice we also spend a lot of time talking about the importance of regular physical activity and eating a healthy diet.
If you ask most people what makes a diet healthy, most of them will mention avoiding red meat, but is red meat really killing you?

Red Meat and Death and Disease
Concerns about the health effects of red meat are not new.  It seems like once or twice a year there is another medical study that links eating red meat with heart disease, cancer or other health problems.  One of the largest studies was from Harvard researchers published in the Archives of Internal Medicine http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/172/7/555that followed 130,000 individuals for up to 28 years and found that red meat increased death, heart attacks, strokes and cancer (ranging from 13% to 21%).  Their findings were not surprising; in fact most of the studies have been pretty consistent, increasing red meat consumption increases the rate of death and disease.
Does that mean that avoiding red meat is the key to a healthy diet?  If you avoid red meat you will be at low risk of heart disease and cancer and dying early, right?
The Shocking Truth about Red Meat
While most of the available research on red meat suggests a modest effect on health (particularly processed meats like hot dogs, bacon and sausages) it’s important to consider all the facts.  All of these studies have limitations.  It is difficult or impossible to do definitive studies about the health effects of isolated foods.  We rely on studies that are not as scientifically sound to answer questions about diet which means they may be wrong. 

However, the most important point when looking at this data is to realize that the effect of red meat on death rates is very small.  While a 20% increase in death sounds very concerning, this is a RELATIVE difference rather than an ABSOLUTE difference.  For example, in the Harvard study each serving per day of processed red meat (about 7 hot dogs or 14 slices of bacon per week) increased the RELATIVE risk of death by 20%, but the ABSOLUTE increase was only 0.81% to 0.97% per year. 

Yep, about 0.16% per year.
Should You Eat Red Meat?
So does this mean you SHOULD eat red meat?  Not necessarily.  You probably shouldn’t eat a lot of red meat (daily), but whether you choose to eat red meat on occasion probably has little (if any) effect on how long you will live.  If you can avoid it and not miss it…..good for you, but if you like red meat on occasion, there is little evidence that health is a reason to avoid it. 
A more compelling argument against red meat might be the concerns over Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) effect on animal welfare and the environment.
Our recommendations would be that if you decide that red meat has a place in YOUR healthy diet, then enjoy better quality meat (unprocessed, grass fed, humanly raised) on a less frequent basis rather than poor quality meat more often.
Red meat is not the reason that we are seeing epidemics of obesity and diabetes and all the associated health problems.  The culprit is highly processed and refined foods.  If you are eating for better health, the best place to start is to focus on real food.
What do you think?  Is red meat part of your healthy diet?
Author Bio:
Dr. R. Todd Hurst, MDis a board certified cardiologist and Dr. Lisa Hurst, MD is a board certified internist.  After years of watching fad diets fail their patients they founded Achieve-Life, an online weight loss program,.  The program is a unique combination of tools and resources that can guarantee your weight loss. And now you have the opportunity to try thedifference forfree

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