Higher risk of premature death from red meat

Dr Derrick Aarons

Sunday, November 11, 2018

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CERTAIN ingredients in red meat, such as heme iron and nitrates, may be the reason research is suggesting that red meat is linked to a higher risk of dying from eight common diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

In research published in the British Medical Journal, researchers from the National Cancer Institute examined data in the USA on almost 537,000 adults aged 50–71 years, and found that people who consumed the most red meat had 26 per cent higher odds of dying from a variety of causes than those who ate the least amount of red meat.

Further, people who ate the most amount of white meat, including chicken and fish, were 25 per cent less likely to die of all causes during the study period than people who consumed the least amount of white meat. Also, for the same total meat intake, people who reported a diet with a higher portion of white meat had lower premature mortality (death) rates.

Death from nine conditions

These findings were in keeping with previous research suggesting associations between red meat and premature death, and the size of the population studied was large enough to show similar associations across nine different causes of death.

During this study, the investigators followed the health and eating habits of people from six US states, and two metropolitan areas over a 16-year period. They analysed survey data on total meat intake, as well as the consumption of processed and unprocessed red and white meat.

Red meat included beef, lamb and pork, while white meat included chicken, turkey, and fish. To analyse the data, the researchers then sorted people into five groups, from the lowest to the highest intake of red and white meat, in order to see how this influenced their odds of dying during the study period.

The researchers looked at death from nine conditions, including cancer, heart diseases, stroke and cerebrovascular disease, respiratory diseases, diabetes, infections, Alzheimer's disease, kidney disease, chronic liver disease, as well as all other causes of death.

The association with heme iron

During the study period, 128,524 people died with cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, and stroke being the leading causes of death. Only the risk of Alzheimer's disease was not linked to red meat consumption. The highest intake of heme iron was associated with 25 per cent higher odds of premature death than those with the lowest intake.

The nitrates in processed meats were associated with 15 per cent increased risk of death from all causes, while with unprocessed meat, nitrates were linked to a 16 per cent greater mortality risk. While nitrates are relatively harmless, it is their conversion to nitrites within the body that causes the great harm. Nitrites convert the haemoglobin-iron compound to methemoglobin within your bloodstream.

As methemoglobin does not carry oxygen, this reduces the amount of oxygen carried by your bloodstream, which is dangerous as all our living cells need oxygen to function. Also, nitrites can be converted to nitrosamines, which are known to cause cancer.

The researchers noted that limitations to the study were the reliance on participants in the research to accurately recall and report on their eating habits, and the lack of data on any changes in people's diet over time. Also, the study was not a controlled experiment designed to prove how the amount or type of certain meats might directly influence mortality (risk of death).

Reduce red meat consumption

Despite these limitations, however, the research findings should reinforce the need for many adults to cut back on red meat consumption. Processed meats can produce cancer-causing chemicals, while the saturated fats in meats can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Further, choosing meats from organs may not change the risk of premature death. `

The take-home message is that mortality (death rate) is higher with higher meat intake for every major cause of death. So, the really important point is that the current high level of meat consumption in most of the industrialised countries, and increasingly in low and middle-income countries, is unprecedented in all of human history, and so we need to reduce meat consumption back to one-tenth (1/10) of our current levels of intake of red meats. This should increase the quality of our lives (less time spent at the doctor and trying to cope with the debilitating effects of heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, diabetes, and similar ailments), as well as increase our longevity (length of life).

Dr Derrick Aarons MD, PhD, is a family physician and consultant bioethicist; a specialist in ethical issues in health care, research, and the life sciences; the health registrar and head of the health secretariat for the Turks & Caicos Islands; and a member of UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee.


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