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Don't panic!; or, Yes, you can still eat red meat
If you follow health news at all, whether that's online or just catching the evening news on television, you've probably heard about this study, just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287).
Can Red Meat be Part of a Cholesterol-Lowering Diet?
For a long time when I talked to my patients about eating healthier they would immediately tell me that they would stop eating red meat. This is because in the past, all red meats, including beef, lamb, pork, venison and buffalo, have been largely lumped together as all being equally bad for you.
Red Meat and Diabetes
We know that eating red meat, especially processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, or bologna, should be limited to once a week or less. Red meats and processed meats have been linked to increased risks of colon and rectal cancers, heart disease and diabetes, and death from any cause.
One of the principles of The Mediterranean Diet is eating less red meat, such as pork or beef, and more fish and chicken. Would this change, alone, have a real impact on your health? It appears so.
Researchers at the National Institute of Health made use of data collected in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study (Arch Intern Med 2009;169(6):562-571). This ten-year study began in 1995 with a diet and health questionnaire sent out to over 3.5 million members of AARP between the ages of 50 and 71. Over 500,000 person’s responses were ultimately used for the study.
The researchers grouped the respondents according to how much red meat (beef or pork) they said they ate, creating five groups representing five increasing levels of red meat intake. Similar groupings of respondents were created using white meat (fish, turkey or chicken) and processed meats (lunch meats, sausage, hotdogs or bacon, etc.).
The researchers also gathered information regarding the causes of death for those respondents who died during the course of the study. Their meat intakes were then compared to the meat intakes of those who did not die.
Compared to those men who ate the least red meat, those who ate the most red meat were 22% more likely to die of cancer, 27% more likely to die of heart disease, and 30% more likely to die, period.
For women, those who ate the most red meat were only 20% more likely to die of cancer, but they were 50% more likely to die of heart disease. (No wonder it’s called the hidden epidemic!) Overall, those women who ate the most red meat were 36% more likely to die from any cause.
On the other hand, those men who ate the most white meat were 15% less likely to die from cancer and 8% less likely to die from any cause. Their risk of death for heart disease, on the other hand, stayed about the same regardless of how much white meat they ate.
Women, similarly, were 11% less likely to die of cancer when they were in the group eating the most white meat. Their risk of dying from any cause decreased by 8%, and their risk of death from heart disease also remained about the same.
An especially interesting result is that women seemed to be affected more than men by eating processed meats. Those women who ate the most processed meats were 11% more likely to die of cancer, 38% more likely to die of heart disease, and 25% more likely to die from any cause. In contrast, the men’s group had about the same relative risk of cancer, but their risk of heart disease was only increased by 9%. Their overall risk of death only increased by 16%.
Keep in mind that the people in this study spanned the spectrum of how much red or white meat they ate. Most of them ate both types – just differing amounts. So this doesn’t mean that you have to give up red meat completely. I tell my patients that red meat once a week is fine. Just eat more fish, turkey and chicken than you do red meat.
First posted: April 22, 2009