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Eating red meat linked to early death: Study

Lindsay MacAdam
Shine On
March 14, 2012

Whether you turn to red meat as a source of iron or you're simply one of those steak-and-potatoes kind of people, a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine reveals that you might want to consider getting your fill of protein and iron elsewhere.

Most of us are aware that red meat is high in fat, which can lead to heart disease if we're not careful, but what many may not realize is that the iron-rich protein source can also be linked to cancer. Part of that is due to the increased exposure to iron, but it's also the process of cooking red meat, which can release potentially cancer-causing chemical compounds called nitrosamines, reports Time.

According to the study, led by An Pan at the Harvard School of Public Health, we can now put numbers on exactly how detrimental to our health red meat can be. Moreover, replacing it with chicken, fish, nuts and whole grains can make a world of difference.

So what are the numbers? The study, 22 years in the making, tracked the eating habits and health conditions of 121,000 health professionals. Researchers found that an additional deck-of-cards-sized serving of red meat a day contributed to a 13 per cent increased risk of dying, reports Time. Make that a serving of processed red meat, like a hot dog or some bacon, and the chance of dying during the study period went up to a shocking 20 per cent. Eating one serving of red meat each day, on average, boosted the risk of death from cancer by 13 per cent and increased the risk of death from heart disease by approximately 19.5 per cent.

Researchers made sure to consider other risk factors, such as age, family health history and body mass index, for a balanced analysis, reports the Toronto Star.

[See also: Six tricks for healthier meatloaf]

They say hindsight's 20/20, and that's never been more true. The researchers concluded that around 9.3 per cent of the men's deaths and 7.6 per cent of the women's deaths throughout the study could have been avoided if the participants had simply reduced their red meat intakes to less than half a serving per day.

"We should move to a more plant-based diet," lead researcher Dr. Frank Hu tells HealthDay. "This can substantially reduce the risk of chronic disease and the risk of premature death."

Pan found the numbers to support these theories, too, by observing what happened when study participants substituted one of their daily servings of red meat with an alternative source of protein, like fish, chicken, whole grains or nuts. The result: The risk of dying over two decades was reduced by up to 19 per cent, reports TIME.

"What we include in our diet is as important as what we exclude," writes Dr. Dean Ornish of the University of California, San Francisco, in an editorial accompanying the study. "So substituting healthier foods for red meat provides a double benefit to our health."

Meat industry folk, of course, will tend to disagree with studies like these.

"Research clearly shows that choosing lean beef as part of a healthful diet is associated with improved overall nutrient intake, overall diet quality and positive health outcomes," Shalene McNeill, dietician and executive director of nutrition research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Associationtells HealthDay. "Overall, lifestyle patterns including a healthy diet and physical activity, not consumption of any individual food, have been shown to affect mortality."

Wherever you stand on this debate, it's probably safe to say that reducing your red meat intake couldn't hurt.

Do findings like these affect your eating habits?

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