Health

Do you eat red meat?

... Check out the risks

Dr Derrick Aarons

Sunday, July 23, 2017

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WE are all aware of the advice that we should do all things in moderation. This applies particularly to what we consume.

Lately, the issue of red vs white meat has been the focus of further medical research. Red meat comprises meat from animals, including beef, lamb, and pork, while white meat includes fish, turkey, and chicken.

Red meat is red when raw and dark in colour when cooked. In contrast, white meat is pale in colour before cooking and remains pale after cooking.

Meat is a major source of protein, which is necessary to build and maintain muscle strength, but should be consumed in moderation.

Research with red and white meat

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute in the USA published the findings of their study two months ago in the British Medical Journal, and the results indicated that eating more red meat is associated with an increased risk of dying from eight common causes, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

They examined 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 red meat.

On the other hand, people who ate the most white meat, including fish, turkey and chicken, were 25 per cent less likely to die of all causes during the period of study, when compared with people who consumed the least.

The report confirmed previous studies that showed the associations between eating red meat and premature death.

For the same total of meat intake, people who reported having a diet with a higher proportion of white meat had lower rates of premature deaths.

The design of the research

The researchers performed a cohort study in which they followed the health and eating habits of people from six states and two cities in the USA over a period of 16 years. They analysed the data collected on total meat intake as well as the consumption of processed and unprocessed red meat and white meat. People were sorted into five groups from lowest to the highest intake of red and white meat to see how this influenced their odds of dying during the period of study.

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

During the period of study, 128,524 of the 537,000 people died, with cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, and stroke being the leading causes of death. Only Alzheimer's disease risk was not linked to red meat consumption.

Possible causes of premature death

In their published article, the researchers argued that certain ingredients in red meat, such as nitrates and heme iron, may help explain why red meat is linked to higher rates of death than for other causes. The highest intake of heme iron was associated with 15 per cent higher odds of premature death when compared with the lowest intake. Further, nitrates present in processed meat were associated with a 15 per cent increased risk of death from all causes, while nitrates present in unprocessed meat were linked to a 16 per cent greater risk of death.

However, the study was not designed as a randomised controlled experiment to prove how the amount or types of certain meats might directly influence death. Further, reliance on the participants surveyed to accurately recall and report on their eating habits, and the lack of data on any changes in people's diet over time, were also limitations identified in the research.

Reduce red meat

The research findings should reinforce the need for most of us to cut back on meat consumption; and red meat in particular. Processed meat can produce cancer-causing chemicals, while the saturated fats present in meats can lead to a partial blocking of blood vessels in the heart and so increase the risk of heart disease.

The reality is that the risk of death increases with higher meat intake for every major cause of death, except for Alzheimer's. Further, the researchers report that the current level of meat consumption in most developed countries, and increasingly so in low- and middle-income countries, is unprecedented in human history. Consequently, we are recommended to reduce meat consumption back to at least one-tenth of our current levels of consumption.

Derrick Aarons, MD, PhD, is a consultant bioethicist/family physician, a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is the ethicist at the Caribbean Public Health Agency – CARPHA. (The views expressed here are not written on behalf of CARPHA).

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