I asked a handful of people recently why red meat posed a health issue. They all answered, “Saturated fat.” They’re right, of course, but only partly: There are a half dozen other compounds, either in red meat itself or that form after ingestion, that can wreak serious havoc on your health. In addition to avoiding the hormones and antibiotics typically given to livestock and reducing the destructive impact of livestock on the environment, here are six good reasons to cut back on those bacon burgers and sausage patties.
Prolong Your Life. The Harvard School of Public Health followed 120,000 people for 28 years and found that those who ate about two servings a day of red meat had a 30 percent higher risk of dying than those who ate about a half serving a day.
You might think you’re at the low end of that spectrum if you only eat meat a few times a week. But in our supersized world, a restaurant steak can exceed three servings, one bacon burger can equal two and a half standard burgers, and a deli sandwich can top out at four servings. As a general rule, the more processed the meat, the smaller the amount that is considered a serving. (See “How Big Is a Serving?”)
Cut Your Cancer Risk. Eating red and processed meats has been linked to prostate, pancreatic, and esophageal cancers, but the clearest and strongest link is to colorectal cancer. A joint report by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund found that each daily serving of red or processed meat increased the risk of colon cancer by 20 percent.
Researchers are looking at two likely causes for this. One is meat mutagens — carcinogenic compounds that form when meats, including poultry and fish, are cooked at high temperatures until well done. Some of these mutagens, known as HCAs and PAHs, were shown in a large study of 300,000 people to increase colorectal cancer risk. There are simple steps you can take to keep these carcinogens from forming in your meat. (See “Keep Carcinogens at Bay.”)
The other likely contributor to colorectal cancer is something called N-nitroso compounds, known to cause cancer in lab animals. These compounds aren’t in the meat itself but form in the gut after eating processed meats like bacon, sausage, or lunch meats that are colored or preserved with nitrites.
N-nitroso compounds also form when you eat unprocessed meat, which researchers believe is due to the type of iron (heme iron) found predominantly in red meat. White meat, they observed, caused no increase in N-nitroso compounds.
Help Your Heart. It’s no mystery that the saturated fat in red meat raises LDL cholesterol and clogs arteries. But substituting lean meat may not solve the problem. This is because carnitine, a nutrient present in all meats, may indirectly cause plaque to form on arteries.
Carnitine is necessary for fueling our mitochondria, and by itself is not a problem. But when bacteria in the gut digest carnitine, they create a byproduct called TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide), which appears to accelerate plaque formation. People who eat abundant red meat have more of the gut microbes that produce TMAO. Vegans, on the other hand, have none.
Prevent Diabetes. A number of studies have found that eating both processed and unprocessed red meat can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. The culprits are thought to be the trifecta of heme iron, N-nitroso compounds, and the cartinite byproduct TMAO, all of which appear to play different roles in damaging insulin-producing cells.
Stave Off Stroke. There are two kinds of stroke: hemorrhagic (caused by a ruptured artery) and non-hemorrhagic (caused by clogged arteries). In America, most people suffer from the latter, and our consumption of red meat isn’t helping.
A 2012 study of 125,000 people published in the journal Stroke found that each daily serving of 1 to 2 oz of processed red meat increased stroke by a whopping 30 percent. The researchers estimate that the average person could cut their stroke risk 27 percent by trading one daily serving of red meat for poultry.
Protect Your Brain. You’ve probably never heard of AGEs (advanced glycation end products) but researchers are linking these toxic chemicals with inflammation that damages the brain, kidneys, and blood vessels. AGEs form naturally in the body in small amounts. But a diet high in sugary, processed foods and meats that have been grilled, charred, or cooked at high heat causes AGEs to accumulate, increasing your risk of cognitive decline and insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.
Researchers agree that you’ll benefit greatly by reducing red meat consumption to once or twice a week, and choosing healthier sources of protein like fish, poultry, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Fill the rest of your plate with fruits and veggies, which are full of fiber, vitamins, and potent phytochemicals that reduce your risk of all of the above diseases.