Red meat consumption is linked to early death

Put down those cold cuts.

Harvard study associates increasing consumption of red meat with a higher risk of death. Photo by Alex Guillaume/Unsplash
Harvard study associates increasing consumption of red meat with a higher risk of death. Photo by Alex Guillaume/Unsplash

The world is eating more meat. The global consumption of meat and poultry has increased in both developed and developing countries over the past 50 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Research has linked both red and processed meat to a higher risk of certain health conditions, such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, and even some cancers.

New research has shed light on this, suggesting increased red meat consumption especially processed meat is linked to a higher risk of premature death.

A study conducted by scientists from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that people who increased their daily servings of red meat over an eight-year period were more likely to die during the subsequent eight years than those who did not increase their red meat consumption. On the other hand, decreasing red meat and simultaneously increasing healthy alternative food choices over time was associated with lower mortality.

Scientists gathered the health data from 53,553 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and 27,916 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study who were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at baseline. They looked at whether changes in red meat consumption from 1986 to 1994 predicted mortality from 1994 to 2002, and whether changes from 1994 to 2002 predicted mortality from 2002 to 2010.

Increasing total processed meat intake by half a daily serving or more was associated with a 13 percent higher risk of mortality from all causes. The same amount of unprocessed meat increased mortality risk by 9 percent. The researchers also found significant associations between increased red meat consumption and increased deaths due to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and neurodegenerative disease.

The study also suggests that the decrease in red meat together with an increase in nuts, fish, poultry without skin, dairy, eggs, whole grains, or vegetables over eight years was associated with a lower risk of death in the subsequent eight years.

Senior author Frank Hu, Fredrick J. Stare Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and chair, Department of Nutrition said, “This long-term study provides further evidence that reducing red meat intake while eating other protein foods or more whole grains and vegetables may reduce risk of premature death. To improve both human health and environmental sustainability, it is important to adopt a Mediterranean-style or other diets that emphasizes healthy plant foods.”

The first author of the study is Yan Zheng, a former postdoctoral associate in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School and now a professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, China. Other Harvard Chan School authors included Yanping Li, Ambika Satija, Mercedes Sotos-Prieto, Eric Rimm, and Walter Willett. The study cohorts were supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, and the current study was supported by grants from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the Boston Obesity Nutrition Research Center.