Red meat: Good or bad for your health?

Red meat provides various vitamins and minerals important to a healthy, balanced diet. However, its image was seriously harmed in recent years, with research showing that the intake of red meat can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. But it’s too bad for us, really? We are investigating.

Tabled red meat
Intake of red meat in the U.S. has fallen dramatically over the past 4 decades.

Red meat is described as any mammalian-muscular meat. This includes beef, lamb, pork, cabbage, veal and mother.

Red meat is considered a staple food for many households, with some of us eating beef, lamb, and pork on a regular basis, in different variations.

Last year, it is estimated the average person in the United States consumed about 106.6 pounds of red meat. Although this may seem to be a high consumption, it is a substantial decrease from the 1970 average of 145.8 pounds per capita consumed.

Red meat consumption has fallen by around 10 pounds per person in the past 10 years alone, with 2014 seeing the lowest intake of red meat since 1960, at just 101.7 pounds per person.

Yet, why do so many of us cut red meat down?

A shift toward plant-based foods

About 8 million adults in the U.S. are vegetarian or vegan, with animal rights issues being driving force, according to a 2016 Harris Survey.

It seems, though, that millions more of us opt for plant-based foods over meat-based products, as we assume they are safer. The 2016 Harris Poll found that 37 percent of U.S. adults consume vegetarian meals “often” or “often” while dining out, with 36 percent citing health reasons for their preference.

A variety of studies have indicated a plant-based diet is the way forward when it comes to health. A position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in December 2016 stated that a plant-based diet could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 62 per cent as well as reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

“If you could bottle up a plant-based medication it will become instantly a breakthrough drug,” commented paper co-author Susan Levin of the Washington, D.C. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

However, it is not just the health benefits associated with plant-based diets that push us away from red meat but also the health hazards that that arise from consuming red meat. We are looking at what are some of those threats.

Cancer

Cancer is probably the most well-established health-implication when it comes to the consumption of red meat.

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a study in October 2015 that states that red meat is “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” indicating there is some evidence that it can raise the risk of cancer.

In addition, the WHO concluded that processed meat – described as “meat that has been transformed by salting, curing, fermenting, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation” – is “carcinogenic to humans,” meaning there is ample evidence that processed meat consumption increases the risk of cancer.

processed meat
A high intake of processed meat is associated with a greater risk of colorectal cancer, according to the WHO.

To order to arrive at these findings, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Working Group of the WHO reviewed more than 800 reports examining the impact of red and processed meat on different cancer forms.

Researchers found that every 50 grams of processed meat eaten daily – which mostly includes pork or beef – raises the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

The IARC has also found evidence of a correlation between the consumption of red meat and increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.

It is assumed that cooking red meats at high temperatures – for example by frying or barbecue – is what leads to an increased risk of cancer.

Cooking meats at high temperatures can contribute to the development of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are chemicals that have been shown to increase the risk of cancer in animal models, according to the National Cancer Institute – a member of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) –

Nevertheless, the WHO report concluded that the role of HCAs and PAHs in the risk of human cancer is not well understood, and there was insufficient evidence from their study to determine if the cooking of meat induces cancer risk.

Kidney failure

Kidney failure – whereby the kidneys are no longer capable of removing waste products and blood water – is estimated to affect more than 661,000 people in the U.S.

Diabetes and high blood pressure are among the most common causes of kidney failure, but in July 2016, one study indicated that the consumption of red meat may be a risk factor.

The study documented a dose-dependent correlation between red meat consumption and the risk of kidney failure, published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Participants with the highest 25 percent red meat intake, for example, were found to have a 40 percent increased risk of kidney failure relative to those with the lowest 25 percent.

“Our results indicate that these people can still retain protein intake but recommend moving to plant-based sources; however, if they still want to consume meat, fish / shellfish and poultry are better alternatives to red meat,” says study co-author Dr. Woon-Puay Koh of the Duke-NUS Singapore Medical School.

Heart disease

Heart disease continues to be the number one killer in the United States, responsible for the deaths of about 610,000 people in the country each year.

A high in saturated fat and cholesterol, unhealthy diet is a well known risk factor for heart disease. A variety of studies have indicated that red meat falls into this category, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease and other conditions.

Red meat
Some studies have associated red meat consumption with heart disease.

For example, a 2014 study of over 37,000 Swedish men found that people who consumed more than 75 grams of processed red meat a day were at a 1,28-fold greater risk of heart failure than those who consumed less than 25 grams a day.

The research published in 2013 identified an correlation between the consumption of red meat and increased risk of heart disease, but this link was not due to the high content of red meat saturated fat and cholesterols.

The researchers, from New York’s Columbia University, found that gut bacteria digest a red meat compound called L-carnitine, converting it into a compound called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO).

The researchers found that TMAO contributed to the development of atherosclerosis in mice – a disease caused by the accumulation of fatty substances in the arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.

While there are numerous studies that link red meat consumption to poor heart health, this correlation is questioned by other research.

For example, a recent study by Purdue University researchers in West Lafayette, IN, showed that consuming 3 ounces of red meat three days a week did not contribute to an rise in risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.

Diverticulitis

Diverticulitis is a disease that induces inflammation in one or more of the sacs that line the colon’s wall, known as diverticula.

This inflammation may lead to many serious complications including abscesses, colon perforation, and peritonitis (infection and swelling in the abdomen’s lining).

While the exact causes of diverticulitis remain unknown, a high-fiber diet has been suggested that could increase the risk of developing the disease.

A research published in the journal Gut earlier this month indicated that consuming large amounts of red meat may also increase the risk that diverticulitis may develop.

According to people who reported consuming small levels of red meat, those who reported consuming the largest quantities were found to have a 58 per cent higher risk of diverticulitis.

The researchers found the risk was the highest with high intakes of unprocessed red meat.

How much red meat should we eat?

Given the clear evidence that red meat consumption poses possible health risks, it is important to remember that red meat is full of nutrients.

For example, a 100 gram portion of raw ground beef contains about 25 percent of the recommended daily vitamin B-3 allowance, and 32 percent of the recommended daily zinc allowance.

Red meat also has high levels of heme-iron – which is better absorbed than plant-derived iron – vitamin B-6, selenium and other vitamins and minerals.

Nevertheless, the public health recommendations recommend restricting the intake of red meat, based on the evidence to date.

Of example, the American Institute of Cancer Research recommends consuming no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meats a week to lower the risk of cancer, whereas processed meats should be completely avoided.

Although the 2015-2020 American Dietary Guidelines suggest rising red meat consumption, they do not prescribe a daily limit.

According to IARC director Dr. Christopher Wild, the 2015 study linking red meat intake to increased cancer risk supports public health guidelines to reduce red meat consumption.

However, he notes that red meat has a nutritional value, and that this should be acknowledged in future studies “to balance the risks and benefits of consuming red meat and processed meat and to have the best dietary guidelines possible.”

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