Red meat raises hearty concerns

By Meeghan, 30 March, 2012

Around the world the leading cause of death now comes from ‘lifestyle’ diseases according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general for non communicable diseases Dr Ala Alwan.

“We are talking about heart disease and strokes. We are talking about diabetes. We are talking about cancers and we are talking about chronic lung diseases,” he said. “Specifically these four groups of diseases share more or less the same risk factors which are: tobacco use, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol.”

In a recent study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in the United States, researchers found one of these risk factors, an unhealthy diet, specifically an excessive consumption of red meat is directly associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular and cancer mortality. However, substituting alternative healthy protein sources including, fish, poultry, nuts and legumes was associated with a lower risk of mortality.

The study published online in Archives of Internal Medicine followed findings from the World Cancer Research Fund, which concluded there is a link between excessive meat consumption and cancer, particularly bowel cancer.

A critic of the Harvard study, Veronique Droulez, marketing nutrition manager for Meat and Livestock Australia believes the study relies on a different set of circumstances to Australia’s. She said, “It is important to note that the findings of the study are specific to nurses and health professionals in the US, hence the findings may not be generally applicable to the Australian population”. “The participants in the particular study were also less likely to be physically active, more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and have a higher body mass index. They were more likely to have a higher energy intake and ate less whole grains, fruits and vegetables,” she said.

However closer to home, results from a national nutrition survey conducted by the Australian Government indicate that Australians of all ages do not in fact eat enough vegetables and fruit, and two out of three Australian adults are classified as overweight or obese. The US study led by senior researcher Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH, observed 37,698 men from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study for up to 22 years and 83,644 women in the Nurses’ Health Study for up to 28 years who were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at baseline. Their diets were assessed through questionnaires every four years. A combined number of 23,926 deaths were documented in the two studies and regular consumption of red meat, particularly processed red meat, was associated with increased mortality risk.

Red meat, especially processed meat, contains ingredients that have been linked to increased risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. These include heme iron, saturated fat, sodium, nitrites, and certain carcinogens that are formed during cooking. Dr Hu added, “This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death”. “On the other hand, choosing more healthful sources of protein in place of red meat can confer significant health benefits by reducing chronic disease morbidity and mortality.”

The dietary guidelines of Australia encourage people to consume three to four servings of red meat a week - with a serving defined as 65 grams to 100 grams - and should limit or avoid processed meat.

This study highlights not that people shouldn’t consume red meat but a high consumption or excessive consumption of red meat, particularly processed meat has serious health implications. Stick to the Australian healthy eating guidelines and add more fish, poultry, vegetables, nuts and legumes and you’ll seriously reduce the risk of preventable lifestyle diseases.

Looking for more vegetarian options - click here.

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