Eating a red meat-rich diet not only raises cholesterol and blood pressure levels but can also have potentially lethal health risks, according to new research.
Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, warn that high consumption of red meat, especially processed meats, can dramatically increase heart disease and cancer risks.
During the study, researchers looked at the data of 121,342 men and women over a 20-year period.
Their eating and diet habits were questioned and after two decades, 23,926 deaths were recorded, including 5,910 from heart disease and 9,364 from cancer.
Scientists claim they found a striking link between red meat consumption and premature death. When the deaths were divided into specific causes, researchers discovered that eating any kind of red meat increased the chances of dying from heart disease and cancer by 21%.
Researchers added that a daily serving of unprocessed red meat, for example beef, pork or lamb the size of a deck of cards, raised the risk of death by 13%.
In comparison, processed meats, like a hot dog or bacon, caused death risks soaring by 20%.
“This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” says senior author professor Frank Hu in a statement.
“On the other hand, choosing more healthful source of protein in place of red meat can confer significant health benefits by reducing chronic disease morbidity and mortality.”
The study urges people to cut out red meat from their diet as it can lead to significant health benefits as well as slashing death rates by 7%. Scientists from the study believe that if red meat consumption is reduced, it could prevent 9.3% of deaths in men and 7.6% of deaths in women.
Nuts, for example, are said to reduce mortality rates by 20%, low-fat dairy products lowered it by 10% and whole grains by 14%.
The daily recommended allowance of red meat, as suggested by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), should be stripped down to 500g a week.
Dr Rachel Thompson, from the WCRF, says: "This study strengthens the body of evidence which shows a link between red meat and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. The research itself seems solid and is based on two large scale cohort studies monitored over a long period of time.
"The study calculates that lives would be saved if people replaced red meat with healthy protein sources such as fish, poultry, nuts and legumes and we would like to see more people replacing red meat with these type of foods."
However, not everyone agrees with these findings, as Dr Carrie Ruxton from the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) believes that red meat is essential to our diet.
“This US study looked at associations between high intakes of red meat and risk of mortality, finding a positive association between the two. However, the study was observational, not controlled, and so cannot be used to determine cause and effect.
“The authors’ conclusion that swapping a portion of red meat for poultry or fish each week may lower mortality risk was based only on a theoretical model. This conflicts with evidence from controlled trials.”
Dr Ruxton added that red meat is an important source of iron, zinc and vitamin D.
Victoria Taylor, Senior Heart Health Dietitian at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), adds: “This study links red meat to deaths from CVD and cancer. Researchers suggest that the saturated fat content of red meat may be to blame. However, the study does not differentiate between leaner and fattier cuts of meat, so it would be useful to know if the association is the same when this is taken into account.
“Red meat can still be eaten as part of a balanced diet, but go for the leaner cuts and use healthier cooking methods such as grilling. If you eat processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages or burgers several times a week, add variation to your diet by substituting these for other protein sources such as fish, poultry, beans or lentils.”
According to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), the average meat consumption in the UK is currently in line with Government recommendations.
In the UK, red meat contributes 32% of the total dietary intake in men and 27% for women, and overall, 17% of the UK’s dietary iron intake is from red meat consumption.
“In summary, this paper should not be used to dissuade people from reducing their current intake of red meat when it provides essential nutrients that are required as part of a healthy balanced diet,” says Dr Ruxton.