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Meat intake and Mortality

Tuesday, March 24, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
Photo by procsilas.

I have mentioned a few times in past posts that I believe a diet high in "plant-based" foods (fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, whole grains, etc) is something we should all strive towards. One key reason to eat as many plant-based foods as possible is simply to reduce the proportion of animal products (mostly meat) that we consume in our diets. Meat is great for a lot of things (I like the taste the most personally), but research continues to show that high levels of meat consumption has negative effects on our longterm health.

Take for example the new study by Sinha and colleagues in the current issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, (available here) which examined meat consumption in over 600 000 Americans 50-70 years of age. Meat was categorized as red meat (including bacon, beef, cold cuts, ham, hamburger, hotdogs, liver, pork, sausage, steak, and meat in foods like pizza chili, lasagna, and stew), white meat (including turkey, chicken, and fish) and processed meat (sausages, cold cuts, and smoked meats). Subjects were then divided into categories based on their consumption of each type of meat.

What were their findings? Men and women with the lowest red meat consumption also had the lowest rates of mortality from all-causes, as well as the lowest rates of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Similarly, individuals with the lowest processed meat consumption also had the lowest rates of overall and cancer mortality in both genders, and the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease mortality in women. The results remained significant after control for confounding variables including education, fruit and vegetable consumption, smoking, body weight, and physical activity levels. In contrast, individuals who consumed the most white meat (including fish) actually had the lowest risk of mortality in both genders, although the magnitude of this effect was considerably smaller than those seen for red meat and processed meat.

I am not advocating that anyone become a vegetarian (I eat a considerable amount of meat myself), but it is pretty clear that eating a diet high in red and/or processed meats puts you at increased health risk over the long-term. If, like me, you love meat too much to give it up completely, consider going for quality over quantity. I used to eat several $2 steaks a week - now I save my money for very good steaks much less frequently. Similarly, now I make fajitas that are mainly vegetables with a bit of meat, rather than the other way around. I have also come to realize that non-animal sources of protein like lentils and hummus not only keep you full, but they are also quite a bit tastier than the low quality deli-meats and ground beef that I used to eat on a daily basis when I was an undergrad.

If you don't believe that plant-based foods can be tasty as a matter of principle, try this experiment. Find a good vegetarian restaurant (The Table and The Green Door are my favourites in Ottawa, while Fresh in Toronto has some amazing burgers and desserts) and see if they have anything you like. Buffet style restaurants like The Table and The Green Door are also great because they allow you to sample so many foods at one sitting (I would especially recommend good vegetarian lasagnas or shephard's pies, which are often far tastier than the salty and bland meat versions they sell in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store). Once you give it a chance, you might be surprised just how tasty a life with less meat can be.


UPDATE: For a detailed review on meat consumption and the implications for both personal and environmental health, click here.

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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