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Meat and Mortality

Monday, March 01, 2010 Posted by Travis Saunders
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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.

Travis Saunders

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

ResearchBlogging.orgSinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, Leitzmann MF, & Schatzkin A (2009). Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Archives of internal medicine, 169 (6), 562-71 PMID: 19307518

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4 Response to "Meat and Mortality"

  1. Neuroskeptic Said,

    "Once you give it a chance, you might be surprised just how tasty a life with less meat can be."

    When I went vegetarian about 5 years ago I found myself craving meat a little, although less than I'd expected. But I found that certain kinds of vegetarian food were able to fill that void: I think it's about the umami. Rich cheeses and tomatoes are great, so I eat a lot of Italian food, and Asian food with plenty of soy sauce.

    Posted on March 1, 2010 at 5:26 PM

  2. Travis Saunders Said,

    I agree completely. My girlfriend has been a vegetarian for a little over 10 years, and since we eat most of our meals together most of my dinners are meatless as well. I find that having those umami flavours, as well as a healthy dose of protein, really makes the meal feel complete.

    We eat a lot of Indian food (lentils, chickpeas, etc), as well as Italian (we're having a very simple and delicious red lentil bolognese tonight). For just about any type of dish (especially shepherd's pie and pasta sauces) substituting lentils simmered in broth instead of ground beef results in just as much flavour for way less cost, and way less mystery about what you're actually consuming.

    Posted on March 1, 2010 at 6:23 PM

  3. Anonymous Said,

    Guys, love your blog. The passion and the bias (towards exercise) is infectious. I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one.

    This study is a survey with weak hazard ratio's. The same data tells you that men who ate the most meat had the biggest risk on car accidents and women with the highest meat consumption had less cancer. The correlations are all over the place. It suggests nothing.

    In the EPIC studies, vegetarians have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Again not so convincing hazard ratio's. Overall mortality rate between meat eaters and vegetarians did not differ. No long term study shows superior results from vegetarian eating habits. There are lots of studies out there suggesting the same with much better study designs than this particular one.

    I have nothing against vegetarian eating habits. I'd rather go with Paul McCartney and have a meatless day a week. I believe that would have a significant impact the environment. I would promote it for the environment. I have no reason to believe that it is more beneficial for your health, on the contrary.

    ~ Chi

    Posted on March 5, 2010 at 12:41 AM

  4. HowToGetRidofBellyFatFast Said,

    I don't think I personally could ever give up meat, but in recent years I have made a big switch. I eat more fish these days, chicken, and when I do eat beef (my favorite meat easily) I try to only eat beef from natural grass fed cows.

    Posted on April 20, 2010 at 6:21 AM


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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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