The nutrient benefits of eating red meat are generally well known: Red meat contains essential amino acids; minerals, including iron and zinc; and vitamins, including B12 (which can not be obtained from plant foods but can be found in B12-fortified products, such as breakfast cereals and juices). But increasingly, particularly in already developed and developing countries, unprocessed red meat consumption (see “What you Should Know about Processed Meat”) has grown to such a degree that it carries a potential for major risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, and cancer, as well as shortened mortality.
The degree of red meat consumption worldwide varies among countries, ranging from below five percent to almost 100 percent; average daily intake is about 50-100 grams (g) —3.5 to seven ounces—daily per person; high consumption is considered above 200 g (14 ounces) per person.
Reviewing six cohort studies, researchers found that daily consumption of 100 g of red meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb, and mutton) increases risk by as much as 11 percent for stroke and breast cancer, 15 percent for cardiovascular mortality, 17 percent for colorectal and 19 percent for advanced prostate cancer.
Environmental Impact. Production of red meat involves an environmental burden, such as greenhouse gas emissions related to the production of meat, leading some European countries to issue new dietary guidelines and recommendations limiting consumption of red meat, researchers added. Annual global production is estimated at 184 million tons vs. 109 million tons of poultry. In developing countries the growth rate is five to six percent annually.
What You Should Know
about Processed Meats
Processed meats, commonly known as “cold cuts” or “lunch meat,” are a staple of many brownbags and lunchboxes. What could be easier to eat than a ham sandwich out of your hand? But our beloved processed meats (ham, sausages, bacon, hot dogs, salamis) need to become more “special occasion” treats than daily staples.
Processed meats differ from unprocessed meats by their curing, smoking, and salting processes, in addition to chemical preservatives to preserve shelf life. Additives improve flavor, color and quality. Processed meat also contains much more sodium and nitrates/nitrites than unprocessed meats.
Disease risk for processed meats, based on consuming 50 g (3.5 ozs) daily:
Prostate cancer ………………………. 4%
Total cancer mortality ……………….. 8%
Breast cancer …………………….. 9%
Colorectal cancer ……………………. 18%
Pancreatic cancer ………………….. 19%
Total/cardiovascular mortality 22/24%
Stroke …………………………. 13%
Diabetes ……………………….. 32%
The study was led by Dr. Alicja Wolk, professor of nutritional epidemiology and deputy chairman of the Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, and was published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, August 2016.
Gradual, then Quickening Concerns. Interest in the potentially adverse effects of eating red meat has increased exponentially, based on the number of studies regarding red meat consumption: In 1970 there were eight, rising to 65 in 1990, 309 in 2010, and more than 400 in 2015. In the early 2000s, red meat consumption emerged as a public health concern, based on the environmental burden it involves.
Why’s It So Bad? Red meat, in addition to containing positive nutrients, may also contain residues of antibiotics and hormones used during the animal’s growing process, along with additives introduced during processing, and contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and cadmium, used in earlier years for industrial purposes. In addition, the end-user, the consumer, also can increase disease risk by cooking meat at high temperatures, such as pan frying and barbecuing or grilling.
What to Do? Limiting/avoiding red meat is about the only avenue to modify or eliminate risk. And, while several European countries have issued dietary guidelines concerning red meat consumption, U.S. guidelines have not yet done so, leaving it up to individuals to decide for themselves. So, while most people enjoy the occasional roasted or grilled piece of meat, it’s wise to limit the frequency and portion size of the indulgence.
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