March 3, 2011
As physicians we recognize that lean meats may be a healthy part of almost anyone’s diet. However, based on the preponderance of evidence compiled by scientists and health experts across the globe, there is little doubt that a diet high in red and processed meats is linked to serious health risks and that we would all be wise to keep our consumption down. New dietary guidelines, recently released by the United Kingdom’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) bolsters this conclusion. The SACN’s Iron and Health 2010 report advises that Britons can reduce their risk of colorectal cancer while maintaining healthy levels of iron by keeping their red meat and processed meat consumption to 70 grams or about 2 ½ ounces a day.
Cutting back on red and processed meat could do more than just ward off colorectal cancer. Research has linked it to other diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s. A landmark United State’s study, published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Meat Intake and Mortality, which included data from more than half a million members of the AARP, concluded red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases of “total” mortality in addition to cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality. An equally important Harvard study, published in Circulation in 2009, that followed more than 84,000 female nurses, found that red meat intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease. More importantly researchers concluded that shifting sources of protein from meat based to plant based could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
The Washington Post reports that cutting down on red meat could save an estimated 3,800 Britons from dying of bowel cancer every year. However, SACN researchers made it clear that their report did not address other potential health risks associated with meat consumption, which means many more lives could be saved from other preventable diseases.
The take home message from this latest report from across the pond is one of moderation. That’s the same message that the United States Departments of Agriculture and Health recently tried to convey through their 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. While the Guidelines provided little new information, nutrition expert Marion Nestle proclaimed that this was, “the first time, the guidelines make it clear that eating less is a priority.”
The U.S. government is not quite ready to tell people to eat less red and processed meat. When a reporter asked why the Dietary Guidelines didn’t just come out and say eat less red meat, the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “The guidelines do mention the need for more consumption of fish and seafood in the lean protein area… I think that’s a way of saying what you’re saying.”
At the risk of sounding unpatriotic we believe the British recommendation of restricting your red and processed meat consumption to 2 ½ ounces is sound.
But what exactly would a meal with 2 ½ ounces of meat look like? If you went the fast food route, you would be able to eat a McDonald’s hamburger. (a full sandwich weights 3 ½ ounces)
For folks who think no meal is complete without red meat, cutting back to 2 ½ ounces might seem daunting. Other than cutting them out all together, some palatable ways to keep your red and processed meat consumption down is to limit them to a few times a week or simply use them as side dishes or flavor enhancers with tasty vegetable and grain-based meals.
Perhaps one of the best ways to ease your way into learning how to cut back on your meat consumption is to start your own Meatless Monday. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public and the Center for a Livable Future helped kick-off the national non-profit campaign. Meatless Monday has become incredibly popular worldwide due to its simple message, the potential positive personal health effects, and its potential to help reduce industrial meat productions negative environmental and public health effects.