What Increasing or Decreasing Meat Does to You Over Time

©. Bogdan Sonjachnyj

An analysis of more than 80,000 people over 8 years suggests what happens to one's risk of premature death when changing meat consumption.

Most of us know that eating red meat is not very good for you. Think: An increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and premature mortality. And adding in processed red meat like bacon, hot dogs, and sausages gets you even more: Increased risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure, and hypertension.

So it make sense that increasing or decreasing one's meat consumption would have an impact over time, the specifics of which are exactly what a team of researchers from the United States and China set out to determine. The twist here is that they wanted to figure out the risks independent of initial red meat intake, and specifically, the risk of mortality.

For the research, the team used data from 53,553 female nurses, ages 30 to 55, from the famous cohort study, the Nurses' Health Study (NHS), as well as from 27,916 male health professionals, aged 40 to 75, from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). All were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at the beginning of the study.

They measured increases or decreases of red meat intake over the course of eight years, and then tracked health and death data for eight years after that. What they found will likely surprise just about nobody. From the study:

In two large prospective cohorts of US women and men, we found an increase in red meat consumption over eight years was directly associated with risk of death during the subsequent eight years, and was independent of initial red meat intake and concurrent changes in lifestyle factors. This association with mortality was observed with increased consumption of processed and unprocessed meat, but was stronger for processed meat.

Enqually unsurprising, also from the study:

A decrease in total red meat consumption and a simultaneous increase in the consumption of nuts, fish, poultry without skin, dairy, eggs, whole grains, or vegetables over eight years was associated with a lower risk of death in the subsequent eight years.

They say that the research suggests that a change in protein source or eating healthy plant based foods such as vegetables or whole grains can improve longevity. And these findings were also relevant in shorter term (four years) and longer term (12 years) studies they they did as well.

So how much of an associated impact did they find? After adjusting for age and other potentially influential factors:

  • Increasing total red meat intake (both processed and unprocessed) by 3.5 servings a week or more over an eight year period was associated with a 10 percent higher risk of death in the next eight years.
  • Increasing processed red meat intake, such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages and salami, by 3.5 servings a week or more was associated with a 13 percent higher risk of death.

They found that the associations were consistent across different age groups, levels of physical activity, dietary quality, smoking and alcohol habits.

Meanwhile, they found that:

  • Swapping out one serving per day of red meat for one serving of fish per day over eight years was linked to a 17 percent lower risk of death in the subsequent eight years.

Which seems pretty significant to me. Now granted, this was an observational study and thus, cause could not be explicitly established; as well, as the authors note, the the members of these two cohorts were mainly white registered health professionals so the findings may not be more widely applicable. But still, the data includes a huge swath of people over a long period of time, with numerous assessments of diet and lifestyle factors, with similar results between the two cohorts.

Given all the prior evidence linking the consumption of red meat to poor health, it makes sense that increasing one's intake would be linked to heightened risk of mortality. The findings provide "a practical message to the general public of how dynamic changes in red meat consumption is associated with health," they conclude. "A change in protein source or eating healthy plant based foods such as vegetables or whole grains can improve longevity."

The study, Association of changes in red meat consumption with total and cause specific mortality among US women and men: two prospective cohort studies, was published in The BMJ.