HealthDay News — Eating more red meat increased the risk for all-cause mortality and death from cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer, during the study period, data from two large prospective studies showed.

During 28 years of follow-up, each additional serving of red meat consumed per day was associated with a 13% to 20% increased risk of all-cause mortality, Frank Hu, MD, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, and colleagues reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Reducing red meat consumption to less than 42 grams per day — the equivalent of about one hot dog — could reduce mortality 7.6% in women and 9.3% in men, the researchers estimated.

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They prospectively observed 37,698 men participating in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study from 1986 to 2008, and 83,644 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study from 1980 to 2008, who were free of CVD and cancer at baseline. Diet was assessed using validated food frequency questionnaires and was updated every four years.

A total of 23,926 deaths occurred during 2.96 million person-years of follow-up, including 5,910 deaths attributable to CVD and 9,464 due to cancer. Unprocessed red meat included beef, pork, lamb or hamburger and processed red meat included bacon, hot dogs, sausage, salami and bologna.

Each one-serving per-day increase in unprocessed red meat consumption had a pooled hazard ratio (HR) of 1.13 for mortality after adjusting for major lifestyle and dietary risk factors. For processed red meat the HR increased to 1.20. The HRs for CVD mortality were similar at 1.18 for unprocessed and 1.21 for processed meats, and 1.10 and 1.16, respectively, for cancer mortality.

The researchers estimated that substituting one serving per day of various other foods — like fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy and whole grains — for red meat was associated with a 7% to 19% lower risk of dying during follow-up.

In an accompanying commentary Dean Ornish, MD, of the University of California San Francisco, noted that incorporating plant-based foods that are “rich in photochemical, bioflavonoids and other substances that are protective,” is just as important as excluding unhealthy foods.

He noted the “emerging consensus among nutrition experts” for healthy eating, includes the following elements:

  • Consuming little or no red meat
  • Eating diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and soy products in their natural forms
  • Avoiding simple and refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and white flour
  • Consuming more omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, flax oil and plankton-based oils
  • Eating fewer trans fats, saturated fats and hydrogenated fats
  • Emphasizing quality over quantity

Limitations of the current study include potential errors in measuring red meat intake and the uncertain generalizability of the findings outside of predominantly non-Hispanic white study population, which was composed of health professionals.

Pan A et al. Arch Intern Med. 2012; doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287.

Ornish D. Arch Intern Med. 2012; doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.174.