MONDAY, March 12, 2012 (Health.com) — Want to live longer? Trade some of the red meat in your diet for fish, nuts, whole grains, and other healthier protein sources, Harvard researchers say.
That’s the conclusion of a new study, published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, that found that the risk of dying at an early age—from heart disease, cancer, or any other cause—rises in step with red-meat consumption.
Eating too much red meat, which is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, has long been seen as unhealthy, especially for the heart. The new study, however, is the first to estimate the effect of swapping out red meat on a person’s lifespan.
Using data from two long-running studies of health professionals, researchers tracked the diets of more than 121,000 middle-aged men and women for up to 28 years. Roughly 20% of the participants died during that period.
On average, each additional serving of red meat the participants ate per day was associated with a 13% higher risk of dying during the study. Processed red meat products—such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami—appeared to be even more dangerous: Each additional daily serving was associated with a 20% higher risk of dying.
Based on these findings, the researchers estimate that substituting one daily serving of red meat with fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, whole grains, or low-fat dairy products would reduce the risk of dying in this stage of life by 7% to 19%. If everyone in the study had slashed their average red-meat intake to less than half a serving per day, the researchers say, 9% of deaths among men and 8% of deaths among women could have been prevented.
“Our message is to try to reduce the red meat consumption to less than two to three servings per week,” says lead author An Pan, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston.
“We don’t want everyone to be a vegetarian,” Pan says, though he adds that avoiding processed red meat altogether may be a good idea. “It’s better to go with unprocessed products and plant-based foods.”
Next page: Veggie-heavy diets offer a “double benefit”