Eating red meat linked with higher risk of death in study of 81,469 adults

Making sense of the beef with red meat.

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
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Scientists have a bone to pick with red meat.

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We've spent a lot of time here at CNET testing the faux meat patties from Impossible Burger and the new pea-rice-bean concoction of Beyond Burger. As it turns out, we might have been doing our bodies a favor. New research, published in the journal The BMJ on Wednesday, shows that increasing red meat consumption is associated with a higher risk of death.

Red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork, and processed meats, like sausages and bacon, have been linked with a higher incidence of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. For instance, a recent report from the World Cancer Research Fund suggests that processed meats increase the risk of bowel cancer. 

The evidence is clearly mounting for lowering consumption of red meat, making it one part of a balanced diet.

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The new study, conducted by researchers in the US and China, looked at changes in red meat intake of middle-aged adults. A previous study, by the same research group, showed red meats and processed meat may contribute to an early death -- suggesting the risk could be raised by up to 13%. 

The researchers followed over 53,000 female nurses and almost 28,000 male health professionals for a period of eight years, and every four years, they would complete a questionnaire asking how often they ate each food of a standard portion size in the previous year. 

Over the course of the study, 14,019 people died of heart disease, cancer, lung disease or neurodegenerative conditions. 

Once the team adjusted for age, it saw that increasing red meat intake by three and a half servings a week over an eight-year period resulted in a 10% higher risk of death in the following eight years. 

The authors suggest that red meat might accelerate processes leading to heart disease, lung disease or dementia because they are high in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt and heme iron.

Notably, switching out a serving of red meat each day for a serving of fish was linked with a 17% lower risk of death. 

"This new study adds important fuel to the fire on the danger of red meat consumption," said Brian Morris, emeritus professor in the school of medical sciences at the University of Sydney. "But the good news is that if people switch to non-meat sources of protein they can substantially reduce their risk of common diseases of ageing and premature death."

An important factor in the study is that the researchers looked at the change in consumption over time, rather than actual intake of red meat. It also did not take into account the reasons for increasing or decreasing red meat consumption in the time period, which may itself affect lifestyle choices and lead to increasing mortality. 

The participants were white, middle-aged health professionals, making it hard to draw wider conclusions about the effect of changing intake in other populations. The authors also make it clear that, as in previous studies, it is only an observational study and can not establish cause. At the very least, the evidence is swinging in favor of replacing red meat with a different protein source.

"We are not yet sure of the relative merits of reducing red and processed meat compared with increasing plant-based foods," said nutritionist and University of New South Wales visiting fellow Rosemary Stanton. "However this study adds to the evidence that such changes in dietary patterns show benefits."

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