Monday, June 1, 2009

Health Care and Red Meat

Americans love red meat. However, burger lovers beware: People who eat red meat every day have a higher risk of dying over a 10-year period -- mostly because of cardiovascular disease or cancer --than their peers who eat less red or processed meat, according to a new study of about half a million people published by the Archives of Internal Medicine and reported by Over a 10-year period, people who ate the most red meat every day (about 62.5 grams per 1,000 calories per day, equivalent to a quarter-pound burger or small steak per day) had about a 30 percent greater risk of dying compared with those who consumed the least amount of red meat (a median of 9.8 grams per 1,000 calories per day). The excess mortality was mostly the result of cardiovascular disease and cancer. The red meat in the study included all types of beef and pork, including bacon, cold cuts, ham, hamburgers, hot dogs, and steak, as well as meat in pizza, chili, lasagna, and stew.

Exactly why red meat and processed meat are associated with increased risks of cancer, heart disease and other deaths isn't known for sure, according to WebMD. But the leading explanations include:
--The meats are a source of carcinogens formed during cooking.
--The iron in red meat may increase oxidative cell damage, leading to health problems.
--The saturated fat found in meat has been linked with breast and colorectal cancer.
To reduce cancer risk, the web site of the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat (cooked weight) per week (or about 2.5 ounces a day.) It recommends avoiding processed meat, noting that research suggests that cancer risk starts to increase with any amount.

According to the New York Times, a question that arises from observational studies like this one is whether meat is in fact a hazard or whether other factors associated with meat-eating are the real culprits in raising death rates. The subjects in the study who ate the most red meat had other less-than-healthful habits. They were more likely to smoke, weigh more for their height, and consume more calories and more total fat and saturated fat. They also ate less fruits, vegetables and fiber; took fewer vitamin supplements; and were less physically active. But in analyzing mortality data in relation to meat consumption, the cancer institute researchers carefully controlled for all these and many other factors that could influence death rates. The study data have not yet been analyzed to determine what, if any, life-saving benefits might come from eating more protein from vegetable sources like beans or a completely vegetarian diet. The results mirror those of several other studies in recent years that have linked a high-meat diet to life-threatening health problems. The earliest studies highlighted the connection between the saturated fats in red meats to higher blood levels of artery-damaging cholesterol and subsequent heart disease, which prompted many people to eat leaner meats and more skinless poultry and fish. Along with other dietary changes, like consuming less dairy fat, this resulted in a nationwide drop in average serum cholesterol levels and contributed to a reduction in coronary death rates. Elevated blood pressure, another coronary risk factor, has also been shown to be associated with eating more red and processed meat. Choosing protein from sources other than meat has also been linked to lower rates of cancer. When meat is cooked, especially grilled or broiled at high temperatures, carcinogens can form on the surface of the meat. And processed meats like sausages, salami and bologna usually contain nitrosamines, although there are products now available that are free of these carcinogens.

Also, according to, eating red meat may increase a person's risk of developing the most common type of kidney cancer, while eating vegetables may provide a protective effect, new research in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows. Both men and women who ate red meat five or more times a week were more than four times as likely to develop the disease compared to people who consumed red meat less than once a week. And, according to the Los Angeles Times, findings published in July, 2008, from a Harvard study of more than 39,000 young nurses suggested that the risk of getting breast cancer before menopause goes up for every extra daily serving of red meat a woman ate as a teenager, a time period that had not been studied before. Add the numerous studies linking red meat to other cancers, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer's disease, and it sounds like the hamburger you had for lunch might as well have been laced with rat poison. In fact, there is a place for red meat in a healthful diet, scientists say, but they recommend choosing smaller portions of lean cuts and cooking them well but not at high temperatures. The question is which meat components are responsible for the observed health risks. Scientists have several theories, though none seems to tell the whole story. Red meat can contain a lot of saturated fats and cholesterol, known contributors to cardiovascular disease. Plus, dementia is strongly related to vascular disease, so it's likely a relationship exists there as well. Meat from commercially raised livestock also contains a high amount of omega-6 fats, which have been associated with poor cardiovascular health, but a low amount of omega-3 fats, which may be protective. Another potential culprit is the iron in meat. Iron is essential for health, but iron from meat comes in a different form than that from vegetables and legumes, one that is absorbed whether the body needs it or not. This type of iron can cause oxidative damage to all the components of the cell -- the protein, lipid, DNA, RNA.

According to, here are some instructions for preparing red meat for consumption:
Step 1:
While many people realize that eating too much red meat is not healthy, fewer people understand why red meat consumption increases your risk of certain types of cancer. While the higher fat content and antibiotics found in non-organic meat is a factor, two of the most important reasons why red meat consumption increases cancer risk is because of the presence of two chemicals produced when red meat is cooked to high temperatures.
Step 2:
As you already know, red meat needs to be cooked to a temperature high enough to kill potential bacteria that cause food borne illness. Unfortunately, the high heat required to kill the bacteria in red meat causes a chemical reaction to occur which produces HCA's or heterocyclic amines. This reaction occurs when red meat and other muscle meats are cooked above a temperature of 150 degrees Centigrade. The higher the temperature the meat is allowed to reach, the more HCA's are produced. Unfortunately, HCA's have been associated with a variety of cancers including colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, and breast cancer. Heterocyclic amines appear to form once the meat reaches a certain temperature regardless of whether it's fried, sautéed, grilled, or boiled.
Step 3:
The other potential cancer causing agent found in cooked red meat is also a product of temperature. These are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are formed primarily when meat is grilled. If you've observed those black, charred pieces on steaks after they come off of the grill, you've seen polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Grilling may give meat a smoky flavor but it doesn't do much for the health value since these hydrocarbons are believed by most experts to cause cancer. No wonder red meat consumption is considered to be so unhealthy.
Step 4:
If this isn't enough to encourage you to lower your red meat consumption, there are some steps you can take to reduce the levels of these chemicals in your meats. Consider preparing your meats by an alternative method other than grilling. You can also reduce the concentration of HCA's formed if you marinate the meat in an acid based marinade and microwave it for two minutes before cooking. If you must use a grill to prepare meat, choose low fat meat as they form fewer polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Trim off any black, charred areas before eating.
Step 5:
Keep in mind that HCA's are formed when any muscle meat is cooked to high temperatures, so it's a good idea to marinate chicken, pork, and fish in an acid marinade and microwave it before cooking. Even better, try to limit red meat consumption as well as other types of muscle meat. Instead, try some of the many meat substitutes that are now available. With a little barbecue sauce or ketchup, these can be tasty and healthy alternatives.

All things in moderation. Be careful to cook meat thoroughly before eating, and observe all the correct ways to prepare it. Use common sense when purchasing meat, and stay away from fatty portions, or meat that has been left out too long. Always clean up thoroughly after working with meat of any kind, and remember to wash your hands before continuing any activity. Although an over abundance of red meat in your diet is not the best way to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, remember that most people can eat good cuts of red meat in modest portions with no real major problems. Of course, if your current health condition mandates abstaining from eating red meat due to heart problems or other reasons, listen to your doctor. The bottom line is to be careful what you eat, how much, and how you prepare it. After all, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins--even when it comes to juicy burgers or steaks.

Until next time. Let me know what you think.

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