#204 Does meat cause cancer and heart disease?

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Does meat cause cancer and heart disease?

Does meat cause cancer, heart disease, or an early death?  In this article, I will show you how to enjoy meat without any increased risk based on new research.

The Harvard Meat Study

Meat studies are difficult to do.  These studies often are not very accurate either.

This is because health conscientious people tend to eat less meat.  If they do eat meat, it is generally fish or poultry.

In contrast, people who don’t care much about their health are more likely to eat a meat heavy diet.  They also like to load up on red and processed meats.  The question is always, was it the meat or their lifestyle that accounted for the increased cancer, heart, and premature death risk.

This study was different because the lifestyle variable was taken out of the equation.  Specifically, they analyzed the effect of various meats on people with with both a healthy and unhealthy lifestyle.

In this latest meat study, Harvard University researchers followed 131,342 people for up to 26 years in hopes of answering the question, does meat cause cancer, heart disease, or an early death.  Here are the three key findings of this new study:

1. Meat was safe for people with healthy lifestyles.

This finding is good news for people who are healthy and like meat.  Basically, as long as you are living a healthy lifestyle, meat conferred no extra risk.

In this study, Harvard researchers defined a healthy lifestyle by four criteria–no smoking, no alcohol abuse, daily exercise, and not being overweight.  However, if even one criteria was not met, then meat was associated with an increased risk.

2. Processed red meats were associated with a shorter lifespan.

As my readers know from blog #129, the World Health Organization has recently warned of the cancer risk associated with processed and red meats.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that this study linked processed red meats to a shorter lifespan as well.

When these researchers looked at the different types of meats and their effect to cancer, heart disease, or an early death, the risk was almost entirely due to processed red meats.  Processed red meats include sausage, bacon, pepperoni, deli meats, bologna, or hot dogs.

Other meats, like poultry or fish, appeared safe.  Likewise, dairy and eggs were also safe when it came to the risk of a premature death.

Interestingly, while unprocessed red meat and fish did not increase the risk of a cancer death, these meats did affect the heart.  For unprocessed red meats, like a hamburger or steak, the risk of a heart disease death went up.  In contrast, fish was associated with a decreased risk of dying from heart disease.

3. Plant-based proteins may allow you to live longer.

In my opinion, the most interesting finding of this study was that if people can replace 3% of their daily animal protein calories with 3% plant-based proteins, they lived up to 34% longer.  In practical terms this means that if you enjoy a deli sandwich for lunch, trade the last bite or two of your sandwich for a few bites of peas, beans, or lentils to live up to 34% longer.

Even if you don’t want to give up the last bite or two of your sandwich, the more plant-based proteins you eat the lower your risk of a cancer or heart disease death.  Would it surprise you to learn that calorie for calorie, spinach has more protein than a T-bone steak?  Indeed, 100 calories of spinach packs 13 grams of protein versus the mere 9 grams of protein in a 100 calorie serving of steak.

When it comes to getting enough protein every day, don’t limit your options.  Nuts, seeds, vegetables, and legumes are all great protein sources.

Take Home Message

What does this study mean in practical terms?  Here is what I am recommending now to my patients.

1. If you meet the criteria of a healthy lifestyle, as defined by this study, enjoy meat in moderation.

2. If you have one or more unhealthy lifestyle factors, you need more plant-based proteins and a quick lifestyle course correction.

3. Processed meats should be a rare treat for anyone.

Personally, I don’t like to take chances with my health.  Thus, most of my daily protein comes from plant-based sources.

As meat contains some critical nutrients, like vitamin B12, I do eat some meat.  Typically, this consists of wild Alaskan salmon once or twice a week.

I like the fact that wild Alaskan salmon is low in contaminants and sky high in the omega 3 fatty acids.  Also, fish is consistently associated with less heart disease and a longer lifespan in most studies.

What is your take on this study?  Do you agree with the findings?

Please leave your thoughts and questions below.  I’ll do my best to answer every question as quickly as possible.

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  1. Dr. Day,
    I have had type two diabetes for 25 years. I have no heart disease or any other health problems. I stayed healthy by ignoring the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. It was their advice that caused my diabetes. I went on my own and tested every food on my blood sugar for many years. A plant based diet is too high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates not fat in the diet cause obesity. here is my diet. I eat no processed food of any kind. No processed meat except bacon on rare occasions. I cut these foods out of my diet, sugar of every kind, anything made from any kind flour, potatoes and rice. They cause weight gain. I do eat red meat about twice a week, chicken, small fish,eggs, cheese, yogurt and nuts and seeds. My typical meal is meat or cheese, lots of vegetables and a little fruit. I add coconut oil, avocado and olive oil. For a treat I eat sugar free chocolates I invented. I don’t count anything and I am never hungry. I don’t gain weight and my blood sugar stays were it should be. I am 78 years old. I have never smoked and exercise 7 days a week for 45 min. including weights. It works for me.

    • Hi Rosalei,

      Congratulations on finding an eating approach that works for you! You are correct, processed carbohydrates usually cause obesity and other health problems in most people that try them.

      Warm regards,