Extra serving of meat equates to smoking two cigarettes a day

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For the past few decades Harvard has been conducting the first large-scale prospective longitudinal study that shows the effect of red meat, both processed and unprocessed, on mortality in men and women.  After 22 years of follow-up the results have been published in the online journal Archives of Internal Medicine with strong evidence that red meat greatly increases the risk of premature death from heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

For the length of the study over 120,000 people’s diets were evaluated and 23,926 deaths occurred that were related to the regular consumption of red meat in the diet.  This staggering number included 5,910 cardiovascular disease deaths  and 9,464 cancer deaths.  But with all the numbers and trials produced the scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) still can’t say there’s a direct cause and effect that exists.  What they can emphasize is the strong correlation between red meat and fatal diseases.  The reason that this correlation may exist is explored in detail in the study.

There are certain elements in red meat that justify the link between that delicious steak or hamburger you love, and death.  It may seem morbid and dramatic, but when it comes to heart disease the higher cholesterol and saturated fat are strongly tied to coronary heart disease.  Beef, pork, and lamb also contain heme iron which is connected to heart attacks and fatal heart disease.  Also because heme iron is more easily absorbed into the body than other kinds of iron, it can increase the risk of colorectal and other types of cancer as well as result in oxidative damage to cells in the body.  Sodium and chemicals that can be found in processed meats can damage blood vessels and increase blood pressure.

David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University biostatistician, and the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, found a way to explain the findings in the journal in simple terms.  By retelling the results in an analogy of two friends who do the same amount of exercise, have the same job, and weigh about the same.  Spiegelhalter concluded that if one of the friends had a hamburger everyday at lunch and the other something else “the person who eats more meat is expected to live one year less than the person who doesn’t eat so much meat. You’d expect the 40-year-old who does eat the extra meat to live, on average, another 39 years, up to age 79, and the person who doesn’t eat so much meat, you’d expect him to live until age 80.”

While one year may not seem like a dramatic difference in life expectancy, when related in more pressing terms that equates to “losing half an hour of life because of that meal. On average, it’s equivalent – scaled up over a lifetime – to smoking two cigarettes a day, which is about half an hour off your life.”  Perhaps it’s not the kind of new information that makes you revolutionize your eating habits, but it is enough to make you think twice before you throw away that extra half hour a day for a delicious steak.

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