Those following meat-based diets (like the carnivore diet) often extol the virtues of getting tons of protein to help them maintain body weight, while vegans have long decried meat consumption for various reasons. What impact does eating more meat than recommended truly have on overall health? Is going vegan a better path to take?
A recent study indicates that it is, and that a diet high in certain meats may well increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Do people need to switch to a fully vegan diet in order to reap the benefits, or can they improve their health by balancing meat consumption with an increase in lean proteins, fruits and vegetables?
Why Does Eating Meat Pose a Higher Health Risk?
The study, performed by the University of Eastern Finland, showed men who favored animal-based protein over vegetable-based protein in their diet had a 23 percent greater risk of death over a 20-year period than their peers . In particular, men who ate more than 200 grams of meat-based protein per day — the recommended intake in Finland is 500 grams weekly — increased their risk by this percentage.
While the study did focus on middle-aged men, researchers indicated those whose diets fell into the high-meat consumption category often had diagnoses of cancer, heart disease and diabetes at the study’s onset.
The study consisted of a sample group of 2,600 Finnish men between the ages of 42-60 as part of the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. The study originally commenced in 1984-1989.
Are Some Meats Better Than Others?
The men in the study who consumed meat primarily ate red meat. They also consumed higher levels of processed meat products, such as lunch meats and bacon.
One reason researchers believe red meat increases heart disease risk is due to the high levels of a chemical called Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). This chemical is released by gut bacteria during the digestive process. A study by the Cleveland Clinic found that eating red meat daily tripled levels of TMAO, increasing heart disease risks .
Research indicates that high blood levels of this chemical cause cholesterol to accumulate more quickly on arterial walls. When cholesterol blocks arteries, heart attack and failure may occur from this blockage in blood flow.
The study also discovered that when men switched to a vegetable-based diet or a white-meat-only diet, the levels of this chemical dropped back to normal. This strongly suggests that eliminating red meat, like ground beef and steak, or consuming it only occasionally will help protect cardiovascular health.
What about pork, the so-called other white meat? While the study did not investigate pork chops, many products made from pig, such as ham and other lunch meats, undergo heavy processing and contain chemicals such as nitrates, nitrosamines and N-Nitroso compounds. Such chemicals are commonly used to keep such meat products fresher longer, although the body converts them into harmful substances.
The body breaks down nitrates into N-Nitroso compounds and nitrosamines. Nitrosamines also exist in tobacco smoke. Previous research confirms high levels of nitrosamines in the blood create a greater risk of developing bowel cancer .
Many lunch meats undergo a smoking process. Like charring food on a grill, smoking leads to the release of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Some PAHs have been demonstrated to cause cancer. In addition, many prepared meats contain high levels of sodium as part of the preservation and flavoring process, excessive consumption of which can lead to hypertension.
What Other Risks Are Associated with Carnivore Diets?
Many diners who consume abnormal amounts of meat products (like those on a carnivore diet) also develop other unhealthy habits that further increase their risk of negative health outcomes.
Although some cuts of red meat can be lean, many who consume steaks and hamburgers regularly chow down on more calories overall, especially given the huge portion sizes that have become the norm at many popular eateries. This increases their risk of becoming obese, which raises diabetes and heart disease risk. Eating a diet low in a variety of vegetables has also been linked to the development of cancer. Researchers estimate that nearly half of all cancer diagnoses could be prevented by making simple lifestyle changes like this .
Taking Common-Sense Measures to Improve Health Outcomes
What can people do to reduce the health risks associated with excessive meat consumption? The first obvious step involves reducing the number of steaks, other beef products like burgers and processed meats an individual eats. This need not mean giving up meat altogether, although reducing consumption to no more than two to three regular-sized portions per week is beneficial. To reap the most benefits, though, switching to a totally plant-based diet may be the way to go. Staying away from a strict carnivore diet is recommended.
As research also indicates a diet high in a variety of vegetables helps cut the risk of heart disease and cancer, replacing meat-based meals with vegetarian ones can help protect health . Fruits and vegetables contain large amounts of phytonutrients and antioxidants known to fight free radicals, chemicals in the body that hasten aging and cause cellular changes. Plus, most veggies contain far fewer calories than most meat-based meals, so eating vegetarian can lower obesity risk as well.
Exercising regularly, at least 30 minutes most days of the week, also can improve health outcomes. Exercise reduces stress, which many researchers believe may contribute to heart disease. Additionally, squeezing in a workout on the majority of days helps people maintain a healthy body weight and lower blood pressure.
Lower Health Risks Through Smarter Choices
By decreasing their consumption of beef and processed meats and incorporating more plant-based eating into their lives, people can feel better while slashing their risk of death from diabetes, heart disease or cancer. It’s not as difficult a switch to make as many people think, and it’s worth trying in order to live a longer, healthier life.