Eating Red, Processed Meat Raises Your Risk of Early Death

Eating a hot dog or a couple of slices of bacon a day comes with a surprisingly high cost to your health.

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Those juicy burgers and sizzling steaks may look innocent enough (not to mention temptingly tasty), but they could be driving meat eaters to an early death.

It’s no secret that red meat can be harmful to our health — while high in protein, it’s also packed with fats that can contribute to heart disease and diabetes and other compounds that can promote cancer. Now researchers led by An Pan at the Harvard School of Public Health quantify how eating red meat can hasten death, and, perhaps more importantly, how substituting it with other forms of protein, such as fish and chicken, can counteract that deadly effect.

Reporting in the Archives of Internal Medicine, lead author Pan studied more than 121,000 doctors and nurses enrolled in two large studies that tracked the health professionals’ eating and lifestyle habits, as well as their health outcomes — including incidence of heart disease, stroke, cancer and death — for up to 22 years. When he and his colleagues parsed the data by how much red meat the participants ate, they found that an additional single serving of meat a day (about the size of a deck of cards) contributed to a 13% increased risk of dying, and an added serving of processed red meat a day (a hot dog or two slices of bacon) increased the risk of dying during the study period by 20%. Much of that risk was due to heart problems; on average, a daily serving of red meat boosted the risk of heart disease death by around 19.5%, and the risk of dying from cancer by 13%. (Cooking red meat can release nitrosamines, which have been linked to an elevated risk of developing cancer, as has increased exposure to the iron found in red meats.)

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Overall, according to the more than two decades of data that Pan and his team collected, about 9.3% of the deaths among the men and 7.6% of the deaths among the women in the study could have been avoided if the participants ate 42 g of red meat a day, or less than half a serving.

But instead of merely documenting how harmful red meat can be for the body, Pan decided to see how healthier alternatives, such as fish, chicken, nuts and whole grains, stack up against steaks and burgers. And the numbers may be revealing enough to finally help some of us make the switch. Overall, substituting one serving a day of red meat with one of these other sources of protein lowered the risk of dying over two decades by up to 19%: chicken or whole grains each reduced the risk by 14% while nuts lowered the risk by 19%.

“We should move to a more plant-based diet,” senior author Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, told HealthDay. “This can substantially reduce the risk of chronic disease and the risk of premature death.”

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That’s certainly going to be challenging since the average American downs 65 lb. (30 kg) of pork and beef, respectively, every year. And not everyone is convinced by the results, including, not surprisingly, those in the meat industry. “Research clearly shows that choosing lean beef as part of a healthful diet is associated with improved overall nutrient intake, overall diet quality and positive health outcomes,” Shalene McNeill, a dietitian and executive director of nutrition research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, told HealthDay. “Overall, lifestyle patterns including a healthy diet and physical activity, not consumption of any individual food, have been shown to affect mortality.”

Still, says Dr. Dean Ornish of the University of California, San Francisco, and a longtime proponent of lower-fat diets as the strongest weapon in preventing chronic diseases, the study provides convincing evidence that choosing the right alternatives to eating red meat might help us live healthier and longer lives. “What we include in our diet is as important as what we exclude, so substituting healthier foods for red meat provides a double benefit to our health,” he wrote in an editorial accompanying the study. Maybe the key to eating healthier isn’t focusing on what we’re giving up, but on what we’re gaining in terms of our health instead.

Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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