Red Meat Shortens Life? What to Do

Too much red meat, especially processed products, can cut your life short, research suggests.

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The craving for a juicy double-bacon cheeseburger or salty-crusty slab of ribs can be difficult to resist. But research increasingly links red meat consumption to chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart problems, and certain cancers, and now there's more bad news for carnivores: A single daily serving of processed or unprocessed red meat—a couple of bacon slices, a hotdog, or an iPhone-size hamburger—may boost your risk of dying before your time, especially from cancer and heart disease.

[See Healthy Red-Meat Substitutes You'll Love.]

That's because red meat contains lots of saturated fat, heme iron, sodium, nitrites, and certain carcinogens that form during cooking, according to a study published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed nearly 30 years of data on more than 120,000 adults. The dangers, they found, were more pronounced for processed products, such as salami, than for unprocessed meat. A daily dose of processed red meat, for example, was linked with a 20 percent increased risk of death compared to 13 percent for unprocessed meat.

Cutting back can help you maintain your health without giving up burgers and chops completely. "The overall message is to try to reduce red meat intake, and for a lot of people it might be very difficult. But maybe they could limit it to two to three servings per week. We think that's reasonable," says An Pan, a Harvard research fellow and the study's lead author.

[See: High-Protein Diets for Weight Loss: Are They Healthy?]

Better yet, the study found, replacing one daily serving of red meat with healthier protein, such as fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, products, and whole grains, appears to further lower the risks: by 7 percent for fish and 14 percent for poultry, for example. "Diets that have fish in them tend to [pose] a lower risk of heart disease and stroke and some of these other chronic diseases," says Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who was not involved in the study. For optimal health, she recommends consulting with a registered dietitian to plan meals, as well as consuming mostly plants.

So when heading to your local grocery store or favorite dining spot, remember that red meat is OK to eat once in a while, but it's smart to replace it with other proteins like nuts, fish, legumes, and poultry. Following this simple rule may help you live a longer, healthier life.