Grilled during backyard barbecues, cooked for homemade meals, and ordered on the go at millions of fast food restaurants across the country, red meat is a mainstay in many Americans’ diets, but a growing body of scientific research released within the last year suggests that it may be the common thread in a slew of ailments that are at the root of the country’s health epidemic. While the animal agriculture industry may be quick to tout burgers and steak as tasty sources of protein, it’s increasingly clear that the food’s dietary detriments, which include cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, may warrant a warning label to caution the general public that they eat at their own risk.
Forkful of Chronic Disease
The country’s health status is at odds with the medical industry. As many fatal and life-threatening diseases are rendered obsolete with the development of vaccines, medications, and treatments, many residents continue to suffer from unprecedented levels of preventable health issues such as type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of 2011, approximately 23 million people in the US currently live with the condition while nearly 70 million are pre-diabetic. Type 2 diabetes can be partially attributed to genetics and a lack of physical activity, but it is also heavily influenced by diet. A review published this year by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that go-to barbecue fare such as pork and beef play a significant role in the disease’s proliferation. During the research, the Harvard scientists analyzed three separate studies that recorded a collective 150,000 patients’ dietary habits since the 1980s. The results revealed that eating an additional 1.5 ounces of the red meat every day increases the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes by approximately 48 percent, which led them to the conclusion that reducing intake of the food is a key way to keep the chronic condition at bay: “Our results add further evidence that limiting red meat consumption over time confers benefits for [type 2 diabetes] prevention,” wrote the research authors.
At the heart of the country’s diet-related disease dilemma is the heart. Nearly 715,000 US residents have heart attacks each year, killing approximately 600,000 people annually. For years, health professionals have reported that red meat’s high fat and cholesterol content negatively affect the cardiovascular system, but a study published in the journal Nature Medicine in 2013 revealed that there is a chemical component of beef and pork that increases consumer’s risk of suffering heart disease as well. Recently, Cleveland Clinic researchers found that when humans’ gut bacteria digest the compound carnitine—which is abundant in red meat—the byproduct TMAO is released. TMAO was found to inhibit the body from expelling cholesterol, allowing the fatty substance to sink into artery walls—a deadly recipe for heart attack.
Cancer is another leading cause of death in the US, and a significant amount of resources have been dedicated to finding new and effective treatments for the disease. But as healthcare costs become more of a concern for the general population, doctors and dieticians are training their gaze on prevention methods, such as healthier diets, that reduce the likelihood of cancer ever occurring. While fruits, vegetables, and legumes are unanimously lauded as foods that help keep a clean bill of health, there’s also an emphasis on what not to eat. Enter red meat. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012, which analyzed the dietary habits of more than 120,000 people, revealed that consuming a 3-ounce piece of red meat every day increases the risk of dying from cancer or cardiovascular disease by 13 percent, while eating an additional serving of processed red meats, such as hot dogs or bacon, heightens a person’s fatality incidence by 20 percent. Separate studies have also found links between red meat and the development of bladder, lung, and breast cancer, and a recently released study by the American Cancer Society in Atlanta concluded that when a patients ate foods such as beef, pork, and lamb prior to being diagnosed with colon cancer—one of the most common forms of cancer in the US—it significantly raised their mortality risk as well.
Red Meat, Red Flag
In order for the country as a whole to combat chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, we need to start at the source of the problem—our diets. This means looking at the hard data from reputable health sources to make informed decisions, and replacing foods like red meat that have repeatedly proven to be inimical with sustenance that actually sustains a long and healthy existence. It is this urgency to encourage a greater physical well-being and combat the country’s collective health epidemic that has led wellness experts and dieticians to discourage meat and dairy and endorse plant-based diets.