The American diet has long designated meat – whether beef, poultry, pork or otherwise – as a major player on a well-balanced plate. But time and science have steadily chipped away at this supposed nutrition icon, with the venerated World Health Organization (WHO) declaring in 2015 that processed meat causes cancer.
But bacon, hot dogs, sausage and some deli meats aren’t alone in posing a cancer risk. WHO also classified red meat as a “probable carcinogen” after reviewing more than 800 studies to reach its conclusions. And a growing body of additional research also implicates various types of meat not only in cancer, but a jarring array of other potential harms.
What are scientists telling us? Here are some of the ways meat is bad for us:
1. Meat clogs arteries – for multiple reasons
It’s not news that red meat can accelerate atherosclerosis, the potentially deadly narrowing of blood vessels around the heart. But 2013 research in the journal Nature Medicine pointed at another heart-unhealthy component of red meat. It’s called carnitine – a compound also added to some energy drinks – that bolsters red meat’s artery-clogging properties. The study, which included more than 2,500 cardiac patients who were vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters, indicated higher carnitine levels predict increased cardiovascular disease risks. https://www.nature.com/news/red-meat-wrong-bacteria-bad-news-for-hearts-1.12746
2. Meat raises odds for type 2 diabetes
Eating red meat regularly over time ups the chances of developing type 2 diabetes, a disease reaching epidemic proportions worldwide and affecting nearly 10% of the American population. A 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine analyzing nearly 150,000 adults showed that increasing red meat intake over a four-year period markedly raised diabetes risks over the following four years. Compared to those who had no change in red meat consumption, those who ate more than an additional half-serving daily experienced a 48% higher risk of developing the disease. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1697785
3. Meat contains harmful hormones
Hormones or hormone-like substances in red meat have been linked to higher risks of certain forms of breast cancer in younger women. A study in Archives of Internal Medicine evaluating more than 90,000 premenopausal women showed those eating more than 6 ounces of red meat daily experienced nearly twice the risks of hormone-sensitive breast cancer than those eating three or fewer servings weekly. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17101944
4. Meat harbors dangerous bacteria
Food poisoning often occurs from eating tainted meats, and a 2014 investigation in Consumer Reports points to chicken as an especially potent source of bacteria. Analyzing more than 300 raw chicken breasts bought across the United States, the findings were shocking: 97% harbored bacteria – even organic brands. These bacteria included “salmonella, campylobacter, and staphylococcus aureus, which are some of the most common bacterial causes of food poisoning; E. coli and enterococcus, which are typical measures of fecal contamination, and klebsiella pneumoniae, a bug that’s naturally present in our stomach but that can cause infections such as pneumonia,” the report said. https://www.consumerreports.org/content/cro/en/consumer-reports-magazine/z2014/February/theHighCostOfCheapChicken.print.html
5. Meat might shorten your lifespan
If all the other negative health implications of eating meat didn’t prompt hesitation, add a possibly shortened lifespan to its cons. Decades-long research from Harvard School of Public Health supports the notion that regular red meat consumption contributes to earlier death. One study involving more than 120,000 men and women suggested that those eating the most red meat had the highest risks of dying younger, with cardiovascular disease and cancer occurring in this group more often. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/cutting-red-meat-for-a-longer-life
Maureen Salamon is a widely published health and medical writer who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN.com, HealthDay, The Dallas Morning News and other major publications.