Red meat poses risk, processed or not, researchers say

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Red meat is bad for your health. So say the folks at Harvard Medical School.

Not too many months back there were articles in the medical literature indicating processed red meat was bad for your health, and now medical scientists are saying all red meat can be bad.

Before we go any further some explanations and definitions are in order.

So what are red meats? Here is a list: In this country they are beef, veal, pork, lamb and mutton. What are processed meats? They are things like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, sandwich meats, packaged ham and salami.

Why do they call them processed? Because in preparing them for sale and to help preserve them from spoilage a chemical called sodium nitrite is added. This chemical has been known to increase the chance of getting cancer.

The bad news is that more recently studies have shown unprocessed red meats can also increase the risk of both cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Who are the folks who have reported the studies? Six of the eight authors are from the Harvard Medical School -- one of the top schools in the U.S. One is from the Cleveland Clinic -- one of the top clinics in the world and one is from the German Institute of Human Nutrition.

Who participated in the studies? It was 37,698 men from the Health Professional Follow-up Study (1986-2008) and 83,644 women from the Nurses Health Study (1980-2008). The folks in both of these studies were health professionals and thus more likely to report carefully on their health.

In what journal is the study reported? In the Archives of Internal Medicine. This is a mainline respected medical journal published by the American Medical Association.

Now to get down to the nitty-gritty.

An online source that produces up-to-date information for health professionals points out these two large studies may make more people think about a switch to a vegetarian diet.

They have shown that eating both processed and unprocessed red meat significantly increased the risk of all-cause and cardiovascular death and increased the risk of cancer deaths.

The figures were a 16 percent increase in cardiovascular (primarily heart attacks and strokes) deaths and a 10 percent increase in cancer deaths.

The lead investigator for these studies, Dr. An Pan from Harvard, is not urging everybody to become vegetarians. His recommendation is that people need to reduce their meat consumption and as far as processed meats are concerned, try to avoid or eliminate them from the diet.

Dr. Dean Ornish, the head of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., and on the staff at the University of San Francisco, and one of the doctors who helped ex-President Bill Clinton make drastic changes in his diet to prevent another heart attack, commented on the Harvard study in the same issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Ornish advised that people should eat little or no red meat, more complex carbohydrates such as fruits, legumes, whole grains and more soy. He also said they should consume less refined and simple carbohydrates with more healthy fatty acids.

Finally you may be interested to know that calculations were done to see how the total replacement of red meat with other foods would lower the death rates.

Each of the following figures show the percentage drop in risk by switching to various foods: nuts, 19; whole grains, 14; fish, 7; legumes, 10; low-fat dairy products, 10; and poultry, 14.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent four years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 21/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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