Food

Yes, You Can Die From Eating Red Meat: Here Are 4 Tips to Reduce Your Intake

It's a myth that eating red meat is a healthy, natural part of the human diet.

Photo Credit: puhhha/Shutterstock

The human species needs to eat less meat. Why? Take your pick of reasons, from the detrimental impact global meat consumption has on the climate, to the ethics of the mass farming of sentient animals. Or, here’s one that might sink in for the more selfish carnivores among us: not dying of a chronic illness.

One of the more popular myths in society is that eating red meat is a healthy, natural part of the human diet. But a consensus among members of the scientific community is beginning to refute that claim. Last year, a study published in the journal BMJ showed that eating “both processed and unprocessed red meat was associated with all-cause and cause-specific mortality in nine different chronic diseases.”

Before jumping to the defense of your beloved bacon burger, it’s worth taking a closer look at how the study’s authors reached their conclusion. The researchers drew on the dietary data of 536,969 participants over the course of 16 years. All of these participants, drawn from the general population of six states and two metropolitan areas in the US, had signed up to have their diets tracked as part of an NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which specifically tracked each individual’s meat and iron intakes.

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The results of the study revealed a number of startling trends. For one, participants who ate both processed and unprocessed beef, lamb and pork products over the course of that period showed “an increased chance of death from conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and kidney disease.” Another trend the study noted was an increase in general mortality rates due to the high consumption of “heme iron and nitrites/nitrates found in processed meat.” As a result, the researchers hypothesized that meat eaters will suffer an elevated risk of death due to “increased levels of sodium, oxidative stress due to heme iron and nitrate/nitrite intake, increased fat intake, and heterocyclic amines from cooked meat.”

In 2015 the World Health Organization issued a similar report warning people about the health hazards associated with eating processed meat. This study, conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, found a strong correlation between processed meat and colorectal cancer. In establishing this link, IARC confirmed a recommendation first made by WHO in its 2002 report “Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases,” which called for the “moderate consumption of preserved meat” in order to reduce the risk of cancer.

You would think all these warnings about the health hazards of meat would change our behavior. Yet despite all of this scientific knowledge, people continue to eat meat unabated. And it’s not just our own lives we’re putting at risk. By 2050, concludes a study conducted by the London-based think-tank Chatham House, meat consumption is predicted to have risen by 75 percent, and with it will come a drastic increase in the production of carbon dioxide, which has devastating implications for global temperatures and the rise of sea levels.

So how do we change our animal-eating ways? Here are four practical suggestions.

1. To start, try to goat least one day a week without eating meat.

If you’ve lived your entire life doing things a certain way, it’s hard to suddenly change course. This especially applies to what you put in your belly. As Brian Kateman, founder of the Reducetarian movement explained to AlterNet, “People want to make a difference but are either incapable or unwilling to go vegan or vegetarian.” This is why Kateman, along with many like him, propose an incremental approach to eating less meat, such as the international campaign known as Meatless Monday.

2. Make eating less meat part of a bigger life goal or ambition.

On his blog No Meat Athlete, author Matt Frazier outlined his approach to eating less meat. One of the key ways Frazier was able to become a vegetarian was by making it part of his training for the Boston Marathon. As he explained, “If you can find something else that means even more to you than just ‘being a vegetarian,’ your chances of sticking with it go way up.” Of course, it doesn’t have to be something as extreme as training for a marathon. Maybe it’s a bet you make with a friend, or a promise to a family member. By creating that accountability mechanism, you'll have more motivation to stick to your intentions.

3. Get creative with what you eat.

Part of what makes giving up meat so difficult is the familiarity of its taste and texture. This is understandable if you’ve been receiving your nourishment from meat since a young age. There are ways around this predicament, though, if you’re willing to think outside the box and exercise your culinary muscle. One source of inspiration is a website like Vegweb. You could also try out a few of the 26 veggie burger recipes Buzzfeed promises will give you that meat-like mouth-feel.

“Without meat as a default option, cooking becomes a (healthy) challenge,” Frazier writes on his blog, listing various foreign cuisines as possible sources of interesting, non-meat cuisines from the Middle and Far East. “Or,” he continues, “hit up your local farmers market, and learn to love buying fresh, local produce every week.  This alone can add inspiration to previously lifeless cooking.”

4. Change habits slowly over time.

It’s hard to go completely cold turkey on that bacon. For that reason, you could try taking the incremental approach to changing your habits. How you decide to do this depends on your preference and level of discipline. For Frazier, this meant first cutting out red meat and pork, and eventually no longer eating poultry and fish. However you decide to do it, the important thing is that you try to commit to what you’ve started. If it helps, reward yourself for reaching certain milestones (as long as that reward doesn’t involve meat).

The argument for removing meat from our diets has never been greater, or more scientifically sound. The time for action is now. Change your diet today—it might save your life in the future.

Do you have any tips for reducing your red meat intake? Share them in the comments.

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Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.