Eating a lot of red meat may shorten your life, while consuming more fish and poultry may extend it, a new study suggests.
Red meat is associated with a higher risk of dying from heart disease, cancer and any other cause, the researchers reported.
For many people, red meat is a primary source of protein and fat. But meat has been associated with increased risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers in other studies, the researchers noted.
"We should move to a more plant-based diet," said lead researcher Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. "This can substantially reduce the risk of chronic disease and the risk of premature death."
Red meat increased risk by 12%
For the study, Hu's team collected data on more than 37,600 men who took part in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and more than 83,600 women in the Nurses' Health Study.
Over 28 years, almost 24,000 of the study participants died. Nearly 6,000 of the deaths were from cardiovascular disease and more than 9,000 were from cancer, the researchers found.
Hu's group calculated that for every daily serving of red meat, the risk of dying increased 12%. Broken down further, the researchers found the risk was 13% for a serving of unprocessed red meat and 20% for processed red meat.
A single serving is about the size of a deck of cards, Hu noted.
By replacing a daily serving of red meat with a serving of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products or whole grains, however, the risk of dying was lowered, the researchers said.
The risk of death decreased by 7% for fish, 14% for poultry, 19% for nuts, 10% for legumes, 10% for low-fat dairy products and 1% for whole grains, the researchers found.
If people ate less than half a serving of red meat a day, deaths during the 28 years of follow-up could have been reduced by 9.3% for men and 7.6% for women, the researchers noted.
The report was published online in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Cutting back 'not a bad idea'
A representative from the beef industry took issue with the findings. "The scientific evidence to support the role of lean beef in a healthy, balanced diet is strong and there is nothing in this study that changes that fact," said Shalene McNeill, a registered dietitian and executive director of nutrition research at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"Research clearly shows that choosing lean beef as part of a healthful diet is associated with improved overall nutrient intake, overall diet quality and positive health outcomes," she added. "Overall, lifestyle patterns including a healthy diet and physical activity, not consumption of any individual food, have been shown to affect mortality."
"This was an observational study," McNeill also noted. "Observational studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect."
Another dietary expert said cutting back on red meat might not be a bad idea.
Samantha Heller, a dietitian, nutritionist, exercise physiologist and clinical nutrition coordinator at the Center for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., took issue with the notion that meat is somehow intrinsic to the human diet.
"'But we are born carnivores,' is the cry I hear when I suggest that my patients and students reduce their intake of red and processed meat," Heller said.
What most people do not realise, Heller said, is that humans are not designed to handle the huge amount of saturated fat, iron and other compounds in red and processed meats that they consume.
Nitrates and saturated fat in red meat harmful
"A diet high in red and processed meats deluges the body with inflammatory compounds like saturated fat and nitrites," she said. Over time, the body's best efforts to cope with the influx of unhealthy compounds are overwhelmed.
"We get heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases," Heller said. "There are numerous studies showing a link between eating red and processed meat and chronic diseases and death."
Research suggests that going meatless even a few days a week can significantly reduce the risk of these devastating diseases, she said.
"Cut back to eating red or processed meat once or twice a week to start," Heller said. "On other days, substitute chicken, fish, beans, soy, nuts, whole grains like quinoa, and low or nonfat organic dairy for your protein sources."
A healthy diet
For more on a healthy diet, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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