Nutrition-wise blog

Another look at meat consumption and mortality

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. April 17, 2013

With the various types of diets, fad and otherwise, promoted in the media it may not seem clear which is the healthiest. Is it healthier to eat a vegetarian diet or a low-carb diet, like the old-school Atkins Diet that consisted mainly of meat and little else?

Sure, in the short-term those who ate the Atkins Diet lost weight and even saw some improvement in their cholesterol levels. But over time many meat lovers found they missed their veggies and grains. And long-term data isn't available to support this type of diet. However, there is good data that supports the benefits of a plant-based diet for improving long-term health by lowering cancer and heart disease risk. You may not be ready to give up meat yet, though, and that's okay.

In small amounts, meat may be beneficial for health. Meat is an important source of nutrients, such as protein, iron, zinc and several B vitamins. Concerns about meat have arisen from studies that found an overall increase in early deaths in people with high intakes of red and processed meats.

A recent study found that processed meat is potentially more harmful than red meat. One possible reason is that processed meats, sausages, salami and bacon have more saturated fat. As part of the processing, the visible or saturated fat is ground into the meat. Whereas the visible fat on red meat is often removed before it is cooked or eaten. Saturated fat has been linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease.

Another possible explanation is that the processing — salting, curing, smoking and the addition of compounds such as nitrites — may lead to more exposure to carcinogens. Carcinogens are compounds that cause cancer.

What does this mean for you and your Saturday morning breakfast or favorite Italian meat sandwich? You don't have to give them up completely. Keep your quantities small, to less than 20 grams a day. What is 20 grams? It's less than an ounce (which equals about 28 grams). A cooked slice of bacon is 8 to 16 grams. An average slice of salami is 9 to 12 grams. And a thin, round slice of pepperoni is about 2 grams.

It's all about reframing your image of a healthy meal. Instead of meat with a side of veggies and grain, flip the quantities around. Enjoy the flavors of meat as an accent. Add them to salads or grain-based dishes. Be creative, have fun and enjoy.

To your health,

Katherine

Apr. 17, 2013