You might not think twice about ordering a burger for lunch or making a big pot of spaghetti with meat sauce for dinner, but the red meat in your diet could be taking its toll on your health. Studies have linked red meat consumption to a host of health issues from Type 2 diabetes and cancer to heart disease.
If trading a grilled sirloin for grilled tofu seems overwhelming, take note: It helps even if you cut back a little. Dr. Stanley Hazen, PhD, section head of preventive cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, says reducing red meat consumption and increasing the amount of whole foods such as fruits and vegetables in your diet could help minimize the health risks — and you can still enjoy the occasional steak or burger.
Here are four reasons to embrace meatless meals:
Show your heart some love by cutting back on red meat. In a 2018 study, researchers found eating red meat increased the risk of heart disease 1,000% compared to a vegan diet.
Hazen was part of the research team that found eating red meat was associated with higher levels of trimethylamine N-oxide or TMAO, a gut bacteria byproduct formed during digestion.
“High levels of TMAO in the blood have been shown to be a powerful tool for predicting future heart attack, stroke and death risks,” he explains.
TMAO levels in the blood increased up to 10-fold among those eating a red meat diet but subsided in the month after decreasing red meat consumption.
Think vegetarians get too few nutrients to sustain elite athletic performance? Think again. Ultra-marathon runners were almost twice as likely to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet than those who ran half- or full-marathons, according to research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Another study comparing elite vegetarian and omnivore athletes found women who followed plant-based diets had better VO2 max.
Eating meat has been linked to an elevated risk of developing certain cancers: Research published in the International Journal of Cancer found a connection between processed meats and breast cancer risk; and eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week — a double hamburger is made with a little over 3 ounces of beef — increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
The World Cancer Research Fund suggests eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton and goat, per week and consuming little to no processed meats.
Chronic inflammation is associated with diseases ranging from cancer and heart disease to dementia and depression — and eating red meat and processed meat was linked to higher levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.
New research found those who followed vegan diets had lower levels of certain C-reactive proteins, reducing their risk of a major cardiac event like a heart attack, stroke or death, according to researcher Dr. Binita Shah, MS, assistant professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine.
“If, while on medical therapy [like statins], your hs-CRP level is still elevated, consider changing your animal-based protein to plant-based protein to further reduce your cardiovascular risk,” Shah advises.