Mankind’s place in the food chain is once again under scrutiny, after a new study found evidence that eliminating meat from our diet could reduce mortality rates and potentially beef up our lifespan. Though the data is highly variable and not totally conclusive, overall trends do not make for good reading for meat lovers, indicating that certain types of animal products – particularly processed and red meats – may contribute to cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The idea that gorging on bacon, burgers, and barbecued ribs may not be particularly healthy is nothing new, although proving the association between a high meat diet and increased mortality rates is not easy. To do so, one would need to evaluate the diets of huge numbers of people in order to try and determine which foods are most commonly associated with fatal diseases – which is exactly what a team of researchers has done.
Publishing their findings in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, the researchers examined the results of six previous studies comparing the health of meat-eaters and vegetarians. One of these studies, which followed subjects over an extended period of time, found that those who bypassed eating animals were between 25 and 50 percent less likely to die. The same study also discovered that long-term vegetarians – defined as those who had not eaten meat for at least 17 years – tended to live 3.6 years longer than short-term vegetarians.
However, other studies suggest that the picture may not be quite as clear-cut as this, as not all types of meat carry the same health risks. For instance, one analysis showed that processed and red meats both brought about an increased risk of death, while another showed that white meats like poultry appeared to have no bearing on a person’s lifespan.
Others took a more in-depth look, seeking out connections between meat-based diets and particular causes of death. For example, one study found a connection between processed and red meats and cardiovascular disease, while another found that vegetarians were 8 percent less likely to suffer from certain forms of cancer than carnivores.
At the same time, however, no link was found between unprocessed meat and either cardiovascular disease or cancer. Commenting on the overall picture emerging from these figures, the study authors conclude that “all-cause mortality is higher for increased daily consumption of red meat, especially processed meat. However, the compiled evidence does not link other meat products to all-cause mortality.” As such, they recommend that “physicians should encourage patients to limit animal products when possible, and substitute red meat and processed red meat with plant-based foods.”
It’s also worth noting that the trends observed in this study are merely observational, and don’t provide categorical evidence of a causal link between eating meat and mortality. Since a wide range of other genetic and lifestyle factors – such as smoking, drinking, and physical exercise – can have a huge impact on a person’s overall health and lifespan, isolating the role that meat plays in this equation is likely to remain a rather inexact science.