Cutting down on meat and replacing it with fish or chicken could add years to your life, a major study suggests.
Swapping just one portion of red meat a day – such as a 3oz steak or a serving of spaghetti bolognese – for a fillet of fish cuts the risk of dying over the next eight years by 17 per cent.
Replacing it with skinless chicken or vegetables slashes the risk by 10 per cent, eggs by 8 per cent and wholegrains by 12 per cent.
Cutting out processed meat has even greater benefits, the Harvard University research team found.
Replacing two slices of bacon, a single sausage or a daily ham sandwich with fish cuts mortality by 25 per cent, with chicken by 17 per cent and veg by 18 per cent.
Eating red and processed meat increases a person’s risk of an earlier death (stock)
The study, published last night in the British Medical Journal, examined the dietary habits of more than 81,000 people in the US.
Changes to participants’ eating habits were tracked over eight years, and then they were monitored for another eight years to see how this impacted their health.
The results showed that people who increased their red and processed meat intake by at least half a serving per day over the eight years had a 10 per cent higher risk of dying in the subsequent eight-year period.
But those who dropped their intake of meat – and instead upped their consumption of leaner protein such as chicken, fish or eggs – saw their risk of death fall.
Previous studies have shown that red and processed meat is linked to an increased risk of type two diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF EATING TOO MUCH RED MEAT?
Red meat – such as beef, lamb and pork – and processed meat – like bacon, sausages and charcuterie – have been linked to health complications.
The NHS therefore recommends adults reduce their intake to 70g a day and do not exceed 90g.
The American Institute for Cancer Research advises we consume no more than three portions of red meat a week.
It also urges us to ‘avoid’ processed meats.
Processed meat often contains nitrogen-based preservatives that stop it going off while being transported or stored.
These preservatives have been linked to both bowel and stomach cancer.
When red meat is digested, the pigment haem gets broken down in our gut to form chemicals called N-nitroso compounds.
These compounds have been found to damage the DNA of cells that line our digestive tract, which could trigger cancer.
Our body may also react to this damage by making cells divide more rapidly to replace those that are lost.
This ‘extra’ cell division may increase the risk of cancer.
Red and processed meat has also been linked to type 2 diabetes.
This may be due to the preservatives used or the meats’ higher levels of saturated fat than chicken and fish.
The researchers wrote: ‘A decrease in total red meat consumption and a simultaneous increase in the consumption of nuts, fish, poultry without skin, dairy, eggs, whole grains, or vegetables over eight years was associated with a lower risk of death in the subsequent eight years.
‘These findings suggest that a change in protein source or eating healthy plant based foods such as vegetables or whole grains can improve longevity.’
Study leader Professor Frank Hu said the study suggested a ‘Mediterranean’ diet which focuses on fish, beans and vegetables is probably the best way of extending life.
‘This long-term study provides further evidence that reducing red meat intake while eating other protein foods or more whole grains and vegetables may reduce risk of premature death,’ he said.
‘To improve both human health and environmental sustainability, it is important to adopt a Mediterranean-style or other diet that emphasizes healthy plant foods.’
Dr Giota Mitrou, director of research at the World Cancer Research Fund, said: ‘This new study reinforces our own evidence that eating red meat or processed meat increases the risk of cancer.
‘We know that the choices people make are a result of the environments that they live in, so we call on the Government to take a bold step and introduce policies, such as subsidies on healthier food like fruit and vegetables, that empower people to make these healthier swaps by making our daily environments healthier.
‘We recommend that people eat no more than three portions of red meat a week, as this provides a balance between the advantages of red meat as a source of essential nutrients and the disadvantages.
‘However, we recommend that people eat little or no processed meat, such as bacon.’
But Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said: ‘Meat consumption has declined in recent years in the UK and is well below recommended guidelines.
‘Meat has for millions of years provided essential nutrients – protein, iron and zinc and vitamins – and people should think carefully before turning away from a product that has not only served humans well but played a significant part in their development.’
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide