Red meat intake linked with higher risk of death in study of 81,469 adults

Increased red meat intake — especially processed red meat — is tied to increased risk of death over 8 years, according to results today in the British Medical Journal.

Results also suggested that substituting red meat with healthier alternatives, such as whole grains or vegetables, may lower the risk for death.

 

Making sense of the beef with red meat

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.

Red meat, especially processed meat, contains saturated fat, high levels of sodium, preservatives, and potential carcinogens that can contribute to health problems.

Eating red meat has been tied to increased risk for chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Processed red meat, like hot dogs and bacon, has been linked to an even larger number of health problems, as well as increased risk for death.

 

Study details

The authors of the study analysed data from two prospective US cohort studies: the Nurses’ Health Study (53,553 women) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (27,916 men). Participants were free from cardiovascular disease or cancer at baseline.

An important factor in the study is that the researchers looked at the change in consumption over time, rather than actual intake of red meat.

After adjusting for age, race, smoking, alcohol consumption, and several other factors, including baseline red meat consumption, the researchers found that increasing total red meat consumption by up to 3.5 servings per week over 8 years was linked to 10% higher risk for death compared with no change in red meat consumption.

When they distinguished between processed and unprocessed red meat, they found a similar trend, with the risk associated with processed meat higher than that for unprocessed meat. Specifically, increased consumption of processed red meat by up to 3.5 servings per week was tied to 13% increased risk for death, whereas the same increase in unprocessed red meat consumption was tied to 9% increased risk for death.

Results were similar regardless of age, physical activity level, diet quality, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Results were also similar with 4- and 12-year changes in consumption.

Risk for death decreased when one serving per day of red meat was replaced with one serving per day of nuts, whole grains, vegetables without legumes, dairy, eggs, and legumes.

 

Consistent with previous data

During the past decade, much has been written on diet and the association with cancer risk. A number of studies have found varying associations between the consumption of red meat and cancer.

In a recent study, published this year in the International Journal of Epidemiology, authors found that consuming a moderate amount of red or processed meat is associated with an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.

According to their findings, an average of 76 grams of red meat or processed meat a day, which is in line with current government recommendations from the United Kingdom, was associated with a 20% higher chance of developing colorectal cancer as compared to consuming only about 21 grams a day.

The primary dataset used in this study is the UK Biobank cohort, comprised of almost 500,000 participants.

The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund published several reports during the past 10 years or so on the effect of diet, nutrition, and/or physical activity on risk for several cancer types.

Their most recent study, published in 2017, found that consuming red meat and processed meat may increase the risk for colorectal cancer, as may drinking two or more alcoholic beverages per day. On the flip side, eating whole grains daily and ramping up activity levels can reduce the risk.

 

Conclusion

It is becoming increasingly clear that replacing meat with healthy plant based foods, such as vegetables or whole grains, can improve longevity.

But the health benefits of keeping meat of the menu is only one side of the issue. For conscience-stricken individuals, it is the colossal death and destruction caused by animal agriculture that makes meat unpalatable.

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Is There A Safe Limit For Alcohol?

NHS figures show alcohol-related problems are at a record high

Alcohol is a problem – there are no two ways about it. The number of people being admitted to hospital due to problems with alcohol has hit a record high in England, new NHS figures show. It has been suggested that the swingeing budget cuts to addiction and prevention services over the recent years are the culprit.

As revealed by The Independent in August last year, spending on drug and alcohol support services across England fell by 16 per cent in the four years to 2017. According to recent figures released by Public Health England, there has been a concurrent 13 per cent rise in alcohol-related hospital admissions over the same period.

Moreover, the number of people being admitted to hospital with drink-related brain damage in Scotland is the highest it has been in ten years, according to Scottish NHS figures.

Scotland has the worst record on alcohol-related illnesses and death in the UK with hundreds of people a week – an average of twenty-two a day – being treated in hospitals.

Last year there were 661 cases of brain damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption; a regular drinking habit can cause problems with memory, learning and thinking.

 

UK guidelines

The NHS recommends that men and women drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. The general rule of thumb is that a pint of standard strength beer is 2 units, a pint of cider or extra strength beer is 3 units, a single shot of spirit is 1 unit, and 125 ml of wine is 1 unit. However, home measures are usually more ‘generous’.

This simple rule does not apply to stronger beers and lagers, and many wines nowadays contain 12-14% alcohol by volume and are served in glasses holding 175 ml, rather than 125 ml. The unit content of a drink can be calculated easily by realising that the percentage of alcohol by volume of any drink equals the number of units in 1 L of that drink. For example, a half-litre (500 ml) can of strong lager (8% alcohol by volume) contains 4 units, and an eighth of a litre (125 ml) glass of wine (12% alcohol by volume) contains 1.5 units. However, few people know the strengths of what they drink and the Government is being urged to introduce mandatory, bold, unit labelling on all alcoholic drink containers.

Alcohol Concern UK and Drink Wise have a handy alcoholic unit calculator to help you calculate the number of units that you consume in a week:

https://www.alcoholconcern.org.uk/unit-calculator

 

The biology of booze

Alcohol is a small molecule and thus interacts with many neurotransmitter systems in the brain. This makes its mechanism of action very different from and much more complex than other drugs such as heroin and cannabis, which influence dedicated systems of the brain.

Alcohol affects both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, rendering it both a stimulant and depressant.

Its stimulant quality comes from the release of dopamine in the ventral striatum – the region in the brain involved in reward processing. The reward centre is affected by all pleasurable activity, including everything from meeting old friends, going on holiday, winning the lottery, and drinking alcohol.

This artificially-raised dopamine gives you a false sense of satisfaction, a kind of euphoria. This encourages you to keep on drinking to release more dopamine. But of course, all counterfeit happiness come at a price: for every high, there’s an equal and opposite low. The alcohol-induced euphoria is off-set by other neurotransmitters that simultaneously enhance the feelings of depression.

Alcohol acts as a depressant by binding to GABA receptors – the major inhibitory neurotransmitter receptors in the mammalian brain. It also suppresses the release of glutamate, which would normally increase brain activity and energy levels. This is partly why we get foggy thinking, slowed reaction times, and slurred speech when under the influence.

The pathophysiology of alcoholism has come into sharper focus over the past decade. It is now well-known that alcohol consumption can increase blood pressure, damage the immune system, overtax the liver, increase the risk of several cancers, and most insidiously, impair the brain.

 

Thresholds for safer alcohol use might need lowering

The consensus now is that the risks from alcohol start from any level of regular drinking. The purported benefits of alcohol are tenuous at best. Hence, the new Department of Health and Social Care guidelines state, ‘There is no justification for recommending drinking on health grounds – nor for starting drinking for health reasons’.

A recent large study published this year in The Lancet analysed individual-participant data for alcohol use in 599,912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies in 19 countries. The researchers showed that people who drank more than 12.5 units (100g) of alcohol a week were likely to die sooner than those who drank less than this amount. The results applied equally to women and men.

Drinking more alcohol was linked to higher chances of all cardiovascular conditions except heart attacks, where it was linked to a decreased risk of 6%. However, greater risks from other causes of death outweighed any advantage that might bring.

Men who drank above the 14 units a week limit lost an average of 1.6 years. This is comparable to women who lost an average of 1.3 years.

The researchers concluded: ‘These data support adoption of lower limits of alcohol consumption that are recommended in most current guidelines’. It wouldn’t be surprising if the drinking levels recommended in this study are described as implausible and unfeasible by opponents of public health warnings on alcohol – most notably, the alcohol industry.

 

Conclusion

Things that are good in moderation can be dangerous in excess. But it is questionable that alcohol is even good in moderation. It is helpful to note that the guidelines are not purporting ‘safe’ drinking, but rather aimed at minimising the risk of illness. All alcohol consumption carries some risk.

We have all played psychological tricks to undermine conscience, self-restraint and deferred gratification. Drinking modest amounts of alcohol is fine, but let’s not fool ourselves into calling it ‘safe’.

Indeed, lower amounts are safer, and a recent study suggests minimising consumption to no more than 12.5 units per week. But our bodily cells perceive any amount of alcohol as poison – and we should too.

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