Nutritional Pearls: Will Eating More Vegetables Reduce the Risks Associated With Red Meat?
Answer: The risks of unprocessed red meats can't be ameliorated by eating more fruits and vegetables.
The research is quite clear that red meat is not something you should be eating every day. High consumption of red meat has been implicated in a greater risk of developing colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and an overall greater risk of death from any cause. On the other hand, we know that a higher intake of fruits and vegetables is great for you, reducing the risk of breast cancer, reducing the levels of inflammation in the body, and reducing your risk of heart disease, among many other benefits.
It would seem reasonable that eating more fruits and vegetables might counteract some of the increased risk of eating more red meat. (I certainly have patients who believe this.) Fortunately, a team of researchers in Sweden have recently published a study that sought to find out just that.
The authors used data collected from 2 long-term large-scale studies performed in Sweden: the Swedish Mammography Cohort, which for this research included nearly 35,000 women, and the Cohort of Swedish Men, which included just over 40,000 men. The participants responded to a dietary questionnaire at the start of their respective study, which allowed the researchers to analyze both their red meat intake as well as their consumption of fruits and vegetables. After an average of 12 years of follow-up, the authors were able to compare the diets of those who died from cardiovascular disease, cancer, or any other cause with those who did not.
The participants' red meat intake was broken out into processed meats such as hot dogs, bacon, salami, sausages, and ham, and unprocessed meats such as fresh or minced pork or beef. Relative intake was also grouped into 5 increasing levels of intake, from "never" to at least 3 times per day. Fruit and vegetable intake, on the other hand, was treated as one variable in 3 levels of increasing intake: low (less than 2 servings per day), medium (2–4 servings per day), and high (4 servings or more per day).
The authors' results with respect to red meat are consistent with previous research: For men, the more red meat they ate, the more likely they were to develop diabetes. For both women and men, those who ate the most red meat had a 21% greater risk of all-cause mortality than those who ate the least. This higher risk did not change when the authors took into account how many servings of fruits and vegetables people ate, however. That said, it was processed meats (as compared with unprocessed meats) that accounted for the majority of the risk: higher intakes of unprocessed meats were only associated with a slightly greater risk of death when they looked the very highest levels of consumption.
Similarly, the highest levels of total red meat consumption (both processed and unprocessed) meant a 29% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, but this was not the case with respect to cancer.
What’s the “Take-Home”?
One of the more interesting findings from this study was that those who ate more red meat did not necessarily consume fewer fruits and vegetables than those who ate less red meat—meaning more red meat does not necessarily indicate a less healthy diet. It does, however, show pretty clearly that the risks of unprocessed red meats can't be ameliorated by eating more fruits and vegetables.
Tell you patients to keep their unprocessed red meat (that's beef, lamb, and pork—pork is not "the other white meat" regardless of what the pork industry might say) lean and to limit themselves to eating it not more than once per week. And they should save the processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and salami for treats and truly special occasions.
Bellavia A, Stilling F, Wolk A. High red meat intake and all-cause cardiovascular and cancer mortality: is the risk modified by fruit and vegetable intake? Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;104(4):1137-1143.