Kicking red meat

editorial notebook

March 28, 2009|By Larry Williams

I am a 64-year-old office worker, overweight, a recent veteran of a triple bypass operation and a recovering red meat addict.

Every day I crave the stuff - sausages, Big Macs, New York strip steaks, cheese steaks, bologna, hot dogs, chili - you name it and if it's red meat, I love it. My doctors have warned me, my wife has pleaded and still I yearn for red meat. Each time I slip and eat the stuff, I tell myself that it's not that bad, that my normal diet is generally healthy - oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch and chicken or fish with veggies for dinner.

But this week I stopped trying to kid myself. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine offered compelling evidence that my red meat habit could and will kill me if I don't back off. The analysis of more than 500,000 Americans between the ages of 50 and 71 found that men who ate about 5 ounces of red meat a day had a 31 percent higher risk of death over a 10-year period than men who ate less than 1 ounce a day. These men had a 22 percent higher risk of dying of cancer and a 27 percent higher risk of dying of heart disease. The danger is even greater for women.

The National Cancer Institute study laid it out pretty well: Red meat eaters face an earlier death from cancer and heart disease but also from Alzheimer's, stomach ulcers and an array of other conditions. The folks at Perdue must be cheering.

Statistics show that I am not alone in my struggle. The average American eats 200 pounds of meat a year, and a growing proportion of the population is obese, an epidemic caused in part by those filet mignons, lamb chops and Sunday roasts. And the habit is spreading around the world. In India, meat and dairy consumption more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, and China has shown a similar trend.

If the study didn't appeal to my desire to live a long and happy life, it got to my concern for the planet. Yes, eating all that red meat also has considerable environmental consequences. Livestock account for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than cars, buses, taxis and other four-wheel vehicles, a recent United Nations study found. In America, we carnivores are tempted daily. Millions of fast food outlets offer red meat as an accessible and affordable meal. It tastes good and satisfies hunger more compellingly than other more healthful foods.

As tough as it will be for me to walk away from red meat, it seems doubtful that millions of others will be able to do the same. Then again, I was a heavy smoker in my 20s but found a way to quit and now can't stand the smell of tobacco. Some day soon, I hope the heady odor of a fresh-cooked burger will turn my stomach. Until then, I'll be starting my own support group - see ya at the Chick-fil-a.

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