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A diet high in red meat (a significant source of saturated fat) is associated with several health problems. Well-done or fried meat can pose additional health problems. A diet that minimizes or excludes red meat and instead focuses on fruits, vegetables, and grains is beneficial to overall health.
(The following list is comprehensive, although not necessarily exhaustive. Contact your health care professional for more information.)
The most important dietary changes for protecting arteries from atherosclerosis include avoiding saturated fat as found in meat (and dairy fat). A reversal of atherosclerosis resulting from a pure vegetarian diet—meaning no meat, poultry, dairy, or eggs—combined with exercise and stress reduction has been reported in medical research.1 Independent of other dietary components, daily consumption of meat has been linked to a tripling of the risk of dying from heart disease compared with avoidance of all meat.2 Others have reported a higher risk of heart attacks in meat eaters.3
Although research funded by the beef industry has sometimes suggested that lean beef may have similar effects on cholesterol levels compared with other animal based foods,25 most scientists, nutritionally oriented doctors, and conventional cardiologists recommend reducing the intake of red meat as a way to lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease. Research not funded by the beef industry has shown that switching from red meat to fish leads to a lowering of cholesterol levels.26
Vegetarians have been reported to have a low risk of type 2, or non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus.28 When people with diabetic nerve damage switch to a vegan diet (no meat, dairy, or eggs), improvements have been reported after only several days.29 In one study, pain completely disappeared in seventeen of twenty-one people.30 Fats from meat and dairy also cause heart disease, the leading killer of people with diabetes.
Vegetarians eat less protein than meat eaters. Reducing protein intake has lowered kidney damage caused by diabetes31,32 and may also improve glucose tolerance.33 Switching to a low-protein diet should be discussed with a nutritionally oriented doctor.
Fibrocystic breast disease has been linked to excess estrogen. When women with fibrocystic breast disease are put on a low-fat diet, their estrogen levels decrease.34,35 After three to six months, the pain and lumpiness also decrease.36,37 The link between fat and symptoms appears to be most strongly related to saturated fat.38 Foods high in saturated fat include meat and dairy products.
Most studies report that vegetarians are at low risk for gallstones.39 In some trials, vegetarians have had only half the risk compared with gallstone risk in meat eaters.40,41 Vegetarians often eat fewer calories and less cholesterol. They also tend to weigh less than meat eaters. All of these differences may reduce gallstone incidence.
Gout has been clearly linked to dietary factors. Foods that are high in a compound called purine raise uric acid levels in the body. Restricting purine intake can help control uric acid levels and in turn, the risk of an attack in individuals susceptible to gout. Foods high in purine are generally protein-rich foods, such as sweetbreads, anchovies, mackerel, sardines, chicken, dried beans and peas, liver and other organ meats, herring, scallops, red meat, and turkey.
Since homocysteine is produced from methionine, intake of large amounts of methionine would presumably increase homocysteine levels. Indeed, ingestion of supplemental methionine is sometimes used experimentally as a method of increasing homocysteine levels.45 Foods high in methionine include meat, chicken, fish, and eggs. Although there is little research in this area, reducing one's intake of those foods could theoretically decrease homocysteine levels, thereby potentially reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
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3. Gramenzi A, Gentile A, Fasoli M, et al. Association between certain foods and risk of acute myocardial infarction in women. BMJ 1990;300:771–3.
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6. Haenszel W, Berg JW, Segi M, et al. Large-bowel cancer in Hawaiian Japanese. J Natl Cancer Inst 1973;51:1765–79.
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20. Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, et al. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial. Lancet 1990;336:129–33.
21. Snowdon DA, Phillips RL, Fraser GE. Meat consumption and fatal ischemic heart disease. Prev Med 1984;13:490–500.
22. Kromhout D, Menotti A, Bloemberg B, et al. Dietary saturated and trans fatty acids and cholesterol and 25-year mortality from coronary heart disease: the Seven Countries Study. Prev Med 1995;24:308–15.
23. Tell GS, Evans GW, Folsom AR, et al. Dietary fat intake and carotid artery wall thickness: the atherosclerosis risk in communities (ARIC) study. Am J Epidemiol 1994;139:979–89.
24. Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, et al. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial. Lancet 1990;336:129–33.
25. Davidson MH, Hunninghake D, Maki KC, et al. Comparison of the effects of lean red meat vs lean white meat on serum lipid levels among free-living persons with hypercholesterolemia. Arch Intern Med 1999;159:1331–8.
26. Wolmarans P, Benadé AJ, Kotze TJ, et al. Plasma lipoprotein response to substituting fish for red meat in the diet. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;53:1171–6.
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30. Crane MG, Sample C. Regression of diabetic neuropathy with total vegetarian (vegan) diet. J Nutr Med 1994;4:431–9.
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33. Gin H, Aparicio M, Potauz L, et al. Low-protein, low-phosphorus diet and tissue insulin sensitivity in insulin-dependent diabetic patients with chronic renal failure. Nephron 1991;57:411–5.
34. Rose DP, Boyar AP, Cohen C, Strong LE. Effect of a low-fat diet on hormone levels in women with cystic breast disease. I. Serum steroids and gonadotropins. J Natl Cancer Inst 1987;78:623–6.
35. Woods MN, Gorbach S, Longcope C, et al. Low-fat, high-fiber diet and serum estrone sulfate in premenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr 1989;49:1179–83.
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37. Boyd NF, McGuire V, Shannon P, et al. Effect of a low-fat high-carbohydrate diet on symptoms of cyclical mastopathy. Lancet 1988;ii:128–32.
38. Lubin F, Wax Y, Ron E, et al. Nutritional factors associated with benign breast disease etiology: a case-control study. Am J Clin Nutr 1989;50:551–6.
39. Kratzer W, Kachele V, Mason RA, et al. Gallstone prevalence in relation to smoking, alcohol, coffee consumption, and nutrition. The Ulm Gallstone Study. Scand J Gastroenterol 1997;32:953–8.
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45. Boers GHJ, Smals AGH, Trijbels FJM, et al. Heterozygosity for homocystinuria in premature peripheral and cerebral occlusive arterial disease. N Engl J Med 1985;313:709–15.
46. Signorello LB, Harlow BL, Wang SP, Erick MA. Saturated fat intake and the risk of severe hyperemesis gravidarum. Epidemiology 1998;9:636–40.
47. Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Protein consumption and bone fractures in women. Am J Epidemiol 1996;143:472–9.
48. Abelow BJ, Holford TR, Insogna KL. Cross-cultural associations between dietary animal protein and hip fracture: a hypothesis. Calcif Tissue Int 1992;50:14–8.
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52. Schürch M-A, Rizzoli R, Slosman D, et al. Protein supplements increase serum insulin-like growth factor-I levels and attenuate proximal femur bone loss in patients with recent hip fracture. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Ann Intern Med 1998;128:801–9.