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Cutting Back (Even a Little) on Meat Can Lengthen Your Life

Lose weight, cut cholesterol with simple changes

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En español | Would you give up eating meat if it meant you would live longer?

How about if you didn't have to give it up entirely, maybe just once a week to start, or even once a day?

These are the choices facing many of us as a growing number of studies show that eating red meat daily can raise our risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.

See also: Meatless Mondays, the newest food movement.

Healthy foods - beans, nuts and vegetables - can help you cut back on red meat.

You can reduce your meat intake without having to go vegan. — Photo by Trinette Reed/Getty Images

For President Bill Clinton, who recently talked publicly about his decision to give up eating meat, eggs and dairy, the choice was clear: If he didn't do something drastic, his steadily worsening heart disease was going to kill him.

The former president, who has a family history of heart disease, got his first wake-up call in 2004 when he needed quadruple bypass surgery for blocked arteries. Afterward, he cut back on calories and tried to eat less fat to reduce his cholesterol. But six years later he needed stent surgery.

"I essentially concluded that I had played Russian roulette," Clinton told CNN's Sanjay Gupta, M.D. Even though he had made moderate changes to his diet, plaque had built up again in Clinton's artery — and that signaled more serious changes were needed.

The answer, for Clinton, was to go vegan, which means giving up all animal-based foods in favor of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, soy and beans.

His goal now is to avoid any food that could damage his blood vessels, he says. He follows a low-fat, plant-based diet recommended by several doctors, including California physician Dean Ornish, 58, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, who also worked with Clinton during his presidency to include more low-fat food on White House menus. The change in Clinton was particularly dramatic, given his past battles with his weight and his legendary love for fatty junk food. At 65 he's now 24 pounds lighter, energetic, happy, traveling around the world and apparently much healthier.

With Clinton's family history and years of unhealthy eating, a vegan diet is probably good for him, but many people can find it hard to stick to.

A more realistic strategy would be to take baby steps in that direction. Recent research shows that even one small daily change can make a difference.

Next: Eating less meat equals a lower diabetes risk. >>

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